For years, the country’s top dressage competitors have had support provided by high-level coaching. But now the next generation of riders with potential is getting its own more structured type of training, courtesy of the U.S. Equestrian Federation (USEF).
With a focus on where the next team members will come from, a revamped development program geared to guiding competitors and horses toward higher levels has become “a little more strategic,” in the words of Hallye Griffin, the USEF’s managing director of dressage. The idea is to link the elite horse/rider combinations competing at the Olympics, FEI World Equestrian Games (WEG), FEI World Cup Finals and Pan American Games with those coming up at the lower levels. The U.S. needs a pipeline for cultivating talent that can go through the ranks.
“The aim of a pathway is to make sure that there is education, coaching and competition support at every level and a clear vision of what it takes to get to the next step, if that’s what people want to do,” said USEF Director of Sport Will Connell.
According to U.S. Dressage Technical Advisor Robert Dover, the entire pyramid is getting so much stronger. “I think we’ll see all of our programs, from the bottom to the top, are going to be strengthened to be certain that they’re world class and always being administered by world-class coaches,” Dover commented.
The Face of U.S. Dressage
It’s a far cry from how things went when Dover started competing internationally. “If we had had world-class programs 30 years ago, people would have understood what it took to be world class,” he mused. “The entire sport was very different, though. If you look at the Grands Prix of 30 years ago, even the very, very best would be 35th place right now. It’s not just that America was so far behind in what the standard was back then, the entire sport everywhere in the world was that far behind. The bar was so much lower back then. You can’t even compare the sport anymore.”
During last fall’s development session held at the U.S. Equestrian Team (USET) Foundation’s headquarters in Gladstone, New Jersey, the insights of development coach Debbie McDonald and judge Charlotte Bredahl-Baker informed and inspired participants. Both clinicians are Olympic team medalists with a keen eye for discovering potential stars, and others in that category will have the opportunity to be seen at similar sessions elsewhere in the country.
That clinic was preceded by a day-long Discover Dressage™ USEF/USDF Emerging Athlete Program for the under-25 group, directed by USEF Dressage Youth Coach George Williams and Bredahl-Baker, who is also the assistant youth coach. Discover Dressage’s president, Kimberly Van Kampen, is a longtime supporter of the discipline. Her organization will give $250,000 annually toward the program for four years. “I’m grateful to Kim beyond words,” said Dover.
McDonald remembers when development programs too often were under-funded since money originally allotted “would get pulled because it was an Olympic or a WEG year.” While that was “totally understandable” as McDonald said, it also was frustrating.
Happily, that’s no longer the case. Support from USET Foundation Trustee Akiko Yamazaki (best known as the sponsor of Steffen Peters) and the Red Husky Foundation, of which Yamazaki is president, means the development funding cuts are a thing of the past. In addition, U.S. dressage supporter Betsy Juliano has contributed as the founding sponsor of a physiotherapy initiative, represented in Gladstone by Andy Thomas, the high-performance human science and sports medicine advisor to the riders of U.S. Equestrian teams. He was the lead practitioner for human science and sports medicine to the British Equestrian Federation for 10 years. The multifaceted sessions also included a segment with a sports psychologist.
“Anyone who comes to these is going to get training and great feedback and tools. At the same time, we’re evaluating them,” Griffin said.
After the sessions, some of the participants might be selected for membership, based on their performance at the clinic as well as scores and results at previous competitions. “There is money tied to membership: It’s a grant,” Griffin explained. “In the past, how some of the grants have worked is that someone filled out an application and wrote out their development plan. We might have asked them for a report, but there wasn’t a lot of individual follow-up. Now, after they’ve been selected, they can get a little bit of funding, and if need for improvement is determined in certain areas, USEF can put riders in touch with specialists to help them.”
Participants in the Gladstone clinic were very enthusiastic about their experience, which also involved having McDonald watch each rider’s personal coach work with them.
