Reprinted from the May/June 2019 USDF Connection magazine.
Milestones, changes, and a few hits and misses
By Jennifer O. Bryant
Twenty years ago, the USDF did a Carpe diem and took control of its own message.
In a somewhat unusual choice for a sizeable nonprofit member organization, for the first quarter-century of its existence the USDF did not publish its own magazine for members. For years the closest approximation was the quarterly black-and-white newsletter USDF Bulletin, a modest affair printed on plain paper and containing USDF news, some awards and results with photos, and occasional articles but fairly light on the content overall. With USDF Bulletin the sole publication, and these being the days before the Internet and social media enabled a constant stream of information, the result was that there wasn’t a lot of regular communication between the USDF and its members.
The 1990s brought two back-to-back attempts by the USDF to have its proverbial cake and eat it too. By lending its imprimatur to a commercially published dressage magazine, the USDF got—in theory—the benefits of providing members with a monthly full-color glossy while avoiding some of the costs of actually producing the magazine. (Disclosure: I became the editor of the second “USDF official publication,” itself a reboot of the pioneering Dressage & CT, part way through that magazine’s short second lifespan.)
But neither of those ventures with major consumer “enthusiast magazine” publishers lasted, and in 1998 the USDF found itself magazine-less again.
Seeking a stopgap measure while trying to figure out its next step, the USDF briefly resurrected the black-and-white newsletter format, self-publishing a handful of monthly issues of Transition in early 1999. As then USDF president Ellin Dixon Miller explained in the inaugural January 1999 issue, the direction of USDF’s official publication was a key topic at the 1998 USDF Annual Convention in Savannah, Georgia.
As Miller recounted, the USDF explored its options, soliciting member input as well as gathering proposals from three publishers of existing equestrian magazines that bid to become the new official USDF publication. In the end, “the Executive Board voted to move forward with our own in-house publication,” Miller wrote, and promised that members would find the still-nameless new magazine in their mailboxes that spring.
The New Connection to Members
Miller made good on her promise. USDF members received the inaugural issue of their new member magazine, USDF Connection, in May 1999. The 30-page publication was assembled by USDF staffers—who at the time were still based in Lincoln, Nebraska. The printer was the Lincoln-based Boomer’s Printing Company, the business owned by USDF founder Lowell Boomer, whose offices for years also housed the USDF.
In her “Executive Message,” Miller welcomed readers to the new publication, exhorting that “now for the first time in years, we have complete control over the content of the entire magazine you will receive.” Explaining the magazine’s name, she urged members to “[l]et USDF be your ‘connection’ for knowledge, education, competition, and fun in the sport of dressage.”
Some of the key components of that first issue carry on today. The May 1999 issue contained a research update on “Bits and Bitting” from then McPhail Dressage Chairholder and world-renowned equine-biomechanics expert Dr. Hilary Clayton—whose contributions were first published in Dressage & CT—and who today is USDF Connection’s longest-running contributing editor. The USDF Judges Committee, one of the most proactive in generating useful and important content through the years, launched its well-received “The Judge’s Box” column with its then chair, the late Elizabeth Searle, sharing her “Thoughts About the Walk.” Officials from the USDF Technical Delegates and Junior/Young Rider Councils penned informational articles. Wanting to share the history of American dressage with a new generation of enthusiasts, then USDF Region 3 director Sue Bender (who today is back in that same position) wrote a profile of Roemer Foundation/USDF Hall of Famer and 1932 Olympic dressage bronze medalist Col. Hiram Tuttle, who remains the only American ever to win an Olympic individual medal in dressage. The issue’s feature article was the first of a series of reports on the 1998 USDF National Dressage Symposium with Kyra Kyrklund, by USDF-certified instructor and instructor-certification pioneer Bill Woods.
By the March 2000 issue, USDF Connection remained the same number of pages but there was an addition on the masthead: an editor-at-large, aka yours truly, who helped the editor, USDF staffer Virginia Anne “Annie” Lee, edit articles and contributed the occasional story. A year later Lee, who was not an editorial professional by training, told the USDF that she’d become overwhelmed by the demands and relentless deadlines associated with USDF Connection’s production schedule—what Dressage & CT founding editor the late Ivan Bezugloff Jr. once eloquently termed “the tyranny of a monthly magazine.” Lee left, and the organization was in the lurch.
Who ya gonna call? Yes, they called me, and for better or for worse (I hope you think it’s mostly for better), I’ve held the editor’s reins ever since.
Highlights and Lowlights
It’s human nature to be quick to complain yet slow to praise. Magazine readers don’t tend to call or write when they love something, but when an article or a photo ticks them off, you’ll hear about it, stat! The advent of social media and its ease of commenting brought more of both. Through the years, USDF Connection has noted many watershed moments in USDF’s history and published some material of which I’m particularly proud—as well as some stories and images that proved provocative. Here are some standouts.
