At the USDF/USEF Young Rider Graduate Program, all the things they didn’t teach you in riding school.


Reprinted from the April 2014 USDF Connection

Everybody who starts a business discovers that it takes a lot more than a great product or service to be successful.

There are chores like bookkeeping. Customer relations. Legal matters. The list goes on. And chances are, if you’re great at baking cakes or building websites or training horses, you don’t know much about these important ancillary skills when you start out.

For years, fledgling dressage professionals got unceremoniously dumped into the open waters of the horse industry without so much as a life ring. You won a gold medal at Young Riders? Great! Now buh-bye and good luck.

The USDF and the United States Equestrian Federation created an educational weekend program to help bridge the gap. The USDF/USEF Young Rider Graduate Program is a fast-paced, classroom-learning event held every other year. Selected applicants hear from specialty equine-industry experts as well as successful dressage pros, who provide mentoring in the form of hard-earned knowledge, sage advice, and a few war stories. The Dressage Foundation, Lincoln, NE, provides funding support in the form of grants to selected participants and to USDF, to help off set the costs of attending.

The 2014 YR Grad Program was held January 18-19 in West Palm Beach, FL. Of the 28 participants, some are already working as dressage professionals while others are in college, doing stints as working students, or a combination thereof. In this article we’ll share highlights of the presentations—many of which should be of interest to any dressage pro, whether newcomer or veteran.

Client Relations
Roz Kinstler, of South Lyon, MI, chairs the USDF Youth Programs Committee, and she’s also a longtime dressage instructor, trainer, and FEI-level competitor. As such she was well equipped to speak on the topic of dealing with clients.

Most of the dilemmas the YR grads brought up can be resolved with a dose of polite assertiveness, according to Kinstler. Questions ranged from “What can I do about the client who phones me at 10:30 p.m. to discuss her training?” to “How do I handle the fearful student on an unsuitable

“You need to have the conversation,” was Kinstler’s frequent reply. It can be difficult to broach a sensitive topic; but a tactful, professional, honest discussion is usually better than dropping hints and nurturing resentments.

YOUTH ADVOCATE: USDF Youth Programs Committee chair and YR Grad Program speaker Roz Kinstler
Photo by Jennifer Bryant

“Establish boundaries,” advised Kinstler, who said she maintains business hours and silences her cell phone to all except emergency contacts in her off hours. “Set your schedule so you are at your best when you take customers.”

The old adage about not mixing business with pleasure holds true, according to Kinstler. Relationships can become strained if personal connections are involved. “You really need to keep the business and the friendship separated,” she said.

Conduct yourself in a mature, professional manner. “It’s really bad business to speak badly of another trainer,” said Kinstler. Likewise, “I’m not territorial with my customers,” she said; her students are free to, say, take clinics with other trainers. These policies demonstrate confidence in one’s own abilities, she said.

Attracting Sponsors and Supporters
Very few riders are able to finance their own dressage success. Additional support in the way of sponsorships is often necessary.

Several speakers at the YR Grad Program touched on the subjects of sponsorships and related issues. Debbie Witty, president of Performance Saddlery, Groton, NY, maker of Trilogy saddles, herself is a sponsor of several dressage riders. She explained her sponsorship agreements and how she selects the Trilogy “ambassadors.”

“I don’t pay my riders. Lots of companies pay their riders. My riders get my product, and they get me,” Witty said.

Witty’s first sponsorship tier is to reflock the rider’s saddles at no charge. Support may increase to include saddle pads with the Trilogy logo and the saddles themselves.

“What am I looking for? People who are out there doing it—people with clients, students, and an opportunity to do more than they’re doing now. I look for possibilities,” Witty said.

Because an ambassador reflects on her company, the person’s image and behavior are important to Witty. “Everybody works hard, but some people stand out for me because of their conduct. There are high-level riders I haven’t sponsored because I don’t trust that they will make me look good.”

