Strategies for Succeeding in Intercollegiate Dressage

Tips and advice from collegiate dressage coaches and riders to prepare for catch riding.

Credit: Courtesy, Casual Creations Photography The 2015 IDA National Champions from Emory and Henry College (from left) Coach Lisa Moosmueller-Terry, Nicholas Martino, Bailey Halverson, Karissa Donohue, Elijah Worth-Jones, Morgan Sollenberger, Amanda Snow and Emma Baltuskoknis

For many collegiate dressage riders, the challenge of academics is often coupled with another challenge: adjusting to a new dressage-show system based on catch riding. Catch riding, although more popular in the hunter/jumper show circuits, has gained traction in the dressage world, particularly among colleges whose teams participate in the Intercollegiate Dressage Association (IDA). IDA offers the opportunity for riders to continue, or even begin, their riding careers in college. Over the past several years, IDA has become immensely popular as an educational and fun, yet challenging, way for riders to continue their equestrian careers in college without owning a horse or making a huge financial commitment.

A Brief History 

Credit: Courtesy, Kate Randall Founded in 1995, the Intercollegiate Dressage Association (IDA) now has more than 55 member schools across the United States and approximately 700 riders competing at regional and national shows yearly. Pictured, Sophia Rocco rides for the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Founded in 1995, IDA began as an informal competition between a small group of colleges in the northeastern United States. However, it quickly grew into more than that. Today the organization has more than 55 member schools across the United States and approximately 700 riders competing at regional and national shows yearly.

Beth Beukema, president of IDA, has been involved since the organization’s beginnings, when a student designed the basic structure of the competition and the point system, much of which is still in use today. Beukema praises the organization’s ability to introduce new students to dressage as well as provide a cost-effective opportunity for riders with previous experience. Because the IDA show system is designed specifically for collegiate equestrians, many of whom don’t own a horse, it eliminates the challenges of ownership by featuring a catch-riding system. At a show, riders are randomly assigned a horse from the host university’s stable and given 10 minutes to develop a basic understanding of the horse before the official test. Catch riding is one of the unique challenges that IDA poses, and even riders who have participated in Young Riders at Prix St. Georges may find riding in IDA challenging, says Beukema.

Although an IDA team may have upwards of 30 riders, only four members are allowed to compete during an individual show. For larger universities, this results in some members being able to compete only a few times during the season, whereas members on small teams may be able to compete at every show. The tests and judging are just like those at any other dressage show—but the benefits, and certainly the challenges, are found in the catch-riding component of the organization. 

Benefits and Value

For many IDA riders who are hoping to pursue a career in the equine industry, the benefits of riding in IDA are tremendous. Kari Briggs, coach for Otterbein University’s IDA team, business manager of the university’s equine center as well as an IDA regional representative, says that as an equine professional she draws on her previous experiences from riding a variety of horses. 

Even riders who are following career paths outside the industry can find many benefits from an IDA experience. Take Sophia Rocco, a recent graduate of University of California, Santa Cruz. A physics major, Rocco showed IDA all four years of college. She says not only did she learn to be a more flexible and adaptable rider, but she also credits IDA for keeping her mentally balanced and happy while facing academic pressures. “Riding is what keeps me happy and sane when school gets stressful,” she says. “So riding was less of a luxury than a necessity.”

Of course, for riders pursuing equestrian careers, the opportunity to show and ride frequently is one of the greatest benefits. Kelsie Bricker graduated in 2015 from Otterbein University and she notes the organization’s impact on her becoming more comfortable in the show ring. She expects this confidence to serve her well in any future equestrian endeavor. 

Lisa Moosmueller-Terry, vice president of IDA and IDA coach for Emory and Henry University in Emory, Virginia, echoes the importance of being an adaptable rider. “A well-rounded rider who has the ability for adaptation is going to be a far better rider,” she says. Moosmueller-Terry has achieved great success in the IDA show ring with a victory at the 2015 IDA Nationals in addition to several past Nationals wins with Virginia Intermont College. 

