U.S. Dressage Pulls Off Successful Championships Amidst the COVID Pandemic

Thursday, August 27, 2020
Posted by Lynndee Kemmet



In spite of the challenges of holding a National Championships in the midst of a pandemic, the American dressage community came together and made this year’s U.S. Dressage Festival of Champions a huge success. The credit for that success goes to everyone involved – USEF officials, show managers, judges, competitors, volunteers and the staff at Lamplight Equestrian Center in Wayne, Illinois.

“Congratulations to all who made this incredible, and very successful, event happen. So wonderful to see our sport in full gear again at Festival of Champions at the stunningly beautiful Lamplight Equestrian Center,” posted Charlotte Bredahl, the U.S. Dressage Development Coach as she watched the event online. “So much work went into making this such a success. Thank you so much to USEF's Hallye Griffin, Kristen Brett, Laura Roberts and Lauren Moore. Thank you to Monica Meyers Fitzgerald and Debbie Landon (show management) and staff.”

Throughout the run of the Festival, held Aug. 18-23, competitors posted not only updates on their placings but also their gratitude. “I just want to thank USEF for putting on the Festival of Champions this year with such challenging conditions,” said competitor Nikki Levy, who competed in Six-Year-Old competition with Dark Knight and in the Developing Prix St. Georges with Imposant. “They were able to run a smooth, safe show and still add nice little touches like getting amazing pictures of horses and riders. It’s all so appreciated!”

Traveling from Across the Country Biggest Challenge

The Festival of Champions brought together competitors, judges and show officials from across the country. Traveling to the competition may have been the most challenging part for competitors but most felt it was worth it.

“Enjoying an easy day after a long drive to Chicago. So excited to be here,” posted Hannah Irons, of Maryland, this year’s Young Rider champion with Scola Bella, after arriving at the show. “With such a disappointing year USEF and the Lamplight Equestrian Center have done a terrific job figuring out a safe way to make this championship possible.”

Cesar Parra, who competed this year with both Sir Beckman and Don Cesar – with which he placed third in Developing Grand Prix competition, said that the pandemic environment even seemed to have positive impacts on people. “People seem to be nicer and more relaxed and more cooperative. I think people appreciate the effort put in to making the Festival continue. We all have to be grateful that we were able to do what we enjoy again.”

USEF Dressage Young Horse Coach Christine Traurig expressed the gratitude shared by many saying “the amount of work USEF staff and show management put into these championships to make them happen is unbelievable unless one was there to witness it.”

Covid Protocol at the Festival

The extent of the Covid protocol at the Festival was shared by FEI 5-star judge Janet Foy who posted on Facebook nine ways that show organizers worked to keep everyone safe:

  1.  Before we can get into the car, we get a temp check.
  2. The Lamplight driveway is monitored by a USEF staffer. There are temp checks again and we are then given a wristband.
  3. We have two large tables in the VIP, which allows social distancing space when we eat breakfast and lunch.
  4. Social distancing is enforced by TD Lisa Gorretta and USEF staff.
  5. Masks are on all day except for eating. During the jog I was in the hot sun for three hours and this was hard!
  6. In the booths, we are separated from scribes with plexiglass and plastic. We are using the Dark Horse computer system so there is no paper or touching.
  7. Awards are no touch and ride around only.
  8. Shops are limited as to the number of people allowed in at one time.
  9. For the Young Horse competition, we will have two judges in each booth separated by plexiglass and the scribe is in the H booth with a Cee Coach.”
Janet Foy
Janet Foy the master of the mask

When asked if she felt the Covid policy made her feel safe, Foy said “yes, I felt totally safe.” So too did FEI 4-star judge Bill Warren. “I felt quite safe,” he said. “Everyone was reminded with announcements and with wonderful supervision from TDs not to forget about social distancing and everyone was willing to comply. People really did their best to step up to the plate and make it work.”

