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MARCH 2019

Official Publication of the United States Dressage Federation

ADULT-AMATEUR ISSUE Meet the USDF Adult Amateur Equitation Champions (p. 22) Hanging up Your Spurs? How to Stay Involved in Dressage (p. 28) Debbie McDonald: The USDF Connection interview

2018 Region 8 AA Equitation champion Kevin Hadfield on Preston

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WARNINGS: Do not use in horses intended for human consumption. HUMAN WARNINGS: Not for human use. Keep this and all drugs out of the reach of children. Consult a physician in case of accidental human exposure. PRECAUTIONS: As a class, bisphosphonates may be associated with gastrointestinal and renal toxicity. Sensitivity to drug associated adverse reactions varies with the individual patient. Renal and gastrointestinal adverse reactions may be associated with plasma concentrations of the drug. Bisphosphonates are excreted by the kidney; therefore, conditions causing renal impairment may increase plasma bisphosphonate concentrations resulting in an increased risk for adverse reactions. Concurrent administration of other potentially nephrotoxic drugs should be approached with caution and renal function should be monitored. Use of bisphosphonates in patients with conditions or diseases affecting renal function is not recommended. Administration of bisphosphonates has been associated with abdominal pain (colic), discomfort, and agitation in horses. Clinical signs usually occur shortly after drug administration and may be associated with alterations in intestinal motility. In horses treated with OSPHOS these clinical signs usually began within 2 hours of treatment. Horses should be monitored for at least 2 hours following administration of OSPHOS. Bisphosphonates affect plasma concentrations of some minerals and electrolytes such as calcium, magnesium and potassium, immediately post-treatment, with effects lasting up to several hours. Caution should be used when administering bisphosphonates to horses with conditions affecting mineral or electrolyte homeostasis (e.g. hyperkalemic periodic paralysis, hypocalcemia, etc.). The safe use of OSPHOS has not been evaluated in horses less than 4 years of age. The effect of bisphosphonates on the skeleton of growing horses has not been studied; however, bisphosphonates inhibit osteoclast activity which impacts bone turnover and may affect bone growth. Bisphosphonates should not be used in pregnant or lactating mares, or mares intended for breeding. The safe use of OSPHOS has not been evaluated in breeding horses or pregnant or lactating mares. Bisphosphonates are incorporated into the bone matrix, from where they are gradually released over periods of months to years. The extent of bisphosphonate incorporation into adult bone, and hence, the amount available for release back into the systemic circulation, is directly related to the total dose and duration of bisphosphonate use. Bisphosphonates have been shown to cause fetal developmental abnormalities in laboratory animals. The uptake of bisphosphonates into fetal bone may be greater than into maternal bone creating a possible risk for skeletal or other abnormalities in the fetus. Many drugs, including bisphosphonates, may be excreted in milk and may be absorbed by nursing animals. Increased bone fragility has been observed in animals treated with bisphosphonates at high doses or for long periods of time. Bisphosphonates inhibit bone resorption and decrease bone turnover which may lead to an inability to repair micro damage within the bone. In humans, atypical femur fractures have been reported in patients on long term bisphosphonate therapy; however, a causal relationship has not been established. ADVERSE REACTIONS: The most common adverse reactions reported in the field study were clinical signs of discomfort or nervousness, colic and/or pawing. Other signs reported were lip licking, yawning, head shaking, injection site swelling, and hives/pruritus.

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As with all drugs, side effects may occur. In field studies, the most common side effects reported were signs of discomfort or nervousness, colic, and/or pawing. OSPHOS should not be used in pregnant or lactating mares, or mares intended for breeding. Use of OSPHOS in patients with conditions affecting renal function or mineral or electrolyte homeostasis is not recommended. Refer to the prescribing information for complete details or visit www.dechra-us.com or call 866.933.2472.

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28 34 40 44


Meet five resilient dressage enthusiasts who refused to let setbacks end their involvement in the sport By Sue Weakley


How a student of dressage honed her eye under the tutelage of a German master. Exclusive book excerpt. By Priscilla Endicott


Dressage technical delegates are much more than “the enforcers.” By the USDF Technical Delegates Committee


What’s left for Olympic medalist and newly appointed US dressage technical advisor Debbie McDonald? By Jennifer O. Bryant


8 9 10 52 54 54 55


6 RINGSIDE Different Strokes

By Peter Rothschild

By Jennifer O. Bryant

14 SPORT-HORSE CONNECTION Get a Handle on Sport-Horse Showing

By Natalie DeBerardinis and Kristi Wysocki

16 CLINIC Sequential Schooling of the Dressage Horse

By Hilda Gurney

22 AMATEUR HOUR We Are the Champions

By Brynne Boian

56 THE TAIL END The Elusive Half-Halt

By Jan Nierzwick



ON OUR COVER Adult-amateur rider Kevin Hadfield on his rescue horse, Preston, was one of the nine inaugural USDF Regional Adult Amateur Equitation champions in 2018. Story, p. 22. Photo by SusanJStickle.com.

Volume 20, Number 9


March 2019


inside usdf



TD or Not TD? Last year I couldn’t spell technical delegate. Now I am one. Here’s how it happened.



2535 Fordyce Road, Ojai, CA 93023 (805) 890-7399 • vicepresident@usdf.org SECRETARY



People have asked me whether I learned anything in the process of becoming a TD. The answer is an unequivocal yes. Perhaps most important, I learned that things will happen at shows, even with the most experienced management team. And when they do, everyone—TD, management, competitors—needs to take a breath, roll with it, and, above all else, ensure that horses and competitors are safe. The welfare of the horse is the TD’s primary focus, with riders’ safety a close second. The biggest eye-opener, however, was discovering how little authority a TD actually has. I had always assumed that a TD has “enforcing power” at a show, but I found this not to be entirely true. TDs can suggest and persuade; then they report to US Equestrian how the show was run and whether the rules were followed. (For more about the TD’s role, see “Mythbusters, TD Edition” on page 40.) Should you consider becoming a TD? Absolutely yes—with the proviso that you have been involved with shows, both as a competitor and as management. Both perspectives are valuable: Competitors want to feel that they are being treated fairly, and management understands how the rules work in practice to help ensure a level playing field. To me, that is the ultimate goal of the TD: to ensure that both horse and rider have a positive experience at the show. I look forward to making that happen. s

4 March 2019 • USDF CONNECTION

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By Peter Rothschild, Region 6 Director ’ve been a rider, an adult-amateur competitor, and a dressage volunteer for almost 30 years. Last year, I added technical delegate to my résumé. My journey toward my US Equestrian TD’s license began about 18 months ago when two friends, both TDs, encouraged me to become a TD because they thought my experience and background were desirable for the job. The US Equestrian website (usef.org) lists the prerequisites needed to apply for a TD’s license. As I discovered, I had unknowingly been preparing to become a TD for a long time. Most of my competitive experience has been at the lower levels, but in 2017 I finally earned my USDF silver medal. Over the years I’ve done just about every volunteer job there is at a competition. Most important, I’ve been the manager and secretary for a one-ring Level 2 dressage competition for several years. I was accepted into the US Equestrian “r” (Recorded) TD Program, followed by USDF Apprentice TD and US Equestrian Dressage TD Clinics. I also had to serve as an apprentice TD at four dressage competitions. I was fortunate to be able to do the four shows in a little over three months, but doing so did involve flying across the country several times. After apprenticing at the fourth show, in May I completed the final requirement, a US Equestrian-run Pony Measurement Clinic. Most important, since I was in Lexington at the US Equestrian offices, I was able to take the TD written exam then rather than having to wait until the next testing opportunity, in December.


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Different Strokes Chosen well, clinics can augment the learning process


ressage people may not agree on much, but one belief most share is that riders and horses do best “in a program” of regular instruction. Said program can range from weekly lessons with a local pro to participation in one of the national dressage “pipelines.” One of the key benefits to being in a program is the consistency, of both lesson frequency and message. Taking lessons or clinics “flavor of the month” style may be better than nothing, but a one-shot instructor cannot assess progress over time, and the rider risks bouncing from training method to training method in a scattershot fashion instead of establishing a foundation with a pro and gradually building on that trusted bedrock. That said, I also think it can be a mistake never to ride with anyone other than one’s regular instructor. Too much familiarity can breed— no, not contempt, but rather a certain amount of same-old, same-old. Same time, same place, same issues, same exercises. The exercises and the explanations tend to have a similar delivery, not necessarily out of laziness on the instructor’s part but because those are his or her go-to training tools and verbal phrasings. As students—in school, in dressage—many of us have experienced the phenomenon of finally “getting it” when a concept is explained in a different way. My own dressage instructor has occasionally rolled her eyes when I return from a clinic having gained a “new” understanding. “That’s what I’ve been telling you for the last umpteen lessons!” goes the refrain. But it took someone else’s take on the concept to resonate with my brain. That’s happened to me a few times this winter. My regular instructor is in Florida for the season, and so Junior and I have been taking lessons with

another local professional. A few lessons in, the lightbulbs started flashing. I attribute some of the “aha moments” to the clinician’s different ways of putting things. Others, I think, have been the result of her fresh eye. She doesn’t see my horse and me all the time, and she notices different things. A week or so ago she corrected a couple of equitation fine points—which seat bone I was weighting in the lateral work, and the angle of my upper body. I made a few subtle shifts and boom! Junior seemed to find a new gear. Suddenly the power and the balance I’d been seeking for months were there for the asking. “You got out of his way,” the instructor observed dryly by way of explanation. Equal parts chastened and thrilled, I’m continuing to work on finding the magic combination of balance and timing that allows Junior the freedom he needs to do what I ask. I’m looking forward to my instructor’s returning home next month so that we can integrate our various learnings— her knowledge, my recent discoveries, plus the newfound insights she’s gained during her own lessons while in Welly World. I hope that there will be “fresh eyes” and new perspectives all around. Has an instructor helped your own lightbulb to go off? Tell me how: jbryant@usdf.org. I’d love to learn from you!

USDF CONNECTION The Official Publication of the United States Dressage Federation EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR

Stephan Hienzsch 859/271-7887 • stephh1enz@usdf.org

——— Editorial——— EDITOR

Jennifer O. Bryant 610/344-0116 • jbryant@usdf.org CONTRIBUTING EDITOR


Melissa Creswick (CA) Margaret Freeman (NC) Anne Gribbons (FL) Roberta Willliams (FL) Terry Wilson (CA)


Janine Malone Lisa Gorretta • Elisabeth Williams


Emily Koenig 859/271-7883 • ekoenig@usdf.org


Danielle Titland 720/300-2266 • dtitland@usdf.org

USDF Connection is published by the United States Dressage Federation, 4051 Iron Works Parkway, Lexington, KY 40511. Phone: 859/971-2277. Fax: 859/971-7722. E-mail: usdressage@ usdf.org, Web site: www.usdf.org. USDF members receive USDF Connection as a membership benefit, paid by membership dues. Copyright © 2019 USDF. All rights reserved. Reproduction of articles requires permission from USDF. Other text may be reproduced with credit given to USDF Connection. USDF reserves the right to refuse any advertising or copy that is deemed unsuitable for USDF and its policies. Excluding advertisements, all photos with mounted riders must have safety head gear or USEF-approved competition hat. USDF assumes no responsibility for the claims made in advertisements. Statements of fact and opinion are those of the experts consulted and authors, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or the policy of USDF. The publishers reserve the right to reject any advertising deemed unsuitable for USDF, as well as the right to reject or edit any manuscripts received for publication. USDF assumes no responsibility for unsolicited material. All materials must be accompanied by a self-addressed, stamped envelope. Questions about your subscription or change in address? Contact USDF Membership Department, 859/971-2277, or usdressage@usdf.org.

Jennifer O. Bryant, Editor @JenniferOBryant

6 March 2019 • USDF CONNECTION

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USDF 2019-02

member connection Education, Awards Will Help Grow Freestyle Participation After reading the letter in the DeUSDF CONNECTION cember 2018/ January 2019 issue (“Member Connection: Freestyle Awards Should Be Expanded”), I had a few more thoughts regarding freestyle participation and support. Although freestyles are increasing in popularity, I would counter that the lack of participation goes deeper than a dearth of awards or recognition. If we use USDF rider awards as the motivation, I don’t see much difference between medals and freestyle bars. If you are competing at that level and qualify (another contentious recent issue), then why not ride a freestyle? Instead, I see the issue in the IS THIS YOUR LAST ISSUE? SEE PAGE 9

U S D F. O R G


Official Publication of the United States Dressage Federation

Does That Foal Have FEI Potential? (p. 24) Sport-Horse Conditioning Tips from Dr. Hilary Clayton (p. 12) Marilyn Heath Explains the Revised Pyramid of Training (p. 22)

actual creation of a freestyle. There are few resources out there so that an adult amateur or a junior/young rider can learn how to make a freestyle, not to mention the difficulty involved in making a “good” one. I once managed to cobble together a First Level freestyle after a couple of months of trial, error, and frustration. If you are doing it yourself, you have to figure out music selection, reasonable choreography for the level, and music editing. While there are programs and apps out there to help with all of that, I can vouch that it is still no easy feat. If, like many, you are not up to the challenge of making your own freestyle, you can pay to have one made for you. This may sound great until you hear how much it costs. Generally speaking, paying someone to do the work for you can cost anywhere from about $500 for an uncomplicated lower-level freestyle to upwards of $2,000 for an FEI-level freestyle. Many riders do not have that kind of budget.

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Perhaps a way to help promote freestyle participation would be for the USDF to offer more online resources to aid riders in freestyle creation, or to host educational seminars with freestyle experts. Helping riders to learn how to do it on a budget would be extremely beneficial to the sport. As a show manager, I promote freestyles at my small licensed show each year with a $1,000 Musical Freestyle Challenge. I work hard to raise the funds from sponsors, and to date we have been able to offer three classes: USDF levels for AAs and Jr/ YRs, USDF levels for pros, and FEI open. In 2018 there were 19 total freestyle entrants, although at the FEI levels only two of the nine competitors were adult amateurs. In addition to the prize money, I give nice ribbons and awards. I hope that entries will continue to increase such that we can further split these freestyle classes in the future. While getting sponsors and raising prize money are not always easy, perhaps other show organizers will join the bandwagon, knowing it is possible. Michele Wellman By Chance Farm LLC Union Bridge, Maryland USDF Connection welcomes your feedback on magazine content and USDF matters. Send letters to editorial@usdf.org along with your full name, hometown, and state. Letters may be edited for length, clarity, grammar, and style.

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Your Dressage World This Month

AWARDS t its 2019 Annual Meeting, in West Palm Beach, Florida, in January, the United States Equestrian Federation (US Equestrian) honored two dressage horses as its 2018 International and National Horses of the Year, as voted by the membership.

