By Katherine O. Rizzo (2008)

The interviews and information presented in this article pertain to the U.S. Dressage Federation’s (USDF) March 16, 2008 draft of the “Dressage Performance Standards Proposal.” A new proposal is being written but was not available for the general public by press time. It will be available for viewing on the U.S. Equestrian Federation’s web site by September 1. For a link to the new proposal and updates on this subject, please visit and click on “News and Resources.”

What’s All the Fuss About?
As of November of 2007, the dressage world has been buzzing over the U.S. Dressage Federation’s (USDF) “Dressage Performance Standards Proposal.” Since then, a line as clear as the centerline has been drawn in the arena sand and those in favor and against the proposal have been speaking out in force, and often butting heads.

In general, this proposal would create a point system by which riders would receive various points for scores of 58% and higher. This system would only apply to Third Level riders and above looking to move on to the next level.

To move up from Third Level to Fourth Level, a rider would have to achieve at least 10 points on one or more horses. In the proposal, this level is referred to as Silver. The move from Prix St. Georges to Intermediaire I would require obtaining eight points. Once a rider is at this level, called Gold, then he or she would no longer be required to adhere to the point system. There are, of course, finer details on which shows and tests are required to obtain qualifying scores and a grandfathering system for those top riders who are already competing internationally. For a complete copy of the proposal, please see

On the surface, this proposal seems logical. If a rider has the ambition to move up, he or she must first prove that he or she is ready. The USDF proposal would, theorethically, help to “ensure riders are properly prepared to successfully move up the levels,” as stated in the proposal’s opening paragraph.

So what is all the fuss about? Why are so many riders, trainers and judges against this proposal? And why are those in support so fiercely passionate about seeing this proposal become an official U.S Equestrian Federation (– USEF) rule?

For the Love of the Horse
At shows around the country in any discipline, you are bound to see at least one case of riding that is so bad you feel sorry for the horse. Naomi Parry of Annapolis, who has competed through Fourth Level, stated “For the sake of horses, I support this idea.”

The proposal was discussed at a USDF Region 1 meeting earlier this year, and Maryland Dressage Association (MDA) president Jill Blackburn believes that the — USEF Dressage Committee had two concerns: the riders’ lack of ability to sit the trot, and the use of the double bridle before the rider fully understands how to use it. Both of these concerns were considered “abusive to the horse” but Blackburn said “I don’t think what [the — USEF Dressage Committee members] are proposing will achieve these goals.” Instead, she suggested that the — USEF, USDF and regional chapters “could do a lot more to educate riders on what they [judges] are after” and on how to better prepare for the movements of the higher level tests.

Some feel that judges who have traveled the country watching “people struggling to ride their horses at levels that [are] not appropriate… are convinced that we need this rule,” according to “r” judge and Potomac Valley Dressage Association (PVDA) Vice President Betty Thorpe. There seems to be this unspoken feeling that a rider competing at a level beyond his or her capabilities is potentially abusing the horse, though no judge interviewed was willing to say this directly.

Trainer and Grand Prix rider Felicitas von Neumann-Cosel agrees that education is greatly needed, especially at the lower levels where “we should have a better educational system.” In general, von Neumann-Cosel thinks the proposal “is not a bad idea” but that it would be better suited for those riding at Prix St. Georges and above.
The general consensus is that if you prevent these riders from moving up until they are qualified, then you in turn protect the horse. However, this is all based on the idea that judges will give appropriate scores and as one “S” judge and Grand Prix rider, Elizabeth Madlener, pointed out, “The humanitarian side of the judge is looking for anything that is positive to score… [this] may give the very green or very incompetent rider the inclination to keep striving above his or her head or above the horse’s ability to perform.”

Madlener went on to say that she, too, has witnessed the horse “that is spurred and pulled into a ‘frame’.” However, she feels that a set of rules will not “protect these noble friends but we can work our heads/butts off trying to educate” the riders instead.

The — USEF already has in place rules to prevent abuses. Under Article GR839 in the — USEF General Rule Book, it states that “any action(s) against a horse by a competitor or an exhibitor, which are deemed excessive by a judge, Federation steward, technical delegate or competition veterinarian, in the competition ring or anywhere on the competition grounds may be punished by official warning, elimination, or other sanctions which may be deemed appropriate by the Show Committee.” So, if judges and other officials are worried about abuse of the horse, shouldn’t they simply enforce what rules are already in place? But then again, what one person might deem abusive may be seen as permissable by another.

