Live from Omaha!

Live from Omaha!
On the scene at the 2017 FEI World Cup Dressage Final

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Out Like a Lion

It was beginning to look a lot like Christmas in Lexington's Triangle Park last night. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
The 2013 Adequan/USDF National Convention came in like the proverbial lamb, with balmy temperatures that perhaps lulled us into a false sense of security. But you know what they say -- and so today, the final day of the convention, the iceman cometh to Lexington, the (teensy bit of) snow fell, and that was all she wrote.

Actually, Lexington has been spared the worst of it. Flights to destinations from Midwest to Northeast and Mid-Atlantic canceled like dominoes today, and all day those of us who are still here -- including yours truly -- have been swapping snow-and-ice horror stories related by the folks at home. Here are mine: My trainer, attempting to head home after a weekend riding in the Debbie McDonald clinic at Hassler Dressage in Maryland, got 15 minutes from Chesapeake City, turned the trailer around, and went back. As I write this, the horse is happy and snug in the beautiful barn and my trainer and the horse's owner are spending the night in the Hasslers' guest house. Meanwhile, some friends who drove down for the day to audit the clinic are having a helluva time driving home on that snow-covered parking lot known as I-95.

Stay safe, everyone.

So that's the weather and travel update. But I think I speak for most of the convention attendees who stayed until today when I say it was worth it, even with the getting up early and the weather woes.

Two morning sessions wrapped up the convention offerings. In the first, I had the privilege and pleasure of moderating a "fireside chat" with our new Roemer Foundation/USDF Hall of Fame inductee Charles de Kunffy. If you ever have occasion to interview Mr. de Kunffy, let me tell you, it's easy-peasy: Just hand him a double espresso, ask him a leading question, and then sit quietly and listen.

Mr. de Kunffy comes prepared, and he know what he wants to say and what message he wants to impart. Today he wanted to impress on the audience how wrong he thinks it to mistake speed for impulsion or engagement. As he put it, "'Run like hell' was not something I was taught in the riding academy in Hungary." This fault, he said, is the number-one mistake he sees in today's dressage riding and training.

He also deeply disapproves of judges who reward horses that stab the ground with their limbs instead of bending the joints and sinking gracefully like a cat; that move with extravagant action in front while "walking behind"; or that fail to elongate the stride as well as the neck in extended walk.

Finally, Mr. de Kunffy yearns for the establishment of a national riding school in the US -- a dream that's been shared by others but that's never been able to come to fruition, largely for reasons of distance and money. In his opinion, certifying dressage instructors or attending clinics and symposia can't substitute for the 24/7 immersion that an academy provides.

My only regret as moderator was that I was stuck on stage and unable to take photos. You'll want to check out the USDF e-TRAK video of this session for sure, just for the moments when Mr. de Kunffy rose from his chair and demonstrated "bending hocks," "stabbing hocks," and equine pelvises flexed and extended for the audience. He got the point across extremely well, although I confess I was afraid the master would forget himself in his enthusiasm and fall from the stage.

The convention wrapped with a compelling and extremely educational session on equine neurologic disease by Clara Fenger, DVM, PhD. I am continually impressed at the world-class presenters USDF gets for its sessions: Dr. Fenger is the researcher who discovered that it is the opossum that transmits EPM to the horse.

The session was so chock-full of information that I can't relate it all here; I'll write it up for a future issue of USDF Connection. But I can share the takeaway: Some neurologic signs look eerily like big, super-active dressage movement. As someone who's currently horse-shopping, I sure am glad I heard Dr. Fenger's talk before I bought a horse. She advises that a complete neurologic exam be part of a prepurchase exam; if there are positive findings, follow up with a neck x-ray. Problems found could be reason to walk away, she said.

So tomorrow (I hope) I'll finally head home, and sometime soon I'll resume the horse search, armed with additional knowledge. That's why I love the USDF convention: I never go home empty-handed. I hope those of you who were in Lexington feel the same way.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Thanksgiving at the USDF Convention

Roemer Foundation/USDF Hall of Fame portraits are displayed amid awards on stage before the start of the USDF Salute Gala and Annual Awards Banquet. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
The 2013 Adequan/USDF National Convention draws to a close with a brief pause to smell the roses. Especially for us perfectionist dressage enthusiasts, it’s important that we take the time to recognize achievements and contributions to the sport and to the organization.

