2019 USDF FEI-Level Trainers Conference

2019 USDF FEI-Level Trainers Conference

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Quality Is Job One

Trainers Conference demonstration rider Sophia Schults on Samour M rides shoulder-in, the movement US national dressage young-horse coach Christine Traurig called "the mother of all good things" in dressage. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

This slogan might sound vaguely familiar to some of you. I had to Google it to identify the source: It was the Ford Motor Co.’s 1980s-era attempt to counter perceptions that its cars were, ahem, not of good quality.

That slogan percolated up from some recess of my memory as I watched US national dressage coaches Debbie McDonald, Charlotte Bredahl, Christine Traurig, and George Williams work with eight horse-and-rider combinations on the second and final day of the 2019 Adequan/USDF FEI-Level Trainers Conference. Although the four trainers have quite different teaching styles, a common theme pervaded their instruction, usually phrased as some version of “If it’s not working, get out.”

What that means is: Never sacrifice the quality of the gait in your quest to produce a movement. It’s an easy trap to fall into: Focused on riding a shoulder-in or a half-pass or a flying change, we’re concentrating so much on bend and angle and timing that we fail to notice that the tempo has slowed or that the impulsion or the straightness has been lost. Problem is, not only will a movement produced in this manner score poorly because we’ve lost the quality of the underpinnings, but the movement itself will not go well—because good execution requires those basics as prerequisites.

In the first conference session of the day, US dressage national youth coach George Williams helped junior rider Tori Belles on Romulus get acquainted with that essential building block toward collection and flying changes, the simple change. A simple change is a canter-walk-canter transition from one lead to the other with no trot steps and just a few walk steps in between. After several attempts, Romulus began to express his displeasure with the increased effort required, backing off and becoming balky during the walk segments. Williams stepped in quickly.

“We need to leave it because he’s getting frustrated,” he said of the horse. He directed Belles to ride some brisk long sides in medium canter to freshen the energy (and Romulus’s attitude) and then went into some work on flying changes. 

Too much repetition and drilling can sour a horse, Williams explained. As a trainer, sometimes you need step away from a topic that is frustrating the horse. Come back to it later in the session or perhaps on another day when the horse has relaxed in his mind and body. 

Build rock-solid basics across the board; they will serve as a dependable foundation for consistent performance, Williams advised the conference audience. “Start with a very solid foundation and consistent tests—sevens, or ‘very good.’ Then we can work on making things better,” he said, the icing on the cake being the “wow” factor that might take that 7 up to an 8 or a 9.

True suppleness—correct “softening” through the horse’s ribcage area in response to the rider’s inside bending leg, not through manipulations of the horse’s head and neck with the inside rein—offers many of the keys to the kingdom of solid basics, according to the clinicians. 

“Ribcage. Ribcage,” Traurig reminded demonstration rider Michael Bragdell. Bragdell’s mount, SenSation HW, was last year’s national US Equestrian Five-Year-Old champion—but Traurig’s keen eye noticed every moment that the gelding was not quite supple enough on the inside. 

“Gymnasticize your horse. [German Olympian and former US dressage-team coach] Klaus Balkenhol used to say, ‘Mobilize the hind leg’ all the time when I was training with him,” said Traurig. “I love that word, mobilize. By mobilizing the hind leg we can make the space between the hind legs a little narrower,” a key element in straightness and collection. And that narrowing is developed “through the mother of all good things, the shoulder-in.”
Ali Potasky on the five-year-old mare Irintha shows what a mobilized hind leg looks like. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
Shoulder-in, shoulder-fore—we saw these keystone gymnasticizing exercises with every horse in the conference, from the five-year-old mare Irintha, ridden by Ali Potasky, through the Grand Prix-level horses. These movements seem so simple but are frequently performed incorrectly, the clinicians said, with haunches falling to the outside, horses’ heads and necks pulled too far to the inside with an overly strong inside rein, and no bend, which renders the movement a tail-to-the-wall leg-yield instead of a shoulder-in or shoulder-fore. There also needs to be a distinction between shoulder-in, which is a “three-track” movement (the horse’s legs traveling on three distinct “tracks” or lines of travel, with the inside foreleg and the outside hind leg on the same track), and shoulder-fore, which is a two-and-a-half-track movement, Traurig explained.
US national dressage development coach Charlotte Bredahl helps Melissa Taylor with her canter pirouettes aboard Ansgar.  Photo by Jennifer Bryant. 
As some of us have learned the hard way, failure to follow the “quality is job one” mantra will come back to bite you somewhere down the road. One of the chief roles of a dressage trainer is to apply critical thinking in analyzing the horse’s performance: what was good, what was lacking, why it was lacking, and what exercises will address the deficiencies. This process requires attention to the smallest details.

