Coach­ing Youth To­ward USDF Medals

FEI-level com­peti­tor and trainer Katie Poag helps her stu­dents earn scores while re­fin­ing their skills in the life-long pur­suit of dres­sage.

Dressage Today - - Content - By Karen Brit­tle

FEI-level com­peti­tor and trainer Katie Poag helps her stu­dents earn scores while re­fin­ing their skills in the life-long pur­suit of dres­sage.

For many, earn­ing a USDF bronze medal is both an end­ing and a be­gin­ning. It marks a level of ac­com­plish­ment that con­firms a rider’s in­vest­ment in the sport of dres­sage. At the same time, it’s re­ally just the be­gin­ning of the more in­tense, up­per-level work. For some rid­ers, the bronze medal is the “end goal” in and of it­self. For oth­ers, it’s a step­ping­stone to­ward the realm of col­lec­tion. This ap­plies in a special way to teen rid­ers, such as 17-year-old Juli­ette Cain and 15-year-old Lily Dar­win, who both re­cently earned their bronze medals, coached by USDF gold medal­ist and FEI-level com­peti­tor Katie Poag.

Be­cause the USDF medal sys­tem is not re­stricted by age, scores that a rider earns as a teenager can still be ap­plied to­ward earn­ing a medal 10, 20 or even 30 years later. In this way, youths who work to­ward USDF medals are po­ten­tially in­te­grat­ing their learn­ing and com­pet­i­tive ex­pe­ri­ences into a long-term af­fil­i­a­tion with the sport of dres­sage and the USDF. The lack of an ex­pi­ra­tion date on the ap­pli­ca­bil­ity of scores to­ward a medal rec­og­nizes that pro­fi­ciency in dres­sage is of­ten a life-long pur­suit; youths like Cain and Dar­win can carry scores and medals earned for­ward into ei­ther an adult hobby or a pro­fes­sional ca­reer.

Poag, who currently cam­paigns her Dutch Warm­blood stal­lion, Zon­nekon­ing, at Grand Prix and owns and op­er­ates Katie Poag Dres­sage near Charleston, South Carolina, views the USDF medal sys­tem as an im­por­tant goal-set­ting tool for her stu­dents, both adults and youth. Poag her­self earned bronze and sil­ver medals as a teen and then her gold in 2009 with Rem­brandt, a Friesian geld­ing and the first horse she suc­cess­fully trained and showed at Grand Prix. Ac­cord­ing to Poag, “There are def­i­nitely more pro­grams now for youth in dres­sage than there were even 15 to 20 years ago. For me, the medals were re­ally im­por­tant be­cause the USDF didn’t have all

the other youth pro­grams they do now. Earn­ing the scores was part of my path, my pro­gres­sion to­ward be­com­ing a pro­fes­sional. To­day, the medals are still likely to be a goal for tal­ented young rid­ers, but this goal can co-ex­ist along­side other youth recog­ni­tion pro­grams. For teen and young adult rid­ers to­day, it’s more like: You’ll ac­com­plish this while you’re get­ting that while you’re work­ing to­ward this.” Poag says the va­ri­ety of in­cen­tives and learn­ing currently avail­able to young rid­ers al­lows teens to find what mo­ti­vates them and what is ac­ces­si­ble based on their horse’s abil­ity as well as their own abil­ity, lo­ca­tion, bud­get and nu­mer­ous other fac­tors.

Ac­cord­ing to USDF Pres­i­dent Ge­orge Wil­liams, earn­ing USDF medals can be a valu­able ed­u­ca­tional and com­pet­i­tive ex­pe­ri­ence for teen rid­ers who are learn­ing and de­vel­op­ing. “Ju­nior rid­ers are work­ing hard to es­tab­lish those all-im­por­tant ba­sic skills that will carry them for­ward in their rid­ing ca­reers, whether that’s for sport, plea­sure or as a pro­fes­sion,” he ex­plains. “The medal sys­tem pro­vides a good frame­work for de­vel­op­ing this foun­da­tion.” He points out that the medal sys­tem pro­vides many of the same ben­e­fits to teens that it pro­vides to all rid­ers: a sense of achieve­ment at one’s cur­rent level, recog­ni­tion and a goal or in­cen­tive— “some­thing to strive for.”

