A Youth’s Perspective on the 2017 USDF Annual Convention

My dad and I arrived on Wednesday, November 29th at the Blue Grass Airport, checked into the Hyatt Regency, and planned out our week that included both the Convention and as much sightseeing as we could manage.


The Blue Grass State is unlike any other I have been to. As soon as our plane was beneath the clouds, all you could see for miles and miles were horse farms, rolling hills, blackboard fences, and small paddock sheds, with specks of white, bay, and chestnut dotting the fields.

On Thursday, activity began at 6:30AM with a “Stretch and Strengthen” session with Jackie Beasley. We started with easy yoga poses and sun salutations then moved to focus on the core and glutes. The exercises made me feel so much better after the long day of traveling the day before. Jackie was an excellent host and made sure to offer many variations to make each exercise easier or harder! The morning fitness sessions are a brilliant addition to the Convention that I hope more people attend in the future.

After fitness, my dad and I went and had a delicious breakfast in the hotel’s restaurant and then headed to the Region 8 meeting. It was great to see all of our summer friends again! My perspective of the meeting was different from last year’s in that I was now a proxy for the State of Maine Dressage Association (SMDA), meaning that I held votes in a representation of the SMDA during the Board of Governors meeting.
In the Region 8 meeting, we discussed various issues that involved our region individually. Some topics included:

  • A new NAJYRC qualifying period, which will eliminate two of our biggest qualifying competitions. This is expected to have a major impact on the region’s youth members in that there may be a higher count in the earlier competitions, as well as a higher number of southern-bound showers.
  • A large increase in membership and how that may change next year.
  • Thoughts regarding a push to include New Jersey as our region.
  • A proposal for local show recognition at a region-wide level.
    The regional meetings were one of my favorite parts of the whole Convention. It was a great way to hear about the goings-on in our region, as well as contribute ideas for the future.

After the Region 8 meeting, my dad and I were free for the afternoon and raced straight to the Kentucky Horse Park (KHP). I had been to the Lexington area before, as a groom at the US Dressage Finals, but since this was my dad’s first time in the state, I was excited to show him horse country.

At KHP, we took advantage of our time to explore as much as possible. Starting at my favorite place, the Alltech Arena, we made our way around the stables, which were eerily desolate in their off-season. We then made our way toward the famous Rolex Arena and stood where so many dressage icons had won medals, broken records, and made history. It was incredibly inspiring to stand in its enormity.

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On Friday, we attended various forums—including the Competition Forum and the Freestyles Forum— and the famous Board of Governors meeting dubbed the “BOG”. I also attended all of the various youth forums and meetings. In the morning, we had our second regional meeting of the week where we reviewed the minutes of the committees from the day before and discussed changes made to the proposal for local show recognition. Afterward, I got my sticker as SMDA’s proxy and headed to the Competition Forum.

The forum began with a discussion about freestyles, particularly regarding the rider’s responsibilities. It is crucial that a rider understands what is expected of them, what they are and aren’t allowed to do, what to do in the event that something goes wrong, and so forth. Some main points included:

  • Be sure that you have the individual show’s required music device and format (ie. CD WAV, CD AIFF, iPhone, etc).
  • The soundcheck exists for a reason; even if you have ridden the freestyle before, you really should attend!
  • In a soundcheck, listen to the music both from the ring and from the judges’ box, to hear their perspective.
  • If there is a problem with your music, talk to the judge, and don’t enter the ring!
  • The person in charge of sound is allowed to change the volume per the rider or their
    representative’s request.
  • The rider is allowed a sound representative who can see that the music is played correctly and may change the volume as necessary.
  • You always have the right to complete your ride, however, if a problem with your music occurs and you must restart, all existing marks stand.
  • Label your CDs clearly, keep them clean, and have backups on hand at the ring.

Next, in the same forum, was a discussion about the judge’s responsibility. This was opened up by reminding the forum that all judges represent the USDF and the USEF, should maintain fairness to the rider, but above all else, are advocates for the horse. Second, “riders and trainers will produce what judges reward,” always. Judges at all levels hold a great amount of power within our sport and they must not take this lightly. Other points made during this talk included:

  • Be honest and conscientious when upholding standards; furthermore, do not inflate scores, as nobody benefits.
  • Every horse and rider pair have an equal chance to earn a ‘10’. You do not give a 7, you take 3. Explain in the comments why you have taken these points and how they may earn them.
  • All dressage people should participate in the L-program, as it is a great platform for dressage education.
  • Explore ways to encourage panel judging:
    • Prepares riders for championship rides and gives more feedback on a test
    • Keeps judges educated and opens opportunity for discussion

A new problem that arose regarding the judging community was a lack of interest in
riders to attend shows that did not hire those who were known to give artificially high scores. These judges not only give riders an incorrect sense of their capability, but they also take opportunities away from judges who more consistently give realistic scores. This puts a strain on the show management (as they are unlikely to hire judges who create a low attendance), the honest judges (as they are unable to be hired), and on the riders (as they do not receive accurate criticism). It is important that we all work to seek and reward correct judging, as defined by the USDF.

