Dressage at the USEF Convention Shows Energy, Hope and Promise

Monday, January 25, 2010

Just some of the Dressage Committee meets to honor Jessica at the USEF Convention. L-R - Jayne Ayers, Jessica Ransehousen, Lois Yukins and Janet Foy
Just some of the Dressage Committee meets to honor Jessica at the USEF Convention. L-R - Jayne Ayers, Jessica Ransehousen, Lois Yukins and Janet Foy
At the United States Equestrian Federation convention the word “pipeline” seemed to be the key word being used when talking about the future of equestrian sport. The concept behind the pipeline is to follow the sport, horses and athletes throughout their careers, find out how their needs are being serviced and how they are not, maximize programs we currently have and fill in the gaps or add programs that are needed to promote the future of the sport. In the pipeline approach the goal is to look at horses and riders right now in order to spot talent, to educate, mentor, and guide. The feeling is that we need to come up with a plan and implement that plan.
Watch the slide show of fun pics from Janet Foy and Mary Phelps
USEF's Jennifer Keeler, USDF president George Williamsand USEF's Jenny Van Wieren
USEF's Jennifer Keeler, USDF president George Williamsand USEF's Jenny Van Wieren
Jayne Ayers, chairman of the Dressage Committee (which covers everything that has to do with dressage other than high performance), helped clarify some of the “pipeline” key issues.

Jayne discussed the importance of “building a good base of riders and horses who are well educated in the sport.” She quickly clarified that “this is a very multi-faceted problem with a multitude of avenues for addressing it.” As Jayne explained, “education of riders happens in many ways as does education of horses,” and in reviewing the sport some of the things that the dressage community wants to do is “improve the quality of instruction, horse training and show management.”

The Dressage Committee is already addressing a lot of these issues through its subcommittees but what it is also doing is identifying what is not being covered. They are reviewing such things as the training/education of judges through continuing education programs, many of which are handled by the USDF, which has an instructor certification program. The USDF also does a lot to help educate the riders. Even more important are their programs for young riders, amateurs and juniors.

However, what was clear throughout all of the dressage forums was that even though these programs are in place and they “have seen improvement they still need to be better. We need a stronger base so we have the ability to spot talented horses early in their development and work with mentoring them through their stages of development. And the same with riders who need help being guided through their training,” explained Jayne.

Focusing on the Present and the Future

At one of the forums a number of those present were very vocal about what they’ve seen. Youth is clearly an important issue when talking about pipelines. “I think our program for Youth got a little bit of a slow start. The people who initially developed dressage where it is today were primarily our adults. The youth tagged along,” explained Jayne.

“The first significant development was the Young Rider program. The USDF has been instrumental in formulating and supporting that program. They have arranged the clinics to educate that group of kids.”

Jayne continued, “The next group was the juniors and as that grew they were added to the North American Junior and Young Rider Championships.”

Jayne feels that “the next step is to add an international pony level. We don’t have that in place but we are looking forward to that. We want to add a pony division to our national championships. We expect to start small but the interest is there and with a National Championship providing greater focus on the ponies I think you will see more parents and younger children focusing on that in the future. There is a good development of FEI ponies in Canada and in quite a few of the European Countries. So that is something that we hope to develop and work jointly with USEF and USDF to see that this happens.”

Jayne continued on the topic of youth adding that, the next piece of the puzzle is to look at junior and pony riders in a pre FEI level with clinics held throughout the U.S. Lendon Gray is handling that. The goal is partly for education and partly for talent spotting.

Lendon explained a bit about the successes so far for the first year of clinics noting, “We worked with just over 50 riders and did a number of clinics throughout the United States. Enthusiasm was tremendous. I met some really talented riders.

“When I told them they can do better and I pushed them, they were amazed. No one had ever told them ‘you can do better, you can push you and your horse more.’ That’s where I think we are missing the boat in finding these people and pushing them.

“I was very pleased with how many trainers came and the interaction I was able to have with them. They also indicated that they need the help so they can better help their students. The trainers that came were like sponges.”

Anne Gribbons, USEF Technical Advisor, talked about the need for every dressage rider to have a coach. She commented on how too many of the riders feel they can go it alone while using the clinics along the way to guide them. She emphasized that by doing that they don’t recognize how quickly they and their horses can get off track.

“You have to have somebody at home not just in Germany,” commented Anne. “It can be somebody that really helps you, believes in you and knows enough to guide you. The clinics are there to augment not to do your entire education.”