It began this morning during the second day of the USDF Board of Governors assembly, with the presentation of the annual GMO (group-member organization) and regional awards. Excellence in websites, newsletters, photography, and writing is recognized among the various sizes of GMOs. And each USDF region has the opportunity to nominate a deserving person for Regional Volunteer of the Year.
Region 2 Volunteer of the Year Bonna McCuiston and USDF president George Williams. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
Some of our GMOs have top-class media. That accomplishment is all the more impressive when you remember that they are created largely by volunteers, in time squeezed in between real jobs and families and even riding from time to time. Please thank the volunteers in your dressage clubs -- or better yet, become one!

There are also special thank-yous to outgoing USDF officers and regional directors. For her long years of service to USDF, retiring USDF secretary Janine Malone received a bouquet of flowers, a framed portrait commemorating her efforts in organizing the 2013 US Dressage Finals, and a beautiful watch.
Janine Malone and George Williams. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
The final evening of the convention is all about getting gussied up and, often surrounded by proud family members and friends, fulfilling one of USDF's mission items: recognition of achievement. Dressage is a solitary, sometimes lonely sport. Behind every shiny rider medal or championship cooler likely lies a story of perseverance, setbacks, and grit in addition to the wins and the exhilarating breakthrough training moments. It says something about the meaningfulness of these awards that USDF members take time out during the busy holiday season to travel to the convention to accept them.
Roemer Foundation/USDF Hall of Fame inductee Charles de Kunffy (right) chats with an admirer before the gala. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
If you've been following this blog, you know that my favorite part of the entire convention is the ceremonies for the Roemer Foundation/USDF Hall of Fame inductees and the USDF Lifetime Achievement Award recipients. Here is where we recognize those who have made truly extraordinary contributions to American dressage (the Hall of Fame) or to the USDF itself (Lifetime Achievement). And this year did not disappoint.

First, longtime USDF "L" Education Program chair Marilyn Heath was presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award. It is largely because of her efforts that the hugely successful program is structured as it is today, with enormous benefits to offer all dressage enthusiasts who audit the first three sessions of the program.
Lifetime Achievement Award recipient Marilyn Heath (center) with USDF Historical Recognition Committee chair Anne Moss and USDF president George Williams. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
Then we inducted a living dressage legend, Charles de Kunffy, into the Hall of Fame. The Hungarian-born de Kunffy is one of our living classical masters, whose knowledge of horses and dressage will live on through his books and his many successful students.

Also inducted was the tireless international competitor, coach, trainer, FEI 5* judge, and former USEF national dressage technical advisor Anne Gribbons. Gribbons has served on something like 20 USDF committees, helped to found the Long Island Dressage and Combined Training Association with her husband, David, and has trained 17 horses to Grand Prix. She set up the USEF "pipeline" of national dressage coaches, whose efforts are beginning to reap great rewards, just as she predicted. 
Anne Gribbons (center) admires her Hall of Fame portrait. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
Finally, we took a trip down memory lane with a video and photo retrospective of the USDF's origins and milestones over the past 40 years, culminating with reminiscences by the legendary Sally O'Connor. The dressage and eventing clinician, instructor, judge, and author is one of USDF's founding members: She was in the room in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1973 as the USDF organized and held its first meeting. O'Connor was tonight's special guest, and she shared stories of the early days, such as when USDF founder Lowell Boomer recruited the University of Nebraska's marching band to parade through the meeting room to diffuse tension.
USDF founding member Sally O'Connor (right) with USDF Historical Recognition Committee member Anna Lucy Keller. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
Tomorrow, the final day of the USDF convention, I'll be moderating a fireside chat with Charles de Kunffy, and we'll enjoy one additional educational session. Tonight I'll leave you with some more images from today's festivities. Good night from Lexington!
"The Derby in December" was the awards banquet theme. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

Jen Vanover (center) accepted DSHB Horse of the Year awards for two of her horses: MW Fabulous (Yearling Colt/Gelding champion) and MW Feinermark (Three-Year-Old Colt/Gelding champion). At right is Allyn Mann of Adequan/Luitpold Pharmaceuticals. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

2013 USDF Volunteer of the Year Sally Davenport brought her mother, Katherine, who's 101! Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward the BOG

So far at the 2013 Adequan/USDF National Convention, there's been more buzzing about the weather than the Board of Governors agenda.

Winter Storm Dion, as the system has been dubbed, made its way into the Lexington, Kentucky, area today, bringing nonstop rain that this evening began to change to ice as temperatures dipped. This being the land of little snow-and-ice-removal equipment, the Lexington airport has already began canceling flights, which of course led to anxious speculation: "Will I be able to get out of here Sunday?" "I wonder whether my family will be able to drive in tomorrow for the awards banquet." Ah, the joys of staging a convention in the (almost) wintertime.