Finally, IDA offers a unique aspect of dressage that is not often found in the traditional show system: team spirit. Beukema says that the team feeling is one of the greatest advantages of IDA and one of the many reasons that IDA riders love the program. Each rider on the team, whether they are riding First Level or Introductory Level, contributes to the school’s overall team placement, resulting in a feeling of camaraderie. Rocco says she enjoyed the team aspect: “[It] was a very positive and supportive experience. Dressage is usually such a solitary and personal sport, so I didn’t quite know at first how it would translate to a team sport. Turns out, it’s a really good feeling to have that team.”

Before the Test

Credit: Courtesy, Otterbein University After a 10-minute warm-up, the IDA rider is led into the arena for the official test. Because riders don’t have enough time to truly know the horse, it can be challenging to head into the ring while still learning.

Preparation is one of the most crucial elements to a successful IDA ride and that preparation begins long before the 10-minute warm-up. When a team arrives at the host university, riders observe each available horse in the “parade of horses,” which serves as a great opportunity to analyze the horse from the ground. Briggs recommends looking at the quality of the horse, his gaits and his general behavior in the ring.

When analyzing the horses from the ground, Moosmueller-Terry says that riders must develop a good eye. For many riders, this is best done with the help of a trainer or a more experienced peer. “Watching a lot of horses with someone who is educated will help you know what to look for,” she says. She teaches her riders to look at the overall connection and impulsion of the horse before formulating a plan for the ride. “Then we observe the horse as he performs parts of the test and decide what we need to work on in our warm-up. We may need to work to get the horse in front of the leg or utilize transitions to get a better response to the half halt.” 

In addition to the parade, each host university compiles a cheat sheet for all IDA riders to use on the available horses. It typically offers tidbits of information, such as “Mac can be heavy on the forehand,” or “Chocolate doesn’t like spurs.” Although some of the information is useful, Jec Ballou, FEI-level trainer and IDA coach for University of California, Santa Cruz, warns against relying on it too heavily. “Many riders read these notes as the gospel,” she says. “It can be a real disservice to enter the show ring with assumptions about a horse.” 

Ballou also recommends knowing what the directive ideas and collective marks are per USEF standards. Like any dressage test, reading the test objectives is important. If there is a coefficient component, it is good to be aware of that element and perhaps devote some extra time to it during the warm-up if other aspects are going well. 

Helpful Skills 

To achieve a partnership and create a harmonious ride, there are a variety of skills that can be developed. Often college coaches are instrumental to a rider’s success. In addition, many college riding programs offer great opportunities for riders to improve their skills by riding with a variety of accomplished trainers. 

One of the most important things is the opportunity to ride a variety of horses on a regular basis. For schools with large equestrian programs, this doesn’t pose as much of a challenge, but for schools with small programs, this can be more difficult.

When training at Otterbein University, Briggs says her team rides a variety of horses, which serves them well in the show ring. “Riders who have the ability to catch-ride well or riders who are successful in IDA have a larger tool bag to draw from,” she says. “They have skills and knowledge developed from riding a variety of horses and can react appropriately to the type of horse they are mounted on.”

As far as particular rider skills, adaptability is essential and perhaps one of the most important skills for success. Briggs says, “If you are accustomed to riding a lazy horse or a horse who is dull to the aids, and you draw a hotter, tense horse, you need to be able to adjust your aids to suit the needs of the horse.”

Moosmueller-Terry emphasizes the development of feel in her young riders. “Some people are born with a natural feel,” she says. “Others have to work hard to develop this.” Working with a coach or trainer is instrumental in this process. “Feel is about understanding what is going on in the horse’s body while you are riding, being able to tell where he feels stiff or tense.”

The Warm-Up

Credit: Courtesy, Otterbein University The tests and judging at an IDA show are just like any other dressage show—but the benefits and challenges are found in the catch-riding component. Here, the Otterbein University dressage team celebrates a successful weekend.