Here, Poag shares her per­spec­tive on coach­ing youth in dres­sage, in­clud­ing ini­tial goal-set­ting, fos­ter­ing com­mit­ment, build­ing ef­fec­tive re­la­tion­ships and long-term plan­ning. In turn, Cain and Dar­win re­flect on what made earn­ing USDF bronze medals an “amaz­ing ex­pe­ri­ence!” and one that they see as just the be­gin­ning.

gni­tial Goal-set­ting

Ac­cord­ing to Poag, “Teach­ing youth can be like hav­ing a blank can­vas on which to paint.” She ex­plains that teen rid­ers typ­i­cally do not have the fear is­sues that many Adult Amateurs ex­pe­ri­ence and teens also of­ten come with­out pre­con­ceived no­tions about dres­sage, which can be op­ti­mal for de­vel­op­ing

rid­ers ef­fi­ciently and cor­rectly to­ward their rid­ing goals. Poag compares pur­su­ing dres­sage to learn­ing a for­eign lan­guage—it’s ab­so­lutely pos­si­ble to be­gin and suc­ceed as an adult, but al­most cer­tainly eas­ier if be­gun in youth. On the other hand, she says teen rid­ers who wish to pur­sue dres­sage in a more se­ri­ous way face spe­cific chal­lenges: bud­getary lim­its, trans­porta­tion/ac­cess to the right horse and fa­cil­ity and the need to bal­ance time for rid­ing with school and other ac­tiv­i­ties.

Both Cain and Dar­win came to Poag highly mo­ti­vated and with a gen­eral big-pic­ture goal of some­day rid­ing up­per-level dres­sage. Both were al­ready solid rid­ers—Cain had grown up rid­ing in Ger­many ev­ery sum­mer and com­pet­ing through the FEI level in youth vault­ing while Dar­win had six-plus years of rid­ing ex­pe­ri­ence un­der her belt. Poag helped both rid­ers set more spe­cific goals, which in­cluded work­ing to­ward the USDF medals, com­pet­ing in USDF Re­gional and National Cham­pi­onships and pur­su­ing the qual­i­fy­ing scores to par­tic­i­pate in the North Amer­i­can Ju­nior & Young Rider Cham­pi­onships.

Ac­cord­ing to Poag, “When rid­ers have a long-term goal, any­thing from train­ing a horse to a cer­tain level or earn­ing a spe­cific USDF medal or some­day com­pet­ing Grand Prix, I work with them to iden­tify a short­term goal and then also start plan­ning for the long-term.” Be­cause of the ex­pense as­so­ci­ated with eques­trian sports, Poag says it is es­pe­cially im­por­tant that teens and their par­ents be made aware of the amount of time, ef­fort and re­sources re­lated to pur­su­ing the goal. First steps may in­clude leas­ing or pur­chas­ing a horse for a spe­cific goal or ad­just­ing the goal based on the horse avail­able to the rider at the time. “While we’ll al­ways have long-term goals in mind, each sea­son has a re­al­is­tic goal based on both rider and horse ed­u­ca­tion and abil­ity,” Poag says.

For both Cain and Dar­win, achiev­ing their ini­tial dres­sage goals meant find­ing the right horse. Poag says there are im­por­tant con­sid­er­a­tions for the search, which ap­ply to all rid­ers but es­pe­cially to youth: bud­get, find­ing a safe horse, as­sess­ing the com­fort level of the rider with that horse (Is the horse a good fit?) and the horse’s cur­rent abil­ity—or abil­ity through train­ing—to be­come this rider’s part­ner. Both rid­ers even­tu­ally found horses they could ride well at their cur­rent rid­ing level and also progress with un­der Poag’s guid­ance. For Dar­win, the horse is Charmeur, a Dutch Warm­blood geld­ing who the team found in Hol­land, and for Cain, the horse is Mariska, a Friesian Thor­ough­bred-cross mare who came from nearby Aiken, South Carolina. For both rid­ers, the hard work re­quired to achieve the bronze medal was off­set by the deep re­ward of de­vel­op­ing their horses. Both horses are tal­ented, ath­letic and will­ing, but nei­ther

could be de­scribed as a “fin­ished horse.” For ex­am­ple, Poag says both rid­ers had to learn how to ride the fly­ing change as well as teach their horses the move­ment. Ac­cord­ing to Cain, “When I com­pete, I cry a lit­tle at the end of ev­ery test. Once in a while, I’m frus­trated that it didn’t go well. But much more of­ten, I cry be­cause I’m so proud of Mariska and how far we’ve come to­gether.”

