Dressage judge and 2018 USDF Volunteer of the Year has worked tirelessly on behalf of horses and the sport
By Sally Silverman
Photographs by Kristen Posner
Lois Yukins doesn’t know what all the fuss is about. Her years of volunteer work, she says, have always been about the horses, not the spotlight. Despite her modesty, Yukins’ dedication, her seemingly endless energy, and the countless hours she has devoted to dressage earned her the recognition as the 2018 USDF Volunteer of the Year. Her supporters say that her impact on the sport of dressage, and those individuals involved in it, has been profound.
Volunteer Path, Personal Journey
Yukins’ own dressage goals were what propelled her toward volunteerism. As a professional dressage rider/trainer in her home state of Michigan, she wanted to hone her competitive edge.
“I thought it would be easier to find out what judges wanted if I could get close to them,” she says, “so I volunteered to scribe. I just wanted to be on the other side of the fence, and it worked.”
When Yukins became a dressage judge herself, in the 1970s, she saw people working to improve judging programs in this country. She stepped in to help, explaining that “I had mentors before me who were wonderful volunteers.”
Yukins herself rose through the ranks, both as a judge and as a volunteer. She currently holds US Equestrian “S” and FEI 4* dressage-judge licenses. She has been a member of the USDF Judges Committee since the mid-1990s, and she has served on the US Equestrian Dressage and Licensed Officials Committees. A member of the USDF L Program Committee since 1994, she has served as its chair since 2012.
It is for her commitment and contribution to the L program that Yukins is most widely recognized.
“Lois has brought even more clarity and consistency to the L program, along with continuity and sound leadership,” says Janet “Dolly” Hannon, who nominated Yukins for the USDF Volunteer of the Year award. “She has helped to champion the biomechanics portion of the program.”
Developed by the USDF Judges Committee, the L program teaches prospective dressage judges to evaluate the correct training of dressage horses with an educational foundation that includes biomechanics as well as criteria for judging gaits and paces, movements and figures.
Hannon, herself a US Equestrian “S” dressage judge and current chair of the USDF Freestyle Committee, believes that it is important for key volunteers like Yukins to be recognized.
“I don’t think that the average [USDF] member understands the countless hours that committee chairs and members of the various USDF committees volunteer to help further our sport,” Hannon says. The L program, she adds, is the most successful educational program the USDF has created. “It has had a profound impact on our judges program and for all of our members.”
A Body in Motion
It is Yukins’ academic background in physics, she says, that attracted her to the biomechanics aspect of dressage training and the L program.
“I have always been interested in motion and energy, and how energy travels most efficiently,” she says. After all, she points out, collection is all about recycling energy, not destroying or shortening it, with the goal that the horse carries himself so that one step leads to another with little effort.
Yukins has had a lifetime of experience with animals’ motion and energy. On the equestrian side, she began as a Pony Clubber and rode hunter/jumpers before her passion turned to dressage. In her oceanside home in the evocatively named Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts, she watches beachgoers’ dogs running and playing at the seaside, which she says “has really helped me to think about how different bodies move differently.” Comparing the movement of dogs to that of dressage horses, she said, she realized that “we have to allow the horses to move in the best way that they can without rider interference. It seems to me that is what dressage is all about.”
This quest has become something of a mission for Yukins.
“We can teach how the [horse’s] body works, but every body is build just a little differently. If the riders, the trainers, and the judges understand this, they won’t develop ‘cookie cutter’ horses.”
The Impact of the L Program
In the US, a dressage judge’s education is a lengthy and intense process, says dressage pro Bill Warren, who credits Yukins as his primary mentor through the judging ranks.
“Our programs are bringing about a group of judges that are well educated, which is a benefit to our sport,” Warren says. “We are known around the world for having the best education system in the world.”
Credit for that fact goes to a few key L program supporters, of whom Yukins is one. As she puts it, “It is not enough to produce judges. It is always about increasing knowledge.”
Although the impact that Yukins’ countless volunteer hours have had on the sport is evident, her influence on the individuals who make up the sport is equally important to recognize.
“I was an ‘r’ judge for years,” Warren recalls, “and she said, ‘What are you waiting for? Do you want to judge Second Level for the rest of your career?’ I got my ‘R’ and moved on. She continued to encourage me, and just this year I received my FEI 4*. Mentoring young judges along the way is important.” Yukins, he says, “always has her eye opened for helping the ones who want to come up.”
“Lois is a person who gives her all, despite whatever might be going on in her own life,” says Steve Schubert, USDF’s immediate past treasurer, who credits Yukins with supporting his wife, dressage pro Cindi Rose Wylie, as she embarked on the pursuit of her own dressage judge’s licenses. “She just never stops giving.”
Growing the Volunteer Population
Yukins, like many successful professionals, says she received a leg up in her own career from people who acted as mentors. Now that she herself is “paying it forward,” she takes the responsibility seriously.
“I get my colleagues involved in any way that I can. Our programs have always been driven by the volunteers, and the success of our teams reflects all of that hard work.”
Ever the talent scout, Yukins says that when she encounters a particularly capable volunteer, she’ll take the person under her wing, to prep the volunteer for bigger and better things. “Now I am grooming people because all of our programs are created by volunteers. I am particularly looking at those interested in education,” she says.
A Volunteer Role for Everyone
Horse shows, clinics, and other dressage-related events all need volunteers, says Yukins, who encourages people to get involved.
“Volunteering gets you closer to the sport. Even the runners that stand there and listen to the judges, or the scribes who have a ringside seat. It is so much better to volunteer at a show than to be a spectator because you are part of the community.”
Her advice? “Move around; offer to do different things. You will get to know things you wouldn’t learn just sitting in a chair on the sidelines. It will be very rewarding.” She emphasizes that every volunteer role—from the humble runner to the committee chair—is important. In fact, she says, “I have often thought the [Volunteer of the Year] award should go to those people who sit there all day in the sun and the snow, gatekeepers who do it year after year.” Without them, she says, and all of the volunteers, there would be no dressage sport.
Sally Silverman has had a lifelong love of and fascination with horses. A freelance writer, she enjoys delving into topics pertinent to equestrians and sharing what she learns with readers.
Nominate a Deserving Volunteer
Each year, the USDF bestows the Volunteer of the Year Award on an individual who, “through consistent and cumulative volunteer activities, has demonstrated exceptional commitment toward carrying out USDF’s mission.” Potential recipients are nominated by USDF members, with the winner determined by the USDF Executive Board.
A USDF Youth Volunteer of the Year award recognizes outstanding volunteer contributions by a USDF youth member.
Nominations for both awards are due May 1.
Learn more at https://www.usdf.org/awards/service.