Michael Bragdell, head trainer for Hilltop Farm in Maryland, called the program “extremely valuable” noting he had never ridden in front of Bredahl-Baker or McDonald when they were in clinic mode. “I’ve heard a lot of great things about both of them and wanted a chance for them to see my horses. There’s always room for more insight or improvement. That’s the beauty of the sport; you never know enough,” Bragdell said. He was one of two Gladstone development clinic riders selected afterward for membership in the development program along with his mounts Sternlicht and Qredit Hilltop.
He picked up an interesting tip from McDonald that makes a difference in how the horse carries himself and how the horse is in the bridle. “Walking through a corner, if the horse is leaning too much on the inside shoulder, I would ride him maybe in a slight renvers,” explained Bragdell. “It doesn’t even have to be a real renvers. It’s almost the thought of it that corrects it and straightens it and gets the horse more under.”
The other member of the Gladstone clinic who got the nod was 2017 Brentina Cup winner Kaitlin Blythe of North Carolina with Eden LHF. The clinic presented “really great homework for my horse and me,” said Blythe. “We were working on the connection. [Eden] wants to be a little too light in the mouth. She’s such a finesse ride. It’s the next big step in my development to ride a horse like that.” Blythe worked on asking the 8-year-old U.S.-bred mare to take contact by “putting her in a bent position instead of pushing her forward” to help her find the way.
Even those who weren’t asked to become a member of the program post-clinic got something out of the time they spent in Gladstone. Anna Stovall, a New Jersey rider who won the Markel/USEF Developing Prix St. Georges Championship last summer with Frankie, a 9-year-old Hanoverian, is planning to do the developing Grand Prix this year and the clinic gave her a leg up.
“All of their input has been extremely helpful. I’m excited to go home and work on what they suggested,” said Stovall, who trains with Catherine Haddad-Staller. “[While making the team] would be great, that will take some time to see if that happens. I would love to do it. But first and foremost, I want to keep enjoying riding and keep progressing my horses and doing a better job.”
Said Allison Kavey, a New Yorker who rode Cacharel in the clinic, “This pinpointed where we were weak. This is a very willing horse with a wonderful work ethic, but she sometimes gets a little bit anxious about collection. This helped me get her more secure in the pirouette canter in particular and also better and more consistent in the contact. Instead of having to manufacture collection over and over, I can trust her collection and therefore ride better quality movements,” Kavey commented.
She learned she did not have to do an entire canter pirouette every time. “In the warm-up ring, if the horse gets a little backed off, it’s perfectly OK to do a quarter and then fix it and go back in.”
Emily Donaldson of Pennsylvania was thrilled that she and her two horses could participate. One is a 12-year-old who just started Prix St. Georges/Intermediaire 1. The other is an 8-year-old still working on flying changes. Being involved with the clinic made a difference for her and her mounts.
“It’s just been amazing. You think, If I could do this every week, gosh, what would happen with my training? You have to be a sponge and soak every bit of it in and sort of run with it when you go home,” said Donaldson, who fought breast cancer and underwent chemotherapy, but pushed hard to make sure she could take advantage of the clinic.
“My goal is to be a team rider. As a pro, it’s hard to find time for yourself. Just being here…it’s been amazing.”
Spreading the Word
“Every year I do this [clinic],” said McDonald, “I get a bigger vision of where this could go. I might still want to tweak it a little bit, but this year, I feel so much more engaged with the riders and I feel like I’m helping them set goals and future plans.”
Not every region has an abundance of resources for dressage so that makes the program doubly important. “Finding some good eyes on the ground is difficult in some of these places where people live,” observed McDonald.
Former U.S. dressage chef d’equipe Jessica Ransehousen, who rode on Olympic teams after the USET was formed in the 1950s, was on hand with Donaldson, who is her student. When Ransehousen was leading the U.S. squads, there was no program comparable to this and it was hard for many people to find a pathway to the top.
Ransehousen appreciates the availability of such former top competitors as McDonald and Bredahl-Baker.
