Let’s Wel­come Chil­dren to U.S. Dres­sage Shows

Spark­ing in­ter­est in youth is crit­i­cal to en­sur­ing the fu­ture of the sport.

Dressage Today - - Viewpoint - By Klaus Scheng­ber

In Europe dres­sage shows are fam­ily af­fairs. Young chil­dren, whether they are com­pet­ing or not, are wel­come at all events. Child-friendly ac­tiv­i­ties can be found around the show grounds with chil­dren play­ing and, yes, mak­ing noise with smil­ing adults. Con­trast that with U.S. shows. There are very few chil­dren and those who are there are buried in their elec­tronic de­vices. Loud chil­dren of­ten get scowls in­stead of smiles with their par­ents try­ing to quiet them through­out the show. In­stead of leav­ing ea­ger to re­turn to a show (or bet­ter yet, to ride in a show), they go home with an un­der­stand­ably neg­a­tive feel­ing. We need to change that.

There have been im­por­tant ef­forts to in­clude chil­dren in the sport. Peo­ple like or­ga­ni­za­tion Dres­sage4Kids (D4K). Orig­i­nally just the name of a web­site, D4K has blos­somed into a full-fledged non­profit, op­er­at­ing the YDF, the Week­end Ed­u­ca­tional Pro­gram, pony-only clin­ics and the East Coast Dres­sage Pony Cup while trans­form­ing the pro­ceeds from th­ese func­tions into valu­able schol­ar­ships for as­pir­ing dres­sage rid­ers.

The FEI has in­tro­duced a new sec­tion at the in­ter­na­tional level for kids un­der 14, called Chil­dren on Horses. And the USDF of­fers an eq­ui­tation pyra­mid in the USDF Train­ing Man­ual that pro­vides a guide for rider’s de­vel­op­ment from be­gin­ner to ad­vanced. The USEF Na­tional Young Adult Brentina Cup dres­sage pro­gram was de­signed to help Young Rid­ers be­come suc­cess­ful Grand Prix com­peti­tors.

In my opin­ion, th­ese are all won­der­ful and nec­es­sary ef­forts. But it sim­ply doesn’t start early enough, and de­spite th­ese pro­grams and the train­ing, chil­dren re­main un­der­rep­re­sented at U.S. horse shows. I’m not talking nec­es­sar­ily about com­peti­tors but rather younger at­ten­dees. Why don’t they come? Be­cause it’s not fun, and when chil­dren are bored, par­ents take the blame.

I have found other top rid­ers who seem to share this sen­ti­ment with me. Lau­ren Sam­mis, a two-time U.S. dres­sage team medal­ist who earned team gold and in­di­vid­ual sil­ver at the Pan Am Games in 2007 and is a USDF gold, sil­ver and bronze medal­ist, was asked how she could con­tinue rid­ing with chil­dren. Han­nah Salazar, owner and head trainer at Zaragoza Acres and mother of two boys, and Ulla Parker, an FEI trainer/ rider, USDF bronze and sil­ver medal­ist and cer­ti­fied mas­ter Bere­iter, agreed that there is a stigma at­tached to bring­ing chil­dren to a dres­sage show in the U.S. “I choose not to bring my chil­dren. It’s not a wel­com­ing en­vi­ron­ment,” said Salazar.

Th­ese com­ments are rep­re­sen­ta­tive of what I have heard over the years:

• "Grow­ing up in Europe, I was used to hav­ing kids in­volved."

• "Shows are louder in Europe, it's not a li­brary. Kids can be kids."

• "You are al­most looked down upon if you have the au­dac­ity to bring a child to a dres­sage show in the U.S."

• "Why can't we have a des­ig­nated area [for chil­dren] and make it fun! How is the sport go­ing to sur­vive if we can't bring chil­dren? In Europe, it's a fam­ily af­fair. When chil­dren make noise (as they of­ten do), they don't get yelled at.

A lit­tle tol­er­ance would be nice."