But inside the Hyatt it's warm and cozy, and few souls ventured outside the hotel today. (We're thanking our lucky stars the hotel is connected to shops and restaurants.) You might think this scenario makes for cabin fever and cranky Board of Governors delegates, but day 1 of the BOG assembly was almost certainly the smoothest, quickest, and least fraught with conflict in USDF history.

This ease can be attributed to two things. First, the inaugural US Dressage Finals, which wrapped just a few weeks ago, went incredibly well and have earned nothing but accolades from both competitors and the equestrian press. Had the event been problematic, I have no doubt that the I-told-you-so'ers would have been lined up 20 deep at the microphones in the BOG meeting room.
One big happy family: The USDF Board of Governors. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

Second -- are you ready for this? -- there were no committee motions to come before the BOG for a vote. Zip. Zero. The excitement of the day was approving a minor addition to the USDF bylaws that had gotten left off the agenda printout. (If you're curious, the bylaws now affirm the longstanding policy of electing by acclamation any Executive Board candidates who run unopposed.)
GMO basket from the Potomac Valley Dressage Association. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

Frankly, the BOG delegates showed a lot more animation whenever a drawing was held for another GMO basket. In this charming tradition, GMOs donate regionally themed gift baskets to be awarded as door prizes during the BOG assembly. (I wish I could win one, but I'm not a delegate.)

There was also excitement during the coffee break, when convention-goers were treated to mini cupcakes decorated with chocolate horse heads or the number 40 -- in honor of USDF's 40th anniversary, of course.
40th-anniversary cupcakes surround a "Happy Birthday USDF" cake. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

Happily caffeinated and fortified, the delegates settled back in to listen to the customary presentations by a United States Equestrian Federation representative and by the head of the USEF's high-performance dressage arm. Today we heard from USEF CEO John Long and USEF dressage chef d'equipe Robert Dover.

Long, who announced that he will step down next June, reaffirmed the USEF's determination to self-police in the area of equine welfare:

"We’re continually reminded of the problems the Tennessee Walkers have. The [US] government has intervened; as you may have heard, two Tennessee Walker trainers were arrested this week. But that’s not what we want to happen to us. Better for us to take care of those issues than someone else coming in from the outside and telling us what we have to do."

That's why, among others, USEF rules prohibiting injections 12 hours prior to competition have been passed, Long said.

Robert Dover addresses the USDF Board of Governors. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

A couple of tantalizing quotes from Dover, who laid out his "big audacious goal" of getting US riders atop medal podiums in his "Roadmap to the Podiums" earlier this year:

"We are on the march to have [dressage] combinations that can [score] between 75 and 85 percent. That’s the formula for a medal."

And for those dressage-pony advocates out there:

"I’m so determined to enhance this [the US pony dressage program] until we have the strongest pony division in the world."
  Amidst these developments, the USDF itself appears to have turned the economic corner, said executive director Stephan Hienzsch, with horse registrations, membership revenue, and recognized-show participation up a tick this year. And USDF treasurer Steve Schubert announced that in 2013 the USDF achieved his goal of amassing six months' worth of operating cash reserves.

Safe travels to all who are Lexington-bound, and we'll see you tomorrow for BOG day 2, more great education sessions, and the Salute Gala and Annual Awards Banquet.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Sharing the Love

Those under the impression that the USDF is out of touch with its members might have rethought their positions had they been at the 2013 Adequan/USDF National Convention today.

As you may be aware, some adult amateur dressage riders have been clamoring for more attention and resources. At the same time, the USDF, like many other equestrian organizations, watches its membership base age and wonders how it will find enough young people to replenish the stock.

Both of these demographics were the subject of discussion at today's USDF Membership Committee meeting, which, like nearly every function at convention, is open to any member.

Two USDF-member-related surveys were conducted this year. The first, by the Membership Committee, aimed to nail down some current demographics and to determine primary reasons for members' decision to renew. The second, an independent survey conducted by then-PhD candidate Jane Rodd, was designed to ascertain adult amateurs' reasons for participating in dressage and for joining the USDF.

It appears that adult amateurs and junior/young riders have very different reasons for becoming involved with the USDF. For the kids, it's all about competing. For the amateurs -- the non-pros among USDF's adult members -- competing takes a back seat to learning, having fun, and enjoying a sense of camaraderie with like-minded enthusiasts.

