Live from Omaha!

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

Saturday, January 18, 2014

It's a Long Way to the Top if You Want to Do Dressage

Day one of the 2014 USDF/USEF Young Rider Graduate Program was all about work.

Not training. Not riding. Not flying changes or showing or any of the wonderful horsey stuff that makes so many young people want to pursue dressage as a career.

Today's speakers focused on the unglamorous hard work and attention to detail that go into building a successful business as a dressage trainer, instructor, or rider.

International competitor Jessica Jo "JJ" Tate started things off by recounting her own career trajectory, from horse-crazy high-school student to successful professional with several high-level horses that are garnering national attention.

This will come as no surprise, but "hard work" is tops on Tate's list of steps to success. An unwavering work ethic and the courage to set goals and seek opportunities for advancement -- these were also key for Tate, who left her home state of Wisconsin to move to Hungary (a country she'd never visited, populated by people whose language she didn't speak) to study under Olympian Gyula Dallos, all at the recommendation of Tate's mentor, Charles de Kunffy. Later, the same courage led Tate to leave her thriving dressage business in Wisconsin to move to the East Coast to work for another important influence, Oded Shimoni.

All the while, Tate said, professionalism is paramount.

"Learn to bite your tongue," Tate said. "Never have a meltdown at a horse show. Learn to compartmentalize. If you go to the doctor, your doctor doesn't come in the exam room and share his personal problems. He conducts himself in a professional manner. I might be upset and stressed because my top horse just sustained an injury, but I have a lesson in an hour and a student who expects me to bring it 100 percent and focus on her and her horse."

Professionalism includes paying close attention to your image and your actions, stressed Debbie Witty, president of Performance Saddlery, makers of Trilogy saddles. Witty discussed her rationale for sponsoring dressage riders and trainers, explaining what impresses her and how she makes the decision to sponsor -- or not sponsor -- a rider.

For Witty, it boils down to a positive image and "pleasant, polite" promotion of oneself and her products. She likes to support riders whose conduct reflects well on themselves and on her company, and who she believes have the potential to act as ambassadors for both her products and our sport. Mindful of image, she pays attention to a rider's presence on social media, and she also "loves it when riders mention us on their Facebook pages."

Sponsorship by Performance Saddlery starts with complimentary saddle-flocking and goes all the way up to saddles and saddle pads. But regardless of the level, the rider can bill herself a PS-sponsored rider and may be eligible for promotional consideration on the company's website and Facebook page, among others.

Piggybacking on Witty's session theme was equine-marketing pro Johnny Robb, who spoke on sponsorships, as well. Robb echoed Witty's emphasis on being positive and persistent ("without being a pest," she qualified). She emphasized the importance of enthusiasm -- for our sport, for the products and the company you're wooing -- and creativity in one's approach.

Think like a marketer, Robb advised. "What do you have to offer a sponsor? Position yourself as a marketing solution. How can you make their life and their job easier?"

One of the day's most engaging sessions was about a topic that might strike some as dull: equine law. But equine lawyer Yvonne Ocrant's introduction to equine liability issues, and the land mines involved in dealing with lawsuits, had the Young Rider Grad Program participants peppering the Chicago-based lawyer with questions.

Equine-liability statutes vary from state to state, Ocrant stressed -- and a few states have no such statutes at all. Read your state's statute carefully to learn, among other things, its definition of "equine activity" and "participant."

A careful paper trail, ample warning signage (in state-approved legalese), solid contracts and liability releases, and lots and lots of communication with clients can help protect you in the case of a lawsuit, Ocrant said. Oh, and lots of the right type of insurance --which she'll delve into tomorrow.

Media relations was the subject of Lindsay McCall's talk. McCall, who specializes in equine-industry PR, photography, and journalism, covered such topics as the importance of preparing an "elevator speech" (a five-minute introduction that includes your background, horse info, achievements, and goals) and strategies for handling interview requests (be friendly and accommodating; frame all responses in a positive light; never speak ill of one's horse, teammates, or other factors; thank supporters and sponsors).

Realize that some interviewers are horse-savvy while others don't know one end from the other. For the latter, use simple terms as free of equestrian and dressage jargon as possible. And always spell your name and that of your horse!

Photography is a big part of journalism, of course. McCall pointed out the rampant copyright violations that occur, especially pertaining to Facebook and other online postings of professional photographs. Obtain permission from the photographer before you post that great show photo (you may have to pay a fee for digital usage rights), and always credit the photographer.

Beth Baumert, president of The Dressage Foundation, gave an overview of that charitable organization's many funds and grants. She encouraged the YRGP participants to give to causes they believe in and stressed that no amount is too small or insignificant. Most of all, she urged the young adults in the room to plan for their own secure financial futures by establishing a retirement savings account (she likes Roth IRAs because they're seeded with after-tax money, meaning that the withdrawals will be tax-free) as early as possible, to take maximum advantage of the power of compounded interest.

United States Equestrian Federation managing director of dressage Jenny van Wieren-Page rounded out the day with a look at the USEF's "pipeline" for dressage, beginning with juniors and ponies and finishing at the high-performance level. She encouraged the YRGP participants to contact the USEF with questions about programs and eligibility, and also to feel free to contact the national dressage coaches with questions.

We covered a lot of ground in one day! Now the grad YRs are looking forward to a special evening: dinner with national coaches Robert Dover, Debbie McDonald, and Scott Hassler.

See you tomorrow for day 2 of the YR Graduate Program!

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