Many riders come to the end of their high school careers hoping to make horses their profession. I've known many riders over the years who want to become full-time working students while their parents cringe at the thought and want them to go to college to eventually get a “real job.” Luckily, there is a compromise out there. Attending a college or university that offers an Intercollegiate Dressage Association (IDA) team allows serious dressage riders to continue with their passion while focusing on formal education, whether that education is geared toward horses or not.
If you think a career in dressage is in your future, IDA can offer many benefits. At an IDA show, riders compete on unfamiliar horses. The rider has a limited amount of time to assess the horse in the warm up, get them going as well as possible and present them for a test. These assessment skills will continue to benefit you in your future as a professional rider.
What Is IDA? According to the IDA website: "The Intercollegiate Dressage Association is a national organization of college dressage programs that offers organized competitions and the opportunity for students to make dressage part of their college experience.
The mission of IDA is to introduce students to the equestrian discipline of dressage and to foster continued development, understanding and appreciation in the art of dressage through organized student competitions and educational opportunities. IDA’s main functions are to promote the sport of dressage and to establish and enforce IDA rules and policies.
At IDA shows collegiate riders in teams of four, compete at Introductory Level (Intro A & Intro B), Lower Training Level (Intro C & Training Level Test 1), Upper Training Level (Training Level Test 2 and 3), and First Level. Host colleges provide the horses used during competitions which adds to the challenge and sportsmanship of the competition. The IDA is divided into regions for the purpose of intercollegiate competition, and individual and team points are earned towards regional standings and qualification for national finals.
IDA is affiliated with the United States Dressage Federation and adheres closely to the US Equestrian Federation rules. IDA is funded by member dues, contributions and sponsorships. "
Every time a professional has a new student to teach or horse to ride, these are the same assessment skills needed to quickly analyze strengths and weaknesses and come up with a plan for training. Successful IDA riders become very good at quickly figuring horses out and overcoming any anxiety associated with hopping on an unfamiliar horse. The warm up becomes your time to test things that are challenging for every horse. You will find yourself asking: What is the best tempo for this horse? What aids does he like best for up and down transitions? What is the best frame I can find that will keep him steady and soft? How can I quickly wake him up or calm him down? All of these skills are needed on a regular basis in a professional rider. Many riders have grown up riding only their own horse, or maybe a few horses over many years. If you are on an IDA team, you will get a chance to ride many horses of varying breeds, sizes, ages and abilities. A good rider, and eventually a good trainer, will need to be able to bring out the best in every single horse.
Lisa Moosmueller-Terry led the Virginia Intermont Equestrian IDA teams at Emory & Henry College to national championships in 2006, 2007, 2010, 2014, 2015, 2016 and to a reserve national championship in 2009. She is one of the top coaches in the country and is an expert when it comes to helping her team prepare themselves and their horses for these competitions.
“Having hosted and coached at IDA shows for over 15 years, there are aspects of IDA that are very much like preparing for USDF competitions as well as unique differences,” she said. “When hosting an IDA show, my focus always shifts with my team to the training and preparation of the horses. You want every horse that is competing to be well prepared for their level, and during that time I find my students learn so much because the focus is on the training of the horse. The riders learn how to train a better halt, how to improve the straightness, the transitions, the freedom of movement and all of the basics that are such a part of producing quality gaits.”
Hannah Walters, member of the Averett University team that won the National IDA Championships in 2017 agrees. “I would say that the strict guidelines we rode under absolutely prepare you with many great tools that I will be able to use as a professional,” she said. She underscored the importance of quickly developing a plan for each horse you compete, and then being able to modify that plan as necessary. “I think that IDA helped me fine tune my abilities to read a horse. I will always have a plan going in, but I will also know just to feel the horse I have underneath me and listen to what they are saying—the end result being a horse that trusts a stranger to bring them into the ring and ride a First Level test.”