As she worked with Potasky, Traurig noticed every time Irintha’s tempo changed during transitions. “We are working to create fluent, effortless canter-trot transitions with no loss of rhythm, maintaining the nose out with a consistent stretch to the bit,” she said. Later, schooling shoulder-in and half-pass, Traurig said: “If you lose something in the lateral work, do a circle. Don’t stay in it.”
US national dressage technical advisor Debbie McDonald helped demo rider Kerrigan Gluch take the Grand Prix-level Bolero CXLVII's movements, like this trot half-pass, from "very good" to "wow." (No, "wow" is not the technical score verbiage!) Photo by Jennifer Bryant. 
US national dressage development coach Charlotte Bredahl delivered a similar message to demo rider Melissa Taylor on the small-tour-level Ansgar. As Taylor practiced tempi changes (flying changes of lead in sequence), Bredahl reminded: “If the horse loses his balance, straightness, or impulsion during the tempis, don’t keep going. That’s what I call setting the horse up to fail. I like to set the horse up for success.”

Even at Grand Prix, the training is all about emphasizing quality over quantity. As demo rider Chris Hickey worked to improve the green-at-Grand-Prix Contento Sogno’s passage and piaffe, national dressage technical advisor Debbie McDonald said, “Get out, get out,” every time the gelding’s impulsion and tempo began to wane. Hickey would do something to refresh the energy—ride a few steps of medium trot, go on a curved line—and then reenter the movement. 
Debbie McDonald coaches Chris Hickey on Contento Sogno in piaffe, calling the gelding a horse with an exciting future. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
“Don’t get greedy,” McDonald counseled. “Be happy with just a few steps.”

Sure, the tests call for more than just a few steps. But dressage is hard work, and correct work is challenging when a horse is still developing strength and balance. So go slowly, be patient, keep your standards high, and praise your horse’s honest efforts, however small—“Pet him!” was another common conference refrain. Incremental improvements help keep horses happy and confident in their work.

“And at the end of the day, that’s what we want to see,” said McDonald: “that our horses are happy athletes.”

Monday, January 21, 2019

The Right Path

If the horse gets tight in the flying changes, ride the changes on a large circle instead of on a straight line, US Equestrian national developing coach Charlotte Bredahl advised demo rider Jami Kment on Gatino Van Hof Olympia at the 2019 Adequan/USDF FEI-Level Trainers Conference. Ride the more difficult change to the outside of the circle -- "I don't know why it works, exactly, but it usually works!" Bredahl said. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
Although, as newly appointed US national dressage technical advisor Debbie McDonald pointed out, there is no single correct approach to take in dressage training because every horse must be treated as an individual, there is one set of basics: the pyramid of training.

Give short shrift to any aspect of the pyramid, and your dressage will suffer. At the end of the day, regardless of how fancy or ordinary your mount may be, much of your success or lack thereof in dressage will come down to how much time you spend perfecting the basics: how rigorous your standards, how intolerant of “good enough,” how much attention to detail you give the steps and the strides and the straightness.