“I want someone who’s gracious and thoughtful and considerate,” Witty said. A turnoff , she related, was the time she donated a saddle as a prize for the winner of a Young Rider class at Dressage at Devon (PA). “The kids came in [to my booth] with a sense of entitlement. They didn’t introduce themselves or say thank you for the opportunity. They just said, ‘I’m here to see what I can win.’”

THE SPONSOR’S PERSPECTIVE: Performance Saddlery president Debbie Witty addresses the audience
Photo by Jennifer Bryant

Different people prefer to be approached in different ways. For Witty, who said she receives hundreds of e-mail messages each day, the old-fashioned method is best: “Send a handwritten note and a picture of yourself using the product. Explain why you’re interested in them and their product. Tell them about yourself. Do some research: Figure out what products you love. Why do you love it?”

Corporate sponsors back riders because they want positive exposure for their goods and services. These days, social media are big players—and that’s why Witty “loves mentions on riders’ Facebook pages.”

The subject of Facebook brings us to the next topic: image. Equestrian public-relations manager Lindsay McCall spoke on the topic of media relations. USDF education-programs coordinator Victoria Trout discussed social media and image awareness. Both women touched on the importance of curating one’s online image.

When a prospective client or sponsor Googles you (and they will, Trout advised), what will they find? Remove or make private any questionable content or images—and that includes photos or video showing you riding without approved headgear, she said. Set business colleagues’ Facebook status to “acquaintances,” and “save ‘friend’ status for truly personal friends,” Trout suggested.

“You are a brand,” McCall said. She advised purchasing one’s name as a website domain name as a step toward building that brand across online platforms.

You never know when a chance encounter might sow the seeds for a new sponsorship or client. And if you’re successful enough that people want to interview you, you’ll need to be prepared. Compose a brief “elevator speech” that summarizes your background, accomplishments, and goals, McCall advised. Accommodate the media as quickly and graciously as possible (they have deadlines to meet), and always conduct yourself in a professional manner, she said.

Journalist and equine-industry PR pro Johnny Robb rounded out the discussion by explaining the corporate side of sponsorships.

Sponsorship is a business deal, Robb emphasized: If a company sponsors you, what will they receive in return? Consider what you can offer—exposure, endorsements, even product testing or technical consulting—before you approach a potential sponsor. And one of the best selling points, she said, is genuine enthusiasm for the sponsor’s product or service.

Although Witty said she does her sponsorship deals on a handshake, Robb advised getting an agreement in writing. Be sure to hold up your end of the bargain, be it sponsor mentions during interviews, appearances at sponsor booths at events, posing for ads, or using tack or apparel with the sponsor’s logo, Robb said.

Legal Issues
No one at the YR Grad Program needed to learn that horses can be dangerous and unpredictable. What they may not have known, however, is how to protect themselves and their businesses from resulting lawsuits and other legal issues.

A legalese lecture may not sound riveting, but equine lawyer Yvonne Ocrant’s two-part presentation had the audience in thrall—part horrified, part fascinated by her stories of lawsuits against which she has had to defend equine professionals.

Ocrant, a partner with Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP in Chicago, is herself an equestrian. Ninety percent of her practice is devoted to equine-liability cases, she estimated. Her talks focused on two key aspects of her practice: liability issues and contracts.

“The states recognize the financial benefits of equine activities but acknowledge the risks. Liability statutes delineate the risks onto the participants,” Ocrant said. “You need to understand your state’s law. There are exceptions to liability protections.” For example, she said, faulty tack or equipment is an exception.

A state’s equine-liability statute includes important definitions. “What is an ‘equine activity’? You need to know because, if the activity in question is not included in the definition in the statute, there is no liability protection,” Ocrant explained. Another key definition is “participant”: If a person’s activity (say, a spectator at a show or the parent of a child taking a riding lesson) does not meet the statute’s definition of participant, then that person would not fall under the liability statute.

“Your warning signs,” said Ocrant, referring to the signs posted at the entrances to equine facilities, “should make all who enter the premises a participant. And your contracts should state that everyone is participating in equine activities,” even if they’re just a visitor, a spectator, or a volunteer, she said.

