Sport-Horse Handlers Learn the Skills at USDF Handler Clinic

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A USDF Handler Clinic participant practices showing a sport horse in hand on the triangle (COURTESY OF HILLTOP FARM INC.)

By Caitlin Gallagher

As a young adult amateur in dressage, I believe it’s crucial that I learn as much as I can about the horses and opportunities in my sport. There have been many times where I have turned to the USDF to help me with such education. The new USDF Handler Clinic, held in April at Hilltop Farm in Maryland, was created by the USDF Sport Horse Committee to impart the art of handling dressage sport horses to a large group with a varied background. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to be a part of this program. There were 30 participants and 20 auditors wanting to learn how to show dressage prospects in hand. It was a phenomenal turnout with two full days packed with education.

The program itself was a worthwhile opportunity for any young rider, adult amateur, blossoming professional, or current professional to learn from Michael Bragdell and Sara Vanecek, two of the best professional handlers in the sport-horse world. Dressage sport-horse judge Kristi Wysocki and Hilltop Farm managing director Natalie DiBerardinis joined Michael and Sara for many of the lectures and demonstrations. All four were fantastic speakers to learn from.

On the first day of the seminar, they gave an informative introduction to the world of the dressage sport-horse prospect and the role of the handler. Both are very important to the future of the sport of dressage and many other disciplines.

Conformation and movement were the next topics, covered by Kristi Wysocki. As she explained, the handler must understand a horse’s conformation in order to present the horse to the judge in the best way possible. A demonstration on how to judge conformation and movement followed the lecture to help further solidify the lesson. Being able to apply what we had learned is what this clinic was all about.

An introduction to a breed-show competition followed, with the clinicians explaining the structure and concepts that owners and handlers need to know. Michael and Sara then presented a more in-depth introduction to handling. They imparted to the audience the importance of safety, skill, and understanding when handling large animals that have minds of their own. Hilltop Farm presented us with more horses for demonstrations of how to handle all ages and types of horses. Participants then split into two groups to learn how to develop their skills in handling a horse in competition. Experience with the competition triangle, standing a horse in open stance, and movement presentations were introduced. I had the pleasure of being instructed by Sara on the first day. She advised us to “capture the thought,” explaining, “The horse will move you just as much as you will move the horse.”

Hilltop Farm’s indoor arena doubled as classroom for clinic participants
(COURTESY OF HILLTOP FARM INC.)

The second day started with a roundtable discussion of career paths for sport-horse handlers. All of the presenters once again stressed the importance of handlers to the future of dressage sport-horse competitions and what amateurs or young professionals should expect when getting into the business. They also emphasized that you are never alone. Mentors are out there, willing to teach you to find your own niche and style. Allowing the horse to move as it can and to help them show said movement to the judge is the handler’s number-one job.

Another handling demonstration was then given for mares and foals as well as group classes. Participants then split into their two groups again to learn from the instructor they were not with the previous day. Michael’s wisdom was to always be willing to learn and make mistakes; the horse is always teaching us something new.

After the second hands-on session, we were able to participate in a mock competition. Kristi judged the participants using the USDF Amateur/Junior/Young Rider Handler Scoresheet. Her critiques were very insightful and inspiring to continue learning how to handle sport horses in hand. A perfect ending to a fantastic seminar.

Thank you to the staff at Hilltop Farm for hosting such as special event, especially to Jane MacElree for allowing the use of this phenomenal facility. Another special thank you to Kristi Wysocki, Michael Bragdell, Sara Vanecek, and Natalie DiBerardinis for speaking to us. A huge thank you to all who allowed us the pleasure of handling their horses for the seminar.

USDF Sport Horse Youth Ambassador Caitlin Gallagher and her horse, Arturo

Caitlin Gallagher graduated from Delaware Valley University, Doylestown, Pennsylvania, in 2019 with a degree in equine science: breeding. She is in her second year as a USDF sport-horse youth ambassador, and she has participated in numerous USDF sport-horse and young-breeder programs. She trains with Sue Rudmann at Wind n View Farm and plans to compete her horse, Arturo, at Second Level in the coming year.

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