That was the lesson that emerged today, day 1 of the 2019 Adequan/USDF FEI-Level Trainers Conference, at Mary Anne McPhail’s High Meadow Farm in Loxahatchee, Florida. The event marks the first time since the 2011 Adequan/USDF National Dressage Symposium that all of the US Equestrian national dressage coaches have assembled to lead an educational event. As the high-performance coach, McDonald worked with the two Grand Prix-level horses and riders, Kerrigan Gluch on Bolero CXL VII and Chris Hickey on Contento Sogno. Youth coach George Williams started the day by working with the junior/young riders Tori Belles on Romulus and Sophia Schults on Samour M. Then it was on to young-horse coach Christine Traurig, with Michael Bragdell on SenSation HW and Ali Potasky on Irintha. Newly appointed development coach (and former assistant youth coach) Charlotte Bredahl worked one-on-one with Jami Kment on Gatino Van Hof Olympia and Melissa Taylor on Ansgar. 
US national dressage youth coach George Williams works with Tori Belles on Romulus. Photo by Jennifer Bryant. 

As Williams demonstrated with Belles, it’s never too early to teach youth riders to dial in their focus on the details. He had Belles count strides in the rising trot, figuring out how many strides Romulus takes in a quarter of a 20-meter circle in trot and canter. Williams uses lots of counting in his teaching, from having Belles sit for three or five strides and then resume rising trot, to demonstrating the “enlarge…two…three” circle exercise he uses to help riders learn to regulate their horses’ rhythms and tempos while coordinating the balance between the forward and sideways driving aids.

Some of dressage training is horsemanship know-how, passed down from teacher to student over the years. An audience member asked how Williams decides which is better for warming up a horse, trot-canter-trot transitions or walk-canter-walk. It depends, Williams responded, on whether the horse needs help with his balance and in developing pushing and carrying power (in which case walk-canter transitions might be preferable), or whether the main objective is to loosen and supple a horse’s back and loin muscles (better served through trot-canter transitions). He chose trot-canter as the best method of suppling Schults’s mount, Samour M.

One of the great pleasures of attending a Trainers Conference is the opportunity to watch some of our country’s top horses. Hilltop Farm head trainer Michael Bragdell rode SenSation HW, last year’s national FEI Five-Year-Old champion. As guided by Traurig, Bragdell showed the audience the importance of teaching the horse about the rider’s outside leg and rein aids in terms of straightness and half-halts.
Christine Traurig, the US national young-horse coach, helps Michael Bragdell on SenSation HW, the USA's top FEI Five-Year-Old in 2018. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

“Everyone says ‘Inside leg to outside hand,’” Traurig said, “but until the horse understands the outside leg and rein aids in keeping the shape of the circle, you can’t use the inside leg correctly because the inside leg contradicts the inside rein.” This is why, she said, horse and rider need to be educated about three types of aids: driving aids, yielding aids, and bending aids.

The basics, the clinicians showed repeatedly, are rooted in equine physiology; correct dressage is not “for looks” or “for show.” For example, Traurig explained that tightness in the sacroiliac and lumbar regions of the horse’s back will inhibit the development of impulsion because the hind legs will not be able to work properly to create power and thrust. Assuming a veterinarian has ruled out physical issues, a “stuck” back can be addressed through simple exercises such as leg-yield, which encourage the horse to reach and stretch over his back. 

Traurig also explained that the horse’s trapezius muscles, which are on either side of his neck, open up “like a Japanese fan” when the neck is stretched and lowered. The muscles also connect to the long back muscle and to the nuchal ligament, which helps to lift and support the back when it is put in tension, sort of like a suspension bridge. 

