Thursday, May. 23, 2024

A Path To Progression Or An Indecent Proposal?

The USEF Dressage Committee took a stab at bringing dressage qualification standards to the United States with its Dressage Performance Standards Proposal, only to find a mob of riders resistant to the proposed system.


The USEF Dressage Committee took a stab at bringing dressage qualification standards to the United States with its Dressage Performance Standards Proposal, only to find a mob of riders resistant to the proposed system.

The U.S. Equestrian Federation Dressage Committee has been batting around the idea of dressage qualifications to move up the levels for years by moving to a system similar to those used in Germany and the Netherlands. In 2008, committee members formally presented a Dressage Performance Standards Proposal to the USEF Board of Directors after discussing possible qualification rules at the annual U.S. Dressage Federation meeting a month earlier. While the Board decided not to vote on the proposal until 2009, the debate about the proposal continues in tackrooms and GMO meetings across the country.

The original proposal required riders to qualify before riding third level by earning points for scores of 
60 percent and higher at second level. Riders would also have to earn points to qualify to ride Prix St. Georges and Intermediaire II.

After much discussion and a mountain of letters from riders and local dressage associations, the Dressage Committee introduced a revised version of the proposed rule in April, which permits riders to compete through third level without qualifying and revamped the points system, awarding points to scores above 58 percent.

According to the new plan, riders who wish to compete at fourth level would need to qualify, either by earning a USDF Bronze Medal, or by earning points through their scores at third level. Riders would also have to qualify to ride at or above Intermediaire I, either by earning their USDF Silver or Gold Medals, or by earning points through their scores at Prix St. Georges. Scores since 1974 would be recognized and qualified riders “grandfathered” into the system.

A rider may earn the scores on multiple horses, over an indefinite period of time, and once qualified, the rider retains that status for life. The proposal is available here. We invited two competitors active in the discussion to explain their thoughts on the proposal and its impact on the dressage community.

George Williams
Proficiency Should Precede Progression

Speaking from my own perspective, I’m a strong believer in the concept behind this proposed rule change; specifically, that one should show a level of proficiency in order to compete at the different levels. As more and more new people are coming into the sport, it’s our responsibility to the horses to ensure that all participants are as well educated and prepared as possible.

The idea has been tossed around for a while, mainly because countries such as Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden, all have a qualification system. But I don’t believe that it’s been discussed in the sense that just because they have one, we must as well. I think when someone has an idea that’s good, it’s important to look at it and evaluate its merits and problems.

The pros and cons have been discussed, and maybe three years ago the idea came up a little more seriously. I’ve been a believer all along that one has to aim for proficiency before moving up. It shows respect and understanding of the sport.

This proposal is about making sure people are properly prepared. It’s a public sport, and every time you go out and compete you are representing your sport to the outside world. One has to keep that in mind. We all get enjoyment from the sport, and by implementing this rule we’re not necessarily taking away from people’s enjoyment. The key is to develop a system that’s doable and workable, but not to make something so easy that you don’t have to work to prove yourself.

One can say that the rule can help address minor abuses of poor-quality riding that are being seen in the show ring, namely riders trying to get through a test that they’re not capable of. But abusive riding isn’t the main reason behind this rule. To me, you can’t say that this rule will stop abuse, but it’s one piece of a much bigger puzzle to solve that problem.


To address abusive riding, you must also include training our judges and instructors, but this rule can help draw attention to how we prepare our horses and riders.

Personally, I don’t believe that statistics are going to say we must have this rule. To me, it’s more about whether or not you believe in the concept of showing a level of proficiency before you progress. I believe that here in the United States we do need to be a little more formal about how we look at competition, not to discourage people from competing, but to help them progress and give them guidance in progressing.

This program also helps riders who are new to the sport evaluate potential instructors. Right now they can speak to an instructor who says they show at Prix St. Georges, but that can be misleading—that doesn’t mean that they have the knowledge or background to do so well.

In an ideal world the system would be self-regulating, but in an ideal world there would be no laws, and that would be the best system to ensure individual and social liberties too. Unfortunately, it’s just not how the world is.

There are instructors who will find this helpful as well. Sometimes instructors are put in awkward positions when students insist on competing at a level they shouldn’t be. Trainers are left trying to figure out how to tell their students that the test they want to ride—or that they just rode on their own—is above them. Maybe this will help spark conversation between instructors and their students.

The grandfather aspect of this rule is important. I have students who will be completely unaffected by the change as well as students who may be delayed in reaching their current goals. They may have to do more work before they can show at the level they would like. But the rule will bring people a sense of accomplishment. People have to be realistic about what’s achievable. With this system we let people know how to progress and how to think about progressing.

There are those who think that you can buy an expensive schoolmaster and compete at the high levels without demonstrating that you belong there. But whether or not you have a schoolmaster, you have to have a certain level of ability, and you have to practice, and you have to put in good practice in order to get there. The concept helps people understand and, hopefully, to set better goals to become better horsemen and better riders.