To Improve the Rider
As with any equestrian discipline, the “competitor” consists of two parts, the horse and the rider. Surely, by requiring qualifying scores, the quality of the resulting rider will be higher. Many agree, but also say that this proposal will only produce frustrated riders who will leave the sport.

Celia Vornholt, an “r” judge, “absolutely agree[s] that there should be a qualification scale.” Vornholt reported that she has seen “horrendous” rides and that people “often feel [that a] 55% is good enough to move up with… which is really not OK.” She agrees with the — USEF that this proposal “will have people showing at more appropriate level[s].”
Sporthorse breeder Suzanne Quarles “really believe[s] we should have standards in this country…we have come to a time when we need people to earn their way up the levels.” Susan G. White, “r” judge and FEI competitor, is also in favor of the basic idea but feels the actual wording of the rule change needs to be reworked. White sees the proposal as a way to “improve the overall quality of the training and showing” in this sport, which is always evolving.
Local trainer and Grand Prix rider Fred Weber also agrees, saying that the dressage community as a whole will be “better served by [the proposal].” Weber stated that the rule change would ensure that “people would have to earn their way up” instead of claiming they are a Prix St. Georges rider, for example, when they have only shown at that level once.

Another thought is that by forcing riders to earn proper scores, they will develop better as riders and develop better horses. Andrea Drzewianowski of Westminster has not competed in several years and does anticipate an issue with someone like herself who “may want to step into competition at a higher level in the future.” She went on to say, however that “if you are accomplished, then earning the necessary points in a relatively quick fashion should not be an issue at all.” Drzewianowski also pointed out that this system “would require someone without show history to actually plan the first couple of seasons carefully and therefore reinforce the appropriate development/training time that a horse needs to develop the thoroughness and strength to properly perform the movements.”

Others like Madlener, however, feel that we are a nation of freedom and “people should be free to fall on their individual faces. People should be permitted to make whatever choices and to endure the consequences.”

The issue of rider finances and the number of rated shows in each region also make many in opposition cringe at the thought of this proposal. Maryland, part of the USDF Region 1, is blessed with being in a rich dressage area with many recognized shows within a short drive. Susan Carr Davis, an “R” judge, predicts that “Maryland will be less impacted by this proposal because we have so many shows in such a small area.”

Competitors in other regions, such as Colorado and Washington state, have to travel great distances to reach a show. Debra Nissen, who considers herself a “semiprofessional,” has often found herself in locations where she could not compete but still had time to ride and train. In that situation, Nissen feels she “would not be able to earn the Bronze level [Third Level and below] even though [she is] training at a higher level.”

The general worry by those opposed to the proposal is that riders will become frustrated with trying to qualify and will just stop showing. Elizabeth Trossbach from Mechanicsville is currently competing Second Level but usually can only make it to four recognized shows a year. At that rate, she says, “it will take several years to earn enough points [to move past Third Level]… I may quit competing altogether.”

Vornholt, on the other hand, points out that many in this area will not be affected by the proposal since “most people ride below Third Level.” She predicted that there “will probably [be] less people at Third and Fourth Levels initially” but since “many will be grandfathered in at those levels anyway” the overall impact on the numbers participating in the sport will be little.

Our Future Olympians
If there are rules already in place to protect the horse and few riders will even be affected by this proposal, then why propose the rule change in the first place?

PVDA member Dr. Rebecca Yount thinks that the driving force behind the rule proposal it to “groom riders to better represent the U.S. internationally.” Yount is currently on the PVDA board of directors, is the chair of the education committee and the PVDA rule change liaison. There are several others who agree with Yount that this need for international success is motivating the — USEF Dressage Committee to push this rule through.

Weber sees this system improving the “overall quality of horses and riders in the U.S.” and feels in the long term it “will have a positive affect” on both the Maryland community and U.S. riders internationally. Weber points out that “most other nations already have this [sort of system]” and reaffirmed that the U.S. dressage community should remember that it is “important that the quality of the riders improves, not the quantity.”

Indeed, many countries in Europe have already adopted such qualification scales. However, the rules were primarily put in place to help alleviate oversubscribed shows. There is no way at this time to predict if the rules stated in this proposal will in fact produce a more competitive U.S. Dressage Team.