Together the national dressage coaches showed that improvement in our sport involves a drilling-down into the basics, applying them with increasing exactitude until (theoretically, anyway) every step the horse takes is precisely how, when, where, and how much we want. That level of attention to detail permits no coasting. There are no sloppy, yay-I’m-done-I’m-going-to-drop-the-reins down transitions. “Ridehim to the bit,” Traurig said repeatedly, reminding riders to maintain energy and impulsion even while asking their horses to come down to the walk. And don’t just cruise around aimlessly in your walk breaks. “What walk are you doing? It is extended? Medium? Collected? Decide which one you are doing, and ride that walk.”
Think famous trainers are above helping out at the barn? Think again! Olympian Lendon Gray shows her Dressage4Kids Winter Intensive Training Program participants the importance of keeping the arena meticulously picked up. Photo by Jennifer Bryant. 

Our horses, naturally, rise (or fall) to the level of our expectations. Bredahl instructed Taylor to “make the transition from medium to collected trot—boom! That wasn’t clear enough. If it’s not clear, tactfully walk one step” to teach Ansgar that he must come back when Taylor asks. “Then think it [a walk step] but don’t do it.” Soon the horse was responding more crisply to the aids for the transition. 

Similarly, McDonald told Gluch to sharpen up Bolero CXLVII’s responses to her aids for up transitions. “That wasn’t clean enough,” she said of a walk-canter depart. “At this level, you need to have both ends sharp. You need to have their hind legs.” 

Timing is critical, said McDonald, who didn’t want riders “sitting” on any aids. She told Gluch to quicken her own aids and reactions: “Be quick to sharpen him. Quick to pet him. Quick to half-halt. Never hold him. Everything must be sharper. At this level, the horse needs to be more responsible for his own balance, not rely on your hands.” 

One thing that’s definitely sharpened is my eagerness for tomorrow’s session. See you tomorrow!

Sunday, December 2, 2018

An Energizing Finish

As necessary and important as USDF conventions are, sometimes the topics discussed seem removed from the reason we’re actually there: the horses. Rules, awards, and governance matters are part of the fabric of our sport, but they’re not riding. As the meetings wear on, I tend to get squirmy in my seat, glancing at my watch, longing for fresh air and that intoxicating perfume known as Eau de Cheval

I stopped fidgeting and forgot all about the clock yesterday, the final day of the 2018 Adequan/USDF Annual Convention in Salt Lake City. It’s not an easy feat to make a classroom dressage-education session as rich and compelling as a clinic setting with live horses, but panelists Lilo Fore, Marilyn Heath, Gary Rockwell, and Lois Yukins raised the bar to a new level with their discussion on the newly revised pyramid of training. 

Dear reader, if you get the chance to learn from any of these esteemed dressage judges/trainers, in any setting, do it. These are four of our country’s most experienced dressage pros, and not only do they know what they’re looking at and how to evaluate it, but they are passionate about teaching and sharing their knowledge with any dressage enthusiast who wants to learn. Lilo, Marilyn, Gary, and Lois all are variously faculty members of the USDF L Education Program or have served on the USDF L Program, Judges, or Instructor/Trainer Committees. These volunteer positions require a tremendous amount of time and commitment; people don’t do it for the glamorous perks. They do it because they care about horses and the sport of dressage.

In their convention session, each of the four panelists discussed different levels on the newly revised pyramid of training (which Marilyn Heath also writes about in her “The Judge’s Box” column in the December 2018/January 2019 issue of USDF Connection). Here’s a graphic of the pyramid, which is similar to the previous version but contains some wording changes:
The newly revised pyramid of training. Illustration copyright 2018 by the United States Dressage Federation. 
One notable change is the changing of the name of the third level of the pyramid from Connection to Contact. Both terms were used in the previous pyramid version and appear in the new version as well, but as Heath explained, the change aligns the USDF pyramid more closely with the FEI’s own training scale; plus, “you need to have a little bit of contact before you can have connection.” Connection, she said, can’t happen on a looped rein. “It’s a matter of being there for your horse when you ask him to connect from back to front.”

The “back to front” concept is the key point here. Contact doesn’t mean pulling or hanging on the reins. The horse is ridden forward into the contact, not restrained into contact. 