The 16-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding Verdades (Florett AS – Liwilarda, Goya), owned by Laura Graves and Curt Maes of Geneva, Florida, and ridden by Graves, was named the International Horse of the Year for his ongoing phenomenal success. In 2018, “Diddy” led the US dressage team to a silver medal at the FEI World Equestrian Games in Tryon and won the individual Grand Prix Special silver medal. He also captured his second consecutive FEI World Cup Dressage Final silver medal and—in a first for a US horse and rider—topped the FEI World Individual Dressage Ranking List for a time in the fall. The mustang Cobra, adopted as an unbroken six-year-old from the BLM program by owner/rider Marsha Hartford-Sapp, was voted the US Equestrian National Horse of the Year. Hartford-Sapp, of Tallahassee, Florida, who shared her journey with Cobra in USDF Connection (“The Tail End: Extreme Mustang Dressage Makeover,” May 2016), has trained the now 14-year-old gelding in both dressage and Western dressage. Cobra has won national-level awards in both disciplines, including earning his owner her USDF silver medal and

INTERNATIONAL HORSE OF THE YEAR: Verdades and owner/rider Laura Graves

NATIONAL HORSE OF THE YEAR: Cobra with owner/trainer/rider Marsha Hartford-Sapp

being named the 2018 Adequan®/ USDF All-Breeds American Mustang & Burro Association Prix St. Georges Open champion. He has become a popular ambassador for the mustang breed. Fun fact: Both Verdades and Cobra have been immortalized as Breyer model horses. Digital Edition Bonus Content

Watch US Equestrian’s video honoring its 2018 National Horse of the Year, the mustang Cobra.



Jessica Paine, Mooresville, NC

essica Paine operates JP Dressage and is a USDF-certified instructor at Training and First Levels. How I got started in dressage: I am a former attorney who left the legal field in 2014 to pursue my longtime goal of being a trainer. My focus is developing horses to the FEI levels and helping adult amateurs foster their own talents and pursue their dreams. I wanted to become certified because: It’s my responsibility to make sure that I provide my clients with the best quality training possible. It’s my job to push myself to improve and to continually


10 March 2019 • USDF CONNECTION

further my equestrian education. My horses: My horses are Westen, a 2005 Hanoverian; and Dado HM, a 2007 Lusitano. I brought them through the national levels and plan to compete them at Intermediate II this season. Training tip: If a workshop leader or examiner pushes you, it’s because they know you can be better and they want you to succeed. Don’t back down from that. Embrace it and push yourself. Contact me: jessicapaine1@gmail. com or (216) 509-2335. —Jamie Humphries



Dressage Horses Voted US Equestrian Horses of the Year


Membership Growth, Initiatives Highlighted at US Equestrian Annual Meeting

A Playful Transfer of Power



S Equestrian membership has increased by 35 percent since the organization implemented an ambitious strategic plan in 2017, president Murray Kessler reported at the 2019 US Equestrian Annual Meeting, January 9-12. Since 2016, membership has grown by 76 percent to a current total of more than 144,000, he said. Revenues are also up, by 8 percent; and reserves have increased 16 percent, LEADERS: US Equestrian president according to Kessler. Murray Kessler (right) at a board During the convention, meeting during the organization’s which brings together 2019 convention representatives from the breed and discipline organizations that fall under the national governing body’s umbrella (including the USDF, the official dressage affiliate), Kessler and others highlighted US Equestrian’s 2018 accomplishments and major events, including: New HQ: A new headquarters building, to open in 2019, will save the organization more than $300,000 annually. The offices are being constructed at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, site of the current HQ. Lab outsourced: The University of Kentucky is taking over the testing of equine blood and urine samples taken at US Equestrian-licensed competitions. Safe Sport: As USDF Connection has reported, US Equestrian passed a rule that all adult competing members aged 18 and older must have completed SafeSport training by January 1, 2019, in order to be eligible to compete at USEF-licensed events. Pergolide: A new therapeutic-use exemption status for this drug was announced. Transparency in horse sales: The new Equine Transaction Transparency Task Force will focus on education, transparency, and enforcement. Pipeline is paying off: The Dressage European Young Rider Tour and other new sport-development initiatives are bringing growth to the sport. Para-equestrian coach certification program launched: Developed by USEF para-dressage technical advisor Michel Assouline, with funding from a US Department of Veterans Affairs Federal Adaptive Sport Grant, the pilot program debuted in 2018. Conducted in partnership with the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship, the program, which will certify coaches at four levels, is intended to increase coach-education opportunities and to aid in the development of a para-dressage coach database. —US Equestrian Communications Department

At the 2019 California Dressage Society annual meeting in Anaheim in January, newly elected CDS president Ellen Corob pretends to wrestle the gavel from Kevin Reinig, who held the post for six years.



March 2019



Your Dressage World This Month

FINANCIAL AID rom high-performance riders to adult amateurs and now to paradressage riders, as well, The Dressage Foundation (TDF), Lincoln, Nebraska, maintains grant funds to aid riders in reaching their educational and competitive goals.

ADVANCING: Lavell Dressage Prize recipients Lehua Custer and F.J. Ramzes

The $25,000 2019 Carol Lavell Advanced Dressage Prize has been awarded to Lehua Custer and F.J. Ramzes, TDF announced in January. Custer, a USDFcertified instructor/trainer and a USDF L graduate with distinction, was Olympian Hilda Gurney’s assistant trainer for 10 years and currently operates Lehua Custer Dressage at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center in Burbank,

California. Her partner, F.J. Ramzes, is a 2010 KWPN gelding (Juventus x Rampal) bred by Cornell University and owned by Wendy Sasser. The pair was named to the US Equestrian Dressage Development Program in 2018. Eleven adult amateurs with strong volunteer records each received a $1,000 scholarship to help them get some concentrated training time away from the pressures of job and family, thanks to TDF’s Carol Lavell Gifted Memorial Fund. The fund was started by the Olympian and her friends and supporters and named for Lavell’s late, great equine partner, Gifted. The recipients are: Region 1: Fay Seltzer, a member of the French Creek Equestrian Association in Pennsylvania, and her Hanoverian, Hot Date SFH, will train with Emily Donaldson.  Region 2: Beth Baryon, a member of the Mid-Ohio Dressage Association, and her grade horse, Pippin, will train with Julie Kotlarz-Franzen.  Region 2: Louisville (Kentucky) Dressage Society member Kristen Young and her Connemara/Thoroughbred, Shiloh, will train with Kim Schisler Sosebee. Region 3: Leighanne Erickson, a member of the Coastal Empire Dressage Association in Georgia, and her Paint, Sonnys Lunar Eclipse, will train with Greta Wrigley.

12 March 2019 • USDF CONNECTION

will train with Sherry Guess with two horses: her Haflinger, Noah, and her Friesian Sport Horse, Asgaard. Region 9: Nancy Trait-Lira, a member of the Oklahoma Dressage Society, and her Friesian Sport Horse, Double Dutch Chocolate, will train with Sarah Martin. REGION 4 RECIPIENT: Kathy Hanford and Goldhills Gemini

Region 4: Nebraska Dressage Association member Kathy Hanford and her Welsh Cob, Goldhills Gemini, will train with Sarah Martin.  Region 5: Judi DeVore of Colorado, a member of the Grand Valley Dressage Society chapter of the Rocky Mountain Dressage Society, and her Hanoverian, Believe WS, will train with Sarah Martin. Region 6: Ellen Roy, a member of the Central Washington Dressage Society, will train with Mike Osinski. Region 7: Kimberly Watts, a member of the California Dressage Society’s Pomona chapter, and her KWPN, Jameson, will train with Willy Arts. Region 8: Carol Morris of New York, a member of Cayuga Dressage and Combined Training Inc., and her Welsh Cob/ Thoroughbred, Nitrox, will train with David Thind. Region 9: Annie Houchin of Oklahoma, a member of the Central Plains Dressage Society,


TDF also announced the awarding of its inaugural Para-Equestrian Dressage Fund Grants to two riders. Dan Mohl of Florida will use his grant to train at Carlisle Academy Integrative Equine Therapy and Sports in Maine. Californian Mia RodierDawallo plans to use her grant to attend a clinic at the CalNet Disabled Rider Horse Show as well as the Fall Para-Dressage Clinic. Learn more about these and other TDF grants at dressagefoundation.org.



Dressage Foundation Awards Grants Across Sport Spectrum



Kerri Sowers, PT, DPT, PhD, Para-Equestrian Classifier

What you need to know this month On the Levels Now Available his is your opportunity to view the dressage tests and learn what is new and what you, as a competitor, need to know! With narrations by international dressage riders, trainers, coaches, and judges, riders will demonstrate proper execution and some common faults in the riding of the latest tests, effective through November 30, 2022.

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ON THE LEVELS 7th Edition


ON THE LEVELS is a trademark of the United States Dresage Federation.

United States Dressage Federation, Inc. 4051 Iron Works Parkway, Lexington, KY 40511 Phone: (859) 971-2277 • Fax: (859) 971-7722 • www.usdf.org

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©2018 United States Dressage Federation (USDF) and United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is prohibited by law. Neither USDF nor USEF is responsible for any errors or omissions in the publication or for the use of its copyrighted material in an unauthorized manner.

Filmed at Starr Vaughn Equestrian Center, CA, Valley View Farm, KY, and Meadowbrook Farm, Marlborough, CT. USDF and USEF would like to thank the demonstration riders and owners of the horses used, along with the support staff at each filming location. We would also like to thank the following contributors to this project: • FEI 5* Judge Janet Foy • FEI 4* Judges Lois Yukins, Mike Osinski, and William Warren • USEF ‘S’ and retired FEI 4* Judge Natalie Lamping • FEI 4* Judge and USDF Certified Instructor Sarah Geikie • USEF ‘R’ Judge and USDF Certified Instructor William McMullin • USDF FEI Level Certified Instructors Reese Koffler-Stanfield, Rachel Saavedra, and Volker Brommann • USDF Certified Instructor Heidi Chote

I n t r o d u c t o r y

MASTER THE 2019 INTRODUCTORY T 2019 US Dressage Tests through Fourth Level dressage tests with the just-released 2019 On the Levels video series. Learn from the best with videos of each test, judge and trainer commentary, test-riding and training tips, and more. Available from the USDF store on DVD and as streaming video, the 2019 On the Levels series is effective December 1, 2018 through November 30, 2022. 2019 US Dressage Tests

ob title: FEI Level 2 classifier, physical therapist, and assistant professor of health science, Stockton University, Galloway, New Jersey What I do: A classifier is an FEI official who is a physical therapist or a physician with special training. Classifiers assist in evaluating para-equestrian athletes to determine their grade, or competition classification based on severity of physical disability. We do a PT-type of assessment; then we observe the athletes when they’re in competition. We look for any discrepancies.


Effective December 1, 2018 through November 30, 2022

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ON THE JOB: Sowers (right) with Dutch classifier Fredy Versluys at the 2018 World Equestrian Games in Tryon

How I got started: I’m a longtime dressage competitor who got my start as a young rider, medaling at the 2001 FEI North American Young Riders Championships. My trainer, Jessica Ransehousen, had a couple of para riders training with her in Pennsylvania who were starting to do the CPEDI [FEI para-dressage] competitions. I’ve been to CDIs [FEI dressage competitions], so I ended up getting involved in para as a groom. Once they found out that I was in PT school, it was like, ‘Oh, when you’re done, you can become a classifier, as well.’ Best thing about my job: Being able to travel and meet so many new people who are passionate about the sport. Worst thing about my job: When athletes are trying to misrepresent [their degree of disability], or when you change an athlete’s grade and they are upset about it. My horses: I have four. Last year, I ended up doing so much classifying that I had no show weekends that I was home to show my own horse. Tip: Don’t be inspired because of their disability. Be inspired because they’re good athletes. —Katherine Walcott

YOUR CURRENT USDF PARTICIPATING, group, or business membership gives you access to the following reports free of charge when logged into the USDF website: • USDFScores.com (education members and nonmembers may access for a nominal fee) • USDF historical awards reports • Owner’s/lessee’s and breeder’s horse portfolios • Dam/sire reports.

GMO Members: Are You Eligible for a Refund? IF YOU ARE A MEMBER of a USDF group-member organization (GMO), you may request a refund of the USDF portion of the membership fee for any additional GMOs you join (limit three), less a small processing fee. Requests must be submitted in writing between April 1 and August 1 of the current membership year using the Multiple GMO Dues Refund Request form, which is available on the USDF website. For voting purposes, a primary GMO must be declared. Send e-mail to gmo@usdf.org with any questions. USDF CONNECTION

March 2019


sport-horse connection

Get a Handle on Sport-Horse Showing

Redesigned USDF Handler Clinic puts the focus on hands-on experience By Natalie DiBerardinis and Kristi Wysocki


ngie Mirarchi breeds sport ponies and warmbloods at her Jovee Farm in Brown Summit, North Carolina. An active participant at USDF dressage sport-horse breeding (DSHB) shows and breed-registry inspections, she is a strong believer in the value of showing young horses in hand. “I’ve always felt it gives a solid, age-appropriate education for my youngsters that makes starting them under saddle later so much easier,”

exhibit her horses in DSHB classes because of the difficulty in finding experienced handlers to present her horses at these events. Even at such established competitions as Rosinburg Events’ Labor of Love show in Raleigh, North Carolina, “participation [in DSHB classes] was declining, in direct connection with not having a handler available,” she says. Mirarchi resorted to “importing” professional sport-horse handler King Santacruz from Wellington, Florida.


Enter the redesigned USDF Handler Clinic, whose new format will debut April 6-7 at Hilltop Farm in Colora, Maryland. Revamped by the USDF Sport Horse Committee, the Handler Clinic will feature hands-on practice in handling a variety of horses under the tutelage of two of our country’s leading sport-horse handlers, Hilltop Farm head trainer Michael Bragdell and upstate New York-based professional handler Sara Vanecek. Washington state-based US Equestrian DSHB judge Kristi Wysocki will lead discussions about conformation, movement, and the rules pertaining to in-hand sport-horse competition. We’d love to see professional and aspiring professional handlers attend the clinic, but amateur and youth handlers are welcome and the Handler Clinic will support their interests, as well. We’ll show that you don’t need to be a six-foot-tall marathon runner to be able to show horses in hand successfully—but you do need to know what the judges are looking for, the roles of the handler and the assistant handler, and how to best prepare your horse and how to deal with the not-so-perfect moments that can happen when you mix young horses and “electric” show atmospheres.

EXPERT HANDLING: Professional sport-horse handlers King Santacruz (left) and Michael Bragdell know how to present horses in hand to their best advantage

Mirarchi says. “It also gives me solid, honest feedback about my horses that I can use to continue developing my own eye and building my program with each new generation.” Yet Mirarchi, like other sporthorse breeders across the country, has found it increasingly difficult to

She let other area breeders know about Santacruz’s availability, and now the Labor of Love show’s DSHB classes are thriving. But this option doesn’t exist for every show Mirarchi would like to attend. To remedy the problem, she hopes to see an influx of professional handlers in the coming years.

