The interviews and information presented
in this article pertain to the U.S. Dressage Federation’s (USDF)
March 16, 2008 draft of the “Dressage Performance Standards Proposal.”
A new proposal is being written but was not available for the general
public by press time. It will be available for viewing on the U.S. Equestrian
Federation’s web site by September 1. For a link to the new proposal
and updates on this subject, please visit equiery.com and click on “News
What’s All the Fuss About?
As of November of 2007, the dressage world has been buzzing over the
U.S. Dressage Federation’s (USDF) “Dressage Performance
Standards Proposal.” Since then, a line as clear as the centerline
has been drawn in the arena sand and those in favor and against the
proposal have been speaking out in force, and often butting heads.
In general, this proposal would create a point system by which riders
would receive various points for scores of 58% and higher. This system
would only apply to Third Level riders and above looking to move on
to the next level.
To move up from Third Level to Fourth Level, a rider would have to achieve
at least 10 points on one or more horses. In the proposal, this level
is referred to as Silver. The move from Prix St. Georges to Intermediaire
I would require obtaining eight points. Once a rider is at this level,
called Gold, then he or she would no longer be required to adhere to
the point system. There are, of course, finer details on which shows
and tests are required to obtain qualifying scores and a grandfathering
system for those top riders who are already competing internationally.
For a complete copy of the proposal, please see equiery.com.
On the surface, this proposal seems logical. If a rider has the ambition
to move up, he or she must first prove that he or she is ready. The
USDF proposal would, theorethically, help to “ensure riders are
properly prepared to successfully move up the levels,” as stated
in the proposal’s opening paragraph.
So what is all the fuss about? Why are so many riders, trainers and
judges against this proposal? And why are those in support so fiercely
passionate about seeing this proposal become an official U.S Equestrian
Federation (USEF) rule?
For the Love of the Horse
At shows around the country in any discipline, you are bound to see
at least one case of riding that is so bad you feel sorry for the horse.
Naomi Parry of Annapolis, who has competed through Fourth Level, stated
“For the sake of horses, I support this idea.”
The proposal was discussed at a USDF Region 1 meeting earlier this year,
and Maryland Dressage Association (MDA) president Jill Blackburn believes
that the USEF Dressage Committee had two concerns: the riders’
lack of ability to sit the trot, and the use of the double bridle before
the rider fully understands how to use it. Both of these concerns were
considered “abusive to the horse” but Blackburn said “I
don’t think what [the USEF Dressage Committee members] are proposing
will achieve these goals.” Instead, she suggested that the USEF,
USDF and regional chapters “could do a lot more to educate riders
on what they [judges] are after” and on how to better prepare
for the movements of the higher level tests.
Some feel that judges who have traveled the country watching “people
struggling to ride their horses at levels that [are] not appropriate…
are convinced that we need this rule,” according to “r”
judge and Potomac Valley Dressage Association (PVDA) Vice President
Betty Thorpe. There seems to be this unspoken feeling that a rider competing
at a level beyond his or her capabilities is potentially abusing the
horse, though no judge interviewed was willing to say this directly.
Trainer and Grand Prix rider Felicitas von Neumann-Cosel agrees that
education is greatly needed, especially at the lower levels where “we
should have a better educational system.” In general, von Neumann-Cosel
thinks the proposal “is not a bad idea” but that it would
be better suited for those riding at Prix St. Georges and above.
The general consensus is that if you prevent these riders from moving
up until they are qualified, then you in turn protect the horse. However,
this is all based on the idea that judges will give appropriate scores
and as one “S” judge and Grand Prix rider, Elizabeth Madlener,
pointed out, “The humanitarian side of the judge is looking for
anything that is positive to score… [this] may give the very
green or very incompetent rider the inclination to keep striving above
his or her head or above the horse’s ability to perform.”
Madlener went on to say that she, too, has witnessed the horse “that
is spurred and pulled into a ‘frame’.” However, she
feels that a set of rules will not “protect these noble friends
but we can work our heads/butts off trying to educate” the riders
The USEF already has in place rules to prevent abuses. Under Article
GR839 in the USEF General Rule Book, it states that “any action(s)
against a horse by a competitor or an exhibitor, which are deemed excessive
by a judge, Federation steward, technical delegate or competition veterinarian,
in the competition ring or anywhere on the competition grounds may be
punished by official warning, elimination, or other sanctions which
may be deemed appropriate by the Show Committee.” So, if judges
and other officials are worried about abuse of the horse, shouldn’t
they simply enforce what rules are already in place? But then again,
what one person might deem abusive may be seen as permissable by another.