One of the best things about getting a really good panel together is that the presentation comes alive. The panelists riff off one another and elaborate on one another’s points, and the discussion can go in unexpectedly wonderful directions. As an audience member, it can feel as if the presenters kick a rock in their path and uncover a new treasure. Here are a few examples of the gems I took away from the panel with Lilo, Marilyn, Gary, and Lois:

·     The rider’s aids should consist of about 80 percent “core” (the muscles of the trunk and upper legs; “core” includes the use of the rider’s weight). About 18 percent should be from the rider’s legs. That leaves only 2 percent of the aids that should come from the rider’s hands. –Marilyn Heath

·     All of the components of the pyramid of training—rhythm, suppleness, contact, impulsion, straightness, and collection—go hand in hand. When you ride, “you are ‘swimming’ back and forth from one to the other.” –Lilo Fore

·     The pyramid illustration itself is a graphic approximation of the “training scale” but is not intended to be taken literally (as in, "you must master Rhythm before moving on to Suppleness”). Although collection is considered the pinnacle of the pyramid, it cannot be achieved without all of the other elements. Conversely, even at the lowest levels of dressage with a green horse the rider should be thinking about encouraging the horse to develop the ability to shift weight from his forehand onto his hindquarters—the basics of collection. –Gary Rockwell

·     It is not natural for a horse to be completely straight. As prey animals, horses instinctively want to look in one direction while dropping a shoulder to flee in the other. If they do not do so, they make themselves vulnerable to predators. That’s why “that is the ultimate submissive quality in a horse—that it trusts the rider enough to be straight.”  Lois Yukins

·     The tempo of each gait ideally should remain the same throughout the test, including lateral work, pirouettes, and so on. If the tempo slows, impulsion is lost. –Lilo Fore

·     “If the rider’s body is moving up and down, the horse’s back will not come up to meet the rider. That’s why we need to learn to sit. A quiet seat will enable a horse to easily balance himself.” –Gary Rockwell

·     “The pyramid of training does not address the rider, but the best-trained horse will not be successful without correct riding.” –Marilyn Heath

·     “When a horse feels heavy on one rein, you’re not actually feeling heaviness; you’re feeling weight-bearing.” The cause of the apparent heaviness lies in the hind legs, which are not carrying equal weight. When the horse is made straight and equally strong on both sides through correct gymnastic training, the contact will feel even because he will not be relying on a rein to help support the balance disrupted by the weaker hind leg. –Lois Yukins

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Freestyle Motion Passes, but Don't Expect Immediate Change

The USDF Board of Governors today approved the motion directing the USDF to recommend that US Equestrian, the national governing body of equestrian sport in the US and the rule-maker for US dressage national-level competition, rescind the rule change that increased the prerequisite qualifying score to compete in freestyle from 60 percent to 63 percent, earned at the highest test of the level.

The Board of Governors assembly wrapped up this morning at the 2018 Adequan/USDF Annual Convention in Salt Lake City.

Passed as what US Equestrian refers to as an extraordinary rule change--meaning at a time other than during the usual December-January USDF/US Equestrian convention and rule-change-approval time frame--the score-prerequisite rule (DR 129.9) takes effect today, December 1, 2018.

Even with the motion passed, USDF president George Williams emphasized after reading the results of the vote, dressage competitors should not expect change to be immediate, or in fact expect that the rule will actually be rescinded.

The ultimate decision, Williams said, is in the hands of US Equestrian's dressage-rule-making body, the USEF Dressage Sport Committee (DSC). The USDF's recommendation must go through the channels and be discussed at a future DSC meeting, and any actions would then require approval per US Equestrian's own procedures. The bottom line, Williams said, is that the score increase indeed has taken effect and will be the rule for some time to come. And the DSC could well vote to uphold the freestyle rule as it stands now.

Although some of the BOG delegates who spoke out in favor of rescinding the rule will undoubtedly be disappointed if that does not come to pass, many expressed a measure of satisfaction just knowing that the motion may "send a message" to US Equestrian, as some put it.