14 March 2019 • USDF CONNECTION

While many USDF sport-horse programs are geared toward horses’ development, the USDF Youth/Young Adult Dressage Sport Horse Breeders Seminar focuses on the human side of the sport-horse-breeding industry. This seminar is designed to broaden the interest and enthusiasm of the upcoming generation of sporthorse breeders and young-horse trainers. A different sport-horse-breeding farm hosts the seminar each year, to showcase the depth of opportunities and various approaches that are available within the sport-horse-breeding world. This year’s event will be held at Maplewood Warmbloods, Middletown, New York, July 13-14, with a


For Prospective Breeders

focus on mare performance testing, stallion licensing, and foal inspections. GOV (Oldenburg Verband) inspector Sebastian Rohde will provide feedback and explanations to seminar participants throughout the inspection. He will also devote time to address the participants directly in a discussion of the new conformation-evaluation methodology, known as linear profiling, that is being used in inspections. Maplewood Warmbloods is currently undergoing a major expansion, and seminar participants will gain valuable insights into what it takes to construct and expand a breeding facility. Owner Jen Vanover, who has a background in engineering, has built this farm up from the beginning, designing her facility to meet her needs as a sport-horse breeder. In addition, Pennsylvania-based FEI 4* dressage judge and retired US Equestrian DSHB judge Jeanne McDonald will be on hand to lead discussions regarding the conformation and movement of the dressage horse, and how these factors relate to the success of the horse as a dressage prospect. Learn more about these and other sport-horse educational opportunities at usdf.org. s Natalie DiBerardinis is the co-chair of the USDF Sport Horse Committee and the managing director of Hilltop Farm, Colora, Maryland. Kristi Wysocki, of Coupeville, Washington, is a US Equestrian DSHB judge and the chair of the Sport Horse Committee.


• Adult amateur’s guide to entering a CDI • From A to X: (Almost) everything you need to know about dressage showing • USDF Trainers Conference coverage USDF CONNECTION • March 2019



Sequential Schooling of the Dressage Horse Sixth in a series. This month: Flying changes. By Hilda Gurney


lying changes are introduced when our prospect is schooling solidly all the Third Level movements. The canter work should be fairly well-balanced, straight, and on the bit. Simple changes and counter-canter must also be on the aids and straight. It’s important

straight canter. A crooked canter makes for crooked changes. If flying changes are schooled prematurely, the horse will learn to be crooked and straightness may always be difficult to attain. Whenever an exercise has been taught and practiced incorrectly from the beginning, correction is very difficult. Establish straight true-canter and counter-canter before schooling flying changes. Crooked canters can be improved by using shoulder-in aids to align the shoulders in front of the haunches (Figure 2).

FIGURE 2. A. Crooked canter. B. The canter is straightened by using shoulder-in to lead the shoulders in front of the haunches. Both hands are shifted slightly toward the inside with an active inside leg on the girth.

FIGURE 1. A definite period of suspension at the canter should be established before flying changes are introduced.

that the haunches do not fall out at the counter-canter. Activity and a marked suspension in the canter allow time for the horse to change his leg sequence in the flying change during the suspension period (Figure 1). The horse must accept half-halts without resistance or crookedness. Straightness is important, as straight changes are a result of a Adapted from a series published in Dressage & CT, September 1978-October 1979. Reprinted by permission of the estate of Ivan I. Bezugloff Jr.

Haunches swinging out toward the rail is a common fault in countercanter. Counter-shoulder-in will correct this fault. The rein on the outside of the bend must make sure that the horse’s neck and shoulders remain in alignment. Both hands lead the horse’s shoulders toward the rail, placing

16 March 2019 • USDF CONNECTION

the shoulders in alignment with the horse’s outward-swinging haunches. The rider’s weight remains toward the lead. An active leg on the side toward the lead helps to control the haunches from swinging outward. Care must be taken that the leg on the side toward the lead is always forward in relation to the rider’s other leg, so that there is a distinct difference between the straightening leg aid used at the girth and the same leg aiding for the flying change behind the girth. Leg aids, not rein aids, must be used for the flying change. Before introducing flying changes, the horse should be taught two things. First, he must move his haunches away from an active inside leg aid at the girth on the lead’s side without changing leads. Practicing shoulder-in at true canter and counter-shoulder-in at canter will confirm the straightening response of the leg aids. Second, he should hold a given lead from leg aids, irrespective of rein aids or his head position. Practicing flexing the horse’s head at the poll slightly from side to side will help him learn to retain the lead irrespective to his lateral head position. This exercise of flexing the horse’s poll left and right is also useful in some cases when the horse sets his neck and jaw. Flexing the poll left and right will frequently soften the set neck. This correction is followed by the rider’s pushing the horse into the bit, allowing him to lengthen his neck. Indiscriminate use of this “leftright flexion” correction can be harmful, resulting in the horse’s constant desire to swing his head or in a rubbery, unsteady neck. During the “left-right flexion” exercise, the rider’s legs keep the horse moving forward on one track. Stiffly resisting horses will throw their haunches out when the poll is flexed inward and throw their haunches in when the poll is flexed outward. Alternating “left-right flexion” with shoulder-in and use of controlling leg aids will gradually clear up this problem. A halt followed by a turn on the forehand is frequently a useful correc-



tion when horses persist inresisting or ignoring the rider’s straightening leg aids. Always make the horse turn away from the leg on the crooked side; then resume the canter. This correction seems to carry over to the canter effectively. Switching the whip against the inside haunch is another useful correction as long as the horse realizes that the whip means “straighten” and not “hurry” or “kick.” Whenever horses hurry or tense, they tend to become even more crooked. Therefore, the rider must be careful not to cause tension and hurrying in trying to straighten the canter. Introducing flying changes frequently seems to make horses think “crooked.” Throughout the period from the first introduction of flying changes until the time when the horse performs them confidently, tension and crookedness must be effectively dealt with so that the horse remains calm and straight.

Flying changes can be introduced by asking for them just before a corner or from the counter-canter on a 20-meter circle (Figure 3). With horses that tend to hold back and not move forward or that kick or buck when asked for a change, an energetic canter across the diagonal followed by a change just before the corner is an effective method of introducing the flying change. The counter-canter circle is generally better for the large percentage of horses, since it helps

control the tendency to anticipate and rush during the change. In preparation for the change, the horse should be straightened at the counter-canter so his spine is in alignment with the line on which he is traveling (Figure 4). Simple changes should be practiced frequently at the spot where the flying change will later be requested. Practicing simple changes will 1) give the horse the idea of changing leads at that spot, and 2) help ensure that



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FIGURE 4. A. Before asking for a flying change to the inside lead, the horse’s spine should be in alignment with the circle when on the counter lead. B. Correct alignment for counter-canter; however, the horse should be straightened before a flying change is asked for. C. A common fault: The horse stiffens his body, not bending, and the haunches are not following the forehand. This position must be corrected before flying changes are schooled.

the horse will respond to the halfhalt used in preparation for the flying change. Holding the counter-canter without tensing, shortening the stride, or swinging the haunches in or out must be established before a flying change is requested. Activity in the countercanter must be maintained so that the horse has enough time during the suspension period to change the leg sequence. To aid for the change, the rider half-halts and swings his or her outside leg back while shifting his/her weight slightly toward the lead. The inside leg moves from its former position behind the girth to its new position at the girth in order not to block the change from occurring. At this stage it’s not important that the change is clean. We are happy to get any kind of change. If the horse changes, say “whoa,” walk on long reins, and pet him. The reason for saying “whoa” is in order to avoid a fight over the downward transition, which would distract the horse’s attention from the lesson, which is “flying changes.” Then repeat the exercise one or two more times to confirm the lesson.


If no change occurs, half-halt and repeat the aids with a stronger kick from the outside leg. If still nothing happens, flick the horse with the whip to reinforce the outside leg. If neither of these ideas helps, return to practicing simple changes before again asking for the change. In the few cases where the horse diligently retains the counter lead regardless of your efforts to the contrary, congratulate yourself on your fine job of schooling obedience at the counter-canter and go set up a low (about one foot) jump. Practice hopping your horse quietly over the low fence. Observe which lead he prefers to land on. By jumping at an angle (Figure 5), you can get the horse to land on either lead. Practice landing on leads until he will consistently land on whatever lead you angle him slightly for. Swing your outside leg slightly back and your weight toward the lead as you take the jump to help him become aware of the aids for the lead. It may take days, or even weeks, to get this established. Usually, it’s best to school “landing on leads” at the end of the daily work.

FIGURE 5. Jumping a low fence at a slight angle, along with leg and weight aids, will help school the horse to land on the indicated lead—in this case, the right.

18 March 2019 • USDF CONNECTION

When the horse jumps the low fence quietly and consistently, landing on whatever lead you have indicated, it’s time to ask him to change leads over the fence. Canter toward the fence on the opposite lead than the one you plan to change onto. Jump the fence at a slight angle, asking the horse to land on the new lead. Most horses willingly do this. After several days of practicing this exercise, whenever you feel the horse has developed the coordination and understanding of what you are asking, lower the fence gradually until it is only a pole on the ground. When the horse performs the change over the pole, remove the pole and ask for the change between the jump standards just as if the pole was there. If the horse doesn’t change, replace the pole or small jump again for a while until the lead change is reestablished. Finally, ask for the change in other places and without the jump standards. Work on a straight, balanced canter and counter-canter must be stressed during the period when flying changes are being introduced, or these may degenerate badly. On days when the canter work is below par, flying changes should not be practiced. Many horses break into trot when asked for a flying change. This should be prevented by strong leg aids. I’ve seen riders totally fooled by their horses’ taking a single step of trot when changing leads. A step change is not a flying change! Most horses are late behind when first learning flying changes. This is tolerated since the concept of “flying change” must be established before the concept of “clean change.” Whenever a horse only changes in front, the change aids must be repeated until the horse changes over behind. Only then should he be rewarded. The rider needs to immediately feel when the horse comes through behind in order to reward him. However, unless a rider has had a great deal of previous experience with flying changes, he or she may be unable to feel the horse come through behind.

A person on the ground who can tell when the horse changes behind is invaluable for such riders. A horse that performs the flying change from leg aids and that has a straight counter-canter will generally change cleanly right from the beginning. Horses that are cranky to leg aids will frequently kick or buck when changing, although they will generally change cleanly. Such horses must be ridden briskly forward both before and after the change, regardless of the buck or kick. In every case I have worked with, the bucking and kicking disappeared by itself as the horse developed understanding and coordination in doing the flying changes. However, this may take several weeks or even months. Some horses will change early behind. This is a much lesser problem than kicking or changing late behind. To correct this problem, the change should be asked for on curves or corners with the rider’s hands leading the horse’s shoulders toward the new lead.

Both hands move toward the new lead, bringing the shoulders over as if asking for shoulder-in. The tendency to change late behind is the most difficult problem to correct. In most cases it is caused by the horse changing from rein aids rather than leg aids. The rider must make sure that he/she prepares for the change by straightening the horse, and that half-halting before the change is actually asked for with the leg aids. Many horses will anticipate the change by changing in front instead of accepting the preparation for the change. Such horses should be schooled on shoulder-in, left-right flexion, and half-halts while retaining the lead before they are again asked for a flying change. A too-strong inside leg aid may block the horse from changing behind. The rider must make sure that his/her inside leg moves slightly forward at the same time as the outside leg moves back. Haunches swinging inward or outward will also prevent a horse

from changing clean. Shoulder-in and counter-shoulder-in exercises should be practiced and used both before and after the change to straighten the horse. If all the straightness and anticipating problems have been corrected and the late-behind problem persists, a whip tap given at the same time as the leg aid usually will bring the horse in clean. It’s important that the horse makes an effort to change behind. Immediate reward with patting and/or a food treat should be given for a clean change. Flying changes generally are more easily performed clean with the young horse when practiced on gradual curves. Easy places for the changes are on the large circle, as you turn onto a large circle, and just before a corner, either from a change of rein or from down the long side. More difficult places are on straight lines, such as the long side or a change of rein. Clean changes are most demanding on the serpentine (Figure 6) or at either A or C, because if the horse

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www.dehner.com USDF CONNECTION • March 2019



NOMINATIONS OPEN April 15, 2019 is the deadline for nominations for Participating Member (PM) Delegates in All Regions


isn’t completely straightened before the change is requested, the change probably won’t be clean. The changes on these figures should be introduced after the clean changes are established on the easier figures. Changes onto counter-canter are effective in training the horse not to anticipate flying changes. Whenever a horse anticipates, performing a flying change on his own, he should be immediately brought back into

walk and the original lead resumed. A strong “no” may also be helpful. Changes onto counter-canter may be introduced on the long side by turning early, straightening the horse, and requesting the change onto the counter-canter while angling slightly toward the track (Figure 7). Following the change, hold the counter-canter to confirm to the horse that he changes only when you tell him. Frequently with horses that like to anticipate, it’s

FIGURE 6. When first introducing flying changes on the serpentine, it is advisable to square the turns somewhat in order to allow increased distance for straightening the horse before each change. Later, when the flying changes are consistent, the figure should be ridden in the usual manner.

FIGURE 7. Turning early before the long side is a useful figure in introducing the flying change onto the counter-canter lead.

To accept the nomination, and if elected, a PM delegate nominee must: • Be a current Participating Member of USDF. • Have a permanent residence and reside in the region for which they are running to represent. • Agree to serve a one year term, from the time of election in 2019 until the election in 2020. • Attend the 2019 Adequan®/USDF Annual Convention in Savannah, GA.

June 1, 2019 is the deadline for nominations for Vice President, Secretary, and Regional Director in Regions 1, 3, 5, 7, and 9. Nominations for Vice President, Secretary, and Regional Director in Regions 1, 3, 5, 7, and 9 will also be accepted from the floor of the Board of Governors meeting at the 2019 Adequan®/USDF Annual Convention in Savannah, GA.

e-mail all nominations to


20 March 2019 • USDF CONNECTION

Next month: Turns on the haunches and canter pirouettes.

When Hilda Gurney wrote this series for Dressage & CT magazine, it had been only two years since she had won a team bronze medal at the 1976 Olympics with her legendary Thoroughbred, Keen. Forty years later, Gurney is still going strong at her Keenridge in Moorpark, CA, where she continues to ride, train, and teach. For her contributions as a dressage professional, competitor, judge, sport-horse breeder, and more, she was inducted into the Roemer Foundation/USDF Hall of Fame in 2007. Keen was inducted in 1997.

Podcast Alert


effective to do most of your changes onto the counter lead for a period of time. It seems that all the joy a horse derives from performing flying changes (they love them once they know how to do them) is dampened if the changes are onto counter-canter. Once the change onto the countercanter is understood, it can be performed remaining on the rail, and on the change of rein. The rider’s aids for the changes should become lighter as the changes develop. The outside leg should now indicate the flying change more from changing its position to the rear. The amount of pressure against the horse’s side should be decreased in order to prevent the horse from moving his haunches away from the leg, making the changes crooked. Lighter rein aids should be used, and emphasis must be put on the changes being forward and straight. s

Check out podcast 143 for an interview with Hilda Gurney at usdf.podbean.com.



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amateur hour


We Are the Champions

The inaugural USDF Regional Adult Amateur Equitation champions were crowned in 2018. These riders’ stories may surprise and inspire you.