Finally, in the competition forum, there was a talk about how to not get eliminated. In an extension of the “responsibility” theme, it was stressed that riders stay current on all USDF and USEF rules and arrive to their ring on time. One question was answered early on; tack malfunctions are allowed to be corrected at any time before the horse’s feet enter at ‘A’, but not after. We were also reminded that show management has the power to remove persons of conflict from the show and that ring stewards are volunteers who are only expected to help keep you on time. As someone who has volunteered as a ring steward many times, I can attest that many people believe that stewards are (or should be) familiar with the show’s rules and the complete schedule, of all rings. Knowing the schedule and the rules are the rider’s responsibility!

After this forum, I worked on some homework (yay), then attended my very first BOG! Beginning at 1:30 “sharp,” Margaret Freeman began the delegate roll call, making those who had not logged in to the computer system execute the “walk of shame,” which I thankfully avoided. The agenda and minutes were approved with the bang of a mallet and the meeting continued. The president, executive director, treasurer, and audit committee’s reports were given, congratulating the USDF’s accomplishments of the year and outlining the goals for 2018.

While my dad and I had been looking forward to the featured educations that night, “The Horse’s Spine” and “Equine Vaccinations,” our busy day had us in bed by 7 pm.

On our final full day, Saturday, we started out strong in the BOG once again. At the beginning, a report by the Dressage Foundation was given; it was really interesting to hear about all of the opportunities they have offered since their inception and I can’t wait to see what more opportunities they bring in the future! After their report, the voting began. People were elected, awards were given, baskets were won. To be completely honest, it was a blur, but very enjoyable and not at all “bog-ish”.

I left the BOG a bit early to attend the Youth Education forum, titled “Clinics: Getting the Biggest Bang for Your Buck”, with Charlotte Bredhal-Baker and Roz Kinstler, and the Youth Open Forum. They opened the meeting with several questions: Why do you ride in clinics? They are expensive and often few and far between; they should not be a rider’s basis of education. Next, how do you select a clinician? Do you have to have audited one of their clinics before? Do you only ride for those who your trainer suggests? Where do you find clinics? These questions were both discussed by Charlotte and Roz and posed to the audience.

I was surprised to hear about the struggles that some of the other regions have with increasing the youth involvement in clinics. Some voiced a concern about a lack of clinics in their area, while others had challenges getting their youth riders interested in clinics. This surprised me, as this has not been my experience; it made me realize how lucky I am to be a part of Region 8, which has a strong network of dedicated people. Many regions, including my own, are spread out amongst a large area, creating difficulties in placing clinics. Further discussion was had about the importance of monitoring online resources, such as the USDF website and youth programs pages, as well as establishing local networks of riders and trainers. I will definitely continue to think about the youth involvement on a national level.

We continued the discussion and talked more about the clinics themselves; how to prepare, how to act, and how to remember it all. This conversation really showed me how lucky I’ve been at Vienna Farm; my instructors have always kept an open dialogue about what I want to do (“Everything,” I often responded), pushed me to discover new riding opportunities, and made sure I was always ready for the challenge. I also learned great skills in managing myself and my horse when away from home.

I also learned that, above all else, you must be your horse’s advocate in a clinic; the clinician doesn’t know if your horse slept that night, didn’t get a normal turnout that morning, or likes to begin a warm-up in the trot or canter. A rider must be comfortable with keeping their horse comfortable, always. That being said, clinic rides often push you out of your comfort zone; this is the only way to grow.

In addition, clinic rides are often only one or two rides, there is no check-in ride a week later. So, it is important to take copious notes, discuss the ride with your trainer (and the clinician, if possible), and to have a friend or family member video the ride. By doing this, the ideas are solidified in your mind and you are left with physical evidence to reference in the future.

At the conclusion of this talk, Roz recommended to everyone to ride the day after a clinic. While many, including myself, admitted to giving their horses a day off after a clinic, she argued that even a 15-minute ride can cement the feeling of a clinic ride, and therefore give you and your horse a better idea of what to aim for in your next ride.

Later in the day, Eileen Phethean held a lecture titled “Prohibited Substances in Feed and Supplements,” which was very eye-opening. From Kentucky Equine Research, Eileen has worked with top horse owners, riders, and trainers for many years; one of her biggest projects involved cross-checking the grain and supplements for the U.S.’s 2016 Olympic horses.