“The purpose of catch riding is getting quality movement,” Ballou says. In her riders’ warm-ups, she places a large emphasis on finding quality gaits. “Many young dressage riders are obsessed with getting the horse on the bit,” she says. “But it’s often much more effective to start with transitions. Get a sense of how the horse responds to the leg and don’t worry about being on the bit right from the start.” 

Ballou also suggests using the first 60 seconds of the warm-up to determine how responsive the horse is. Test out the gaits and determine what intensity of the cues is necessary for a 100 percent response, she advises. “Be comfortable experimenting with aids of different strengths,” she says.

Both recognizing the necessary intensity of an aid and giving a well-timed aid are essential, Briggs says. “Some horses are dull and will need stronger or louder aids, some horses are sensitive and will need very subtle, quiet aids, and it is the rider’s job to recognize the type of horse she is riding and adapt appropriately.”

Although IDA riding may depart slightly from traditional dressage in format, Moosmueller-Terry maintains focus by relying on the training scale during her riders’ warm-ups. She says she looks for rhythm and relaxation first and then builds upward from there. “If the horse is tense, part of our warm-up will be working on stretching to relax and get the horse more through the back. If the connection is lacking, we might do some more transitions or some lateral work.”

Finally, Moosmueller-Terry says it is worth remembering that each warm-up is different since a rider has only 10 minutes. “You have to decide where your time will be most wisely spent,” she says. “If you see an issue in your horse, your warm-up may be working to see how you will ride that horse to maximize quality and find harmony. You are not going to train a horse in 10 minutes, so you need to establish a working relationship. You might help a horse to relax or help improve transition quality, but ultimately, you are looking to develop a mutual understanding and develop a ride that the horse will be happy to perform for you.”

Riding the Test

After the 10-minute warm-up is complete, the rider is led into the arena for the official test. Because riders don’t have enough time to truly learn the horse, Moosmueller-Terry says it can be challenging to head into the ring while still learning. But she always advises her riders: “If you discover something during the test, act on it and make the second half of the test better.” 

Generally, Moosmueller-Terry tells her riders to focus on elements of the test that are in their control—especially if they run into any challenges with an unwilling horse. “Ride what you can control,” she says. Focus on accuracy of the geometry, steady contact and correct rider position. There will always be variables with riding, but by focusing on what is controllable, the end result can almost always be improved.

Sometimes horses enter the arena and become completely different than what they were in the warm-up. “This is especially difficult for me as a coach because I can no longer help,” says Moosmueller-Terry. She simply says that by then she hopes the rider has developed a strong enough foundation to approach the challenges without a trainer’s assistance.

Perhaps the most important aspect of being in the ring is mental focus and preparation (see sidebar at left, “Mental Preparation for Catch Riding”). Ballou says, “A rider has no time to get flaky or talk to her friends on the sideline. Being in the zone is essential.” Briggs agrees: “All riding requires a mental component. IDA adds a whole new dimension, but it’s important to remember that riding is about the partnership between horse and rider. The brief warm-up time limits one’s ability to build that partnership. Therefore, it’s important to keep an open mind.”

Staying positive and present is important as well, says Briggs. “Riders often struggle in IDA with the fact that a 10-minute warm-up is not long enough to change anything. Frustration will lead to a poor ride and instead, riders need to find alternative ways to deal with the problem.” Briggs stresses the benefits
of drawing from past riding experiences in order to connect better to an unfamiliar horse. “By building on what’s familiar, you’re going to be a step ahead of your competitors.”

A Judge’s Perspective 

Credit: Courtesy, High Time Photography IDA offers a unique aspect of dressage that is not often found in the traditional show system: team spirit. The camaraderie of IDA is one of the many reasons that riders love the unique program.