To Improve the Rider
As with any equestrian discipline, the “competitor” consists
of two parts, the horse and the rider. Surely, by requiring qualifying
scores, the quality of the resulting rider will be higher. Many agree,
but also say that this proposal will only produce frustrated riders
who will leave the sport.
Celia Vornholt, an “r” judge, “absolutely agree[s]
that there should be a qualification scale.” Vornholt reported
that she has seen “horrendous” rides and that people “often
feel [that a] 55% is good enough to move up with… which is really
not OK.” She agrees with the USEF that this proposal “will
have people showing at more appropriate level[s].”
Sporthorse breeder Suzanne Quarles “really believe[s] we should
have standards in this country...we have come to a time when we need
people to earn their way up the levels.” Susan G. White, “r”
judge and FEI competitor, is also in favor of the basic idea but feels
the actual wording of the rule change needs to be reworked. White sees
the proposal as a way to “improve the overall quality of the training
and showing” in this sport, which is always evolving.
Local trainer and Grand Prix rider Fred Weber also agrees, saying that
the dressage community as a whole will be “better served by [the
proposal].” Weber stated that the rule change would ensure that
“people would have to earn their way up” instead of claiming
they are a Prix St. Georges rider, for example, when they have only
shown at that level once.
Another thought is that by forcing riders to earn proper scores, they
will develop better as riders and develop better horses. Andrea Drzewianowski
of Westminster has not competed in several years and does anticipate
an issue with someone like herself who “may want to step into
competition at a higher level in the future.” She went on to say,
however that “if you are accomplished, then earning the necessary
points in a relatively quick fashion should not be an issue at all.”
Drzewianowski also pointed out that this system “would require
someone without show history to actually plan the first couple of seasons
carefully and therefore reinforce the appropriate development/training
time that a horse needs to develop the thoroughness and strength to
properly perform the movements.”
Others like Madlener, however, feel that we are a nation of freedom
and “people should be free to fall on their individual faces.
People should be permitted to make whatever choices and to endure the
The issue of rider finances and the number of rated shows in each region
also make many in opposition cringe at the thought of this proposal.
Maryland, part of the USDF Region 1, is blessed with being in a rich
dressage area with many recognized shows within a short drive. Susan
Carr Davis, an “R” judge, predicts that “Maryland
will be less impacted by this proposal because we have so many shows
in such a small area.”
Competitors in other regions, such as Colorado and Washington state,
have to travel great distances to reach a show. Debra Nissen, who considers
herself a “semiprofessional,” has often found herself in
locations where she could not compete but still had time to ride and
train. In that situation, Nissen feels she “would not be able
to earn the Bronze level [Third Level and below] even though [she is]
training at a higher level.”
The general worry by those opposed to the proposal is that riders will
become frustrated with trying to qualify and will just stop showing.
Elizabeth Trossbach from Mechanicsville is currently competing Second
Level but usually can only make it to four recognized shows a year.
At that rate, she says, “it will take several years to earn enough
points [to move past Third Level]… I may quit competing altogether.”
Vornholt, on the other hand, points out that many in this area will
not be affected by the proposal since “most people ride below
Third Level.” She predicted that there “will probably [be]
less people at Third and Fourth Levels initially” but since “many
will be grandfathered in at those levels anyway” the overall impact
on the numbers participating in the sport will be little.
Our Future Olympians
If there are rules already in place to protect the horse and few riders
will even be affected by this proposal, then why propose the rule change
in the first place?
PVDA member Dr. Rebecca Yount thinks that the driving force behind the
rule proposal it to “groom riders to better represent the U.S.
internationally.” Yount is currently on the PVDA board of directors,
is the chair of the education committee and the PVDA rule change liaison.
There are several others who agree with Yount that this need for international
success is motivating the USEF Dressage Committee to push this rule
Weber sees this system improving the “overall quality of horses
and riders in the U.S.” and feels in the long term it “will
have a positive affect” on both the Maryland community and U.S.
riders internationally. Weber points out that “most other nations
already have this [sort of system]” and reaffirmed that the U.S.
dressage community should remember that it is “important that
the quality of the riders improves, not the quantity.”
Indeed, many countries in Europe have already adopted such qualification
scales. However, the rules were primarily put in place to help alleviate
oversubscribed shows. There is no way at this time to predict if the
rules stated in this proposal will in fact produce a more competitive
U.S. Dressage Team.
Yount Leads Research Team
Several regional representatives are concerned about how and why the
proposal was initiated, and whether or not actual data supports the
need for this proposal.