For Dar­win, the goal of work­ing to­ward the USDF bronze medal helped her un­der­stand and fo­cus on the spe­cific el­e­ments she and Charmeur needed to im­prove. “Work­ing to­ward the medal means that go­ing to shows is less about blue rib­bons and more about im­prov­ing my per­sonal scores,” says Dar­win. “After each test, Katie re­views the judge’s re­marks and videos with me so that we can con­stantly work to do bet­ter the next time. If ei­ther I’ve made a mis­take or my horse mis­be­haves dur­ing the test, Katie en­cour­ages me to go back im­me­di­ately to the warm-up arena to work through our mis­take. This has im­proved my horse­man­ship.”

Fos­ter­ing Com­mit­ment

In ad­di­tion to find­ing the right horses, both Dar­win and Cain say that get­ting se­ri­ous about dres­sage meant mak- ing choices that set their lives apart from many of their peers. Ac­cord­ing to Dar­win, “Rid­ing the way that I do has meant some­times miss­ing school or week­ends with friends as well as giv­ing up other after-school ac­tiv­i­ties.” She says this is off­set by the ben­e­fits: Rid­ing is her “great­est joy in life” and her com­mit­ment to rid­ing has taught her good time-man­age­ment skills and made her more dis­ci­plined.

Like­wise, Cain who was a sopho­more in high school when she ac­quired Mariska, said that fi­nally hav­ing a horse of her own meant re­al­iz­ing that her horse was re­ly­ing on her for train­ing and care ev­ery sin­gle day, which was ex­actly how Cain wanted it to be. “Even­tu­ally, I started home­school­ing so that I would have more time to ride and still be able to fo­cus on my school work,” says Cain. “This also meant I would be able to travel with Katie and groom for her at the CDI shows, so I’m con­stantly learn­ing about dres­sage with­out sac­ri­fic­ing my aca­demics. I could not be hap­pier with how this has worked out!”

For both rid­ers, train­ing is a five- to six-day-a-week com­mit­ment and both have lessons with Poag sev­eral times each week. They will reg­u­larly at­tend horse shows, sev­eral of which in­volve overnight travel, in or­der to earn nec­es­sary scores and gain ex­pe­ri­ence. Both rid­ers are help­ful at Poag’s barn, and Cain, who keeps her horse at home, works shifts at Poag’s farm to off­set the cost of train­ing.

Build­ing Ef­fec­tive Re­la­tion­ship

Ac­cord­ing to Poag, “It’s im­por­tant for all rid­ers to know that an in­struc­tor cares about their de­vel­op­ment, but it’s even more im­por­tant for young stu­dents to know the in­struc­tor is sin­cere in help­ing them reach their goals and dreams.” She’s quick to point out that both Dar­win and Cain are tal­ented but, more im­por­tantly, in­her­ently mo­ti­vated and

even driven—both try hard and they do so con­sis­tently. For her part, Poag strives to be a strong role model, pro­vid­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for growth and learn­ing, chal­leng­ing her rid­ers ap­pro­pri­ately and be­liev­ing deeply in their dreams. “In my mind, the sky is the limit for Lily and Juli­ette, so I teach as their big­gest fan.”

Dar­win’s re­la­tion­ship with Poag has had a major in­flu­ence on her life, not only in the dres­sage arena. She cred­its Poag with in­flu­enc­ing her de­vel­op­men­tally, in­clud­ing help­ing her to over­come shy­ness and learn de­ter­mi­na­tion. Ac­cord­ing to Dar­win, “Katie of­ten tells me to ride like my life de­pends on it and pushes me to ‘Do It NOW!’” She gives an ex­am­ple of tak­ing a bad fall dur­ing her horse search and, while ly­ing in the dirt in a for­eign coun­try, find­ing the grit to get up and then try the next horse. That next horse was Charmeur and he turned out to be the one.

Cain de­scribes her­self as nat­u­rally drawn to the de­tail of the sport of dres­sage and com­pet­i­tive. She says that in her case, Poag has taught her to be less emo­tional about the train­ing, ad­vice that has been es­pe­cially im­por­tant while she and Mariska were both learn­ing the move­ments re­quired for the Third Level tests. “It can be frus­trat­ing when I go through a ride know­ing Mariska can do ev­ery­thing but noth­ing is work­ing,” says Cain. “It’s hard to stay calm and pa­tient, which is some­thing I think a lot of rid­ers strug­gle with. It’s helped to have Katie coach me to not get emo­tional about it, so now that’s some­thing I say to my­self.” For ex­am­ple, school­ing half passes to the left, Mariska starts think­ing of a fly­ing change be­cause that move­ment comes next in one of the tests, which can cause both horse and rider to get emo­tional about the move­ment. Cain ex­plains, “Get­ting frus­trated only makes things worse. If I just take a breath and re­ally fo­cus on mak­ing my aids clear, Mariska will usu­ally un­der­stand what I’m ac­tu­ally ask­ing for after a few rep­e­ti­tions.”