Sarah Geikie, an FEI-level judge based in Connecticut, has judged IDA Nationals three times. When asked about the differences in judging FEI shows in comparison to IDA shows, Geikie says, that like all judges, she uses the universal scale of training to evaluate the horse and rider. “Each time, I am extremely impressed with the quality of the riders,” she says. “I judge the IDA riders to the same standard as riders in any other show.”

Geikie also notes that just because the format of IDA shows is challenging doesn’t mean that the tests are mediocre. “I have had riders perform 70 percent tests that would win in open competition.” In fact, she credits IDA riders for riding clean and accurate tests. “They do not throw any points away for sloppy, inaccurate riding,” she says. “Many open riders could learn from IDA riders in the art of accuracy.”

As for any tips to ensure a quality test, Geikie recommends riding as accurately as possible with correct figures, using the corners and riding quality transitions. Performing these aspects of a test will result in better scores overall. The biggest challenge Geikie sees is that some riders are conservative or hesitant in the show ring. “I feel the biggest issue is for riders to really go for it,” she says. 

Other Opportunities

For college students who attend schools without an IDA team but still have an interest, Briggs encourages them to start one. “You won’t be disappointed,” she says. “The camaraderie among the riders and the opportunities these students receive is second to none. There is no need to put your riding goals on hold.Experience IDA.”

For noncollege riders who want the opportunity to ride and show different horses, Briggs recommends reaching out to local boarding stables for additional riding opportunities or even working-student positions. Many owners may have a horse who needs extra exercise a few times a week, and some riders may be able to work out a part-time lease. 

The future of IDA and collegiate riding is certainly expanding and thriving. Beukema says that the organization is adding dressage-seat equitation classes for the 2015–2016 show season. This is especially beneficial for schools that don’t have horses capable of upper-level movements in addition to allowing more riders from large teams to compete. 

For many riders, IDA serves as a great opportunity to jump in and explore the world of dressage. And for continuing dressage enthusiasts, the association is a challenge but also an incredibly enjoyable way to spend a weekend. Many riders agree that the atmosphere and energy of riding for IDA are special. The catch-riding component and the feeling of team spirit set apart this show system from other standard dressage competitions.

Mental Preparation for Catch Riding

The art of the catch ride is being able to process multiple pieces of information at the same time and keep your wits about you in order to be effective. This skill set is one that can be developed by anyone, but the key is figuring out how to practice and prepare. 

Simulating a catch-riding scenario at home during training is important, but can be challenging. Visualization of a successful ride is also a tool I would use extensively to prepare for these situations. The biggest mental mistake in this type of situation is losing focus or becoming hyperfocused. It is important as a rider, especially a catch rider, to be aware of circumstances that can create problems or dangerous situations, however being hyperfocused on these circumstances can sap your energy and decrease your focus on the end goal. Balancing your focus between the task at hand and the preparation you have already done is powerful. You need to be able to rely on your preparation, referring to it as you choose your next move, while still keeping the end goal in mind to help you figure out the path there. Focus is a muscle, so build more muscle! Most athletes and competitors miss great opportunities daily to practice flexing and building their focus muscle. 

Create a plan for your rides—it is fun to hang out and chat while riding, especially during warm-up and cool-down, but for a catch rider, the warm-up is the most crucial part. Even during your everyday training, use the warm-up time to focus, evaluate the horse and decide what tools you need to successfully impact your ride. A great question to ask yourself over and over as you are developing this muscle is, What am I focusing on now? This will anchor you in the exercise and make that muscle strong. For riders who may become anxious or fearful before heading into the ring, breathing is your most powerful tool. It sounds so simple that we often dismiss the impact that deep breathing can have on performance. When we become anxious, our bodies become infused with blood and energy because it triggers our fight-or-flight mechanism, preparing us for survival. Our brains actually lose blood flow, thus dramatically reducing our cognitive capacity. When we worry excessively, we lose our ability to think our way out of a situation and, like a horse, we end up reacting instead of responding. Making great decisions requires great mental acuity and breathing is the fastest and easiest way to restore our brain to full function.






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