Silva Martin, a well-re­spected rider and sought-af­ter trainer who grew up rid­ing in Ger­many, said she be­lieves that the shows in Europe are more en­cour­ag­ing to young dres­sage rid­ers. "Do­ing dres­sage in Ger­many is like go-ing to gym­nas­tics at a young age in this county. Pretty much ev­ery­body does it." So far, Martin has found it pretty easy to bring her son to shows. But she says, too, that she thinks it would be great if there were some fun things to do for chil­dren at the dres­sage shows in the U.S. The ques­tion is, how is the sport go-ing to sur­vive if we can't bring chil­dren to shows? We have to make the show venues wel­com­ing and ac­cept­ing of chil­dren who at­tend with their fam­ily—whether that fam­ily is com­pet­ing or just en­joy­ing the beauty of dres­sage. Dres­sage at Devon (DAD) is one show work­ing to make dres­sage shows more wel­com­ing to chil­dren. In 2015, the show im­ple­mented its Dres­sage Ex-plor­ers pro­gram that takes place on the last day of the show. The day, which was spear­headed by Sally Hib­bert, Devon's Breed Sec­re­tary and cre­ator of the Dres­sage Ex­plor­ers pro­gram, is filled with ac­tiv­i­ties and events for chil­dren, youth and young adults. A Stick-Horse Com­pe­ti­tion for all ages was a high­light with Jeanne McDon-ald tak­ing a break from her judg­ing sched­ule to judge this class. Prior to the com­pe­ti­tion, Ex­plor­ers had the op-por­tu­nity to make and dec­o­rate their own stick horses. Pro­fes­sional rid­ers Julio Men­doza and Tom Dvo­rak even par­tic­i­pated in a quadrille in 2015 with two young as­pir­ing eques­tri­ans. In 2016, ap­prox­i­mately 30 chil­dren (and a few par­ents) took over the Dixon Oval with their stick horses. The Ex­plor­ers went to a Meet-N-Greet with the Tem­pel Lip­iz­zan Stal­lions,

par­tic­i­pated in a scav­enger hunt that led them around the show grounds, played Equine Health Jeop­ardy with the of­fi­cial show vet­eri­nar­ian and went on a be­hind-the-scenes tour of the grounds. In ad­di­tion, DAD part­ners with the USDF to of­fer the USDF Sport Horse Youth Han­dler/Judge Sem­i­nar, cre­ated to fa­mil­iar­ize the younger gen­er­a­tion with the fea­ture classes on Sun­day for Ju­niors in­clud­ing the FEI Ju­nior Freestyle.

Other shows can take a lead from the Wash­ing­ton In­ter­na­tional Horse Show (a hunter/jumper show) that hosts Barn/Group Night. This year, it takes place on Oct. 26 and is a fa­vorite with lo­cal young rid­ers who at­tend in groups and vie for prizes based on best group spirit, best es­say, largest group, etc. All par­tic­i­pants get a free t-shirt and have the unique op­por­tu­nity to walk the show-jump­ing course with Grand Prix rid­ers and get au­to­graphs. On Satur­day af­ter­noon, younger chil­dren en­joy pony rides, face paint­ing and horse-based learn­ing.

U.S. dres­sage shows in gen­eral are quiet places. But why? I won­der whether it has to do with the way our horses are raised and trained. They’re sim­ply not used to noise. They don’t com­pete in a ring with other horses so that when they are per­form­ing, dis­trac­tions are min­i­mal. I would like to hear from other train­ers and rid­ers as to whether there might be dif­fer­ent styles of train­ing that would help the horse learn to fo­cus on his or her rider—de­spite ex­ter­nal dis­rup­tions.

The in­dus­try in gen­eral has be­gun to un­der­stand that our fu­ture is in our chil­dren’s hands and has made sig­nif­i­cant strides in this area. It’s been a good start. But the in­dus­try needs to do more to en­cour­age chil­dren to en­ter the world of dres­sage. And that means that we have to make the show world more wel­com­ing.

Many rid­ers find shows in Europe to be more wel­com­ing for chil­dren. Here is Aus­tralian even­ter Shane Rose at Luh­mühlen in Ger­many. Len­don Gray have de­voted their time, skill and en­ergy to help­ing young rid­ers ex­cel. To en­cour­age young rid­ers, Len­don...

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