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

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

Many riders find shows in Europe to be more welcoming for children. Here is Australian eventer Shane Rose at Luhmühlen in Germany. (Shannon Brinkman- Arnd.nl)

Many riders find shows in Europe to be more welcoming for children. Here is Australian eventer Shane Rose at Luhmühlen in Germany. (Shannon Brinkman- Arnd.nl)

There have been important efforts to include children in the sport. People like Lendon Gray have devoted their time, skill and energy to helping young riders excel. To encourage young riders, Lendon established the Youth Dressage Festival (formerly known as the Northeast Junior/Young Rider Championships) in 1999. Then, with the formation of the Youth Dressage Festival (YDF) came the creation of the 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 going 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 going 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 Explorers 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 McDonald taking a break from her judging schedule to judge this class. Prior to the competition, Explorers had the opportunity 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. 

Klaus Schengber is originally from Germany, where he grew up at the beautiful farm of Ulli Kasselmann and was fortunate to be involved with the beginning of the world-famous P.S. Auctions. Schengber has been the head trainer at High Point Hanoverians for more than 15 years. 

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