Yes, everyone who sets foot on your property (except for kids, who legally can’t sign liability agreements) needs to sign a release, Ocrant said. “A lot of deals are still done on a handshake, but people will sue. Don’t let the older generation convince you that’s the way to do things. We need contracts.”

An equine lawyer can help you draft an effective liability release, officially termed a Release, Waiver, Hold Harmless, and Indemnification Agreement. The release should spell out the assumed inherent risks of equine activities (get the list from your state’s liability statute; then bolster it with additional examples), Ocrant said. In the event of a lawsuit, a detailed list of risks will help to educate the opposing counsel, the judge, and potentially a jury about what horses can do, she said. The release should also define “participant,” and it should identify the released parties—everyone from the property owner to the employees and working students, to name just a few. Ocrant also favors the clause “Participant agrees to reimburse the released parties for any and all attorneys’ fees incurred in enforcing the terms of this agreement.”

“Not only will your liability release help protect you, but it could also be a deterrent against someone suing you,” Ocrant said: A lawyer who works on a contingency basis may see a detailed release and have doubts about the likelihood of winning. “That might be all that’s needed for him to say, ‘I don’t think I’ll take your case.’ You might have just avoided a serious litigation case.”

Sale and lease agreements are common horse-industry contracts, Ocrant said, but you might be surprised to learn that “Many bills of sale are not legally enforceable” because they lack necessary language, she said.

Some states with a lot of equine-industry activity have consumer-protection statutes on the books that establish minimum requirements pertaining to horse sales. One that Ocrant cited is Florida: Chapter 5H-26, Sales and Purchases of Horses, sets forth definitions and language that must appear in sales agreements.

“Look for similar language to find your state’s statute,” Ocrant advised. Key words and phrases to search for are “horse,” “agency transaction,” “dual agency,” and “sale and purchase.”

For other types of contracts, such as those governing lease or training agreements, Ocrant encouraged her audience to develop documents that meet their unique needs. “The beauty of these contracts is that it’s your deal. That’s why forms don’t work. I don’t want you to use forms because I don’t think they will do the deal the way you want it done,” she said.

Ultimately, said Ocrant, solid liability releases and contracts are a strong line of defense, but they’re not bulletproof.

“You can’t protect yourself from everything; you can only act reasonably,” she said.

Enhancing Your Credentials
Earning an advanced degree demonstrates high-level mastery of a subject. Dressage professionals similarly may decide to bolster their own credentials by earning instructor certification or a judge’s license, for example.

USDF Instructor/Trainer Program examiner Lilo Fore and faculty member and Fourth Level certified instructor Annie Morris explained the advantages of obtaining USDF certification.

“Certification greatly improved my teaching, and the exposure has helped my business,” said Morris, of Columbia, CT. “The most important thing about doing this program was that it was so intellectually challenging. It really deepens your understanding of why you do what you do.”

“The program makes you read. It makes you gain and seek education. It makes you ask yourself, ‘Is this something I want to do for the rest of my life?’” added Fore, of Santa Rosa, CA.

“If you learn to train well and to ride well, everyone can see it,” Fore said. “You don’t have to tell people you are a good rider. Your education will show always.

“If you want to fulfill your dream of becoming the best rider you can be, it won’t happen by the seat of your pants. It happens through education,” said Fore.

“You may think you don’t want to be a judge. That’s OK; I didn’t want to be a judge either,” said FEI 4* dressage judge Janet Foy, of Colorado Springs, CO, who came to discuss the USDF “L” Education Program.

Created to establish an educational standard for aspiring dressage judges in the US, the “L” program still is the beginning of the US judging pipeline—one must graduate with distinction before entering the USEF program to obtain a dressage judging license—but it has evolved to become a cornerstone of American dressage education, with the designation of sections designed to accommodate auditors.

“Go through the ‘L’ program and the exam even if you don’t want to be a judge. At least go audit the program. Sections A, B, and C [the portions open to auditors] are 100 percent necessary for anybody who wants to train a horse,” said Foy.