Region 1 champion Melissa Palmer, 49, of Purcellville, Virginia, calls her mare Reagan 10 “a very special young horse.” As such, most of Palmer’s competitive focus with the six-year-old Oldenburg (Belissimo M – Relaunch, San Amour I) has been on the FEI Young Horse classes. Anyone who rides a lot of young horses knows that keeping up one’s equitation can be a challenge aboard gawky youngsters. So when a friend suggested that Palmer enter the AA

REGION 1 AA EQUITATION CHAMPION: Melissa Palmer and Reagan 10

Equitation Regional Finals class, the rider welcomed the opportunity “to show that my position and effectiveness has not deteriorated while training several young horses over the past few years.” Palmer credits some of her equitation success to her focus on rider biomechanics, adding that she “got some great help on my position from [FEI 5* dressage judge] Linda Zang this past year.” Like many adult amateurs, Palmer juggles work and riding, and she also runs her own farm. “I have a very busy business career,” says the softwarecompany sales executive, “so I really have to manage my riding schedule around work and business travel, which is a challenge at times, but I make it all happen.” In dressage, Palmer says, “you never stop learning, which keeps me

22 March 2019 • USDF CONNECTION


She credits those early equestrian experiences with giving her a “great awareness” of the importance of equitation. Riding Western and hunter seat, she spent “countless hours…on body position and only moving what you needed to move.” Introduced to FEI-level rider and trainer Sandra “Sandy” Tull, Diener, then a teen, “instantly swooned” at dressage and soon began taking lessons at Tull’s Southview Farm in Mount Morris, Michigan. Diener learned the basics with her Arabian and went on to a crash course of sorts aboard Tull’s Hanoverian stal-


On the Right Path

Function Follows Form Equitation begins with learning to stay on, as 2018 Region 2 AA equitation champion Kelli Diener, 35, of Millington, Michigan, learned at an early age. Growing up, Diener showed Arabian horses in 4-H and on a local Arabian circuit. “Some of those Arabs were quite naughty,” she says, “but they taught me how to stick like glue and ride with their spinning, spooking, and bucking antics.”

By Brynne Boian orrect position in the saddle is not just about looks. Good equitation means that the rider can use the aids independently and effectively to influence the horse. Not easy! Recognizing that equitation is a fundamental part of any dressage rider’s journey through the levels, in 2018 the USDF launched the Regional Adult Amateur Equitation program. By earning qualifying scores in dressage-seat equitation classes or by qualifying to compete in Great American/USDF Regional Dressage Championships, adult-amateur riders became eligible to participate in the first-ever AA Equitation Regional Finals, which were held in conjunction with the nine Regional Championships competitions. (For complete program rules and qualifying details, visit usdf.org.) USDF Connection asked the nine inaugural AA Equitation regional champions to share their stories and to tell us about the competitions. We hope that they’ll inspire you to strive to take part in this year’s championships—and by doing so, to improve your own equitation and your skills as a dressage rider.

interested and focused. I’m really looking forward to the journey with Reagan and what 2019 and beyond will bring.”


lion, Sanwalt. The pair was hoping to qualify for the FEI North American Youth Championships when surgery to remove a painful bone tumor from Diener’s hip socket derailed that plan. College and “adulting,” as Diener puts it, kept her out of the saddle for more than 15 years—a period in which she endured “the dark, lifedraining shadow of being horseless.” The time never seemed right to take the leap and get back into riding, but then her mother was diagnosed with a terminal illness and Diener decided that “there’s no better time than now.” She’d finally returned to Michigan after many work-related moves, and Tull helped her find a dressage horse (and her Region 2 AA Equitation championship partner), the now 12-year-old Oldenburg gelding Daughtry FS (De Laurentis – Delightfull, Dederick). The horse hiatus, combined with “way too many years of being hunched over studying and desk work,” had taken their toll on Diener’s riding

position. Sitting the trot was impossible—like “a bouncy sack of potations and legs everywhere like propellers.” Even today, many lessons later, her “tendency to want to curl into a fetal posture and bring my knees up to my ears is still not completely gone.” Equitation, Diener says, has been her ticket to better riding. “When you have the correct position and ride properly, it is very rewarding, as you can feel the horse is able to move better and you can help the horse improve. We must improve ourselves first to help improve the horse. The feedback and sense check in the dressage-equitation class are invaluable.”

Horse of a Lifetime That’s how Atlanta-based Wisti Nelson, 52, describes her 15-year-old homebred Oldenburg gelding, Let’s Play. “I had always wanted to breed and raise a horse,” says the former event rider, “so when I decided to take some time off from eventing to have my second son, I bred my off-the-track

REGION 3 AA EQUITATION CHAMPION: Wisti Nelson and Let’s Play pose with judges Sarah Geikie and Sarah Michael, and USDF Region 3 director Susan Bender

Thoroughbred mare, Celestine, to the Oldenburg stallion Laitin.” During the pregnancy, Nelson says, she had a dream that her mare was carrying a

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Eating to Win Casey Eiten, 23, enjoys combining her love of horses with her career. An equine nutritionist for Hueber Feed, she says that “there is nothing better than visiting horse farms every day and helping horses reach their potential through nutrition.” A native of Lincoln, Nebraska, Eiten recently relocated with her husband to Ladd, Illinois, where she trains with USDF-certified instructors and FEI-level competitors Martin Kuhn and Kathryn Fleming-Kuhn at StarWest in New Berlin, Illinois. Eiten’s equine partner is her 10-year-old KWPN gelding, Eschaton (Sir Sinclair – Melisande, Carpaccio). “I purchased Eschaton when he was a yearling,” Eiten says, “and have loved every minute of watching him develop into the amazing horse he is today.” She calls the experience of competing


in the 2018 Region 4 AA Equitation championship “a blast” and says she’s looking forward to the 2019 edition.

An Amateur’s Amateur “If you were to look up the definition of amateur in the dictionary,” quips Lynn McKinney, “you might see my picture smiling out at you.” McKinney, 53, of Mesa, Arizona, is a full-time dental hygienist who “fits my riding into my schedule as best I can.” With a self-described “very modest (by dressage standards)” budget, she bought a previous dressage horse as a three-year-old and trained it to the FEI levels, earning her USDF silver medal along the way. She got her current horse, Diego, “after he flunked out of the jumper world.” (Her 2018 Region 5 AA Equitation championship partner was the now 12-year-old Dutch Warmblood mare Bojenia, owned by Leesa Lane.) The importance of good equitation was firmly instilled in McKinney during her childhood lessons with “an old-school British woman who firmly believed that you develop a good seat only through countless lunge lessons without stirrups or reins. If you had the misfortune of making an unplanned dismount, you were expected

24 March 2019 • USDF CONNECTION

REGION 5 AA EQUITATION CHAMPION: Lynn McKinney and Bojenia with USDF representative Krystina Wright

to bring a cake to the barn; and if you cried about your tumble, you were briskly informed that you would not be considered a real rider until you had fallen off over 100 times. (I think I hit that mark before I was 20.)” Even with that foundation, McKinney says she cringed at videos of herself in the saddle: “My right elbow would flutter like a chicken wing, and my left side would collapse when my horse tracked left.” She asked her instructor for some tough love and enlisted fellow riders to critique her position in the trainer’s absence. The result: “No one will ever mistake me for Charlotte Dujardin, but the overall picture has become much better, and competing in the equitation class was a wonderful experience. I hope more adult amateurs will give these classes a try.”

Equitation Proves Life-Changing “My quest to improve my riding actually caused a career change in my life,” says Region 6 AA Equitation champion Trinjia Dell’Aglio. The fitness-oriented Dell’Aglio, 50, of Boise, Idaho, was so impressed at how much Pilates classes helped her riding that she decided to become


bay colt with four white socks. To her astonishment, when “Player” was born in 2003, he fit that image nearly to a T, the only difference being that he sported three socks instead of four. With a trainer’s guidance, Nelson brought Player along herself. The pair evented successfully for four years, and in 2012 Nelson decided to focus on dressage. She earned her USDF bronze medal aboard Player in 2014, and last year he helped her earn her silver. “Player is a pleasure to ride; he just wants to please everyone,” Nelson says, calling the decision to take part in the Region 3 AA Equitation championship “a no-brainer.” Even though Player was tired from having already competed in the Fourth Level and Prix St. Georges AA championship classes, “true to his personality, he did his best to please me. He was Mr. Steady Eddie so that I could put in a solid equitation dressage ride for the class.” “I am always looking for fun opportunities, and the dressage equitation class was one I’m glad I tried,” Nelson says. Next up: She hopes to ride a freestyle in 2019 aboard the mount she calls her dream horse.


REGION 6 AA EQUITATION CHAMPION: Trinjia Dell’Aglio and Dumbledore

Besting Able-Bodied Competitors Laurel Kerner, 23, of San Marcos, California, was honing the Grand Prix movements aboard her 19-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding, Saturnes (Kelvin – Golinde, Beltrum), and dreaming of their GP debut when in May 2017 she suddenly began to lose feeling in her legs. Hospitalized, Kerner was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome, “a rare autoimmune disorder that rapidly attacks the nerves of the body, starting in the toes and working its way upward,” she explains. “It can be deadly when not caught in time to treat before the diaphragm muscles are affected.” Luckily for Kerner, the disease had not yet progressed to that point, but she had suffered serious effects nonetheless. When she was finally released from the hospital, she was wheelchair-bound, nearly paralyzed below the hips. [


certified as a Pilates instructor. She continues to do Pilates several times a week (including teaching classes to

fellow equestrians at their barn), along with riding four to five days a week and taking daily three-mile walks with her dogs on nearby hiking trails. “The tools I have learned from the Pilates method have been tremendously helpful in establishing my position and balance in the saddle,” Dell’Aglio says. “I appreciate USDF opening up a competition class for equitation to adult amateurs,” says Dell’Aglio, who won the Region 6 title aboard her 10-year-old Hanoverian gelding, Dumbledore (Dancier – Rosalie, Rotspon). “As adult amateurs, we have busy lives away from the barn, so it is extremely difficult to train our bodies to comply with the demands of riding. Yet as we all know, the rider’s seat is such an important aspect for our success and communication with the horse. I think it is very important that we, as riders, continue to try to improve our balance, coordination, and fitness. The horses are so generous to allow us to ride them. The least we can do is try to ride them the best we possibly can!”



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Rescued Horse Pays It Back

REGION 7 AA EQUITATION CHAMPION: Laurel Kerner and Saturnes

Six long weeks later, Kerner finally was reunited with her beloved “Soren.” Determined to ride again, she enlisted the help of her dressage trainer, Donna Richardson; her parents; and grooms at the barn. “Every day I worked on balance and retraining Soren to not rely on the cues from my legs, as they were just dead weight now,” Kerner recounts. She made remarkable progress: “Fastforward a few months and I was back competing in the FEI ring.” In 2018, Richardson worked to help Kerner gain strength to improve her equitation. Kerner and Soren were competing at the Grand Prix level at last—even though the rider hadn’t regained full leg function. “I relied on my wheelchair for long-distance transportation, but when I was riding I was starting to look like every other rider again,” Kerner says. At the 2018 Great American/ USDF Region 7 championships, Kerner decided to enter the AA Equitation class, “to see how I would stack up against fully able-bodied riders in regards to my equitation.” In the class, “as they called the three work-off numbers, I was heartbroken that mine was not called,”

Kevin Hadfield describes his Region 8 AA Equitation partner, Preston, as “not what usually comes down the center line at dressage shows.” The 17.2-hand, 10-year-old gelding is “a draft cross I rescued from a field in Canada three years ago,” says Hadfield, 29, of Mendon, Massachusetts. “His feet were three inches too long, and he wouldn’t let anyone pick them up or put a halter on him, let alone sit on his back.” The process of gaining Preston’s trust and training him in dressage has been “a long road,” Hadfield says, “but last season I was able to successfully compete him Third Level, earning the scores for my bronze medal, and I am hoping that we can continue our journey up the levels together.” Hadfield says he found dressageseat equitation competition appealing

REGION 8 AA EQUITATION CHAMPION: Kevin Hadfield and Preston with New England Dressage Association president Phyllis LeBlanc

26 March 2019 • USDF CONNECTION

in part because “it didn’t matter that I didn’t have the fanciest, most naturally athletic horse. It was all based on the one thing I can control: my position and effective use of the aids.” He also likes the fact that, at the conclusion of the class, “you have a quick moment with the judge to quickly discuss issues that you may be having. This was important to me because over the year I was able to correct problem areas and address them to better my horse and our training”—improvements that were soon reflected in higher scores, he says. Equitation competition produced another unexpected benefit, Hadfield says. “These classes also helped me with my horse-showing anxiety. Dressage tests are a lot of pressure, and many times I found myself holding my breath from salute to salute. The ring time afforded in the equitation classes allows you and your horse to calm your nerves and acclimate to the show arena without having to remember what movement comes next.”

The Equitation Veteran Of all the 2018 AA Equitation champions, Region 9’s Terri Sue Wensinger has arguably the deepest equitation résumé. As a teen riding Arabian horses, Wensinger, 58, of Dallas, Texas, was a multi-discipline equitation competitor: hunter seat, saddle seat, and stock seat. In 1978, she won both the US Stock Seat Equitation National Championship and the Canadian Saddle Seat Equitation Championship, she says. Everything changed during Wensinger’s college years: “My parents divorced, horses were sold, and figuring out how to grow up became my priority.” Then came law school, marriage, motherhood, and business ownership. “I didn’t think of horses until 2009, when I began riding dressage.” Enter the now 19-year-old Danish Warmblood gelding Asterios (Akinos – Urwetta, May Sherif), whom Wensinger purchased in 2017 as a schoolmaster. With many Grand Prix-level classes


Kerner says. But after the judges had pinned all but the winner, “I was the only one left standing without a ribbon around my horse’s neck. After all the challenges I had overcome the last 18 months, winning an equitation title seemed impossible, but I had done it!”

2019 US Dressage Tests I n t r o d u c t o r y

F o u r t h

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The 2019 US Dressage Tests booklet contains all of the USDF and USEF tests (Intro-Fourth Level) in one convenient guide - handy for carrying at shows, in your vehicle, or at home. The 2019 US Dressage Tests are effective December 1, 2018 through November 30, 2022.

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REGION 9 AA EQUITATION CHAMPION: Terri Sue Wensinger and Asterios with USDF representative Taylor Chism

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under his girth, Wensinger thought that equitation “would be fun for me and something different for him.” At the Region 9 championships, Wensinger was surprised at the large size of the AA Equitation championship class, with “at least 20” Triders entered. “Asti’ was super fired up,” she recalls. “Neither of us could wipe the smile from our faces. The field was reduced to six for the pattern work, and Asti carried me to the win. Looking forward to equitation 2019!” s


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e hope these champions’ stories have inspired you to try dressage-seat equitation. To learn more about the USDF Regional Adult Amateur Equitation Program, visit usdf.org and navigate to Competition / Championships / Regional Adult Amateur Equitation.


Ready to Try Equitation?


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Brynne Boian is a USDF senior competition coordinator.

One of USDF’s premier test products, On the Levels features engaging videos to help athletes ON THLES understand the requirements for tests within LE VE each level, commentary from top US trainers and judges, and segments geared toward improving difficult movements at each level. On the Levels is a great visual tool for riders of all levels to learn the new tests, while watching for common mistakes. The 2019 US Dressage Tests are effective December 1, 2018 through November 30, 2022.

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Testpro: USDF App The official test app of the USDF, Testpro: USDF features not only the tests, but also diagrams, audio, and many helpful reference links. This useful on-the-go reference features all of the USDF and USEF tests (Intro-Fourth Level) and is a must-have for competitors, trainers, judges, and spectators. The 2019 US Dressage Tests are effective December 1, 2018 through November 30, 2022.