Jokingly Anne also commented how she has now heard from a few of the riders who have taken her advice and proudly let her know that they now have local coaches.

Anne was also very vocal about the fact that we are now paying for our lack of a pipeline. We have lots of good talent at the top but not enough horses to go along with that talent and not enough “hungry young riders able to take over.

“We have some very high quality but we do not have quantity,” commented Anne. “We have lost some of our experienced horses and now I am painfully aware of what we have to face. We do have some nice horses coming along.” At the moment we have a lot of strength with Steffen Peters and Ravel but one horse does not a team make!

Anne emphasized that the need to look to the future was not done in the past but needs to be done now because the “future begins now.” Her point was that of course we need to focus on WEG but we also need to center our attention on the 2011 Pan American Games so that we look to both those opportunities to get qualified for the Olympic Games. Since the level of tests is different Anne feels it’s important that “we send horses to Europe for mileage.” In the meantime she plans to “go to all the qualifiers and watch all the tests and scout around to see what talent we have.”

The Beat Goes On

Debbie McDonald to be Developing Coach
Debbie McDonald to be Developing Coach
The focus on the needs of the dressage world was pretty clear to those present who continued to talk about what is being done and what needs to be enhanced or added.

A new program in its infancy is the Developing Rider Program, where veteran riders provide clinics for riders and horses that have the potential of one day following in their path. It is expected that Debbie McDonald will be an integral part of this program.

A series of high level clinics have also been added to the roster and the clinicians were decided through a series of surveys given to the riders. As a result of the responses, Kyra Kyrklund has already done a clinic and others are in the works.

George Williams, who recently was named president of the USDF, confirmed the outcome of the rider surveys noting that they clearly showed “who they would like to work with and Kyra was one.”

While many of the programs need either major or minor improvements there are many that have already shown their value. In addition to the above the horse programs have had real value.

“One of the best operating programs so far is our Young Horse program,” explained Jayne. “Our entire dressage community knows about it. It is a really successful program and we’d like the rest of the pipeline to be in as good shape.”

It was clear to see throughout the convention that there was no shortage in the many directions that the dressage community is presently focusing on. It was announced that a Strategic Planning Committee has been put in place to address many of the things already mentioned and also add to that a path to gain sponsorship dollars with an ultimate goal of getting a title sponsor for the dressage team.

Those involved with the Strategic Planning Committee include people involved with various levels of coaching, among this group are Jayne Ayers as Dressage Committee Chair, Anne Gribbons as USEF Technical Advisor, Scott Hassler as young horse coach, Lendon Gray as youth leader, Debbie McDonald as an Olympic medalist, and Sue Blinks, USEF Eligible Athletes Committee Chair. Ellin Dixon Miller and Mary Anne McPhail have also been asked to join, not only because of their long standing experience with USEF and USDF (both organizations are equally involved in this program development and thinking) but also because they have been longtime sponsors of this sport. Sponsorship and funding are important in getting these programs in place. And they both have been riders at a high level.

The Strategic Planning group met during the convention with a goal of coming up with a comprehensive timeline. As Jayne explained, “it has been recognized for a long time that we need to have a plan for developing both horses and riders from the earliest levels on.

The Importance of Working With Sponsors

The need to get money through sponsorship is critical to ensure that the “pipeline” concept can be put in place. Since show jumping and eventing have already addressed this the dressage committee felt they could benefit from their mileage.

As George Williams commented, “We have to come up with a pipeline but also a way to make it attractive to sponsors.” The reality of those words needs to be clearly thought through. The reason that sports like golf and so many others have gotten sponsorship support is because they have asked and answered the questions that the dressage world (and the equestrian world) also needs to address.

Europe has been successful in doing this but as Anne noted, “The American mind is very different from the European mind and our country is very different.” U.S. riders while they are improving still need to be educated on how best to get and keep sponsors. In other countries certain things are made mandatory in order to ensure the continuing support of sponsors. Even such simple things as remembering to mention sponsor names and be available for every sponsor hosted function are critical for riders to do.

Remembering to provide wonderful visuals for the media is all an extension of making the sport exciting and captivating to sponsors. Williams noted, “Our athletes have to get more serious about every opportunity. Europeans take advantage of this. Athletes need to be involved with the entire process and our expectations from the athletes have to increase.”

This also goes along the lines of interacting with the media which Jayne further addressed.

