One of my favorite things about dressage is that there are so many ways to play. Schooling shows, recognized shows, little local ones, big hairy international ones, everything in between. There’s room in our sport for the person with the day job who are weekend warriors with their rescue pony, and there’s room in our sport for the independently wealthy with time and resources to ride at the top level. There’s room for the professional who teaches people how to do their first tests, and there’s room for the professional who brings them to the international ring. There’s lots of room.
But I’ve always felt that dividing classes by rider occupation was a silly line in the sand to draw. The working students of the world who come to their jobs not knowing much more than how to put their horses on the bit have to compete in their first-ever first level test against me on something with international ambitions, and that seems unfair. The weekend warrior on the pony has to compete against the amateur who’s made Grand Prix horses and is starting anew with something young, and that seems unfair.
And yeah, it’s just a ribbon. At the local shows, I don’t care, but some people do. And at the regional and national championships, a lot of people do. For some riders, that local show is their regionals, or their nationals or their Olympics.
What if, instead of dividing classes by rider occupation, we divided them by level of rider experience?
If you’ve never heard of the Col. Bengt Ljunquist Memorial Championships here in the Mid-Atlantic, allow me to introduce you. It’s a dressage show that’s been around forever, and instead of amateur and open divisions, it’s got senior A and senior B divisions at every level. Senior A at training level is for riders who’ve not shown above second level, and senior B is for those who have. Senior A at Prix St. Georges is for riders who’ve not shown above Intermediaire I, and senior B is for those who have. Occupation is irrelevant; the professional hunters and colt starters and up-down lesson teachers who have their first-ever first level horse get to compete against amateurs in the same boat, independent of where their paychecks come from.
This is an easy thing to confirm. USDF has a rider’s entire lifetime of scores in a searchable database.
The USEF also has a section on their website: one for proposed rule changes meant for their membership to peruse and weigh in on before they’re discussed at the annual meeting. There’s currently one in the general rules section proposing a change in how sport is divided. As written this particular rule change, listed under tracking number 064-23, specifically proposes some changes to the hunter, jumper and equitation disciplines, and then states: “It is our hope that other affiliates may follow suit in reclassifying their amateur riders.”
I have no dog in the fight of whether this rule change will go through or not. But here’s my proposal for dressage:
The CBLM system is fantastic. If you’ve ever shown above X level at a recognized show, you’re in the B division; if not, you’re in the A division. We could push it out further and classify riders, maybe a number system. Until you’ve shown at second level, you’re a Class 1 rider; second to fourth, Class 2; Prix St. Georges and I1, Class 3; and above, Class 4. Your scores at that level are irrelevant—48% or 98%, it doesn’t matter, you’re still a Class Whatever.
And then recognized shows can use that system as such: Training and first level classes are pinned by Class 1 riders, and then Class 2 and above. Third level classes are Class 1-2 and Class 3 and above, and so on. Your classification is for life unless you apply to the USEF (say, if you did Young Riders, which is a Prix St. Georges equivalent, took a 20-year break from horses to do adulty things, and now want to come back to sport) to be reinstated as a Class 1 or whatever again. Right now, that’s the process that we use to reclassify formerly open riders as amateurs. It’s not hard. And maybe (just maybe) it’ll disincentivize the flying up the levels before a rider is ready.
Yes, it’ll mean that there are people who squeaked into a second level, test 1, or a fourth level, test 1, on icky scores who now have to play with the big (or at least bigger) kids. Yes, it’ll mean that an amateur with a day job and a life at home who got one horse to Grand Prix now has to swim with the big fish who do this for a living when they start the next horse. And yes, it’ll mean that occasionally a professional young horse backer who’s getting many, many hours of saddle time a day but no competition experience above second level would compete against the nervous beginner on the rescue pony. Whenever one draws a line, someone will be unhappy with where it is drawn.
And yes, we are lucky in dressage—in ways that our jumping brethren are not—in that we receive scores at the end of our rides. So if we place last on a 74%, we get to be pretty excited anyway, just as winning on a 52% is no achievement. But ribbons are nifty. Championships are cool. And dividing sport by level of experience instead of by occupation feels like a way to get the ribbons and the championships onto a more level playing field.
So whether this particular rule change goes through or not, I hope it’s the opening of a door to a conversation. The end result could be a fairer system, one where you’re more likely to compete against your peers—your true peers, not just those who share a job title.
Lauren Sprieser is a USDF gold, silver and bronze medalist with distinction making horses and riders to FEI from her farm in Marshall, Virginia. She’s currently developing The Elvis Syndicate’s C. Cadeau, as well as her own string of young horses, with hopes of one day representing the United States in team competition. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram.