At the USDF/USEF Young Rider Graduate Program, practical advice for tomorrow’s dressage pros
Reprinted from the April 2016 Issue of USDF Connection
Story & Photographs by Jennifer O. Bryant
Dressage, that most solitary of athletic pursuits, tends to attract people who aren’t all rah-rah teamwork by nature. Our sport is more likely to draw the high-achieving introvert who’s happiest when it’s just her and a horse. But in order to make it as a dressage professional, you’d better hone your people skills and learn to overcome any innate shyness, according to the speakers at the 2016 USDF/USEF Young Rider Graduate Program. (See “Bridge to the Open Waters” on page 37 for more on the program.) Being a wallflower won’t bring you sponsors and clients, and running a dressage business is—surprise!—as much about dealing with people as it is about training horses.
“Put your phone down, and be approachable,” advised international para-equestrian dressage competitor Rebecca Hart. “I was once on a train when I noticed another passenger looking at me, obviously hoping to strike up a conversation. I would have rather just kept to myself, but I made myself look up from my phone and smile.” Pushing herself out of her comfort zone paid off: The fellow passenger, inspired by Hart’s story and equestrian talent, “ended up funding a trip to Europe for me and my horse.”
The horses are easy. The people are hard. —Grand Prix-level competitor Endel Ots
“This is a people business,” said 2010 World Equestrian Games competitor Katherine Bateson-Chandler. “You have to learn to deal with people. You have to make yourself become a people person. I had to force myself; I’m very introverted. You’ve got to be friendly, outgoing, and honest.”
Build Brand You
You have to be a good rider to build a dressage clientele— and, you hope, to attract sponsors and backers. But riding well isn’t enough.
In this era of social media, everybody’s a “brand.” Who is Brand You?
“Cultivate a public persona,” advised Hart, who maintains two Facebook pages: one public, one private. The private page allows more personal sharing with friends and family, while the public page features more competition related posts and sponsor acknowledgments, she said.
“You can brand, package, and sell yourself with so many available social-media tools,” said equestrian and sports marketer and journalist Chris Stafford, host of the USDF official podcasts and president of the Global Women’s Sports Network. “Have a presence on as many social media as possible. It’s the ‘drip effect.’ Build up a presence every day.” Post regularly enough, and across enough platforms, that you stay on the radar, she advised.
Stafford recommended creating a short professional biography, highlighting your significant dressage accomplishments and names of trainers you’ve worked with or for. Use that material in creating an “elevator speech”—a quick introduction and self-pitch that could conceivably be delivered in the time it takes to ride a few floors with someone in an elevator.
Create a website for your dressage business. “Your website is your shop window,” Stafford said.
As you develop Brand You, “come up with something that’s unique,” said Stafford. “What is different about you? What do you have to offer a sponsor that someone else can’t?”
Attracting an Owner
It’s the dream of many dressage pros: get paid to ride and compete a talented horse, with someone else footing the bill. But as one well-known owner/sponsor pointed out, attracting an owner is not easy, and maintaining a mutually satisfactory business relationship can be a challenge, as well.
For starters, explained US Dressage Owners Task Force chair Kimberly Boyer, riders need to understand what motivates owners to get into the sport in the first place.
Some individual sponsors (like Boyer herself) are active riders, competitors, or both; others no longer ride or never rode at all. “The equestrian lifestyle is a huge attraction for noncompetitive owners—the ambiance of owning a farm, being at the show, enjoying the competition,” Boyer said. “They spend a lot of money to enjoy that lifestyle, and you’re an important part of it.”
Access to the VIP hospitality tent at the show is nice, but most owners aren’t satisfied just to take part, said Boyer. “Owners are goal-oriented people. Most have had a certain amount of success in their life. When they purchase a horse, they have a dream for that horse; they have an idea where they would like to see you go with the horse.”
Although it does happen that a loyal sponsor buys a horse specifically for a chosen rider to train and compete— owner Akiko Yamazaki, who has put several mounts under Olympian Steffen Peters, is a current notable example— Boyer said it’s more likely that the sponsor already has the horse and then seeks the rider whom he or she believes will best help that horse fulfill his potential. Boyer, the owner of Hampton Green Farm in Florida and Michigan, has done the latter: She sent her PRE stallion Grandioso III to Europe, where he has represented Spain at the Olympic Games with rider Jose Daniel Martin Dockx; and she gave young rider Kerrigan Gluch the ride on the Hampton Green-bred and -owned PRE stallion Vaquero HGF.