Yount Leads Research Team
Several regional representatives are concerned about how and why the proposal was initiated, and whether or not actual data supports the need for this proposal.

In order for any rule change to occur, a formal proposal must be submitted to the — USEF Board of Directors or Executive Committee. This proposal (and a variety of forms) must be submitted by June 1, for rule changes submitted by an individual Federation member or Federation staff member, or by September 1, if submitted by a — USEF committee or affiliated entity. For the official — USEF checklist on how to submit a rule change proposal, see

In the case of this proposal, the — USEF Dressage Committee as a whole submitted the proposal. Versions of the proposal were supposed to be sent to the various Group Member Organizations (GMOs) for review and feedback, but according to Yount, this was not done. Yount reported that rumors of the proposal were circulating before the November 2007 USDF Convention and that only a few PVDA members attended the convention. At this point, USDF members from across the country sent letters to the — USEF Board of Directors expressing their concern with the lack of proper etiquette in how this proposal was handled.

Jennifer Keeler, the National Director of Dressage for — USEF, on the other hand, stated that the USDF “has followed, and will continue to follow, this process.” After receiving hundreds of letters and e-mails against the proposal, the — USEF decided to table the rule change for one year while research and surveys of members could be conducted. Keeler reported on August 11 that the USDF Dressage Committee “continues to work on further development of the proposal based upon responses gathered.” The actual data and survey responses collected by the USDF were not available for review.

Yount and a few other PVDA members conducted their own research on the subject of general recognized show scores. Yount, Ana Diaz (a registered professional engineer and PVDA member for four years) and Mary Stydnicki Johnston (a longtime USDF, — USEF and PVDA member) collected data on over 6,000 riders from all USDF Regions (except Region 6, which did not have any competition during the time period studied) between October 1 and November 30, 2007. The research looked at trends in scores for Training Level through Grand Prix competitions.
The data showed that only riders at Grand Prix received average scores below 60%. Therefore, a performance scale based on scores above 58% will not have any effect on the current dressage rider population since the average rider at all levels is already scoring above this percentage.

Yount and colleagues sent their analysis to several “key players” in the — USEF, USDF and GMOs across the country. They also made their findings available to the general public on the PVDA web site and was presented at the USDF Region 1 meeting held in March.

At this time, no one on the — USEF Dressage Committee cared to comment about the study. However, on August 19, the USDF Executive Board released a statement regarding an on-line survey, which gathered feedback from — USEF and USDF members. The results showed that a “majority of the approximately 1,250 respondents expressed support for the idea of having competition performance standards for the sport.” They also stated that as a result of receiving “several important concerns regarding the proposal… the USDF Dressage Committee is exploring new ideas to address these concerns, and will discuss possible changes to the proposal in the coming months with the organizations which will be impacted.”

The Future of Dressage
Not many can disagree with the fact that the European countries have always dominated international dressage, or that continual education of our riders, trainers and judges will ultimately improve the quality of horses and riders representing the U.S. in both local and international competition. The question still remains as to whether or not this specific proposal will truly help the sport as a whole.

Yount is concerned about the “many unintended consequences” that this rule change might inflict. She is concerned that the sport will suffer as riders and show officials take on the burden of having to achieve a certain amount of points to move forward and keep track of these scores. Others still feel that the actual percentage of the dressage population that will be affected is so small that the dressage community will continue to grow. Grand Prix rider and trainer Carolyn Del Grosso says “It is very likely that more abuse will occur while riders try to achieve these scores.” Del Grosso added, “Educational encouragement is always great but we should not try to improve our Olympic tean on the backs of the very grass roots people who have caused such growth in dressage in the first place.”

Although Susan Carr-Davis is in favor of the concept, she feels the wording “needs to be tweaked” and is concerned about the effect it will have on judges. She feels that if this rule change goes into effect, “judges will have to be much more aware of how their marks transfer into final percentages.” In a system where just one percentage point can make or break someone’s career, judges will have to focus more on the bigger picture and not just each individual mark. Davis suggested that in the required continuing education programs for judges, these issues are addressed so that judges also become better educated.

This brings up a concern of many judges that if they do not give high marks they will not be asked to judge again, or that riders will start to seek out shows where specific judges who give higher marks are judging.