“I think what’s going to happen is these people [the riders in the development program] are going to talk to their friends who are then going to want to come into a program like this. It’s going to get bigger and bigger,” she said. “We want to encourage those riders who have already been to the top to put some time into it,” she continued, discussing the way veterans can reach out to those aspiring to achieve a higher level of performance.
Missy Fladland, who is based in Iowa, called the clinic “top notch.” “The experience has been great. We’re meeting not only other professionals who we can connect and network with, but then you have Debbie and Charlotte, who both have an ability to fine-tune the little things in the rider and horse to make it look seamless,” she commented. “Where the program is going to go for the U.S. and the future of dressage is just unstoppable. For me, this experience has been amazing, unbelievable.”
"Cash Poor, Horse Rich" Supports Talent
The dressage development program is all about the future, so a long look down the road is part of the picture. Iowa dressage trainer Missy Fladland, who rode in the clinic, took delivery of her newest equine prospect while she was at the U.S. Equestrian Team headquarters in Gladstone, New Jersey. I’m All In, a 4-year-old with appealing floppy ears, by Jazz out of a Ferro mare, came from Germany and was brought to New Jersey from the Newburgh, New York, U.S. quarantine facility.
After trying more than 50 horses on several trips to Europe, Fladland saw this one on Facebook. Fladland was the first to try the horse, and he filled the bill. Who knows, he could be a candidate for the 2023 Pan American Games and then perhaps the 2024 Olympics. He’s fueling a lot of dreams.
The horse was bought for her by a group called CAPHRI Dressage II. CAPHRI stands for Cash Poor, Horse Rich, and includes approximately 20 members from five states with more expected to join in.
“They’re amazing people. I feel so blessed,” said Fladland, 46. Though it will take time and work, Fladland now has the opportunity to develop a horse who may have the potential to reach the upper levels, something she could not afford to do on her own. Another CAPHRI group sent Fladland to England for the summer to work with rider/trainer Katherine Bateson Chandler.
Jacalyn Bunkers, of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, is a CAPHRI member who started riding dressage when she was in her 50s. “Missy and Kip [her husband, a trainer known for natural horsemanship] were instrumental in giving me the confidence that I could do this and handle horses on the ground,” said Bunkers. “I just love the two of them to death. My sister [Joy Hood] and I would go down there [the Fladlands’ La Riata Ranch in Iowa] about once a month. They would open their home to us and give us lessons. We had no one in our area to help us.
“We knew early on that Missy had a dream,” Bunkers continued. “If I can help her a little bit and be part of it a little bit, it just feels right. When she reached out to us, I never hesitated.”
Bunkers is part of a convivial group with a cause. “The main goal of CAPHRI [other than having fun owning horses] is to introduce people to the idea of owning a horse for someone else,” said Lisa Roskens, a key player in the program, who believes in getting more people involved in horse sports. She puts a special emphasis on elevating the level in the Midwest, where the 2018 International Omaha show—run by the Omaha Equestrian Foundation (OEF) that Roskens founded—will offer an innovative team dressage competition.
After I’m All In arrived at the Fladlands’ farm, CAPHRI members were invited to meet him at a function called a “Sip ‘n’ See,” combining wine and an introduction to Indy, as he’s known around the barn. It’s an element that adds fun to the ownership experience. (See photo on p. 46.)
“We want people to believe that they can be a part of the sport regardless of where they live or their tax bracket,” explained Roskens, the guiding force behind the Longines FEI World Cup™ Show Jumping Final and the FEI World Cup ™ Dressage Final that were held in Omaha in April 2017. “Yes, this sport is expensive, but it does not have to be solely the province of the wealthy elites. We want to encourage other people to think creatively about how to open the doors to more people,” said Roskens. “CAPHRI actually predates and is separate from OEF, but this fits nicely within our broader OEF mission of growing the sport in our region. Growth means all sorts of things to me.
“It’s not only more shows, riders and trainers,” continued Roskens, an amateur show jumper who is also a booster of dressage in the Midwest, “but also owners, enthusiasts and prospective employees.”