USDF's affiliated dressage clubs (group-member organizations, or GMOs) are the entry point for many members. Which makes sense, as one's local club is bound to be the primary source of the warm fuzzies many amateurs are after. The takeaway from this is that the USDF needs its GMOs as much as the GMOs need the USDF.

We've all heard the maxim about the importance of first impressions. Well, according to Dr. Rodd's survey respondents, not all dressage enthusiasts earn a score of 10 on this one. Some reported feeling as if they were trying to break into a clique, or were otherwise not warmly welcomed, when they were new GMO members or dressage newbies in general.

This is a disturbing finding that all who love our sport need to take to heart. Does your club, show, event, or barn have a "welcome wagon" system in place? That eager kid or timid lady who approaches you might be your future client, or member, or volunteer extraordinaire.
USDF members crowd in for the sport-horse education session. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

Perhaps the occasional reminder of why we're in this sport would be helpful in banishing DQ syndrome (that's "dressage queen," and it's not a compliment). In my experience, the best horsemen are the best students. They don't know everything, and they don't pretend to know everything. They retain their love of horses and their eagerness to learn. If you needed an example, all you had to do was look at the meeting room at the convention today, where sport-horse judges Bill Solyntjes and Kristi Wysocki presented a condensed version of their seminar on sport-horse judging. It was standing-room only as respected riders, instructors, trainers, judges, and others crowded in for 60 of the more informative minutes I've spent at a convention. That zest for learning is catching, and attendees lingered for many minutes afterward, experimenting with Bill and Kristi's photos of horses, creating conformational plumb lines with pieces of yarn.

And the kids? You betcha we need them -- kids, ponies, instructors and trainers for kids and ponies, the whole package. If competition is their entry point, then so be it -- offer competitive opportunities for kids and ponies. Many of them will find, as we adults did, that although the thrill of chasing blue ribbons may abate over time, the thrill of learning grows and grows.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Convention 101

 Yesterday, a woman at my barn asked me what goes on at a USDF convention.

Business meetings, I replied: The USDF Executive Board (its board of directors) meets, as do the various committees that oversee USDF’s many educational programs, its awards programs, and other workings. The convention is also the annual gathering of the USDF Board of Governors, the delegates elected to represent USDF’s affiliated clubs (group-member organizations, or GMOs) and its participating members.

“Oh, so there are no horses,” my colleague replied. “It sounds kind of boring.”

Compared to riding and being around horses, yes, convention is boring. I am sure that every one of the delegates and regional directors and committee members and other governance-related attendees would rather be at home with their horses than sitting in yet another meeting room in another hotel.

The point is that, despite the fact that serving our sport in this capacity is not a thrill ride, these people do it. They do it because they wish to give back to a sport and an organization that has given them so much. They do it because they believe that USDF’s educational and other programs are valuable and must be supported and nurtured for the future of the sport. They do it because they have strong opinions as to the direction of the organization, and they want to have a voice in shaping that direction.

Because of the efforts of these committed volunteers, the USDF runs a program for dressage-judge indoctrination that is a worldwide model. It has a program for training and certifying dressage instructor/trainers that is now being emulated by other equestrian organizations. It has prestigious recognition programs for dressage horses, riders, breeders, and major contributors to American dressage. It has a thriving system of regional dressage championships. And this year, for the first time in about three decades, it has a national dressage championship competition.

All of these accomplishments were conceived or at least developed in nameless, forgettable meeting rooms in hotels around the country. They were argued over, fought for, fought against, and painstakingly hammered out. And all were eventually green-lighted through a vote at the Board of Governors assembly.

That’s why, once a year, USDF volunteers make the trek from all 50 states to convene. The process isn’t sexy, but it’s important. And in this blog I’ll be sharing the 2013 Adequan/USDF National Convention news and happenings with you.

But Wait, There’s More

Now that I’ve convinced you that convention is deadly dull, I need to add that there’s fun stuff, too. Every year I look forward to learning from the experts—from leading veterinary researchers to saddle fitters—who conduct educational sessions. I enjoy watching the weekend influx of excited award winners who come to receive their honors on stage at the Annual Awards Banquet. And—my favorite—I anticipate the moving, sometimes funny, always memorable presentations to the year’s Roemer Foundation/USDF Hallof Fame inductees and USDF Lifetime Achievement Award recipients.

Family Reunion

After a while, the convention regulars start to seem like family. Many USDF volunteers maintain long-distance friendships and can be seen throughout the hotel catching up. I’ve even heard reports of some memorable late-night parties.

In that spirit, welcome to the USDF family! Please join me for a few days of learning, doing, and fun. I’m glad you’re along for the ride.