"I think it's important to us to send a message [to US Equestrian] that this is inappropriate," said delegate Barbara Cadwell, referring to the fact that the mid-year "extraordinary" nature of the rule change meant that it failed to register on some dressage enthusiasts' radar until after the rule change was passed. "I don't object if it's done right. I want to publicly smack their hand."

Many delegates who spoke out, both for and against the motion, said that they actually support the score increase as a way to help ensure that horses being shown in freestyle classes have the basics and the training to be able to execute their routines capably and without struggling or confusion. Higher standards, many said, help to protect equine welfare and guard against unintentionally abusive riding. I came away from the BOG vote with the sense that many delegates viewed a "yes" vote on the motion as a rebuke, not of the standards but of US Equestrian's decision to fast-track the rule change with what USDF delegates perceived as inadequate transparency or requests for comment prior to the rule's passage.

Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

New US dressage national technical advisor Debbie McDonald (at podium) discusses her plans to keep the USA on the medal podiums during the USDF Board of Governors assembly. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

Even a sport as traditional as dressage evolves as the years pass. Organizations similarly need to adapt to changing times, and the challenge becomes finding ways to honor the past and “hold fast to that which is good” while staying current and appealing to the next generation.

I think the USDF is in such a period of change. At yesterday’s Historical Recognition Committee open meeting, we discussed how best to ensure that important supporters of American dressage are not forgotten, by explaining their contributions to a USDF membership that is increasingly unfamiliar with such names as Lowell Boomer, Violet Hopkins, and Chuck Grant. At today’s kickoff session of the 2018 USDF Board of Governors (BOG) assembly, outgoing USDF president George Williams received a standing ovation of thanks as he winds up his eight-year term, and current USDF VP Lisa Gorretta punctuated her entertaining presidential-candidate BOG presentation with photos of memorable moments in her 30-plus-year career as a dressage rider, volunteer, and official. 

Faces like George’s and Lisa’s have become part of the reassuring fabric of the USDF—the steadfast supporters who, it seems, are always there when we need them. I see many of our regional directors and BOG delegates just once a year—at convention—and no matter what forgettable hotel or unfamiliar city we might find ourselves in, being surrounded by these passionate dressage supporters always feels a little bit like coming home.
USDF Board of Governors delegates give outgoing USDF president George Willams a standing ovation. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
These stalwarts won’t always be there, of course, and a chunk of today’s convention sessions involved discussions of how best to “bring along” the dressage participants of tomorrow, both human and equine.

In the Competition Open Forum, Dressage Seat Equitation Task Force chair Sarah Geikie talked about her group’s quest to make dressage-seat equitation a more visible, popular entry point for youth in our sport. A troubling statistic, Geikie said, is a dropoff in USDF youth memberships over the past five years—a decline that she herself could not explain and expressed a desire to research more thoroughly. The costs of riding and horse ownership, which continue to rise, are undoubtedly factors, with fewer parents being able to afford horses for their kids, Geikie said. As some in the audience pointed out, young people may be turning to high-school and collegiate programs that offer competition opportunities without having to own a horse, and the USDF may need to reach out to such programs, to renew alliances or forge new partnerships.

Another factor may be young people’s desire to enjoy an activity in the company of peers. A “token kid” at a predominantly adult dressage facility may feel out of place, and let’s face it, hanging out with a bunch of adults isn’t much fun when you’re a teen or tween. At the same time—I say this from personal experience—being a “non-elite” kid surrounded by a bunch of privileged, cliquish youths is no party either. If dressage can figure out how to bring the joy of horses and riding, like-minded companionship, and fun to young people, we’ll be able to write our own ticket. 

We need to nurture our young dressage horses as carefully as our young dressage riders. In an evening panel discussion, convention-goers heard advice on the training, competition, and judging of young horses from three of the best in the business: retired FEI 5* judge Lilo Fore, Olympian and current USEF national dressage young-horse coach Christine Traurig, and Olympian and experienced trainer Lisa Wilcox. 