Judging is a way to give back to the sport. It is prestigious. However, it is not financially rewarding until one reaches the USEF “S” (senior) level—even then, consider the income supplemental, not primary—and the credentialing curve is a long one, said Foy. It takes a good ten years or so to earn one’s “S,” with another three years on top of that before one can apply to enter the FEI judge program, she said. For that reason, she encouraged those interested in becoming dressage judges to get started early.

A LEG UP: YR Grad Program participants Holly Bergay (CA), Sydni Ottesen (UT), Mimi Stanley (ND), Laura Ovaitt (KY), and Emily Brollier (KY) each received a $500 Capt. Jack Fritz Young Professional Grant from The Dressage Foundation to attend the event. TDF also provided a $15,000 grant to the USDF to help keep costs down for all participants.
Photo by Victoria Trout/USDF

Just like graduate school, obtaining certifications and licenses can be costly. The philanthropic organization The Dressage Foundation has grants and scholarships available to instructors, judges, breeders, amateur riders, and others, said Beth Baumert, Columbia, CT, the organization’s president.

“We have a mission, which is to help finance the education of those in the sport of dressage,” said Baumert, who encouraged those in attendance to establish a habit of philanthropy. “Find a cause that’s really important to you and send them twenty-five dollars.”

Baumert urged the YR grads not only to give but to save for retirement. She herself did not begin saving until later in life and regrets not having started sooner, she said. Thanks to the magic of compound interest, a person who opens a Roth IRA at age 21 may accumulate a seven-figure nest egg by age 60, contributing a modest sum each year; someone who doesn’t start saving for another 10 or 20 years will amass far less even if he or she invests more per year, Baumert said.

Professional Development
Years ago, training in Europe was de rigeur for the aspiring US elite dressage rider to obtain excellent training and get exposure to the highest levels of the sport. At the YR Grad Program, veterans discussed modern training opportunities both Stateside and abroad.

Olympian Lendon Gray, of Bedford, NY, believes that there are plenty of educational opportunities to be had without crossing the pond. She credits the proliferation of good teachers and trainers in the US, and another important factor is the Internet.

“The opportunities online now are endless. I don’t think there’s a horse in the world you can’t find video of,” Gray said.

Not everybody wants to—or can afford to—pack up and go to Europe. If you’re one of them, then get creative about your dressage education.

“Video yourself riding. You could compare similar movements to someone you admire. Do you look like that rider you admire? If not, why not?” Gray said.

“Read. Are you educating yourself off the horse as much as you can? Sit with a judge. If you don’t know how they judge, how can you be the best competitor you can be?”

Gray also recommended attending educational programs, such as the USDF “L” program; USDF instructor workshops; and USDF clinics, symposia, and Trainers’ Conferences.

Watch the warm-up at dressage shows, Gray suggested. “Watch top trainers with horses like you encounter every day—the level that you’re riding, the type of horse you’re riding, maybe the type of horse you’re going to be teaching.”

“I cannot emphasize strongly enough the value of sitting in the corner, watching,” Gray said.

RUBBING ELBOWS: Dinner with special guests allows YR Grad Program participants to mingle with and learn from some of the best in the business. This year’s VIPs were (from left) USEF dressage chef d’équipe Robert Dover, USDF executive director Stephan Hienzsch, and USDF Youth Programs Committee chair Roz Kinstler; (middle row, third from right) USEF dressage developing coach Debbie McDonald; and (at right) USDF president George Williams and USEF dressage young-horse coach Scott Hassler.
Photo by Victoria Trou/USDF

Another important educational track is the USEF dressage “pipeline,” with its national coaches, clinics, and championships for ponies, youth, young horses, developing horses and riders, and high-performance pairs; and related USDF efforts, such as the Dressage Seat Medal program and the junior/young-rider clinics. Jenny van Wieren-Page, USEF managing director of dressage, encouraged the audience members to contact coaches Jeremy Steinberg, Scott Hassler, Debbie McDonald, and Robert Dover with any questions.

