Thursday, May. 30, 2024

We Should Demand More In Our Dressage Performance Standards

The author suggests that U.S. dressage riders approach their competitions with a different perspective.

I still remember that when I tested for my driver’s license many years ago one of the questions on the written part of the exam was, “Is the driver’s license a right, or a privilege?”

Saying it was a right would clearly have expressed the wrong attitude. It would have meant that one could just do whatever one wanted out there on the road. That is not the box I checked, or I would have failed the exam.

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The author suggests that U.S. dressage riders approach their competitions with a different perspective.

I still remember that when I tested for my driver’s license many years ago one of the questions on the written part of the exam was, “Is the driver’s license a right, or a privilege?”

Saying it was a right would clearly have expressed the wrong attitude. It would have meant that one could just do whatever one wanted out there on the road. That is not the box I checked, or I would have failed the exam.

Similarly, I would like to present a different and more immediately significant approach to performance standards in the dressage division of the U.S. Equestrian Federation.

It doesn’t help when a long-time participant in our American dressage world stands up at a meeting where newly proposed USEF performance standards are being proposed and says to the effect, “This ain’t Germany!”

The obvious implication is that here in the United States everyone has the “right” to participate, no matter what they do out there in the dressage arena. Perhaps this also has something to do with our tradition of coming out third or worse as a team in international competition. We also have no individual medals to show for our now significant time in international competition. We are doing our thing as a “right.” We do not view dressage, at any level, as a privilege.

Now before anyone jumps in and says all this smacks of elitism and snobbery, or is arrogantly unpatriotic, let me give a brief true story, an experience I had while visiting the home of an exhibitor (not during competition). It is very telling how this works on a mundane level. After a very convivial dinner, the hostess insisted on taking me to her den and trophy room. Her many blue ribbons were displayed there, along with others. I complimented her, and she beamed with pride. Then I asked her to tell me what some of them were for. She happened to point out a large
blue one. She said it was for Prix St. Georges at such-and-such show.

I couldn’t help myself, and I blurted out, “Just out of curiosity, what was the score?” Her answer, admittedly with a smile, was, “46 percent.”

I restrained myself from asking how many had been in the class. For her that ribbon was clearly a “right.” And I knew she would not have cared for me to share my further thoughts, which I kept to myself.

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Now we also have long-time dressage competition participants who refer to themselves as “scientists.” In resisting a call for performance standards they have gone to the trouble of pointing out that “statistically” not many people have “bad rides,” and the few who do are not significant. Nonetheless, but for a few exceptions, those of us who judge know that the standard is not really that high around our country, although yes, for some reason, scores are usually at least over 50 percent. Great!

A Hands-Off Lower Levels Mentality

In the meantime, as far as USEF is concerned, the dressage committee and those assigned to deliver its proposals have not shown a great deal of leadership. They were transparently not prepared for the “right” versus “privilege” argument, which would inevitably crop up. They didn’t really address the issue of how we would increase, or even be aware of, a necessity for “performance” standards.

Not so strangely, the whole thing, as I recall, was merely premised on a bad third level test some judge had seen, which amounted to cruelty to animals, and that was the only reason for the start of the discussion. Why didn’t the judge just give the ride the score it deserved and move on?

The current proposals have a premise that if someone has trained and gathered enough scores at the level below, it will mean that they are more prepared to move up to the next level. However, my years of experience as a trainer, competitor, coach, instructor and judge tell me that just because a horse does decently well at one level it doesn’t mean the horse, or a rider, will be truly ready for the next level. Making it a rider-based system, once certain scores have been earned at the level before, also does not ensure that such a rider, on different horses, will be capable of moving up the levels.

When the right versus privilege folks entered the discussion, somewhat understandably because of the low standard of performance we already have, the USEF, instead of moving down the scale to the lower levels, moved up to restrict only the requirements to participate in FEI classes. It has thus become a “hands-off policy” on behalf of the USEF regarding the lower levels.

From my perspective, that policy, along with the drafting of some of the tests at third and fourth level (which is an additional discussion for another time), has become the reason many or most horses don’t move up into the medium and upper levels.

USEF did wisely soften the blow of any requirements by grandfathering those of us who have trained horses and riders to the upper levels of performance, or have done so in the past, and who arguably at least should know better. There would hopefully be fewer folks among this group who would be apt to ride down centerline unprepared at FEI, or who were unknowing of the standards set forth in the purposes of the tests, the directives for the various movements and the general impressions.

Frankly, I believe it is at the lower levels that we need to enforce standards. Most folks who ride down centerline in the FEI tests understand that when the smoke settles it usually has been a well-earned privilege and an honor to perform at that level, not just a right.

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A Different Approach

With an eye to expanding this proposal, let me suggest as follows. This approach would also be much less expensive to administrate and to live with as competitors. We, the United States, should adopt what I have known as the Danish system.

It goes like this. First place has to be 70 percent or above, second from 65-70 percent, third place 60-65 percent, fourth 55-60 percent, fifth 50-55 percent, and that’s it. No sixth place, or 46 percent, gets a ribbon.
This will clarify the expectations for the privilege of performing, and it will dampen the impulse to compete just for those all-too-coveted ribbons. A simple certificate can be issued after each class at the shows, copy to the competitor, copy to the USEF and U.S. Dressage Federation. If the competitor wants a ribbon for his or her result, one can be mailed to them for their den/trophy room when the show management knows precisely how many are needed of each color.

Without meaning to disparage the tragic turn of events for our dressage team in Hong Kong recently, if we had at least four Grand Prix horses whose riders (and owners of the horses) understood the standard at which they need to perform and were consistently able to attain over 70 percent, we could reliably advance ourselves at least in the international team medal standings. But we as a dressage nation need the right mentality to accomplish that. We need to operate with a more thorough understanding of what dressage involves.

It is important to have a high general standard against which one competes, rather than just competing against one another. The scores received through the year can also be readily tabulated under such a system for any year-end awards, plus trainer, coaching and rider recognition awards for genuine excellence. And we should all remain eminently aware of any increase in performance standards of our competitors, or lack thereof.

One of my own students sent me an e-mail recently. She first explained her mistakes and thus why she had gotten a
60 percent plus at a USEF-recognized show. And then she added cautiously at the end, “BTW, my score was still the highest of the four horses in the fourth level 1.” That’s the right attitude: the perfection of one’s riding skills first and then the placement. And, that’s the way competitors should view their time in the show ring, to keep it a privilege, not just a right.

To close, let me add that in my opinion the USEF and the USDF have dropped the ball on the essence of all this. To reach a high performance standard we need to emphasize and secure the quality of our trainers, coaches and thus riders. I personally believe the USEF (not just USDF) should have more influence on this as well, on an educational basis, just as the USEF has at least thought of doing for our hunter/jumpers. But that would take strong, decisive leadership.

I do think that if we let things go too far south nationally we risk that it has an effect on what we end up doing internationally. It has to work up and down the line. There has to be a certain level of knowledge and a sense of honor in our national circumstances. As a nation, we seem to have an attitude that dressage is a “right” not a “privilege” to participate in. That won’t get anyone a real “driver’s license.”  

Michael Kierkegaard


Michael Kierkegaard is a U.S. Equestrian Federation S-rated judge in dressage and holds the distinction of being the first instructor to be certified through fourth level by the U.S. Dressage Federation. He trains students and horses at his Saybrook Dressage in Felton, Pa.

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