Monica Fitzgerald, the Festival’s show manager, said that aside from having to remind people at times about social distancing rules, everyone was more than willing to comply with the Covid policy. “Surprisingly, we did not have any problems with anybody,” she said.

Competitors Proved It Was The Right Decision

While some might question whether or not equestrian competitions should continue in the midst of a pandemic, Warren said that holding the Festival was the right decision. “Competitors thanked judges for being there and many said they were grateful to be there. It made us feel like we were back in the horse world, even if in an odd way and everyone tried to do their best so that there would be no repercussions.”

FEI 4-star judge Kristi Wysocki agreed and said the success of the “Festival of Dressage was a wonderful role model competition for how a competition can move forward within the required USEF Action Plan. The details for every portion of the competition were thought out and planned in great detail. I highly commend Lamplight Equestrian Center (HITS), the management team, USEF staff, officials, riders and all others in attendance for working together to make this competition run under strict, but required, protocols for safety first. Congratulations to all competitors for their efforts and successes at this great competition.”

Wysocki added that while a good plan is critical for successfully holding horse shows during a pandemic, much credit must also be given to everyone involved for following the rules. “Everyone at the competition was very focused on the requirements of masks, physical distancing, etc. It was quite impressive that everyone present was so cautious to ensure that the show could be run under these safe protocols,” she said. “Many people participated in having fun with creative masks throughout the week. It was really fantastic to see all involved working so hard to ensure that the environment was truly kept under the required USEF Action Plan to provide for a safe environment.”

Covid Protocols No Big Deal

While instituting Covid protocols might be a bit of extra work, Fitzgerald said it doesn’t really add to show costs. “Other than the extra expense for sanitizing products and having temperature checkers at the gate, there really were no other extra expenses, only an extra effort to make sure all complied.” And if following some rules meant being able to compete, Fitzgerald said competitors are more than willing to do so. “Honestly, wearing a mask is a way of life right now and it is a small effort to do to keep our shows going. I hope that other shows take all of these things into consideration before canceling. If given the opportunity the competitors want to show.”

Warren said the most challenging part of holding shows in a Covid world is the travel, and that includes for the judges. “Some judges aren’t willing to travel and I understand that, especially if they have underlying physical ailments.” Warren has spent much of his life on the road as a judge and clinician but even he paused his travel schedule until July. And when he does travel now, he seeks out flights where middle seats are left vacant and when on a flight, “I wear masks, gloves and goggles and sanitize everything.”

Travel is also an issue for competitors, said Alice Tarjan, of New Jersey, who took multiple wins this year including Developing Grand Prix Champion with Donatella M, Grand Prix with Candescent and Four-Year Old competition with Gjenganger. “I don't think there is any question that you have an elevated risk when traveling and going to a show. But that being said, I think the show was a safe as a show could be. Everyone was diligent in wearing masks, and I basically only came into contact with people I am in contact with at home anyway. I think that the risk was more of an issue with regards to traveling and eating out and staying at a hotel. We all tried to be as safe as possible so hopefully there is no exposure.”

Lamplight Equestrian Center The Home of The USEF Festival

Another thing that helped make this year’s Festival possible was the location at Lamplight Equestrian Center, Warren said. Lamplight is a large venue. “Some venues aren’t so big and it’s hard to keep people spread out. Smaller venues will have more trouble meeting all the demands of the Covid protocol.” Lamplight under new management now owned by HITS, has been managing shows at all their venues since competition resumed.

Parra, who said the pandemic has taught him to slow down and enjoy the training at home, perhaps summed up the positive view we all need to take going forward. While he has hopes that the coming year will bring more shows and the Olympics, he also said that “honestly, there is so much uncertainty it’s not worth going crazy thinking about. Trying to speculate just creates more uncertainty and stress. I think right now we just need to get up, go to work and get the horses out for exposure when we can. We all need to take a deep breath, do the best we can do for our horses and do the best service we can for the clients. The horses don’t know what’s going on so it’s not worth it to get desperate.”