“They all interact,” she said.

Many dressage professionals still wind up traveling to Europe eventually to train, compete, or both; and some believe that if you’re going to learn dressage, you might as well go to the cradle of the modern sport. Among them is international competitor Catherine Haddad Staller, who now calls Califon, NJ, home after almost 20 years in Germany.

“I think going to Europe to further your education is a very good idea. I do not believe that in this country we will ever have enough well-educated professionals. This country is very lacking in people who really know what they’re doing—people with a comprehensive skill set, who I would consider to be top trainers,” Staller said.

The primary difference between dressage in the US and dressage in Europe and Great Britain, according to Staller, is that those countries “recognize riding as a vocation.” Accordingly, they maintain rigorous educational and certification programs for equine professionals in all aspects of the horse industry, from dressage and jumping teaching and training to breeding and stable management, she said.

“Anyone who wants to be a professional in this sport ought to be able to back it up with a certificate, and it had better be worth something,” said Staller, who holds British Horse Society Assistant Instructor certification. BHS certification is more accessible to Americans (for starters, it’s in English) than the German Bereiter system, she said.

Likewise, Americans who go to Europe to study dressage need to understand in advance some important cultural differences, Staller said. She illustrated her point before she’d even begun her lecture, startling the YR Grad Program attendees with an order to clear their tables of electronic devices and to straighten the tables into neat rows.

“If you go to train in Europe, be prepared to follow direct orders without ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’” The British employ some of the niceties, but they are largely absent on the Continent, Staller said.

In Germany, Staller explained, there is a rigidity and an emphasis on order and systems that can be difficult for Americans to accept. “You are told, not asked, to do things, and you do not question why.” There is a rationale behind the rules—such as the insistence on hanging bridles perfectly straight in the tack room, which saves time when tacking up—but the student is not given an explanation and must deduce the reason on her own, Staller said.

Similarly, dressage students receive no hand-holding, according to Staller. “Learning is your responsibility. The trainers will show you things or let you feel things. It’s your job to figure it out.”

Working-student positions in Europe can be hard to come by and often involve no riding, but Staller believes they can be an invaluable experience. Just make sure you learn at least some of the language before you go, she advised.

The Dressage Life
When you’re starting out, it’s nice to hear from someone who has made it. High-performance rider Jessica Jo (“JJ”) Tate, of Chesapeake City, MD, shared her professional philosophies and advice:

  • Work hard and maintain a great work ethic.
  • Every client is a potential sponsor.
  • With success, the hours are still long but the type of work changes. There is less physical labor but more paperwork, dinners with clients, and sponsor relations.
  • Ride whatever you can, as often as you can, to gain experience.
  • Develop discipline and endurance. “Learn to dig deep. Pretend the person you admire most is there to watch you ride,” said Tate. In addition, “Learn to bite your tongue. Never have a meltdown at horse shows. And learn to compartmentalize: Don’t bring problems with you to a lesson or other interaction with a client.”
  • Have the courage to take risks. After high school Tate traveled to Hungary, a country she’d never visited, to train with Olympia Gyula Dallos—a man she’d never met—on the recommendation of clinician Charles de Kunffy.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want. Tate said she’s obtained product sponsors at shows simply by asking business owners if they’d like for her to wear an item around the grounds.
  • Be dedicated and persevere. De Kunffy told Tate: “You have to be good enough for long enough, and eventually they will notice you.”
  • Think of yourself as a professional athlete. “With no body, you have no job. Your body is your business,” said Tate. Caretaking includes good nutrition and appropriate health and fitness measures, such as yoga classes and sports massages, she said.
  • “Be responsible for your actions.”
  • Be positive. Nobody likes a Debbie Downer.

A Solid Foundation
Starting out in one’s career is never easy, but the YR Grad Program participants left Florida armed with knowledge and tools they can use to help advance as dressage professionals. They also had the opportunity to network and swap stories—because it’s always comforting to learn that others are facing the same issues and challenges. And to these dedicated young adults, a life of horses and dressage is worth the effort.

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