Making Lemonade Meet five resilient dressage enthusiasts who refused to let setbacks end their involvement in the sport BY SUE WEAKLEY

A LEGACY OF EDUCATION: She doesn’t ride any more, but dressage judge Marilyn Heath (conducting a USDF “L” program session in Pennsylvania in 2008) has gone on to make lasting contributions to US judge education

28 March 2019 • USDF CONNECTION


ife is good. You and your horse are enjoying your partnership—and then the unthinkable happens. An accident. A dire diagnosis. Or just the realization that the aging process, or that old injury, has finally taken its toll. The result: You are advised to hang up your spurs and to pursue something other than your passion as a dressage rider. This sad day is most riders’ worst nightmare. For help getting through it, there’s nothing like hearing from people who have experienced the worst-case scenario and who found ways to stay involved with the sport and the horses they love. If you’re ready to be inspired, read on.


When Able-Bodied Isn’t an Option: Pursuing Para-Dressage In March 2016, Béatrice “Béa” de Lavalette was standing in line at the Brussels airport, looking down at her phone and listening to music. The 17-year-old French-American equestrian—a former hunter rider who at the time was into the popular European game known as competitive horseball (think Harry Potter’s quidditch on horseback)—was on her way to Florida to visit family when everything went black. De Lavalette later learned that she had been a victim of a terrorist attack, with the first of several bombs exploding only about 10 feet from where she had been standing. Her lower legs were shattered. She had suffered flash burns on more than 35 percent of her body, and she had sustained critical internal injuries. When de Lavalette regained consciousness, she was lying on the floor in the airport. “I only saw damage on my right leg, which was at a right angle,” she recounts. “It was pretty bad. I didn’t see the blood. I couldn’t hear. I couldn’t speak at first. It took me a while to get my voice out and call for help. There was a woman next to me, and we held hands until somebody came and picked her up, but because I was in such bad shape they thought there was no way I was going to survive. So they didn’t take me out, which was hard. I was like, ‘Uh, yeah, what about me?’ So I began looking around, and I could start to hear and I heard people screaming. I’m like, ‘I should probably do that too.’ So I found my voice and somehow found the strength to lift my right hand up and start screaming, and one of the firemen was there. I think my hair was on fire because he sprayed me. He called people over and I heard somebody saying, ‘Well, there’s one here,’ and then they picked me up, took me outside, and I remember seeing the difference from the dark ceiling of the airport to the sky. I remember being put down on the ground and somebody saying, ‘Don’t go to sleep. Don’t close your eyes.’” [ USDF CONNECTION • March 2019


AGAINST ALL ODDS: Nearly killed in a terrorist attack, Béatrice de Lavalette (at the Adequan® Global Dressage Festival in Florida in 2019 with her PRE mare, Delegada X) now competes in para-equestrian dressage

30 March 2019 • USDF CONNECTION

“One of my first rehab doctors said, ‘You’re never going to walk again. You’re paralyzed,’” she says. “But my advice is to listen to your heart. If you believe that you can do it, you can. Your body and your mind will follow your ambitions. Always. If you work hard at it, you can do anything. The world may think that you’re not strong enough, but as long as you believe in yourself, you can conquer anything.”


ate Shoemaker, DVM, 31, is an equine sports-medicine veterinarian in Peoria, Arizona. She’s also a Grade IV para-dressage rider who’s had to fight her way back into the saddle multiple times after being sidelined with injuries and surgeries. Unlike de Lavalette, Shoemaker has never known life as an able-bodied rider. She was born with periventricular ischemia, a disorder in which white-matter lesions cause motorcontrol dysfunction, muscle weakness, and muscle spasms. The lack of complete muscle control means that “I can’t always tell my joints to do what I want them to do, and it’s led to a lot of injuries,” Shoemaker says. “After one particular surgery, I ended up not riding for nine months. I was completely lost. It really was a down time.” Shoemaker was determined to spend time with horses during her recovery, explaining that “the horses give us so much fulfillment, even if we can’t ride, just to be around them. So what was interesting, though, even though the nine months were really hard, I came back a better rider!” She says the improvement was the result of using visualization to improve her riding during the down time.


The girl required a double below-the-knee amputation. The burns on her face were so severe that there was a 90 percent chance she would be disfigured, doctors told her parents. Flying shrapnel had sheared off a large chunk of her shoulder. Shrapnel embedded in her body, plus the titanium implanted during the many subsequent surgeries, prevent doctors from doing the MRI that would be necessary to locate the source of an unidentified spinal injury. After four months in the intensive-care unit, de Lavalette went to rehab. “For the first three or four weeks after coming out of the coma, I cried nonstop,” she says. “I felt like my life was over. What was I going to do now?” But she was determined to ride again, and five months post-injury de Lavalette was back on her beloved 2002 PRE mare, Delegada X. Wearing prosthetic legs, she now competes in para-equestrian dressage for the USA as a Grade II athlete with “DeeDee” and with Velvet WD, a 2002 Dutch Warmblood mare. “DeeDee got it instantly, so I didn’t really have to do much,” says de Lavalette. “We had to teach her a couple of things, of course, but she totally got it. She was like, ‘This is my person. Whenever she’s on my back, I’m not going to do anything stupid.’ She’s awesome. I love that horse.” Now a 20-year-old San Diego-based college student, de Lavalette trains out of Arroyo Del Mar, Steffen and Shannon Peters’ nearby home base. She has set her sights on the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games—a goal, she says, that has helped to sustain her.


DREAMER: Para-dressage rider Kate Shoemaker (aboard her 2018 WEG partner, Solitaer 40, at a 2019 Adequan® Global Dressage Festival competition) credits visualization with helping her hone her skills when health issues sideline her saddle time

“I call myself a dreamer because I can just sit here and see the perfect movement. I think it really helps me because you can always practice perfect in your mind. And the really cool thing is, your subconscious doesn’t know the difference between doing something in real life and doing something in your head. The more realistic you can make it, your body believes that you’ve done it and that you’ve done it right.” Even now that Shoemaker is back in the saddle—and is the 2018 FEI World Equestrian Games Grade IV freestyle bronze medalist, to boot—“I watch a ton of video,” she says. “I try and watch all the live streams that I can, even if I have to wait up until 2:00 a.m. because it’s in Germany and they’re not going to have a replay, or I use FEI TV to watch their event replays. Then I just picture myself riding with them.” Shoemaker is also a believer in not taking no for an answer. “About 10 years ago, I was really not able to run any more,” she recalls. “I had torn all the ligaments in my ankle in addition to not having muscle control, so my ankle would dislocate at a moment’s notice. I went to a surgeon who looked me square in the face and said, ‘You are never going to run again.’ I had to find a new doctor because that’s not acceptable. I had to become my own advocate. I found a surgeon who was totally on board with me. Nobody knows your body or what’s going on more than you do. Know your body, but don’t be afraid to express your goals. You know, sometimes they can’t do it, but that just means you need to keep going around the roadblocks until you find another

way. And the cool thing about horses is, they are there and they don’t care what has happened to you.”

When Life Happens as You’re Making Riding Plans Sports hypnotist and life coach Laura King, 63, is a lifelong south-Florida horsewoman. Through one-on-one sessions, DVDs, and books (The Power to Win), she helps equestrians in a variety of disciplines to overcome mental roadblocks or to cope with challenges to reach their goals. She has been a speaker at USDF instructor-education events, US Equestrian’s Robert Dover Horsemastership Clinic, and Dressage4Kids’ Winter Intensive Training Program, to name a few. Last year, King found herself grappling with a similar challenge. In the wake of a series of injuries, she was forced to stop riding. The reckoning was a difficult process. “It’s a grieving process that you go through, and you have to reprogram your thought processing to what you want to do,” she says. “It’s technically a paradigm shift of a belief system. If you’ve always believed you’re going to ride, it’s like a change of gear. My belief system was that I was going to spend this next chapter of my life doing things with horses as I get older. Now that I’ve been told I can’t, it’s [a process of ] releasing the guilt and the feelings of not being able to make that decision and finding the energy to think about doing things differently. Intellectually we understand that, but we have to remember that 88 percent of our brain is literal, and it goes by habitual patterns in our belief sysUSDF CONNECTION • March 2019


PRACTICING WHAT SHE PREACHES: Marilyn Heath with Tudor Star at Dressage at Devon in the 1980s

tem. So when we have to change that intellectually, it takes either reprogramming the subconscious mind or time to get through the grieving process to give the brain the adjustment period.” Today, King says she’s focusing on enjoying her clients and her work while striving to remain open to life’s curveballs. “Open the mind to find something else instead of getting upset and staying upset. You can’t ride. Grieve about not riding, and find the next thing to do, and move on.”

Those Who Can, Teach! A USDF gold, silver, and bronze medalist as well as a noted dressage trainer and US Equestrian “S” judge, Marilyn Heath, 86, of Venice, Florida, was a lifelong equestrian who achieved high-performance goals many riders only dream of. She was long-listed by the US Equestrian Team in the 1980s with Tudor Star, a horse she trained herself, and the pair competed in the small tour for the USA at the 1986 World Dressage Championships in Cedar Valley, Ontario. Sixteen years ago, Heath fell from a horse, badly injuring her hip. She has had three surgeries, including two hip replacements. “I tried for a year after that to ride again,” Heath says, “and finally my daughter said to me, ‘Mom, just give it up.’ I had some osteopenia, and I can’t fall again. The only way to

32 March 2019 • USDF CONNECTION


ust as fate guided Heath toward her lasting contributions to US judge education, a riding accident steered a former hunter rider to a storied dressage career. In 1988, Debbie McDonald, of Hailey, Idaho, “was jumping a horse over a very small vertical in a warm-up area at the Del Mar [California] racetrack,” she recalls. A water truck chose that instant to release its spray, and the noise frightened the young mare, who “put her legs down really quick, but she had put the rail between her front legs, and she flipped herself.” The mare fell on top of McDonald, barely missing the rider’s head. “So many people said, ‘We didn’t see how you could survive that,’” says McDonald, now 64. “I fractured a vertebra in my neck, had a few broken ribs, a punctured spleen, and [was] just beat up.” Although McDonald continued to ride hunters for an-


CHANGING GEARS: Sports hypnotist and life coach Laura King had to re-envision her own future when injuries forced her to hang up her spurs

guarantee not to fall is not to get on. I don’t feel comfortable getting down and brushing legs and getting out of the way fast enough if something happens. It was very hard.” Heath had no intention of leaving the dressage world, however. She went full throttle with her passion for judging, for 10 years chairing the USDF “L” Program Committee, on which she continues to serve as a faculty member. Instead of riding, “I teach,” Heath says. “I judge, and I teach others to become judges. I’m involved in judge education at all levels. I do a lot of apprentice work with candidates, so that’s my main focus. As a matter of fact, last year I did eleven judge-education weekends, nine ‘L’ programs, one USEF smaller program, and one USEF forum. I love it. I feel it is the way I can contribute the most to the sport—by teaching judges to judge responsively to a standard while being kind to the rider and an advocate for the horse.” In 2013, Heath received a USDF Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of her contributions to judge education in the US, particularly through the USDF “L” program.


other year, she eventually decided that “I don’t have the guts to do this any more. I’m too cautious and conservative when the horse is leaving the ground, which is going to cause another accident.” Motherhood—son Ryan was five at the time—also had altered her perspective, she says. “That’s when I made the switch to dressage.” McDonald’s dressage accomplishments by far eclipse her hunter-ring successes. With her greatest partner, the 1991 Hanoverian mare Brentina, she won 1999 Pan American Games team and individual gold medals, 2002 World Equestrian Games team silver, the 2003 FEI World Cup Dressage Final gold medal, and team bronze at the 2004 Athens Olympics, to name a few. As few other dressage stars have done, McDonald is poised to equal or better her riding achievements with her accomplishments out of the saddle. In 2009, she was named the inaugural US national dressage development coach, thus beginning a decade of scouting and training the next generation of high-performance dressage riders and horses, including current stars Laura Graves on Verdades and Kasey Perry-Glass on Goerklintgaards Dublet. At the end of 2018, as Robert Dover stepped down as US national dressage technical advisor, McDonald took over the reins in that top spot. (See “The Accidental Dressage Star” on page 40 for more on McDonald’s accomplishments and goals.) Although McDonald largely blames her heavy travel schedule for her current lack of saddle time, a second serious riding accident is also a factor. In 2011, she was schooling a horse at Epona Farms in California when for reasons never determined, “he just took off bucking. [Observers] said—I don’t have any recollection of this because I was knocked out—I was unconscious when I left the saddle. I remember staying on for three, maybe four [bucks], and then they said I just sailed through the air; my hands were just hanging. I went like an arrow into the ground.” She credits her riding helmet—she had only begun wearing one a short time before the accident, in the wake of the devastating falls and injuries suffered by fellow Olympians Courtney KingDye and Guenter Seidel—with saving her life. Having already undergone neck surgery after her first riding accident, McDonald decided that “I’m not going to get on anything that’s silly or young” any more. “The only time I really ride now is, one of the riders [I coach] will ask me to get on and feel something, and I know the horses really well.” The realization that her riding days are mostly behind her has been bittersweet, McDonald says. “I still really enjoy it, and when you get back on you realize how much you miss it.” On the fairly rare occasions when she’s home in

COACH TO THE STARS: Decorated dressage competitor Debbie McDonald (with former US national dressage technical advisor Robert Dover at the 2017 FEI World Cup Finals in Omaha) today is equally famous as a trainer and coach as she steps into Dover’s role

Idaho, “I might sit on a horse once a week, but as you get older it’s hardly worth it because you get so sore from one ride. It’s ridiculous.”