Moosmueller-Terry explains that when her riders prepare for catch-riding at shows, the practice riding parts of each test on a variety of different horses. “During these practices, riders are directed to assess each horse’s needs, way of going and response to the aids. This all teaches the riders ‘feel’ and produces riders who are sensitive and ride each horse as that horse needs to be ridden and later helps them in their professional careers,” she said.
As an IDA team member, you will also get good at test riding, which is different than every day riding. Some of this involves how to think ahead for the exact pattern of your test, figuring out a horse’s strongest and weakest movements and how to capitalize on those, how to ride quietly and elegantly even if the horse does not feel ideal in some way. Becoming a good test rider is not the same as becoming a good trainer, but it will benefit you as a professional, since good competition scores are still the main form of advertisement for trainers.
When asked about her team's success, Moosmueller-Terry analyzes it this way: “The team's success is due in large part to the wonderful horses, but also on the focus of the correct position and training philosophies. I am very classical. I don’t want to see a rider behind the motion or riding with busy legs or overuse of the aids. I teach my riders to be considerate of the horse and to have body awareness and control.” She also emphasizes the importance of correct geometry and the ability to maximize scores. “We talk math. You have to know how far apart the letters are, so you can make accurate figures. Setting up arenas teaches this, too! I coach my riders to understand how dressage is judged and what the criteria for each movement is. Riders need to know the rules and how to make a 7 an 8 or keep a 7 from turning into a 5.”
Show Management Skills
If you become part of an IDA team, you will most likely be involved in hosting a show at some point, which will require that everyone learns what goes into managing a show. Not only will this make you much more appreciative of show managers in the future, you will learn about USEF and USDF rules and regulations, scheduling requirements and gain organizational skills that will be very useful to you in your future career.
The networking aspect of IDA is also a big benefit. Like most industries, the horse world seems big but is really quite small, and gaining friends and contacts around the country is crucial to a successful career. You will meet fellow riders who will go on to be professionals and might become long-term friends and colleagues. Successfully running shows means you will communicate with and meet judges, other coaches and many other dressage riders. You might meet someone who will one day become your trainer, your employer, your student, the owner of a horse in training, etc.
An Affordable Option
Another challenge that many college students face is how to pay for horses during these years. IDA is an excellent option for many riders, because you do not have to own your own horse, pay board, training, etc. There are dues associated with being on a team, but it is a manageable amount for any student, including the show costs.
The team aspect of IDA cannot be overstated. Other than at the North American Youth Championships, Pony Club or future international teams, dressage competition rarely involves teams. The camaraderie is something you will remember forever and is such a unique experience. Hannah Walters, Averett University '17, says “The support that came from my teammates and coaches will forever be one of the most memorable things from college. I feel like we became stronger every year, and I love the idea of being part of something that is growing as successful as Averett. I also strongly believe my teammates and coaches will be connections that I will hold on to and absolutely use in the future as a professional.”
IDA teams exist at schools that offer an equestrian focused major—equestrian studies, equine business, equine sciences, etc.—but they are also offered at many schools, both private and public institutions, that do not offer these majors. A full list of member schools can be found at www.teamdressage.com. If the college or university you hope to attend is not on that list, look into what it would take to start an IDA team at your school. It is doable, and more teams are joining every year!
If a career in dressage is what you envision for your future and a 4-year college is part of that future, then don't miss out on joining an IDA team. The skills your gain and the friendships you make can last you a lifetime.
A graduate of Virginia Intermont College with a B.A. in Equine Studies, Lisa Moosmueller-Terry worked as an Olympic show jumping groom and manager and trainer at an FEI level dressage barn before returning to teach and coach at Intermont. She has been inducted into the IDA Hall of Fame, named Coach of the Year, and serves on IDA's Board of Directors as vice president and regional representative.
Hannah Walters graduated from Averett University in 2017 with a degree in Equine Studies. She has competed extensively in jumpers and dressage. She is currently barn manager and assistant trainer at Eliza Sydnor Dressage in Snow Camp, North Carolina.