Between Rounds: Rethinking The USDF Medals

May 23, 2022 - 8:03 AM

Grand Prix trainer and competitor Jeremy Steinberg was the U.S. Equestrian Federation national dressage youth coach from 2010 to 2014. The 1996 FEI North American Young Riders Dressage Championships individual gold medalist, he is a former U.S. Dressage Federation Junior/Young Rider clinic series clinician. He credits much of his dressage education to the late Dietrich von Hopffgarten, his longtime friend and mentor. Today Steinberg runs a boutique-style training business in Aiken, South Carolina, and travels the country giving clinics.


The U.S. Dressage Federation Awards Committee has proposed a new level of rider medals, “medals of distinction,” to complement the current bronze, silver and gold medals. This makes sense on many levels, as those score requirements have been in place since the inception of the program in 1973. The quality of riding, horses, judging and overall education has changed since then, and it’s time to raise that bar. Those who disagree can continue to pursue medals in the older program since it sounds like the new award program will exist beside the original one.

The threshold score for your regular medal is 60%, and for the new medal of distinction the minimum would be 64%. According to the USDF website “Tests” section, “A percentage of 65% or higher is generally thought to mean the horse is ready to move up a level.” In essence, these awards have been encouraging people to “move up a level” in the pursuit of their medals with scores lower than what is generally thought to mean your horse is ready to move up. Maybe this just an accidental contradiction, but the medal program has needed reform for a few decades now.

Desired Effects

I sometimes wish the USDF had a “cause and effect” committee whose purpose would be to list the pros and cons of each new program and look at its long-term effect or to study the current programs and what they have produced, encouraged, changed or affected. The committee would then report back to USDF without bias, which I know is basically impossible to do, their findings on the purpose of the program, and if that program is having the desired effect.

I thought of this committee while wondering why the medal award came into existence. There’s no purpose mentioned on the USDF website for the medals, which I know seems obvious, but is it really? Take for example the Volunteer of the Year award, which states, “A prestigious award of national scope that recognizes a USDF member who, through consistent and cumulative volunteer activities, has demonstrated exceptional commitment toward carrying out USDF’s mission: ‘dedicated to education, recognition of achievement and promotion of dressage.’ ” Or the Dressage Seat Medal program, which states, “The USEF/USDF Dressage Seat Medal Program celebrates excellence in equitation and strives to develop a solid foundation for future success in the dressage arena.”

Back when the idea of giving out medals for show scores was conceived, what was the reason, and if we look back now, is that mission being accomplished?

I would be curious to know how the awards conversation went down in that committee meeting back in the ’70s. I’m sure it was a daunting task to complete. But was that program created so that our trainers could use it as advertising, so students would take them seriously as trainers? Was it something a prospective client should be using as a gauge of a trainer’s abilities? Is it an award for the trainer who can say they have medal-winning students? Was it created to be able to say, “I’m competent at every level,” and if so, is it really competence we’re striving for? If that’s the case, why is the competency score of 60%—or even now, 64%—lower than what is deemed “generally thought to mean the horse is ready to move up a level” with a 65%? Was it a competency-based award saying, “I can navigate a horse through any and all level of test that the medal I have shows,” or was it supposed to be a reflection on the ability to train? Because it really isn’t showing us any proof that the rider can do anything other than ride a test adequately. If we knew why these medals were born, we could understand whether the medal is doing what it was intended to do.

USDF medals
Could the U.S. Dressage Federation medal program offer a parallel track that encourages training versus showing? Lisa Slade Photo

Training Versus Showing

I think USDF’s Awards Committee has missed the mark on this slight reimagining of the medal program. Not to invalidate those who have received their medals, but it’s possible to borrow or buy a horse that is already trained in order to get a medal. Yet the rider who trains their own horse to that level is awarded the same medal. How can USDF award the training instead of the showing and separate the two very different feats? One is a “recognition of achievement,” and the other is recognition of ability or horsemanship.

I don’t personally have my medals, as I’ve never believed that medal status should be used in evaluating an instructor’s competency. Rewarding showing does not create good horse(wo)men; rewarding good training does, and those two things are not always one and the same. There is no award promoting good, long-term, systematic training of a horse.

I will argue again and again for the horses’ welfare when a rider puts their medal needs over the needs of their horse. Recently a rider I know was talking about taking her 22-year-old horse out at third level so she can get her medal scores since she’s already “done” second level. She’s being encouraged by other trainers to do this, even though the horse does not have a flying change with this rider. One trainer told her to put the horse in training with someone who can teach him flying changes, which I find not only ridiculous but actually upsetting, that at 22 this horse is going to get a whole new career he probably cannot ever do, all in an effort to get a medal for a rider who cannot be content to just learn how to ride better. Whose fault is it that this horse will be put in this position? The weight that gets put on these programs to get a medal or a score seems counterproductive to the task of caring for our animals and creating horsemen and women who take their custodianship of the creatures they ride seriously, not to mention the training they put in.