Giving Back Heath, King, and McDonald are just some of the enthusiasts who have successfully made the transition from active equestrian to active in another facet of the dressage world. De Lavalette and Shoemaker have found ways to stay in the saddle despite circumstances that would have sidelined many others. All continue to make valuable contributions to the sport—in ways they themselves never imagined. Their achievements are testaments to the importance of resilience in the wake of setbacks, and of the willingness to find alternate ways of staying involved with the sport and the horses they love. s Sue Weakley is a freelance writer, marketing professional, and self-avowed dressage geek. After teaching journalism and integrated marketing communications at the university level, she decided to meld dressage and writing into her dream job. She and her Lusitano, Universo do Bosque, are doing their best not to annoy each other as they strive toward half-halt perfection. USDF CONNECTION • March 2019


Exclusive Book Excerpt

Watching the Big Time How a student of dressage honed her eye under the tutelage of a German master

FORMIDABLE: The powerful, elegant Holsteiner gelding Granat (by Consul) winning individual gold and team silver medals at the 1976 Montreal Olympics with Christine Stückelberger of Switzerland

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Priscilla Endicott, the founder of the New England Dressage Association, in 2018 received a USDF Member of Distinction award in recognition of her many contributions to dressage in the New England area. In 1979, the American dressage pioneer spent a year in Germany, studying with the dressage master Walter Christensen. Endicott’s 1999 book, Taking up the Reins: A Year in Germany with a Dressage Master, chronicles her experiences living in a country in which she didn’t speak the language and didn’t yet know much about the finer points of dressage. When she returned home, she brought with her not only newfound riding and training expertise but Christensen himself, along with other noted European trainers, who regularly came to teach clinics at Endicott’s Harvard, Massachusetts, farm, The Ark. To commemorate both Endicott’s USDF award and the 20th anniversary of the publication of her book, USDF Connection presents the following excerpt.



alter Christensen firmly believed that watching others ride was the greatest aid to anyone wishing to learn. Overhearing the young apprentices discussing what they had noticed about horses and their riders, I realized that there was much more to watching than I had previously thought. My own perceptions those first weeks in Germany were primarily those of an admirer. I was filled with wide-eyed wonder that all the horses and their riders looked so beautiful—to my eye, they seemed close to perfect. Six weeks later, when my lessons began, I found that I was concentrating almost entirely on watching riders. When a member of the stable crew asked, “Did you see how Frau So-and-So made her young horse improve his trot today?” I had to say, no, I hadn’t. I knew I was catching on to the real business of watching—the kind of watching Walter Christensen had been talking about—when my perception widened. With time and daily practice, I began to see the horse and rider as a pair, a whole. I could pick up small details without losing any of the larger picture. I had plenty of role models to observe at Stall Tasdorf. Everyone there, including the horses, was making progress of some kind. Certainly, no one was riding just to pass the time of day or to get exercise. I found that watching moments in the instruction of others helped me to remember my own concepts of what was correct. Very soon, the lessons of other people became my own. Instead of enjoying the higher-level lessons as a pleasant spectacle, I focused my gaze and asked myself classroom questions. Was the movement well ridden? Could it have been better? Was I able to pick up a mistake myself, or did I have to wait for

THE MASTER: Walter Christensen during a visit to the US

Walter’s observations to find out what was happening? I paid attention to precisely what it was about the student’s technique that made Walter speak out strongly—I tried to see what he saw. Then, I observed whether the rider made the necessary correction. As my questions became more astute, my watching gained in energy and visual mileage. I changed from being a passive spectator to an active one—I became the rider I was watching and made the corrections that needed to be made internally. No question about it, involvement was an essential part of “good watching”! One day, I discovered that there could be even more to observation than “meets the eye.” I was sitting on the bench watching the activity in the ring and worrying about my lack of visual memory. While I understood what I was observing in the moment, I had trouble recalling the information later for my own use. Just as I was wishing I could find some way around the problem, a piece of music by Scott Joplin came over the German airwaves. Its familiarity caught my attention, and I found myself humming the tune. Soon, I was instinctively viewing the horses in terms of music. I was seeing episodes of training as themes: original themes, bits of themes, repetitions, and variations on themes. The phases of work done by the riders became one long melodic line with a beginning, a middle, and an end. That evening, because I had used the concept of melodic line and rhythmic theme as memory aids, I was actually able to mentally replay a lesson, or a segment of a lesson. I could bring up different pictures in my mind’s eye and discover details that had previously gone unnoticed. This kind of “instant replay” was an art well understood by a few of the old “regulars” who came every week, ordered a pot of coffee, and then settled down seriously to watch the horses at work. How I admired them, though since they were Excerpted from Taking up the Reins: A Year in Germany with a Dressage Master by Priscilla Endicott, published by Trafalgar Square Books. Available as an e-book from all major e-book sellers.



instructors and judges, I found their presence somewhat formidable. When they talked to one another, their eyes seldom left the ring: It was as if they were at work. Each could draw on a personal memory bank of phenomenal moments, and, like Walter, could keep in mind all sorts of details about the progress of individual horses. One of them might tell you that a particular horse in the stable was using his back more correctly than he had been last Friday, or that the newest fellow to arrive for training was becoming more balanced in his gaits and maintaining a far greater degree of self-carriage on his own. These ever-faithful visitors even remembered tests they had watched or perhaps judged months or years earlier. I heard one of them ask the other, “Do you remember the piaffe Granat did in the Grand Prix test at the Dortmund show? It was unbelievable. Such elevation. Such regularity.” The other responded, “I remember the test you are talking about. Didn’t you think the second piaffe in the test was the best of the three?” They then began an in-depth discussion of every movement, neither one of them having any diffi-

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CELEBRATED PAIR: The Swiss champions Christine Stückelberger and Granat were the Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro of their day. This autographed photo hung in the dining room in the Christensens’ stable.

culty recalling them. I found such explicit recall amazing in view of the fact that the Grand Prix they were speaking about had occurred a year earlier. Not only that, but there are 33 movements in this test, and more than likely there had been just as many contestants. I made an inward bow to the skill of the judging profession and rededicated myself to an all-out effort to become an “educated spectator.” Several months later, I was given a supreme opportunity to practice the art and pleasure of informed spectatorship. Christine Stückelberger, one of the greatest international dressage champions in the world, her renowned trainer and companion Georg Wahl, and her extraordinary gelding Granat, had been asked to create a special show number to perform at the Holsteiner Show. They would be traveling from their native Switzerland, and prior to the event, they would be visiting at Stall Tasdorf to rest and to practice their program. To watch this celebrated threesome at work would gain us a behind-the-scenes look at dressage riding. I would never be in a more intimate setting to witness top-level dressage than this. Of particular interest to Walter was the fact that Georg and Christine had made champions of more than one horse. This was the true test of a trainer’s ability. Also, unlike most world-class competitors, these two could not afford the high prices of young animals with proven bloodlines, horses who would reveal an exceptional talent early, who had gorgeous bodies and receptive minds. Instead, they bought animals that had been rejected by other riders and trainers, or horses with unknown potential but a glimmer of promise. Granat was a case in point, and a tribute to the couple’s particular gift. There were endless tales being told about what a rogue Granat had been when they bought him, how he had been difficult to train and even dangerous to ride. It had taken years for these two people to bring him into willing obedience—and even now he wasn’t totally reliable. But it was precisely this spark, this craziness, this kind of equine temperament, which when harnessed and focused for work, set Granat far above other horses. It was his genius. At last the eagerly awaited day arrived. The September weather was crisp as a fresh apple. Christine and Georg drove in under the big Tasdorf sign, and I thought of that day, a lifetime of changes ago, when I had first passed under it myself. Plans were made; the famous trio would practice their show number in the late afternoon when the ring would be empty. Had they brought a tape, Walter asked, or did they want background music of some kind? No, Wahl said, this was to be a simple, preliminary practice, he just wanted to “move” the horse and get any stiffness out.

At 5:00 p.m., as I walked toward the ring, I found Walter, his wife, Kerstin, and the apprentices standing in the doorway to the ring. They had the serious demeanor of people in church. Every eye was concentrated on Christine, who had begun her warm-up: walk, trot, and canter, changing directions, making transitions within the gaits, using circles and half-circles and straight lines. I felt as though I was dreaming—Christine Stückelberger, European champion, world champion, 1976 Olympic gold medalist, riding in the same ring I was training in, Granat’s hooves turning over the very turf my horse worked in, and myself a privileged spectator at a private showing. Where does a woman find the sheer strength to control a large stallion when she is chic, lithe, and stylish, and stands only a few inches over five feet in her boots? Yet, even in the first few minutes of observing Christine, I could see that she had amazing strength, a strong, deep current of it, rooted in a calm and quietude that I knew Walter would particularly appreciate. She revealed very little outward sign of effort. I saw no pulling on the reins, no jabbing of spurs or cracks with the whip—and since obedience is an important part of equine training in dressage, I had to assume that her effectiveness lay in the fact that she knew precisely when to use her power and make her commands known. Georg Wahl was walking around the ring behind Christine, holding a dressage whip in his hand. He had the intense look of a ferret, which is not to say cruel, but as if nothing in the world would escape his gaze. He talked to her in grunts and short words. At first, I could only make out that he wanted more from her. More. And more. Warm-ups are intriguing. The ability to get started varies from person to person, from horse to horse, and from day to day. How the practice begins reveals a great deal about the partnership: just who helps whom, when, and how? As Christine loosened Granat’s body and called forth his energy, I could see she knew his body as well as she knew her own. I wondered if, as an athlete in top condition, she suffered stiffness or lethargy at the start. To my eyes, she was immediately and comfortably in charge. Granat, however, surprised me. He did not seem such an extraordinary creature after all. Where was my “giant?” My star? Seeing him at the beginning of work that particular afternoon revealed that he needed to come into the dynamic self that everyone talked about. During the next hour, we were the delighted witnesses of just such a metamorphosis. I was lost in watching Granat and Christine when suddenly I heard Georg Wahl give a growl like an anguished bear: “Christine, when are you really going to start riding?” I wondered whether I had heard right. That was one of the criticisms I was always getting. How could Wahl find anything wrong with what Christine was doing?

Her face tightened. In answer to her trainer’s voice, she thrust her body deeper into the horse’s back and took an altogether stronger hold of Granat, insisting that she, not he, make the demands. Practicing her entry for the night of the show, she rode down center line at the canter, halted at the midpoint, X, and made a salute. As I watched horse and rider, I thought of the ocean liner Queen Elizabeth coming straight as a die into dock. Perfect! But, I was wrong: Granat’s right hind foot was perhaps two inches out of line with the left. A trained dressage horse must stand absolutely four square. Next, Stückelberger came to the end of the ring, turned right, rounded the first corner with a soft bend, and then took her horse on the diagonal with a canter extension that had so much verve, so much energy, it looked as if the two of them might be heading off to war. All of sudden, the Tasdorf ring seemed too small for them. “Ja, gut!” Georg Wahl said, giving them his rare approval. I wanted to shout, “yes! yes!” a hundred times. One of Georg Wahl’s most remarkable assets was his background. He had worked as a young man with the Circus Knie in Switzerland, known for its amazing feats with trained animals, especially with horses. This family circus represented the best in the art of performance all over Europe. Then years of apprenticeship in the Spanish Riding School in Vienna exposed him to the tradition of classical dressage known as haute école. Wahl was not a big man, but he stood on his podium of demands like a towering giant. Flicking his dressage whip on the ground against his shoe, he was the conductor. He orchestrated magnificence bit by bit: demanding, imposing, requesting, even pleading in order to duplicate the image he held in mind. He called forth every possible equine variation and then tested the extremes, always—always—pushing the limits. “The transition again, please. And again! Ja, gut. Now how does that feel?” A trainer may take control, but he never keeps it, knowing this role belongs to the rider. His repeated task is primarily to reflect, to be critical, to be the rider’s “eyes” from the ground. He knows that the rider must ride the horse into the movements in the best way she can, and subsequently, the horse must perform them. Since the rider cannot always be sure of what details have escaped her, the trainer is there to tell her. In this way, dressage is a creative interaction between trainer, rider, and horse. To achieve the ultimate goal of beauty and perfection of movement, the three must braid their efforts together. Wahl had sharp criticisms for Christine. “Don’t look down,” he said, reprimanding her for not keeping her eyes USDF CONNECTION • March 2019


straight ahead. Then he pointed out that her left hand was higher than her right. This was an old habit, he accused her despairingly; why was it still going uncorrected? In the next sentence his voice cracked with intensity: “Why are you making the tempo so hectic?” He called for vigor without rush. I heard directives like “Keep it going. Bring him together. Ask for more elevation. Be alive.” I myself could see none of these imperfections, or very few of them, and what I did see that was incorrect seemed infinitesimal. To my eyes, Christine Stückelberger rode like an empress. Dressage riders sculpt space. Riding a truly straight line can feel as difficult as driving a wedge with a sledgehammer. In time, you learn that wisdom helps more than strength. Christine rode her straight lines as if there were no other option, as if she were precision itself. Precision is another of the intrinsic requirements of the dressage art. Christine rode circles as if she were drawing a perfect full moon. No matter what size she wanted them to be—four, 10, or 20 meters large—she executed them with an exactitude of movement that flowed like liquid. I couldn’t help but compare my own efforts: Why was it, I asked myself, that my attempts at circles wouldn’t let me circle? Instead my circles seemed to want to be square. I marveled at the perfection of Christine’s serpentines. A serpentine is a looping snake design, patterned to fill the entire arena. It’s certainly a familiar motif, and therefore it should be very easy to ride. Not so for most riders. Christine, however, was a genius with the form. I watched breathlessly as she constructed her serpentines with many loops, always winding, always bending, dividing space precisely, molding each turn after the one before, remembering to reposition her horse on the center line every time she crossed it. At the end of the movement, Christine was at the opposite end of the ring, facing the precise spot where she had set out. I was awestruck. Once again, she had made her ride seem so effortless that it was hard to figure out why I couldn’t do the same. I thought about the last time I practiced the serpentine. I remembered that I’d lacked concentration. I rode a succession of loops and forgot where I was going and where I’d been. I wondered if Christine had ever faced similar sorts of moments. Watching her in the ring that day, I found it hard to believe that she had ever been a beginner like me. As for Granat, with the warm-up work behind him, he now epitomized the performer to such a degree that it was hard to believe there had ever been a moment when he didn’t know it all. He moved in such a way that he hardly seemed to need the ground. His stride appeared to carry him just above the earth’s surface so that when Christine

38 March 2019 • USDF CONNECTION

asked for the next movement, the half-pass, he fairly floated. He crossed the diagonal of the entire ring, keeping his body parallel to the long sides, his front and rear outer legs crossing obliquely in front of the inside pair. The effect was of a large sweeping motion going sideways as well as forward. Although there was no change of rhythm because of his huge crossover steps, I had the sense Granat was going slower. A sudden comparison flashed through my head— “Good heavens,” I thought, “he’s begun the tango!” Wahl, apparently liking what he saw, gave a grunt of affirmation. Then, continuing to direct the flow of the program, he called out, “Traversale, links und rechts” (halfpass, left and right). This time Granat began on the center line and took three steps in half-pass to the left and three to the right, repeating the pattern four times. All the while his body bent like a soft wide ribbon, first left and then right, as he made the precise changes in direction. “Continue! Continue!” Wahl urged his student. She turned toward the center of the ring once again, and I saw her lightly check Granat as if to tell him “Something special is coming up.” Riding a small circle, she asked for a pirouette. It came out to perfection: eight tiny canter steps done almost in place and the two of them had turned around 180 degrees. Nothing to it, the body language of the pair seemed to say. But I wasn’t fooled—that kind of pirouette requires perfect balance. No dancer, to my way of thinking, could have done better. Using the dynamics of high energy and collection gained from the pirouette, Christine rode lines of flying changes. At first, she asked for changes every third stride, then every second stride, and finally every other stride. Changes seem difficult when you don’t know how to ask for them, simple when you do. The horse must respond within the canter stride by thrusting his leading hind leg distinctly forward followed by the front leg on the same side. Granat responded to being asked to perform the exercise like a kid with a skip rope, telling the world this was a lot of fun. Suddenly we were all smiling, even Wahl. Yet, in spite of the creature’s eagerness, I noted—as Christine’s trainer did—that the flying changes were begun at the moment they were asked for and ceased when his rider said, “enough!” Then came the finale. Granat returned to his previous enormous trot, gathered himself up, and took off in an extended trot down the far long side. Here was a true super horse, cutting space like a power-driven cleaver. I was transfixed. “Noch einmal,” came the command from the one who was never satisfied. The trot extension we had just witnessed must be ridden once again. I held my breath. It was

hard to imagine how this second try could have surpassed the first, but it did. Certainly, it would have gained Granat one more judge’s point—a ten—perfection. Wahl let out a long, deep exhalation as though he had performed the trot himself. Then he put down his stick, his signal that the practice was over. “Just a light workout,” Christine said to the group of us standing at the door. “Tomorrow we’ll do more,” she promised. In less than an hour, I had a received a year’s worth of education. I saw how champions work, and for the first time, I noticed how winners present themselves. Every exercise had been created as if it were a small piece of art—no movement was wasted, no movement thrown away. Granat and Christine made me want to look at them; they drew my eyes. I think this was due to their presence, their stature, and their state of mind. Exactly how, as a rider, I would make use of this past hour was hard to say, but I knew that by having had the chance to see Christine and Granat, I had stood on a mountain peak where the view was spectacular. s


2019 USDF Arts Contest 2 Divisions Art and Photography

SEASONED: Priscilla Endicott and her FEI-level horse Inca at a dressage show in Connecticut

Save the Date 2019 Adequan®/USDF Annual Convention

December 4-7, 2019


3 Age Groups 15 and under, 16 to 21, and Adult

Entry DEaDlinE July 1 The grand prize winning entry will be used as the cover art for the USDF Member Guide.