First, Eileen warned against various feed hazards, such as using disreputable feed producers, and suggested to look only for medication-free, equine-only grain that has been sourced and tested as frequently as possible. She also recommended seeking the help of an equine nutritionist, feed representative, and veterinarian to determine your horse’s best feeding regimen.

Eileen then went on to explain responsibility; all parties involved with the caretaking of the horse can be held accountable for any positive finding within the horse. The USDF, USEF, FEI, and almost all governing bodies have their own guidelines for equine banned, controlled, or prohibited substances. It is crucial that a competition horse’s support system completely understands the guidelines set forth by these organizations. What Eileen’s lecture came down to was this: if you give your horse a substance with the aim of changing the horse’s behavior, it is illegal. All horsefolk must try to be aware of the substances that enter their horse, whether through the mouth, skin, or nose.

Directly after Eileen’s lecture was “Joint Health,” presented by Adequan representative Allyn Mann. His presentation involved a technical evaluation of a horse’s joint, describing the intricate membranes and fluids and cartilage. One thing that stood out to me was the age at which many horses begin to need heavier joint support: 10 years, my own horse’s upcoming age! At this point, especially in a hard-working athlete, the synovial fluids that cushion and guard the joint’s cartilage begin to wear down, resulting in an increase of swelling and inflammation in the joint; this is known as “degenerative joint disease,” or DJD. While many supplements and alternative therapies can help in the prevention of this, Allyn admitted that Adequan’s unique way of stimulating cartilage repair while restoring the synovial fluids is incomparable to alternative methods of treating DJD. If I didn’t believe it worked, he said, I wouldn’t be here, speaking to you today.

Next, my favorite part of the Convention: the USEF Athlete Forum. The buzz all weekend was surrounding the Athlete forum, it seemed, and I was absolutely determined to go. Headlined by Hallye Griffin, George Williams, Charlotte Bredhal-Baker, Debbie McDonald, and Christine Traurig, the meeting’s theme was high-performance dressage, as well as the pipeline from youth to professional.

Rule changes by the FEI, published three days before our meeting, were discussed first. Some of these included:

  • Riding with one hand to promote impulsion or applause is NOT allowed
  • Helmets are required of all riders 25 years old and younger
  • Changes to the time allotment in freestyles
  • Floorplans may be required of all FEI freestyles in advance of a test, in the future

Next, the audience and Hallye came up with some tricky questions to ask the people in the panel in front of us.

  • Rider education is most important
  • Great riders also need great horses to be at the top of the sport
    • Encourage more U.S.-bred horses, such as the Young Horse Program
      promotes
  • When is the right time (for a high-performance rider) to go to Europe?
    • It is very important for a professional with podium-aspirations to be exposed to the competition in Europe
    • Challenges you to “rise to the challenge”
    • Should boost your confidence and encourage improvement, not discourage
    • A healthy average CDI score of 68% is desired
    • The International Dream Program by the Dressage Foundation is a great way to prepare young riders for the European experience
    • For large championship CDIs, an average of about 73% is needed
    • A rider and team’s attitude is also a large factor
    • It’s all about timing: you need to have your horse at peak performance at the right time.
  • A horse’s physical and mental fitness comes in waves over months; you need to try to schedule the ups and downs.
  • U.S. dressage aims to keep the positive momentum growing in high-performance and allow that positivity to trickle all the way down to the grassroots level, inspiring the next generation.
  • When should a rider start competing in CDIs?
    • A pair should be scoring consistently at or above the 70% mark.
    • CDIs typically drop a score at 5%
  • Currently, in America, a competitive international rider does need to show in the
    south in order to get the most exposure.
  • Utilize local CDIs to “get your feet wet” before tackling large CDI events.
  • Reach out to all of your available resources for help.
  • You always need eyes on the ground to improve.
  • Get as much exposure as possible to top horse care and riding.

I loved this forum! It was wonderful to see so many of the country’s top dressage athletes and supporters in one room; many great minds were working together.

After the USEF Athlete Forum was our final event of the Convention, the Salute Gala & Annual Awards Banquet. It was both heartwarming and encouraging to watch the multitude of riders, owners, trainers, judges, and breeders become honored by the USDF. Not a single person left the banquet disappointed. Stories of the past were told, as were goals for the future, both bringing tears to the audience. This year at the Banquet, I was honored with presenting Meghan Slaughter with the Youth Volunteer of the Year award; while I did not get to meet Meghan, her story of commitment to horsemanship was inspiring and I hope I get to meet her in the future!

Thank you to the USDF and Region 3 for hosting this amazing event! I met a lot of inspiring people, learned even more about our sport, and discussed ways of bettering the national joy of horses. I cannot recommend more this event to aspiring professionals, as it is the best way to hear developments, get questions answered, and have your voice heard.

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