In order for any rule change to occur, a formal proposal must be submitted
to the USEF Board of Directors or Executive Committee. This proposal
(and a variety of forms) must be submitted by June 1, for rule changes
submitted by an individual Federation member or Federation staff member,
or by September 1, if submitted by a USEF committee or affiliated entity.
For the official USEF checklist on how to submit a rule change proposal,
In the case of this proposal, the USEF Dressage Committee as a whole
submitted the proposal. Versions of the proposal were supposed to be
sent to the various Group Member Organizations (GMOs) for review and
feedback, but according to Yount, this was not done. Yount reported
that rumors of the proposal were circulating before the November 2007
USDF Convention and that only a few PVDA members attended the convention.
At this point, USDF members from across the country sent letters to
the USEF Board of Directors expressing their concern with the lack of
proper etiquette in how this proposal was handled.
Jennifer Keeler, the National Director of Dressage for USEF, on the
other hand, stated that the USDF “has followed, and will continue
to follow, this process.” After receiving hundreds of letters
and e-mails against the proposal, the USEF decided to table the rule
change for one year while research and surveys of members could be conducted.
Keeler reported on August 11 that the USDF Dressage Committee “continues
to work on further development of the proposal based upon responses
gathered.” The actual data and survey responses collected by the
USDF were not available for review.
Yount and a few other PVDA members conducted their own research on the
subject of general recognized show scores. Yount, Ana Diaz (a registered
professional engineer and PVDA member for four years) and Mary Stydnicki
Johnston (a longtime USDF, USEF and PVDA member) collected data on over
6,000 riders from all USDF Regions (except Region 6, which did not have
any competition during the time period studied) between October 1 and
November 30, 2007. The research looked at trends in scores for Training
Level through Grand Prix competitions.
The data showed that only riders at Grand Prix received average scores
below 60%. Therefore, a performance scale based on scores above 58%
will not have any effect on the current dressage rider population since
the average rider at all levels is already scoring above this percentage.
Yount and colleagues sent their analysis to several “key players”
in the USEF, USDF and GMOs across the country. They also made their
findings available to the general public on the PVDA web site and was
presented at the USDF Region 1 meeting held in March.
At this time, no one on the USEF Dressage Committee cared to comment
about the study. However, on August 19, the USDF Executive Board released
a statement regarding an on-line survey, which gathered feedback from
USEF and USDF members. The results showed that a “majority of
the approximately 1,250 respondents expressed support for the idea of
having competition performance standards for the sport.” They
also stated that as a result of receiving “several important concerns
regarding the proposal... the USDF Dressage Committee is exploring new
ideas to address these concerns, and will discuss possible changes to
the proposal in the coming months with the organizations which will
The Future of Dressage
Not many can disagree with the fact that the European countries have
always dominated international dressage, or that continual education
of our riders, trainers and judges will ultimately improve the quality
of horses and riders representing the U.S. in both local and international
competition. The question still remains as to whether or not this specific
proposal will truly help the sport as a whole.
Yount is concerned about the “many unintended consequences”
that this rule change might inflict. She is concerned that the sport
will suffer as riders and show officials take on the burden of having
to achieve a certain amount of points to move forward and keep track
of these scores. Others still feel that the actual percentage of the
dressage population that will be affected is so small that the dressage
community will continue to grow. Grand Prix rider and trainer Carolyn
Del Grosso says “It is very likely that more abuse will occur
while riders try to achieve these scores.” Del Grosso added, “Educational
encouragement is always great but we should not try to improve our Olympic
tean on the backs of the very grass roots people who have caused such
growth in dressage in the first place.”
Although Susan Carr-Davis is in favor of the concept, she feels the
wording “needs to be tweaked” and is concerned about the
effect it will have on judges. She feels that if this rule change goes
into effect, “judges will have to be much more aware of how their
marks transfer into final percentages.” In a system where just
one percentage point can make or break someone’s career, judges
will have to focus more on the bigger picture and not just each individual
mark. Davis suggested that in the required continuing education programs
for judges, these issues are addressed so that judges also become better
This brings up a concern of many judges that if they do not give high
marks they will not be asked to judge again, or that riders will start
to seek out shows where specific judges who give higher marks are judging.
In August, The Equiery sent an e-mail to our dressage readers asking
them a series of questions related to this topic. The questions are
1) Is a qualification scale needed at all in today’s dressage
competition world? Why or why not?
2) If a qualification scale is needed, how should it be implemented?
3) Do you agree or disagree with the proposed rule? Why or why not?
4) If this rule change passes in its current form, what impact will
it have on your plans for dressage training or competition?
The responses were overwhelming with many writing lengthy responses
in favor or against this proposal. To view these responses, please visit
If you would like to respond to these questions as well, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.