When an owner goes looking for the right match, “It’s based on who you are as a professional and as a person. It’s like a marriage in many ways,” Boyer said.
Talent is a given: “You have to be a good rider,” said Boyer. Tangible proof of that talent is most important: “Scores matter. Scores are almost everything.”
“Present yourself honestly while showcasing your talents,” Boyer advised. “Don’t say you’re a Grand Prix rider if you’ve piaffed at home. Today’s sponsors are different from when I got started in the sport almost 20 years ago. Back then, they were isolated—‘sequestered.’ Today, sponsors are much better educated about the sport in general. The Internet enables owners to look up riders’ scores; no longer can riders tell stories about what they’ve accomplished.”
The Internet also enables potential sponsors to dig deeper into riders’ backgrounds. “Be careful what you post online and on Facebook. Sponsors use Facebook to learn about you,” Boyer said.
Where to find these elusive benefactors? Boyer named several possible sources. One is the amateur rider/owner “who is willing to get off their horse and let you ride it.” Consider anyone who has professional dealings with you— say, someone you sell a horse to, or teach in a clinic—a potential sponsor. Other possibilities: “your trainer, or your trainer’s sponsor. Someone you met at a USDF convention.” Even your own parents: “Consider parents the same way you would consider an outside [nonrelated] sponsor.”
Finally, whether you’re a rider seeking sponsorship or an owner looking for the right rider, check out ExperienceDressage.com, the matchmaking and community-building website from the USEF-powered Dressage Owners Task Force.
“Add yourself to ExperienceDressage.com as a rider looking for sponsorship. Do it well. I highly recommend adding a video,” Boyer advised.
There are several potential pitfalls in the rider-owner relationship, Boyer said. The owner may turn out to be “demanding or unrealistic. They may not understand the time it takes [to bring a horse up the levels], or prepared for the total expense.” Or the biggie: “The owner may take the horse back. That’s a really difficult thing.”
The owner may own the horse, but in some cases the rider feels “owned,” as well.
“Some owners envelop their riders. They don’t let them have personal time or time with their families,” Boyer said.
Even the tightest-knit owner/rider relationships can lead to difficulties. “A good owner is often willing to make you part of the family, and that can be a complicated issue. They see you as part of the dream, so when the relationship ends it can be very painful, like a breakup,” Boyer said.
But if your goal is the elite levels of the sport, sponsorship is essential unless you are independently wealthy.
“Sponsorship is the difference between living lesson to lesson, or commission to commission, and being able to campaign a horse at the highest level,” said Boyer. “To campaign a horse, to travel, you need a sponsor or group of sponsors. You need funding to be able to cut down on your lesson schedule in order to train and campaign.”
Attracting a Group of Owners
There is a limited number of people who can drop six-plus figures on a high-performance horse, but many more might be able to contribute a more modest amount toward supporting your dream. Pool these resources and you’ve got what’s known as a syndicate.
One who’s had success with syndicated horse ownership is Paralympian Rebecca Hart, who described the process of attracting investors to purchase her current competition mount, Schroeter’s Romani.
In syndication, Hart explained, “you find people with a common passion, and they share in ownership.”
A rider can form a syndicate—gather the investors—and then go horse-shopping, or find the horse and then “crowd-fund” its purchase by forming the syndicate. In Hart’s case, she found “Romani” with an agent’s help, then looked for backers.
“I found it helpful [to have located the horse she wanted to purchase] because I could create excitement,” Hart said. The agent also was helpful in identifying potential investors, she said.
A syndicate is a legal entity, explained the lawyer Yvonne Ocrant, who specializes in equine-industry legal matters. Ocrant has created more than 70 syndicates for the purchase and maintenance of horses, she said.
Ocrant advised presenting a syndication opportunity “as a win-win situation: ‘We’re going to be part of Team Yvonne.’ There’s a lot to be said for ‘your name in lights’; that’s why people get into syndication. They want to be part of Team Debbie McDonald and be able to talk to Debbie about the horse. A lot of them may be star-struck and enjoy the VIP access. They don’t get into it to make a profit.”
When Ocrant draws up a syndication contract, “all of the partners sign on to a single operating agreement, which spells out the fractional cost of getting involved,” including contributing toward the horse’s purchase price and an annual amount toward veterinary and other upkeep expenses, she said. “The horse is owned by an LLC [limited-liability company, a type of corporation], which limits the liability to individuals,” she explained.
The operating agreement attempts to cover all potential scenarios, Ocrant said. “The contract spells out how an owner gets out, if permitted. What happens if the horse dies or gets sick? Will the horse be insured? Who makes the decision to retire the horse, or that he will not go past a certain level? Who makes the decision regarding whether to sell the horse? That way, the horse can’t get sold out from under you.”
The LLC is created in the desired state. It has a separate bank account and its own tax ID number, Ocrant said.
Finally, “My syndication contracts stipulate that investors may lose all or part of their investment—that horse sports are risky,” Ocrant said.
Too many partners can make a syndicate unwieldy, Ocrant said. “I have never advised anyone to have over twenty owners. Typically it’s ten, but better more like fi ve.”
In Hart’s case, Schroeter’s Romani is owned by a syndicate of three, one of whom is Hart herself. Hart recommended choosing investors “with similar philosophies of riding, training, and so on.”
Syndication has its drawbacks—“It’s challenging because you’re accountable to a group. You lose the ability to have sole control, and you must consider their opinions”— but for an ambitious rider, the combined purchasing power “broadens your options,” Hart said. “It’s also nice to be able to share your competitive journey, and to be able to enjoy the process with others.”
If a business believes that you would make a good ambassador for its products or services, it may offer you a sponsorship deal. Agreements vary but tend to be product (e.g., a riding-wear company provides you with apparel) rather than cash—although there are exceptions, which we’ll get to in a minute.
Start your sponsorship quest by looking around your own barn. Ask yourself: “What products and services am I currently using? Which ones do I really like? Why?” said Allyn Mann, director of the animal health division for Luitpold Pharmaceuticals, maker of the equine joint-health product Adequan.
Next, bone up on the details about your favorites, Mann advised. Can you explain the product’s benefits and method of use? Can you articulate what sets it apart from competitors? Familiarize yourself with the company. How long has it been in business? How has it, or its product or service offerings, changed over time? What customer demographic is it trying to reach?
Hart recommended waiting “until you have more to offer” before you approach companies for sponsorship, especially the bigger fish.
As Mann put it: “If it were your own money, would you spend it [on you]?”
If you’re fortunate enough to score a meeting with a potential sponsor, “be prompt,” Mann advised. “Find out the company culture, and dress accordingly; don’t out-dress whomever you’re meeting. And even though you’re there to sell yourself, take an interest in them.”
Even if the meeting doesn’t result in a deal, keep the person’s contact information on file. “You never know when you might meet them again along the way on the journey.”
Equine-related businesses are the logical place to begin a sponsorship search, but “don’t let yourself be confined solely to equestrian people,” advised Hart, who counts Starbucks among her sponsors. Hart, who started working as a part-time barista eight years ago, learned that the company has an Elite Athlete Program. She applied and was successful “because I introduce them to the equestrian world,” she said.
The Road Ahead
“Ten years from now,” said Mann to the roomful of twenty-somethings, “some of you will be doing something other than trying to make your way in the dressage world, riding horses all day. I guarantee it. Life happens. Change happens.”
Proving Mann’s point, equine marketer/journalist Chris Stafford shared her own story. “I had my own yard in England,” said the native of Great Britain, “and was producing event horses when I started to have trouble with my back. One day, my life changed.”
Never burn a bridge. You never know when somebody’s going to come back around. —Katherine Bateson-Chandler
Doctors told Stafford, then in her late twenties, that she had to stop riding. “I was told I might not walk again, much less ride. I had to sell everything. [I asked myself] ‘Now what are you going to do?’ It made me think I should have gone to college and finished my education.”
Luckily for Stafford, an author friend encouraged her to write and helped her network with publishers. Stafford got a contract to write a book about conditioning horses, and its publication kick-started her career as an equestrian journalist.
“Have something to fall back on just in case,” Stafford advised. “Hopefully [the cause is] not your health, but circumstances change.”