(awards/other awards) for complete contest rules and entry form

The Westin Savannah Harbor Golf Resort & Spa • Savannah, GA USDF CONNECTION • March 2019


Mythbusters, TD Edition Dressage technical delegates are much more than “the enforcers.” What they do and why you should make the TD your go-to competition resource.



KEEPING IT CLEAN: US Equestrian “R” dressage TD Kaye Phaneuf of Oregon checks the bit of Khobi Khopi, a 2008 Arabian gelding owned and ridden by adult amateur Jennifer Marietta

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h-oh, I wonder who’s in trouble now?” Startled at your friend’s question, you look around the warm-up area at the dressage show where you’ve gone to watch your trainer ride. You see what your friend was referring to: The show’s technical delegate (TD) is approaching. The presence of the TD does indeed rattle some riders. Ask competitors what the TD does at a USEF-licensed/ USDF-recognized dressage competition, and you’re likely to hear everything from “they can tell you whether a certain supplement is legal for use at a competition” to “they eliminate competitors for violating the rules.” In fact, the TD’s role could not be more different from these common perceptions. In this article, we’ll explain how the TD helps to ensure the welfare of horses and riders at shows. We’ll also hear from some TDs, who share their experiences.

Toward a Level Playing Field Every licensed dressage competition in the US is required to hire one or more TDs, depending on the size of the show, and the US Equestrian Rule Book spells out the TD’s role and responsibilities in detail. The principal duties of the TD are to safeguard the welfare of the horse; to help show management provide a safe and fair competition for all; and to protect the interests of competitors, judges, and management. The TD investigates any issues that arise during a competition; advises competition management of any problems with arenas, schooling areas, or show facilities; and helps to ensure that the competition is run in compliance with the rules. TDs play a major role in ensuring that all tack, equipment, and attire used by competitors is legal under US Equestrian dressage rules. TDs train ring stewards to perform equipment checks and are available to answer questions pertaining to tack, equipment, and attire.

Who Ya Gonna Call? The TD can be a tremendous asset to show management, judges, and competitors alike. Perhaps you’re a rider, and you think that that the competition arena looks lopsided. Or you’re a judge, uncertain about the legality of the bridle on a horse that just completed a test in your ring. Or a warm-up-ring steward, worried about a horse that has been in there schooling for close to an hour on a sweltering summer day. Or a show secretary, and unsure who’s eligible to compete in a qualifying class. Or the manager of a dressage sport-horse breeding show who needs to adjust the size of

the judging triangle because of the limitations of the facility. In every one of these situations, the show’s technical delegate is the go-to resource. The TD is working to help ensure that the competition operates in full compliance with the rules, but he or she is also there to problem-solve and educate. “It’s a more multifaceted role than [many competitors] are aware of,” says Connecticut-based adult-amateur dressage competitor Cynthia Clarke Paolillo. “The TD is an approachable person, there to answer your questions and guide you in complying with the rules.”

From the Horse’s Mouth: TDs on TDs Similar to the career of a dressage judge, it takes many hours of training to become a TD. At shows, TDs work long hours and sometimes must deal with angry or frustrated competitors (or parents). Why do TDs do it? To find out, we asked three TDs to share the challenges and the rewards of the job. Sally Davenport is a US Equestrian “R” dressage TD from Scituate, Massachusetts. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, she was an active lower-level dressage competitor who also managed schooling shows in her area. At one licensed show, she saw the TD expertly explain the rules and diffuse the

Before the Show: Rules Resources for Competitors


f even trained professionals struggle to keep up with US Equestrian rule changes and the neverending stream of new bits and bridles hitting the market, then it’s no wonder that competitors can feel overwhelmed. Use these resources before you show to help stay on the right side of the law. US Equestrian equine drugs and medications rules: Read the rules and access the latest updates at usef.org. Direct questions to medequestrian@aol. com or (800) 633-2472. US Equestrian tack, equipment, and attire rules: Dressage rules (DR) 120 and 121 in the USEF Rule book (online at usef.org) explain what’s legal and illegal at the various levels. For the latest updates, see the DR 121 supplement known as Annex A, which contains color photographs as well as handy charts (usef.org/forms-pubs/96D17lSsaCo/ annex---bits-saddlery-equipment).



What Does It Take to Become a TD?


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At Your Service TDs wear many hats: diplomat, advocate, umpire, arbitrator, facilitator, compliance officer, ring crew, problem solver, evaluator, and crisis manager, to name a few. Say hello to the TD at your next competition, and don’t be shy about calling on the TD as a resource. We’re here for you! s Podcast Alert


iven the wide-ranging responsibilities of a dressage technical delegate, it may come as no surprise that the path to becoming a licensed TD is not simple. US Equestrian oversees the training and licensing of TDs. A candidate must complete certain prerequisites prior to acceptance into the training program to become a recorded (aka “r,” or “small r”) TD. After entering the training program, a candidate must apprentice at a minimum of four different licensed competitions and pass an exam. Candidates must also complete the Pony Measurement Certification Program, which includes another exam. Similar requirements apply to those “r” TDs who wish to be promoted to registered (“R” or “large R”) status. Licensed TDs must maintain currency through continuing education and periodic retesting. Find the full US Equestrian TD program requirements at usef.org/forms-pubs/89owed2Wicg/ dressage-technical-delegate---recorded. Then check out “Inside USDF” on page 4 of this issue to read about USDF Region 6 director Peter Rothschild’s experiences in pursuing his TD’s license.

Listen to episode 65 to learn more about the role of the Technical Delegate at usdf.podbean.com.


EQUIPMENT CHECK: Phaneuf checks rider Marietta’s spurs. The TD dons a fresh pair of disposable gloves for each horse to ensure sanitary conditions.

anger of a father whose daughter was eliminated because of her elderly pony’s lameness. Impressed, Davenport decided to pursue the goal of obtaining her TD’s license. Anne Sushko, an “r” TD from Dubuque, Iowa, is an adultamateur dressage enthusiast who taught middle school for 37 years. As she was preparing to retire, she thought that becoming a TD would allow her to continue to pursue the things that she loved about teaching: education, working with people, reading, and sharing information. Laurie Daniel, of Brentwood, California, is the newest of the three TDs we interviewed, having recently earned her “r” license. As the manager of several large West Coast dressage competitions, she realized that there is a shortage of TDs in her part of the country. She decided that becoming a TD herself would be a good way to give back to the sport and to fill a serious need. Davenport, Sushko, and Daniel agree that the most difficult part of the TD’s job is keeping up on the rules, staying current on all the new equipment, and being knowledgeable enough about them to be able to educate competitors. “Although I expect things to change, the continuous addition of rules and equipment continues to surprise me,” Sushko admits. As vexing as it can be to try to keep up with the changes, many TDs find the element of ongoing education to be one of the most rewarding aspects of the job. “Riding,” says Daniel, “is probably the easiest part of showing. Knowing the rules and nuances, and getting through the paperwork, are the real challenges for both competitors and show management.” Davenport points to the travel and the opportunities to solve problems and to educate and interact with people as her main motivators.

The Accidental Dressage Star What’s left for Olympic medalist and newly appointed US dressage technical advisor Debbie McDonald? The answer may surprise you.

BEEN THERE, DONE THAT: Debbie McDonald walks student Laura Graves on Verdades to the arena at the FEI World Equestrian Games Tryon 2018

44 March 2019 • USDF CONNECTION




ife, as the saying goes, happened to Debbie McDonald while she was making other plans. What she planned to do, on that spring morning in 1988, was to take a pre-green hunter into the ring at a show in Del Mar, California. McDonald and her husband, the well-known hunter/jumper trainer Bob McDonald, were enjoying a thriving lesson and horse-sales business in southern California. And Debbie McDonald’s star was rising: Las Vegas residents Peggy and the late E. Parry Thomas, the wealthy parents of Bob McDonald’s student Jane Thomas, had recently begun to give Debbie horses to ride and compete. Instead, a water truck startled McDonald’s mount in midair over a small warm-up fence. The young mare reflexively put her front feet down, catching a rail between her front legs. As she fell, she flipped, landing squarely atop her five-feet-tall rider. What saved her life, McDonald recounts (“Making Lemonade,” page 28), was the fact that the mare’s body missed landing on her head. But the physical and psychological damage was done; and although McDonald, now 64, tried to go back to jumping, a year or so later she realized she’d lost her nerve. Wanting to be around, as she puts it, for son Ryan, then aged five, McDonald decided she’d jumped her last fence.


Dressage: “How Boring!” As McDonald tells it, she has sponsor Peggy Thomas to thank for kick-starting her dressage career—a trajectory that began with lessons with Olympian Hilda Gurney and rose to the Olympic and World Equestrian Games medal podiums and, later, to becoming one of the most soughtafter coaches in the sport. Last fall, she began a two-year contract in the most prestigious dressage job in America: US national dressage technical advisor. It all started because Mrs. Thomas loved dressage, as McDonald recounted in a keynote address at the 2002 USDF Annual Convention in Portland, Oregon. After McDonald hung up her hunter/jumper spurs, Thomas, along with Bob McDonald, encouraged her to give dressage a try. “I thought, ‘How boring!’,” McDonald confessed. But she dutifully began working with Gurney, and she soon discovered that dressage was more than just “flatwork.” “Riding hunters is a very disciplined sport,” McDonald said. “Going in the [dressage] arena and staying focused on riding letter to letter, going into the corners, has never been a problem because I’ve had that drilled in my head for so many years. Basically that’s how I ride in the dressage ring— looking for the next jump—only it’s not as scary.”

SUPPORT SYSTEM: McDonald (left), in her role as US dressage development coach, at the 2017 FEI World Cup Finals in Omaha with then USDF vice president Lisa Gorretta and Bob McDonald

Position Flaws and Performance Anxiety At this point in the story, it would be easy to say that McDonald lived happily ever after. Well-funded thanks to Parry Thomas’s fortune—amassed as the chief financier behind Las Vegas’s development into a premier casino and entertainment destination—she and her husband set up shop at the Thomases’ River Grove Farm in Hailey, Idaho, where the patrons began to buy dressage prospects at the Verden elite auctions in Germany. Horses were purchased not only as mounts for Peggy Thomas, but also with the goal of someday seeing McDonald canter down center line at an Olympic Games. Steered by Bob McDonald’s “incredible eye for horses,” as his wife put it, one of the prospects the Thomases brought home was the top-selling horse at a 1994 Verden auction, the 1991 liver-chestnut Hanoverian mare Brentina (Brentano II – Lieselotte, Lungau). After the mare proved to be too much horse for Mrs. Thomas, Debbie McDonald took over the ride, and the rest is medal-winning dressage history. Except that McDonald’s actual path to the top was much rockier, as success stories usually are. [ USDF CONNECTION • March 2019


BIG “MAMA”: Brentina on her way to team bronze at the 2004 Athens Olympics

46 March 2019 • USDF CONNECTION

“My husband says he never worries about me after the in-gate shuts; it’s just getting me there at times that can be difficult,” she quipped. At the 2002 WEG, she and teammate Sue Blinks, a fellow show-nerves-prone competitor, “had a running joke about how much Imodium each one of us took each day.” Blinks, who had experience using sport-psychology techniques to manage her anxiety, “helped me a lot at the WEG,” she said. When you’re in the trenches, it’s comforting to talk to someone who’s fought and survived similar battles. That, says current star student Laura Graves, is part of the reason McDonald is a great instructor and coach: “She’s been there and done that, all with extreme pressure on her.”

“The Best Horse You’re Ever Going to Have” That’s what Bob McDonald pronounced Brentina from day one, according to his wife. “I don’t know how he knew that,” she said. “I think the [1999] Pan Am Games was the first time I realized that maybe that [level of success] was going to happen.” Although no one disputed Brentina’s talent, the mare was famously opinionated and could be quirky. She was cold-backed and the mounting process could be touch and go, as Peggy Thomas and one of McDonald’s grooms discovered. Even German Olympic dressage gold medalist Klaus Balkenhol, who tried to ride Brentina once during


For starters, her quest to learn dressage will give hope to all riders still struggling to acquire a decent seat, especially if they weren’t blessed with natural equestrian talent, and most especially if they too are converts from hunter/jumper land. As a teenaged novice rider from limited means with a $400 pony, cleaning stalls at California’s Orange County Fairgrounds after school in exchange for board and weekly lessons with Bob McDonald (who was married at the time; as she recounts in her 2006 book, Riding Through, the pair didn’t connect romantically until after his divorce), “I really had no natural feel whatsoever,” McDonald told the USDF convention audience matter-of-factly. Her equestrian skills, she claimed, are hard-won—the result of being “bound and determined. I was not going to give up. I just hung in there, fell off a lot, made a lot of people laugh.” The self-deprecating manner isn’t an act. McDonald told the USDF audience—this was in 2002, mind you, the same year she’d won a team silver medal at the FEI World Equestrian Games in Jerez, Spain—that “the hardest thing to overcome, which is still something that I deal with every day, is the seat. I still look at myself and hate everything I see. I still have a hunter position, I think. If you’re hard on yourself, you’ll always see something you aren’t happy with.” Another obstacle: Despite her years of experience riding in the international spotlight, McDonald remained a nervous competitor throughout her career, she said.