According to the panelists, the art of training young dressage horses lies in the horsemanship of determining when a horse needs more time to mature, physically or mentally; and at the same time maintaining high standards for correct training according to the pyramid of training—of recognizing what demands are appropriate for the young horse and being as disciplined about training with a five-year-old, say, as with the older horse. It’s not doing the young horse any favors to ride with lax standards, the panelists said. Too much leniency, or a failure to adhere to the correct training path according to the pyramid, can create training problems or “holes” that will require extensive work to undo and retrain correctly. The rider of a young horse should seek the guidance of an experienced trainer if needed to help ensure that the horse is on the correct path. And never forget that the goal is Grand Prix—that the training of the young horse is establishing the fundamentals he will need to move up the levels.

Friday, November 30, 2018

From the Sublime to the Serious

USDF members enjoy the welcome reception at the 2018 Adequan/USDF Annual Convention in Salt Lake City. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
The first day of regional meetings, open committee meetings and forums, and education sessions at the 2018 Adequan/US Dressage Federation Annual Convention dawned in the usual way.

Everywhere you look in the convention host hotel in Salt Lake City, you see tight clusters of dressage colleagues or old friends (often one and the same) holding impromptu meetings and catch-up sessions, in the hotel lobby, in every available group of chairs, in hallways outside meeting rooms, in the restaurant and the on-site Starbucks.

Jet-lagged USDF members, coffees in hand, start the day at their respective regional meetings. Then convention attendees fan out to the various other meetings, and from there things typically begin to get interesting.
GMO baskets await their lucky winners. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

Today's most "interesting" topics were the impending US Equestrian rule change raising the prerequisite score to ride a dressage freestyle from 60 percent to 63 percent; and the also-impending mandate that US Equestrian adult members with Competing memberships must complete SafeSport training in order to be eligible to participate in US Equestrian activities.

The freestyle rule change (DR 129.9) was approved by US Equestrian in August and takes effect December 1, 2018. The SafeSport mandate originated with the US Olympic Committee and extends to all of the USOC's affiliated sport organizations, known as national governing bodies (NGB). US Equestrian is the US NGB for equestrian sport. The federal government since also enacted legislation requiring amateur sport organizations and their members to report sex-abuse allegations involving minors to local or federal law enforcement. Current US Equestrian members must complete SafeSport training by January 1, 2019.

Some USEF/USDF members object to the freestyle-score hike, either in principle (they fear it will deter participation in dressage) or in practice (they feel the extraordinary rule change was passed in haste and that competitors were given insufficient advance notice). Nobody actually objects to SafeSport training in concept (there is some griping about the amount of time it takes), but some people at the USEF/USDF Open Forum wished this hadn't been dropped on the equestrian community quite so suddenly.

The SafeSport training issue is pretty cut-and-dried. It's coming down from above in response to the horrific allegations from athletes (most notoriously gymnasts, but also equestrians) that exposed the ugly underbelly that has been present in some sports for many years. Ranked by numbers of active investigations of misconduct allegations, equestrian sport as a whole is #4 on the USOC's list of its 50 affiliates. So yeah, our sport needs to clean up its collective act, stat.

As for the freestyle controversy, it was pointed out that similar outcries occurred the last time the minimum qualifying score was raised, from 58 percent to the current 60. The result? People learned to ride better. Since horse welfare and a desire to reinforce the importance of correct training were behind the decision to raise the bar again, said FEI 5* dressage judge Gary Rockwell, the respective USDF committees behind the rule-change proposal, the USDF Executive Board, and the US Equestrian Dressage Sport Committee stand behind the decision as in the best interests of the horse and the sport.
Trauma surgeon Dr. Chris Winter presented some sobering statistics about rider injuries at his education session. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