The YR Grad Program speakers agreed that a life outside the dressage arena is important, and not just as a career safety net. “You need to create a lifestyle that is balanced,” said dressage pro (and wife and new mom) Hilary Moore Hebert.
“You need friends out of the industry, and partners who are supportive of this crazy dressage thing.”
Speaking to the all-female audience, Hebert said, “You have to think about your life goals—do you want to get married? Do you want kids?—early enough to make them hap pen. You have to put as much work into your personal life as you do into your professional life.” Asked whether they are concerned about how they’ll find a life partner and make time for children, about half the participants said yes.
A career as a dressage professional is not for everyone, said Katherine Bateson-Chandler. “This is a hard road. It’s not an easy life. You can see that some people don’t want it badly enough.”
A lifetime in the industry has taught even sponsored riders like Bateson-Chandler—who took over the rides on owner Jane Forbes Clark’s horses when Bateson-Chandler’s mentor and former boss, Olympian Robert Dover, hung up his spurs—to keep their options open.
“I also have my own business,” said Bateson-Chandler. “Nothing’s forever, and you never know. You shouldn’t have all your eggs in one basket. I see people who become very complacent.”
For many pros, even a successful dressage career is a juggling act between their own dreams and reality. “I have international goals,” said FEI-level competitor and USDF-certified instructor Jennifer Baumert. “I’m not [pursuing them] right now, but I have to pay the bills.” In a way, Baumert said, a trainer can be the victim of her own success: “You can have so many clients that there isn’t time for yourself— your own riding goals.”
“Never Stop Being a Student”
You may have “graduated” from Young Riders, but there’s no end to one’s equestrian education, said Olympian and USEF national young-horse coach Christine Traurig.
“Never stop being a student,” said Traurig, a native of Germany. “In this country, it often happens that young people graduate from their young-rider career and think, Now what? All too often, these young people hang out their shingle and start teaching and training.”
In fact, your dressage education may just be beginning, Traurig said. “Find a good mentor and stick with it. Be loyal and hard-working, and stick with good instruction. Find one where horsemanship is applied to the highest standard in the way the whole business is run—horsemanship toward horses, service toward clients. Find a great teacher and role model.”
6 Tips for a Better Rider/Sponsor Relationship
Most individual sponsors are successful people with good business skills, and “they want to see you conduct your business with the same good business skills,” said high-performance owner Kim Boyer, owner of Hampton Green Farm and chair of the US Dressage Owners Task Force. Here’s what Boyer looks for in a rider.
1. Be organized. “An organized person is calmer and more prepared. Your owner is not your secretary or your personal assistant.”
2. Be realistic. Don’t make promises you can’t keep, including ones pertaining to financial expenditures. “Be prepared to defend requests that the sponsor buy a new horse, tack, or trailer, and back it up with results.”
3. Be trustworthy and ethical. “You have one name; don’t tarnish it.”
4. Be connected. “Go to charity events. Give clinics. Help others. It keeps you relevant and puts you out in the community.”
5. Be loyal. “Mention your sponsor. Wear their logo. The sponsor tends to fade into the background as a horse and rider become successful. I have seen riders go into the [schooling] ring in a t-shirt from the local feed store instead of a shirt from their sponsor.”
6. Be informed. Know the USEF and FEI rules, and the USDF requirements for participation in awards and championship programs. “Don’t be caught having a horse disqualified due to a new rule.” And “read the daily news; make sure you know what’s going on in Europe and in your sport.”
The USDF and the USEF are grateful to The Dressage Foundation for funding support for the 2016 Young Rider Graduate Program; to sponsor Platinum Performance; and to USDF Youth Programs Committee chair Rosalind Kinstler. Many thanks to the 2016 speakers, who gave of their time to share their experiences and wisdom. Watch future issues of USDF Connection for more from the presenters. Katherine Bateson-Chandler, Beth Baumert, Jennifer Baumert, Kim Boyer, Jennifer Bryant, Janet Foy, Lendon Gray, Hallye Griffin, Rebecca Hart, Hilary Moore Hebert, Stephan Hienzsch, Rosalind Kinstler, Kraig Kulikowski, DVM, Allyn Mann, Yvonne Ocrant, Endel Ots, Arlene “Tuny” Page, Kathie Robertson, Chris Stafford, and Christine Traurig.