In his “Inside USDF” column in the July 2001 issue, then USDF president Samuel Barish reported on the spring USDF Executive Board meeting. The monumental decision: the vote to relocate USDF’s headquarters from Lincoln to Lexington, Kentucky.
The organization has been in Lexington for so long—it moved to leased office space near downtown in spring 2002 and in the spring of 2006 settled into its current home at the Kentucky Horse Park—that many members probably can’t conceive of the USDF’s being anywhere else. But in 2001 the decision to leave Lincoln was a contentious one, with some USDF members saddened at the thought of leaving the organization’s birthplace and others arguing that a national organization should remain headquartered squarely in the center of the country.
Needing to up its production game, the USDF had contracted with an outside graphic designer to take over the magazine’s layout duties. Laura Carter of the Missouri-based Carter Publishing Studio redesigned the magazine inside and out to give the growing publication—the December 2001 issue was 54 pages—a fresh, clean look.
In the midst of the redesign, 9/11 happened. I have no recollection of what we’d originally planned for the “big reveal” cover, but whatever it was went out the window. The tragedy was so shattering that not to acknowledge it, even in a magazine about a subject that had absolutely nothing to do with it, was unthinkable. And so Carter came up with the idea of the flag image superimposed over a dressage photo. It was simple and quiet and conveyed what we wanted to convey at a time of great national shock and mourning. Inside that issue, then USDF treasurer Barbara Funk wrote about the far-reaching ways that the events of 9/11 changed Americans’ lives in ways both large and small. On a micro level, she wrote, the dressage world was affected when the ripple effect of travel disruptions made transporting officials to shows challenging or impossible, and competition and event organizers had to decide whether or not to cancel, with both avenues drawing criticism.
In a world in which the chief executive’s position in many organizations is a revolving door, the USDF has enjoyed remarkable stability. The September 2002 issue introduced USDF’s executive director, Stephan Hienzsch, who had been hired earlier that year. A former professional skier and ski-industry business owner and organization director, Hienzsch found many similarities between dressage competition and ski racing—and the equine focus of the job was a plus for his horse-owning family (Hienzsch doesn’t ride but wife Carol does, and the couple owns several horses). The Hienzsches relocated from Colorado to Kentucky for the USDF job, and Hienzsch has served as the organization’s executive director ever since.
The Paralympic Games and their equestrian component were established by the early 2000s, but the names para-equestrian and para-dressage (“para” being shorthand for parallel) hadn’t yet entered the lexicon. There were World Championships for Disabled Riders, as they were called, but para-dressage wouldn’t join the FEI World Equestrian Games roster until 2010.
USDF Connection shone a fairly early spotlight on the discipline still in its infancy with a September 2003 cover story. A related feature in the issue profiled a then-teenaged Rebecca Hart, who has gone on to become the most decorated US para-dressage competitor in history and last year became the first US para-dressage athlete to win a World Equestrian Games medal.
The November 2005 issue was intended to celebrate those there-from-the-start dressage clubs designated as USDF charter group-member organizations (GMOs). Our story “Charter Clubs” contained fun archival photos and facts about 21 of the surviving charter GMOs—except that one charter GMO was left out. The Oregon Dressage Society, which doesn’t appear on the roster of the USDF’s founding meeting in 1973, was awarded charter-GMO status, a fact that unfortunately didn’t make it into the records used as the basis for our story.
In an effort to streamline the production process and reduce costs, the USDF decided to bring the magazine’s layout and graphic design in house. One of senior publications coordinator Emily Koenig’s first tasks was to undertake a redesign, which rolled out with the April 2008 issue.
The first-ever FEI World Equestrian Games to be held outside Europe came not only to the USA, but to USDF’s home, the Kentucky Horse Park. The massive WEG trade fair occupied what had been the parking lot for KHP National Horse Center employees and visitors, and all of the offices threw open their doors during the WEG’s 16-day run in September and October 2010 to welcome thousands of spectators for special events. The excitement, photo ops, and milestones—including the highest-ever scores at the time recorded by dressage gold medalists Totilas and Edward Gal of the Netherlands—filled the pages of the November 2010 issue.
That WEG was also the first to include para-equestrian dressage, coverage of which appeared in the following issue due to the event scheduling and magazine production deadlines.
Those who remember the 2010 WEG might recall that the competition faced mighty financial hurdles caused by the economic recession, and were it not for the “bailout” in the form of increased funding from title sponsor Alltech that WEG might not have happened. No business seemed immune to the downturn, especially those focused on such nonessentials as horses and riding.
Dressage-show participation, horse ownership, and equestrian-organization membership numbers all took a hit beginning in 2008, and the effects lasted for years. For magazines, fewer eyeballs mean fewer advertisers, and combined with the migration of audiences from print to digital media the declines presented—and continue to present—publishers with challenges. If a title didn’t fold altogether, it likely was subjected to cuts of one sort or another. The USDF was no exception, and in 2010 USDF Connection’s publication frequency dropped from monthly to 10 times a year, with combined July/August and December/January issues.