“I don’t think they are disinterested. It is just more a lack of knowledge and comfort level of acting in that role, interacting with the press, supporting sponsor efforts, drawing sponsors into the sport. They aren’t aware of the importance of it and how each of them should do it. Perhaps that is something that has not been a part of our training program for the athletes. It is something we will see rectified in the near future. George Morris has provided that leadership for a number of years. He is excellent at making sure those things are taken care of. Anne will be as good. She just needs a chance to act in her role as Technical Advisor.”

Michael Barisone noted that the dressage community needs to look at the example set by Morris and the efforts he makes to achieve the necessary goals. “The show jumpers are working on getting better when they are already the best,” he commented. “Everything we can do to emulate what George Morris is doing with his jumping team we should do. If he is requiring his jumper riders to be there, we should be there too.”

To the rider’s defense Williams noted, “part of the problem was the athletes didn’t realize the importance of this and what they would learn from it.”

Anne added, “That thinking has to change but it will take time for them to get there but it will take us talking to them.”

Jayne remarked, “Anne is very good at recognizing the needs of our sport to improve its interaction with the press and with sponsors and to do a better job of PR for our sport.”

Amateur Riders, CDIs, World Cup, Rider Rankings and More

George Williams credit: Diana De Rosa
George Williams credit: Diana De Rosa
On another note is the importance of caring about and offering programs to dressage riders who simply want to enjoy their riding and are not looking to one day be on an Olympic Team. “It is very important that we provide our legions of amateur riders who aren’t looking to become high performance riders good avenues to enjoy the sport. They need to have readily available opportunities for good education, for high quality horse shows, and whatever guidance they see themselves as needing along the way to maximize their interest and enjoyment in the sport. These people are the vast majority of those involved in the sport but USEF and USDF are very concerned with making the sport as good as it can be for all the participants not just the potentially elite athletes,” commented Jayne.

The present placement of high performance riders on the World Ranking List based on competing in CDIs is one that Anne is extremely passionate about. The topic is too involved to discuss at length but the problem we have in the U.S. is that we may have lots of CDIs but the geography is so wide spread apart that it is hard for our riders to get to enough of them to earn the points needed to get a high position on the World Ranking list.

This is not just a problem in the U.S. but also in Eastern Europe and Australia and Anne is emphasizing the need to have this problem addressed and even suggesting something like a handicapping system.

Williams explained that the World Ranking list determines the order of go at the biggest competitions. The lower ranked riders then go first and as such the judges know they are the lower ranked riders, which is not a good position for any rider to be in, especially our riders. It’s critical that this system be changed.

So much has been discussed about the drug issue and for now as Jayne explained, “the FEI has taken some significant steps towards addressing some of the drug issues by revising their whole rules and regulations with regard to drugs. They are now allowing some things when done the right way and in the appropriate dosages; that is a big change for the international sport. I don’t think that our country needs to take any lead in this other than working to make sure that our athletes are brought through our system in a way that makes them contenders in what will be the FEI Rules & Regulations.”

Jayne made it clear that “As a Federation we continue to express our ongoing primary concern for the welfare of the horse. We do it with the rules that we formulate. We do it in our statements with regard to any issues that come up, whether it is drugs and medications or how horses are ridden in the warm up ring or some other concern. Many issues have been addressed quite clearly at our own competitions. Therefore when concern is expressed, it’s important that we help them to understand the steps that already are in place. Education of the public is critical and as things come along, making it clear where the Federation stands is of the utmost importance.”
I must admit my head was swimming with the many ideas and discussions that were coming out of the dressage committee meetings. Yet it was refreshing to see the energy that is being put behind an effort to create a dressage pipeline.

Another suggestion was the implementation of video/computer system technology available through the USOC that has numerous benefits. The program is called Dartfish. While the different things it can do are quite involved an example would be to have a specific movement called up two or even four at a time to allow a comparison to what is correct and what changes need to be made. This is only the very briefest of details of the power of this system. The key here is that it will provide information which will allow the riders to expand their knowledge and understanding of dressage at many different levels.

So much was covered at this year’s Convention but what was most important to take away is that on all levels everyone is recognizing the need for a pipeline. What was inspiring was the dedication shown by everyone and especially those involved in dressage to create a road map so that this pipeline can ensure that everyone involved in the sport of dressage can achieve whatever goals and enjoyment they hope to reach with their riding and their horses.

Watch the slide show of fun pics from the week by Janet Foy and Mary Phelps