I think that the qualification requirements are reasonable, but whether this happens exactly as we envision it, the most important result to come out of this is the discussion that’s generated. I like hearing the arguments against this proposed rule change because it helps me to clarify why I do support it. Sometimes you hear an idea and think, “Oh that sounds like a good idea. That makes sense.” And you sign on without thinking it through. The conversation going on within the dressage community has been very helpful.

Rebecca Yount
Allow Riders And Trainers To Decide

The first—and most important—issue with the rule change proposal is that the USEF Dressage Committee, whose members authored the proposal, hasn’t clearly stated the problem it seeks to solve.

Dressage Committee members have implied what the problem might be—they’ve said they see scores in the 30s and riding so poor as to be almost abusive, with riders hanging on the curb rein, spurring the horse abusively and confusing the horse. But if this is the problem, it’s not been mentioned in the rule change proposal to this point.

When I heard this proposal I thought, “Well, if this is prevalent, there’s a problem.” Are there really many scores in the 30s? Is this a major issue that we need to address? Being a scientist, I’ve been trained to approach problems by analyzing data and making decisions based on that data.


So, along with fellow PVDA members Ana Diaz and Mary Stydnicki, I conducted a scientific analysis. [The Yount, Diaz, and Johnston Study, “A Statistical Analysis of Dressage Scores,” is available on the PVDA website. The data showed that the new rule would only address a small percentage of the population.

The statistics show that the number of rides drop off as you move up the levels. For 2007 at training level, for example, there were 33,018 rides, and the numbers drop off until you get to Grand Prix, where there were 2,224 rides. And according to our study, at fourth level only 1 percent of riders scored below 50 percent; at Prix St. Georges, only 1.5 percent were less than 50 percent, at Intermediaire, 2.75 percent, and at Grand Prix, 1.76 percent. So according to the scores, we’re seeing little extremely poor riding in the show ring.

If the intention of the rule is to prevent poor riding, we don’t feel that this language will prevent it. Riders may still move up the levels on one horse and ride another horse poorly at that level. And by preventing riders from showing at a particular level you are further denying the riders feedback.

Also, we have concerns about the judges’ role in this. If there’s so much poor riding going on, the judges aren’t scoring it as such. If the issue is performance in the show ring, the horse, rider and trainer have the obligation to be prepared to compete. It’s their judgment call. If judges feel a movement deserves a 3, they need to give it a 3. If they feel that a rider is riding in a way that’s bordering on abusive they need to let him or her know through the score and the comments. The judge needs to adhere to the established standards, and the USEF needs to empower and support the judges to score rides appropriately.

If the issue is that we want to beat Germany in the Olympics, fine, apply standards to those people who are headed in that direction. Make another track for those who would like to groom themselves for Olympic or team competition. In fact, that track already exists. We already have high performance competitions, we just need to extended that track downward. Let them play in your sandbox and leave us alone.

Yes, they use a qualification system in Europe, but as Col. Clarence Edmonds said at the USDF Region 1 meeting in March, “This is the US of A, this ain’t Deutschland.”

One of the hallmarks of our system of competition is that we have been able to make these kinds of decisions for ourselves. Those of us doing the grunt work, volunteering at the shows and paying the bills, know that we’re not in Europe, and we don’t want to try to copy European systems.

The Dressage Committee wants to implement a rule that will impact all riders and shows—and will create a major bookkeeping requirement—without formally defining what problem they’re trying to solve. We think that now is not the time to pile further costs and requirements onto an already beleaguered competition base.

This rule change won’t affect me personally. I have my USDF Bronze Medal and scores at fourth level toward my silver, so I would be grandfathered into the new proposal and allowed to ride at fourth level. My opposition to this rule change isn’t personal, it’s the principle of the matter.

I think that the Dressage Committee didn’t approach this in a good way—it seemed elitist. The proposal discourages people. There are so many grassroots riders who won’t ever make it to third level, but be that as it may, we feel that it’s wrong to impose these subjective judgmental rules on people dictating what they can do with their own horse.

I believe it’s going to have many unintended effects. People are so discouraged, they may think, “I may as well just hang it up. I want to spend my money on training, not going to shows and getting scores at third level and below. I want to be able to train and work with my trainer—if I have one—and, when we feel it’s time, compete at the level I want to.” There are people who want to work at lower levels for a long time and buy a schoolmaster to show at Prix St. Georges.

With the newest version of the rule change proposal, the Dressage Committee gives the impression that it’s listening a bit, but I still think that the rule change is a bad idea. If you really want to implement it, do it with future Olympians. The rest of us have worked long and hard to get where we are. They’re our horses and our trainers, and we want to make our own decisions about what level to ride and when. 

Mollie Bailey




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