Audiences at the 2010 WEG loved the Western dressage-slash-“cowboy dressage” exhibitions, and Western dressage was rapidly gaining popularity among riders who believed the hybrid discipline gave a fairer shake to their stock-type mounts. Our May 2012 cover story explored the trend’s emergence—and was immediately excoriated by USDF members, some of whom condemned Western dressage as antithetical to classical dressage principles and even threatened to cancel their USDF memberships.
The topic raged through that year’s Adequan®/USDF Annual Convention, where representatives from the two major Western-dressage organizations made bids for USDF affiliation. Both were rejected, one was later made the official US Equestrian Federation affiliate for the Western-dressage discipline, and the disciplines of dressage and Western dressage have remained wholly separate ever since—so that story is likely the last one on the subject you’ll ever see in the pages of USDF Connection.
USDF members may not know that USDF Connection is actually produced on a very modest budget. The line item on the budget looks substantial, but most of that is eaten up in printing and mailing costs; your membership dollars don’t subsidize on-location photo shoots and interviews.
Usually, that is. We made a rare exception in 2015, sending renowned equine photographer Susan J. Stickle across her home state of Florida to shoot our September cover subject, the highly decorated former dressage young rider Kassie Barteau, who had stepped off the conventional competitive “path to the podiums” to become the head trainer at a famous Arabian-horse facility near Orlando. Sue captured this stunning image of Kassie with one of Al-Marah Arabians’ broodmares and foals, and it remains one of my favorite covers.
Over the years, USDF Connection has won its share of awards from the equine-media professional organization American Horse Publications, which annually recognizes excellence in articles, photos, design, and other categories. USDF’s member magazine has snagged top honors in several categories, but until 2016 it had never won the coveted General Excellence award for association publications in its circulation category.
Beating out such heavy hitters as the Paint Horse Journal and The American Quarter Horse Journal, USDF Connection took home the General Excellence plaque from that year’s AHP Equine Media Conference awards banquet. It was a proud moment for USDF and the entire magazine team and Connection’s stable of outstanding freelance contributors.
In this editor’s experience, it’s not always possible to predict what stories or images will set readers off. Some potentially contentious content (or so I think) elicits nary a peep while another item sparks a surprise uproar. That’s what happened with the photo that graced the cover of the October 2017 issue.
With articles on the biomechanics of the horse’s head and neck, as well as a feature on the proliferation of “comfort” bridles for dressage, I wanted for the cover an arresting image of a horse wearing such a bridle. This photo, a close-up head shot of Adrienne Lyle’s mount (and future 2018 WEG team silver-medal partner) Salvino caught my eye immediately. Photographer Sue Stickle’s beautiful framing and stunning bokeh make the stallion practically pop off the page. Salvino is giving 100 percent and completely focused on his rider, and the bridle details are so sharp that you can see every stitch in the leather.
Then the comments began piling up on USDF’s Facebook page. Some viewers interpreted the horse’s sweat and “lipstick foam” as evidence that he was being misused. Others thought the stallion looked stressed or scared. A few posters, apparently never having seen a double bridle, expressed horror at the presence of two bits. Although some of the nastier comments seemed to be from people unfamiliar with dressage, even some USDF members took umbrage. The episode was an object lesson in the power of social media, for better or for worse.
The Next 20 Years
Change is the only constant in life, and the 20th anniversary issue of USDF Connection you’re reading is proof that USDF’s communications strategies are evolving with the times.
This May/June issue marks another transition for Connection, from 10 issues a year to bimonthly. To date few newspaper and magazine publishers have figured out how to monetize their digital platforms and how to stanch the bleeding as advertisers shift portions of their marketing efforts to social media and other platforms. Print is enjoying something of a resurgence in certain areas, but meanwhile something’s gotta give. Last year the USDF Executive Board voted to cut Connection’s frequency, and to help offset that content loss by building a USDF publications website called Your Dressage (YourDressage.org), which launched in April 2019. It is the USDF’s hope that Your Dressage will not only serve as an enjoyable adjunct to USDF Connection but that, as access requires neither a login nor a fee, it will also attract new enthusiasts to the sport of dressage and eventually to USDF and GMO membership.
One thing, however, hasn’t changed: the fact that this is your magazine, and every issue strives to uphold USDF’s mission of education, the recognition of achievement, and promotion of the sport of dressage. Your contributions and feedback help to shape USDF Connection, so please keep them coming.
Just as I never tire of dressage, I never tire of sharing the passion for horses and our sport with you in these pages. Thank you for being along for the ride!
Jennifer Bryant is the editor of USDF Connection.