I hear young trainer after young trainer tell me how important it is that they get their medals because they lose clients to other trainers who have them. They pressure their horses or riders to get these medals as some kind of accreditation, but they don’t take into account the stress they are putting on the horses for this dream. In my travels I see many younger trainers borrowing horses and securing rides on horses they haven’t trained, all in the pursuit of these medals, just so they can then advertise they are some level of medalist.

If we’re going to use a medal program to gauge a rider or trainer’s ability to train, it should not be a score-based system that allows for the purchase or borrowing of an already trained horse. Otherwise, if the purpose of the medal program is not to gauge a trainer’s ability, and it’s just an award program that states you are able to navigate a horse through a test of a certain level competently, why don’t we call it that, a “horse show competency award?”

The solution I see isn’t to keep raising the scores, since we all know it’s possible to either buy or shop those scores to a certain extent, even though everyone loves to argue that isn’t the case, and obviously you need some skills to navigate the tests. It is, however, the proverbial elephant in the room when talking about this program. It is possible to find higher-scoring judges, ride in certain clinics, or buy or borrow certain horses that can make those dreams more viable. Although I agree that the scores for these medals should be raised, that is not the solution to making the medal program more meaningful.

If we want this award to legitimize a professional, it would need to be based on their ability to train the horse, not their ability to show the horse.

Meaningful Changes

Currently, to earn awards or qualify for championships, your horse has to be registered with U.S. Equestrian Federation and USDF, as do you as a rider, owner or trainer. So the database on riders and owners of competition horses already exists and could track whether a rider has been a horse’s sole owner or show rider that horse’s entire career. As the current medal system requires scores at every level starting with first level, we’ll continue to use that ladder.

Using the current structure of scores and tests, here are my suggested changes: First, you have to be the only rider who has shown the horse from the time its career starts to the final score you need for each medal. If you want to get a silver medal, you would have to be the rider who got the bronze medal scores, and if you want a gold medal, you have to be the rider who got the silver medal score, all on the same horse. There’s one simple caveat: that horse has never been shown in a USDF/USEF competition by any other rider, and the horse must have been registered with the USEF and USDF by the age of 4 so it could be tracked. The owner and/or rider would have to be in it for the long haul.

I believe this ability separates the best trainers from the rest. The score thresholds could be lower so that it would be possible to train an average horse from training level to Grand Prix and get recognition for the task. It would not be about how high the scores are (though there would have to be a minimum); it would be about training the horse from the beginning and proving the trainer has done all the work to bring the horse to that level.

No system is perfect, and yes, it would be possible for someone at home to do a lot of the actual training, but it does change the value of this award, as the rider or owner has stuck with a process long enough to produce a horse to the Grand Prix level if a gold medal is our golden standard. Ask any elder, respected trainer if they know who can produce horses to Grand Prix dressage, and you’ll notice the list of people is small, and there are often complaints about not enough people being able to produce a trained horse. It’s time we award the ability to train a horse and encourage the education that we need in our trainers.

Under this structure, the USDF medals would have a distinction between a medal you received from training a horse through the levels or a medal received for piloting a horse trained by someone else. This would offer two new awards for training: an amateur medal and a professional one.

Fewer trainers would get these medals, but anyone who did, professional or amateur, would have really earned them. The general public, erudite and otherwise, could look to those medals as a validation of a rider’s skillsets. On another note, the horse will have had to stay with its trainer long term, so those medals also take on a special meaning for the owner of the horse who believed in the rider and trainer enough to get the job done. There could be yet another award for owners of these horses, to encourage more long-term ownership and recognition for them.

This new medal would bring a whole new tier of accomplishment into the fold that separates the wheat from the chaff.

It’s time for USDF to start rewarding horse training instead of scores or showing accomplishments and find a way to honor training and trainers instead of just pilots. There are programs and awards through USDF for nearly everything under the sun: Why not one that rewards and encourages horse training?


This article ran in The Chronicle of the Horse‘s May 23 & June 6, 2022, issue. Subscribers may choose online access to a digital version or a print subscription or both, and they will also receive our lifestyle publication, Untacked. 

If you’re just following COTH online, you’re missing so much great unique content. Each print issue of the Chronicle is full of in-depth competition news, fascinating features, probing looks at issues within the sports of hunter/jumper, eventing and dressage, and stunning photography.

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