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November 20, 2009

Our Lost Generations

Our columnist sees a void in our system for discovering and developing talented young dressage riders.

Close to 40 years ago, dressage was introduced to this country as a “new” concept in riding. Slowly the discipline was accepted, adopted and embraced by American riders.

We have the event riders to thank for the initiative of being the first to bring dressage over here, and once it took hold, its growth in popularity has been rapid and rewarding. That is, for adult participants.

Our giant mistake when dressage first arrived was to make it an “X-rated” sport by promoting it as an exclusively adult activity. Not only were children on ponies not encouraged to participate, in some cases they were actively discouraged, as if we wanted to keep them out.

Eventually, and not without resistance, we developed Young Rider and Junior programs for youngsters to compete and participate in Fédération Equestre Internationale events. For seven years, I was very active in the Junior department, and it was sometimes like pulling teeth to get support for the youth to partake and be welcomed to dressage.

“This is not a kiddy sport” was the answer I received from one famous rider when I approached her for help with the juniors, as if this was a well-known and accepted fact.

I once had an 11-year-old student who won the Prix St. Georges Championship at Devon (Pa.). The surprise and upset among the adults was interesting to behold, as if they were thinking: “Who let that child into our playground?”

We have in this country thousands and thousands of gorgeous ponies who all live in the hunter/jumper world and never show up at a dressage clinic or show. Lendon Gray is one of the few souls who has tirelessly focused on helping the kids who want to ride and compete in our world.

Thankfully, Lendon’s annual show, Dressage For Kids, has become a place for youngsters to pilgrimage to every year, but the sad fact is that there are hardly any other such events available anywhere in this huge country. We sure need more fine souls like Lendon around to copy her, create their own ideas and focus on the young.

And, of course, we need funds to enable us to run programs that support the kids. We desperately need a little league of dressage and people to entertain that notion with their minds and their actions!

A Country To Emulate

When I was in Windsor, England, in August, for the FEI European Dressage Championships, I met and talked to Dr. Maarten van der Heijden, director of sports and international affairs in the Netherlands for the Royal Dutch Equestrian Center. He filled me in on some of the successful youth activities in the Netherlands, which are sponsored by Rabobank and supported by all of the best trainers, judges and organizers.

He also sent me a PowerPoint presentation that outlines the process, and although the program of scouting for talent and educating the young riders is only about 10 years old, it’s already yielding fabulous results.

The sponsor is involved with the activities and constantly checking in and expecting progress. At some of the final events, the audience gets to vote on the winners, which is a great way to win new fans and involve more people.

Here’s a whole new and wonderful reason for anyone who has the energy and know-how to raise funds to start his or her own legacy. Once the youth program is a success, whoever supported its beginnings will be not onlya pioneer and founder, but also eventually given credit for the riders who will develop out of the youth program and become our future team riders.

Our second void is the age group 21 to 28, the so-called “Brentina” group. We lose a number of riders when they are no longer eligible for the Young Rider division. Some of them move on to other things; others cannot advance their horses to the Grand Prix and therefore lose interest.

But many of them are just lost in space and frustrated with no help to continue the training of the horse or guide them into the senior division. The step from Prix St. Georges to Grand Prix is a big one, almost like working with a whole new sport, and to go it alone for the inexperienced is almost mission impossible.

What the Brentina age group needs is a mentor/teacher at home and a national program of education to guide them and provide “checkups” on their training.

It’s Time To Wake Up

To begin with, we need to take inventory of our young talent, then try to find help and advice for them and their instructors. The U.S. Equestrian Federation will help by inviting them to Developing Rider Clinics, and the U.S. Dressage Federation can help by making available their excellent records of shows and championships to assist in finding the riders who deserve to be invited. Our judges can help by alerting the USEF dressage department when they judge or observe an especially talented combination.

Although our Brentina Cup age group experiences growing pains, at least most of them have had the Junior and Young Rider path of competitions as a guideline, while our youngest group, the kids under 16, have had basically no encouragement at all to participate. They’re offered few opportunities to partake in their own competitions where they are measured against their peers.

Having had no pipeline to produce new riders is the reason we are now scrambling to find viable combinations ready to go down the centerline for the United States at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games next year in Kentucky.

Let’s not be asleep any longer, but start from the beginning with the toddlers on ponies who will grow up to be experts in their early teens. Anyone who has been to the Junior and Young Rider shows in Europe comes home awed by the sophisticated riding displayed by the youth over there. They don’t have to look for riders and horses to take the place of retired combinations; they have them waiting in line and rearing to go.

It will take time and commitment, but we can follow the yellow brick road and get the same results that, for example, the Dutch have enjoyed.

As of October, the USEF launched a pilot National Youth And Pony Program under the direction of Lendon Gray. That’s possibly one of the most significant and visionary things we’ve ever done in dressage, although years late. This new enterprise will need support from every instructor, judge, parent and friend of dressage to take root, flourish and eventually bring us the American dressage riders of the future.

We have to produce our own riders, the way we have started to produce our own horses. If we do not, we’ll be again and again looking for up-and-coming riders to fill the ranks and see nothing but another empty space. 

Anne Gribbons moved to the United States from Sweden in 1972 and has trained more than a dozen horses to Grand Prix. She rode on the 1986 World Championships dressage team and earned a team silver medal at the 1995 Pan American Games. An O-rated dressage judge based in Chuluota, Fla., Gribbons serves as a longstanding member of the USEF High Performance Committee. She started contributing to Between Rounds in 1995.

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