his tenure as US dressage team coach, realized he’d made a mistake as soon as he settled into the saddle and hastily dismounted, McDonald recalled in 2009, during Brentina’s induction into the Roemer Foundation/USDF Hall of Fame. But the 16.2-hand mare, who was built like the “Brick House” that would become one of her signature freestyle songs, never bucked off her petite regular rider (although McDonald says she was always careful getting on, especially after Brentina had had time off ). As in all great horse-human partnerships, the bond between McDonald and the mare she calls “Mama” is palpable. “She has never said no,” McDonald said. “She’ll give 110 percent every time she goes in the ring.” Brentina was not as extravagant a mover as some of her competitors, but she made up for it with her excellent basic gaits, work ethic, and harmony with her rider. Announcing herself on the world stage with team and individual gold medals at the 1999 Pan Am Games in Mexico City, Brentina went on to earn team silver at the 2002 WEG and team bronze at the 2006 WEG in Aachen. In 2003 she became the first US horse to win an FEI World Cup Dressage Final (a record that bears an asterisk: Original gold medalist Ulla Salzgeber of Germany was disqualified after mount Rusty tested positive for a prohibited substance). Brentina and McDonald were team bronze medalists at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games and also rode on the 2008 US Olympic dressage team in Hong Kong. Along the way the pair racked up numerous year-end national championship titles and Horse of the Year awards. Her competitive experiences with Brentina taught McDonald the importance of staying focused on the horse as the true benchmark of success. In Jerez 2002, Brentina finished fourth individually, missing the individual WEG bronze medal by the knifeedge margin of .075 point. Many at the time thought that McDonald, not Salzgeber on Rusty, had the better ride. Asked in 2002 about her reaction to the agonizingly close result, McDonald said: “It was probably the most incredible experience I’ve ever had. My horse went better than maybe she ever will again. The judges saw what they saw. You have to do this for what you want to do and not for somebody else, or otherwise you’re doing it for the wrong reasons.” Brentina’s performance in Jerez may have seemed like her high-water mark, but another ride three years later would prove to be her signature performance. McDonald and Brentina had qualified to represent the US at the 2005 FEI World Cup Finals. The event looked to be especially memorable for Brentina’s owners: held not

IT HAPPENED IN VEGAS: An ecstatic McDonald after her “Respect” freestyle ride at the 2005 FEI World Cup Dressage Final

only in the Thomases’ hometown but also at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas’s Thomas & Mack Center—a venue named in part for Parry Thomas. “I wanted to do something special, to send a message to the judges” whom she felt hadn’t always given Brentina the scores she deserved, McDonald wrote in Riding Through. She and freestyle designer Terry Ciotti Gallo created a freestyle of classic Motown and R&B tunes. “Brick House” winked at the easy-keeper mare whose rations had to be tightly controlled to prevent her from gaining weight. “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” was self-explanatory. The finale was the ultimate declaration of female empowerment, with an unmistakable “message to the judges”: Aretha Franklin’s anthem “Respect.” Ridden in front of a boisterous sellout crowd, McDonald’s “Respect” freestyle, as it came to be known, was unapologetically American. It featured rock music and vocals in an era before such uses became commonplace. “Respect” brought the house down, and even though it wasn’t the winUSDF CONNECTION • March 2019


PROTÉGÉS: McDonald’s students Laura Graves, Adrienne Lyle, and Kasey Perry-Glass at the FEI World Equestrian Games Tryon 2018

ning freestyle—McDonald finished third behind the Netherlands’ Anky van Grunsven and Edward Gal—it remains her most cherished competition experience as a rider. “That’s the ride I’ll always have in my head,” she wrote.

tion’s inaugural national dressage development coach, part of the newly constructed “pipeline” designed to identify and nurture promising human and equine dressage talent toward future high-performance success. McDonald was a natural choice for the role. As trainer and FEI 5* judge Lilo Fore has pointed out, “Debbie has never really had a made horse.” McDonald was fortunate to have a sponsor who could purchase talented prospects, but she brought them all up the levels herself—with help from husband Bob and from other trainers, including Fore, Gurney, Balkenhol, and Olympian Steffen Peters, she is quick to add. Besides Brentina, McDonald also trained Beaurivage, Word Perfect, and Felix, to name a few of the better-known horses, to the FEI levels. During her decade as the development coach, McDonald’s job was to help scout talent, to conduct training sessions and clinics for selected horse-and-rider pairs, and to accompany Developing Program participants to championship competitions and on European tours. All the while she continued to teach and train at River Grove Farm, where she was developing a future star rider of her own. Adrienne Lyle, a native of Washington state, joined River Grove Farm as a working student during a college summer break in 2005. She completed one more semester before returning to Idaho to work for McDonald full-time. In 2006, McDonald paired the 21-year-old Lyle with an-

Developing the Next Generation McDonald’s riding career began to wind down in the late 2000s. Her years with Brentina had not been all sunshine and ribbons: The mare had undergone surgery for a breathing problem, she missed the 2003 World Cup Dressage Final because of a tendon injury, and she recovered in time for the 2004 Olympics but wasn’t at the peak of her powers after the extended rehab period. In her final performance, the team Grand Prix test at the 2008 Hong Kong Olympics, Brentina displayed uncharacteristic tension that stilted her movement and resulted in a disappointingly low score. Then a positive drug test by Courtney King-Dye’s mount, Mythilus, resulted in the disqualification of the entire US dressage team. In February 2009, Brentina underwent colic surgery. Two months later, the dressage world honored the great mare at a retirement ceremony held during that year’s FEI World Cup Finals, again in Las Vegas. McDonald herself had also retired from competition, but there was no down time in her future. In January 2009 she had been named the United States Equestrian Federa-

48 March 2019 • USDF CONNECTION


FINAL OLYMPICS: With Brentina at the dressage horse inspection in Hong Kong 2008


other of the Thomases’ horses, a seven-year-old Oldenburg gelding then competing at the small-tour level. Rider and trainer brought the horse, Wizard, to Grand Prix, and Lyle and Wizard went on to represent the US at the 2012 London Olympics and at the 2014 FEI World Equestrian Games in Normandy. Now a fixture in US high-performance dressage, Lyle currently competes several top horses owned by various patrons; one, the stallion Salvino, was her team silver-medal partner at the 2018 WEG in Tryon. “I love working with her,” Lyle writes of McDonald on her website, “because she is such a perfectionist and has an incredible innate understanding of horses, both physically and mentally. My goal as a rider has always been to emulate the partnership and harmony she displays on every horse she rides.” Two other horse-rider pairs who began working with McDonald in the Developing Program have gone on to become not only regular students, but also anchors of the US dressage team. Kasey Perry-Glass with Goerklintgaards Dublet and Laura Graves with Verdades stood on the bronze-medal podium at the 2016 Rio Olympics and, along with Lyle, on the silver-medal podium at the 2018 WEG. Graves and “Diddy” also won back-to-back FEI World Cup Dressage Final silver medals, in 2017 and 2018. Another Developing Program rising star, Olivia LaGoy-Weltz on Lonoir, is also on McDonald’s lesson roster. With three of the four 2018 WEG medalists her students, these accomplishments make McDonald effectively the US “trainer to the dressage stars,” although she dismisses the notion that everybody who wants to be anybody has to study with her. “I never said, ‘Come and train with me’; that was a decision they made,” McDonald says of her VIP students. She admits that “it’s always a little bit awkward if they’re training with somebody” whom they subsequently leave. “You don’t want that to happen, yet when you see the results and you see the team, then I have to say, OK, it’s good. I’m glad it happened that way.” For results—that is to say, medals—are what it’s all about in the high-performance ranks, and never more so for McDonald since last fall, when she was named Robert Dover’s successor as the US national technical advisor. It’s the top-dog US dressage coaching spot—working with the elite US dressage horses and riders at international championship competitions. “That’s why we are chosen for this position—to produce medals,” McDonald says during a break in the action at the 2019 Adequan®/USDF FEI-Level Trainers Conference in January. “It was made very clear to me from the beginning:

THE PRODUCERS: Former US dressage national technical advisor Robert Dover with McDonald at the 2018 WEG. She took over the position after Dover stepped down.

Will [Connell], our [US Equestrian] director of sport, he’s very much into results and being accountable for it.” In other words, it is up to McDonald to produce a strong showing for Team USA at the major competitions during her twoyear contract, including this year’s Pan American Games in Lima and especially at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Watching someone you care about compete can be a nail-biting experience, and anyone who’s ever seen McDonald on the sidelines knows that she rides every step of the test along with the competitor. The technical advisor’s job heaps on a fresh load of pressure, but McDonald says that “everybody needs to remember that they’re dealing with another whole being, and that’s a horse that nobody knows what’s going to show up every day.” She reminds the medalhungry that “there are elements to our sport that are different from most Olympic sports, and that sometimes are not in our control.” That sympathy for the horse and empathy for the rider are among McDonald’s hallmarks as a coach and trainer, says Graves, who calls her mentor “the kind of person you want to hang out with all the time.” Of course, just being nice doesn’t make a person a great trainer. Graves cites what she calls McDonald’s “magical ability…[to] feel what you’re feeling when she’s standing on the ground. It’s something other trainers just don’t have.” USDF CONNECTION • March 2019


And on the occasions when McDonald does climb on, “She jumps on your horse for two minutes, and you think, well, how can she be doing anything? Then she jumps off and says, ‘OK, you get on,’ and she knows exactly what you felt, and she can communicate that to you, and your horse feels different the second you sit on it. It’s unbelievable.”

Leaving “Mama Deb’s” Nest Protective of old injuries and unwilling to risk new ones, McDonald doesn’t put her foot in too many stirrups these days. Those concerns notwithstanding, she still prefers to ride students’ horses as little as possible, saying, “I think there are things that they have to figure out on their own.” It’s an approach that Graves, for one, appreciates. McDonald “doesn’t treat you like a puppet,” Graves says. “She wants you to be able to train your horse when she’s not

50 March 2019 • USDF CONNECTION


THE FUTURE’S SO BRIGHT: During a proud moment at the 2018 WEG

there. That is her big goal: to teach you to make the right choices. A lot of trainers want you to rely on them all the time, and Deb is the opposite.” McDonald may strive to foster independence in her riders, but out of the saddle she’s supportive and encouraging—thus the “Mama Deb” nickname the riders have given her, she says. “It’s a really close relationship,” she says. “For the most part these girls don’t doubt themselves, but there are a couple that you kind of have to say, ‘Come on, you can get this done.’ You have to do tough love sometimes.” Another ingredient in McDonald’s secret sauce: “Sometimes when we’re at the shows, I send off little inspirational quotes the night before, like ‘Sleep well; dream big.’ I try to keep pumping it, and I try to keep them up.” As focused as McDonald has to be on winning medals, she says she’s equally concerned with setting the stage for future US dressage success. “I’m hoping we’re going to have a lot more horses starting to come up, because we’re definitely going to lose a few in a couple of years,” she explains. Verdades and Dublet are two that are likely to be retired after the 2020 Olympics, she says. “Those two, which have been very critical to our success— you want to make sure you’ve got something to fill that gap.” Filling the gap won’t be easy because “the stakes have changed.” To get on a medal podium at a WEG or an Olympic Games today, McDonald says, a team needs either a consistent 80-percent-scoring horse (like Verdades) backed by solid performers, or, lacking a Verdades, every horse must produce average scores of 75-plus percent. There aren’t many international horses of that caliber to start with, and then “look at how many horses achieve 80 percent. Very few. Those are almost freak-of-nature-type horses.” Yet McDonald is sanguine. “We have great riders and great horses. I think we have a bright future for what’s coming up, from what I can see so far.” She says she’s well aware of the barriers to high-performance participation in this country, namely geography and finances. The USA isn’t getting any smaller, and top international horses aren’t getting any cheaper, but US Equestrian’s programs have begun to whittle away at those obstacles, she believes. The coaches—herself, development coach Charlotte Bredahl, young-horse coach Christine Traurig, and youth coach George Williams—“have a very strong relationship, and we interact well with each other. You can shrink your country a little bit when you have people surrounding you that are going other places.” And she encourages up-and-coming riders to apply to enter US Equestrian’s Developing Horse, Young Horse, and Emerging Athletes

programs. The financial assistance provided isn’t enough “to fund them for big things, but it gives them enough money that they can continue their education and lessons with their horse,” she says. She hints that other programs may be in the works, as well, aimed at providing “more possibilities for places that are kind of out of the loop. Again, it’s trying to find ways to make the country smaller.”

From Mama Deb to Grandma Deb Other than standing beside the US dressage team during the medal ceremony at the Tokyo Olympics, there aren’t any particular boxes left unchecked in McDonald’s professional life. “I have absolutely no regrets. I’ve had an amazing career.” The only big thing left on her bucket list: “I want to be Grandma.” (Granddaughter Maris turned one in February.) “That is just a huge part of what I think about every day. It’s just amazing what that’s done to me. I so look forward to the little video or pictures.” Although “I don’t think I’ll ever completely give up coaching or training; I like it too much,” McDonald says she’s determined to visit Maris as often as possible. On the obligatory coaching/clinicking trips to California, she hopes to sneak in a few side jaunts to Idaho to see her granddaughter and her family, she says.

Like many people, McDonald has juggled work demands with family obligations for most of her adult life. At the 2002 USDF convention, she admitted that “it hasn’t been easy…. My son is going to graduate from high school this year, and I haven’t been able to see many of his hockey games.” But McDonald’s family supported her as she pursued her dressage dreams, and so it seems fitting that she’s now doing the same for the next generation—which, she says, is just as rewarding as riding down center line herself. “Standing at the back gate, watching the riders you’ve worked with put in a good test, it just wakes you up,” she says. “It’s everything you wanted to happen for yourself, and now it’s happening for someone else.” s Jennifer Bryant is the editor of USDF Connection.

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The Elusive Half-Halt Trying to learn—and describe—the indescribable By Jan Nierzwick


s an adult-amateur dressage rider, there are many challenges that I have yet to conquer, but none so seemingly out of reach as a truly effective half-halt. I know that I am not alone. In

fact, I believe that most amateurs and even some professionals struggle with this very thing. At any dressage show you will see a multitude of wellintentioned riders asking for forward momentum with overly active seat and legs into a momentary yielding rein. The rider attempts to harness the energy in hopes of feeling the desired resulting rebalancing— and then nothing happens. All we seem to have accomplished is muscle fatigue and mental exhaustion from the continued pushing and pulling on our patient equine partners. Someone told me once that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. If this is true, then we are all insane. Monotonous asking over and over is insanity. Feeling, listening, changing, and adapting is riding. With a trainer’s help, I have learned that the reason I was not finding that one perfect half-halt GETTING THE FEEL: The writer and her mare, Emmy

56 March 2019 • USDF CONNECTION


is that it does not exist. A particular half-halt may work perfectly one second, with a completely different type of half-halt needed the very next moment. The rider needs to be prepared and receptive to the feedback from the horse to determine what is needed, moment by moment. There are no magical points in time where everything becomes easy. For me, it has taken—and will continue to take—many hours with my horse, bound and determined to figure it out. I am now at peace with the process and, through my own submission, have begun to make real progress. Still, I can’t give you a technical description of an effective half-halt because I am not yet able to describe what I am finally able to feel. I can say that some are machine-gun fast, while others are almost slow-motion. My half-halts can be quiet as a whisper or sharp and to the point. They can be high or low, in or outward, direct or indirect, but usually they are a combination of all of the above. Regardless of the type of half-halt, the letting-go—the release—is what matters most. Without the release, everything else is pointless. Progress does not occur within the aid. Progress occurs only during the times when my message has been willingly received and I am completely still. Those are the moments that I strive for, and I exhale deeply with a smile when they come. Will I still have bouts of “temporary insanity”? Of course! But all my years of riding lessons and struggling have not been in vain. They have given me the time that I needed to develop the skills, understanding, and feel needed to begin to be an effective rider. An effective half-halt makes for an effective rider, so progress has been made and I am on my way. s Jan Nierzwick is retired and lives in Lapeer, Michigan. She is spending the winter training in Bell, Florida, with her Danish Warmblood-cross mare, Emmy.


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March 2019 USDF Connection  

United States Dressage Federation Official Publication

March 2019 USDF Connection  

United States Dressage Federation Official Publication

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