Long-term Plan­ning

Both Cain and Dar­win are so in­spired by their ex­pe­ri­ences with dres­sage thus far that they as­pire to big dreams. Dar­win says, “Long term, I would love to at­tempt to make it to the U.S. Olympic dres­sage team. In the short term, I want to con­tinue to work up the lev­els, to­ward my freestyle bars and sil­ver and gold medals.”

Cain en­vi­sions mak­ing dres­sage train­ing and teach­ing a ca­reer after col­lege, so be­com­ing a suc­cess­ful pro­fes­sional is her goal. “I would like to de­velop a horse all the way to Grand Prix my­self and ex­pe­ri­ence all of that,” she says. “Though I know it’s a huge dream, I as­pire to com­pete in­ter­na­tion­ally and rep­re­sent the U.S. at large in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tions.”

Both rid­ers also as­pire to some­thing much sim­pler, which many of us who have admired a coach or men­tor can re­late to: They want to em­u­late the per­son who has in­spired, sup­ported and pushed them through the re­al­i­ties of achiev­ing a dream. In short, they want to be like Poag. Cain ex­plains, “Be­cause Katie al­ways works so hard, it’s an in­spi­ra­tion for me to keep work­ing re­ally hard. I want to some­day be able to reach her level of rid­ing.”

Dar­win adds, “Katie has in­cred­i­ble dis­ci­pline, which I hope has rubbed off on me. I truly do hold her up as my idol and would love to have as an amaz­ing rid­ing ca­reer as she has had.” In this way, the sport of dres­sage in­spires legacy: the achieve­ment of medals rep­re­sents suc­cess within a pro­gres­sive sys­tem of train­ing and com­pet­ing while the con­veyance of the per­sonal qual­i­ties needed to suc­ceed with horses is handed from suc­cess­ful trainer to as­pir­ing rider.

Re­becca Dar­win, Lily’s mother, ap­pre­ci­ates the role that Poag plays in her daugh­ter’s life. “We joke about it, but some­times if I want to get a mes­sage across to Lily, Katie or her part­ner, David Richie, are bet­ter mes­sen­gers than I am,” says Re­becca. “Lily loves be­ing at the barn with them and I think would move in if they let her!” She goes on to ac­knowl­edge the com­mit­ment of time and re­sources that dres­sage as a youth sport can de­mand. Her ad­vice to other par­ents is to seek a trainer who will work with stu­dents creatively to fig­ure out the best fi­nan­cial ap­proach to find­ing the right horse and who is re­spect­ful of one’s in­di­vid­ual sit­u­a­tion. In or­der to make the com­mit­ment worth­while, she adds, “Make sure you’ve found a well-qual­i­fied trainer and one who will work well with the tem­per­a­ment of your child.”

Ac­cord­ing to Wil­liams, “In rid­ing and in ev­ery­thing we do, it’s al­ways im­por­tant to set re­al­is­tic goals. Good goals in rid­ing push horse and rider out of their com­fort zone a bit, but not so far as to carry ei­ther one over the edge to the point of frus­tra­tion or to­tal dis­cour­age­ment.” For Dar­win, Cain and their coach, the USDF medal sys­tem has been a valu­able goal-set­ting tool. Achiev­ing, but, more im­por­tantly, work­ing to­ward the bronze medal has be­come the spring­board for deep com­mit­ment to and love of the sport of dres­sage.

Lcdu: uhe goal of work­ing to­ward her vsDd bronze medal helped 15-year-old Dar­win un­der­stand and fo­cus on the SpeEiĂE eĚe­meNěS SJe aNF Charmeur, a Dutch Warm­blood geld­ing, needed to im­prove.

ABoVc: Com­mit­ment is para­mount for Cain, 1U, who keeps her horse Mariska, a driesian/ uhor­ough­bred-cross mare, at home and trail­ers to Poag’s farm for lessons sev­eral times a week.

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Dar­win, Cain and Poag work to­gether to­ward their goals with a true love for and com­mit­ment to the sport.

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