Thursday in Salt Lake City wrapped up with a considerably more sober presentation. Trauma surgeon Dr. Chris Winter gave the 2018 USDF convention's first education session, on handling emergency rider situations. The takeaway is that, unfortunately, riding and working around horses is very dangerous--more so than riding a motorcycle--and even skilled riders can get hurt. Be as safety-conscious as possible when you interact with your horse, and always wear a helmet--not just any helmet, but one that's carefully fitted to offer maximum protection. Learn the signs of traumatic brain injury (concussion is a mild form of TBI), and be sure that anyone who exhibits any symptoms of possible TBI or other injury gets checked out by medical professionals.

The radiographs and MRI images of rider injuries and their surgical aftermaths that Dr. Winter showed elicited more than a few gasps from the convention audience. As someone who's been injured and had to work through fear in getting back in the saddle, I'll admit the presentation made me uneasy and stirred up some old emotions. But as Dr. Winter said, equestrians need to understand the risks associated with our sport. We either find a way to accept the risk and take steps to minimize it, or we quit riding. We can't pretend the risk doesn't exist. So yes, I'm eager to get home to my horse--but my helmet will be strapped on securely.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

It's Hip to Be Square

Salt Lake City is a pretty cool town.

I’d never spent time in this Utah city before this year, when it was selected as the site of the 2018 Adequan/USDF Annual Convention. I didn’t really know what to expect—buttoned-up piety? Crunchy-granola ski bums?

Closing in on 24 hours in Salt Lake City, I’m going to venture that it’s a bit of both. 
Statue "floats" in a fountain at the foot of the Salt Lake Temple in Salt Lake City. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.  
Downtown SLC is an interesting juxtaposition of the commercial and the sacred. The convention host hotel abuts the high-end City Creek Center shopping mall—Nordstrom, Tiffany, Rolex, and other stores of that ilk. Come get your holiday retail-therapy fix at Anthropologie, Lululemon, and more.
Street philosophy: Installation outside the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
Cross South Temple and you’re in a completely different world. Step through the gates of Temple Square and enter 35 acres that house the beating heart of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, also known as the Mormon church. Lovely gardens, fountains, and statuary anchor the iconic buildings, including the dome-shaped, acoustically superb Mormon Tabernacle—home of the world-famous Mormon Tabernacle Choir—and the castle-like Salt Lake Temple. Temple Square is open to visitors, and you can arrange for a tour. Be sure to have a look after dark, when thousands of lights work their holiday magic. Update: Thursday evening's Mormon Tabernacle Choir rehearsal is unfortunately not open to the public. 
Magnificent 11,623-pipe organ is the focal point of the Mormon Tabernacle. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
Our convention hotel is also across the street from the Salt Palace Convention Center, a sprawling structure whose grounds include the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art. Check out the “You Are Here” installation in front of the convention-center entrance, with a forest of street signs that aren’t really street signs at all. Peace out and contemplate for a few minutes.
Elaborate nativity scene in Temple Square. The Mormon Tabernacle is in the background. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
At USDF conventions, it can be challenge to get out of the hotel. Try to carve out a little time. There are several convenient, quick breakfast and lunch spots (in addition to the requisite Starbucks) located no more than a couple of blocks from the hotel. Today I had a delicious French-inspired petit dejeunerat Eva’s Bakery, followed by a super-quick and tasty late lunch at Blue Lemon. Tomorrow I’m going to check out the Village Baker, which I passed during my walkabout today. After all, conventions are grueling and we need to be well-fortified.
The Utah Symphony knows how to get the public's attention. Billboard outside the symphony building. Photo by Jennifer Bryant. 
Welcome to Salt Lake City! I hope our paths cross at convention. If they don’t, follow this blog for daily reports and photos. Events get under way in earnest tomorrow with regional meetings and open committee sessions, and then we’ll all meet and greet at the welcome reception. See you there. I’ll be the one with the camera. 

Hipster cred in SLC: Green Bikes in front of the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.