What is our sport doing to attract the next generation of enthusiasts?
By Amber Heintzberger
Reprinted from the September/October 2019 issue of USDF Connection.
Horse-crazy kids are not hard to come by, but when the hunter/jumpers offer lots of prizes, the Western disciplines have that cool cowboy/cowgirl thing going on, and little adrenaline junkies can gallop and jump cross-country, hooking children on the somewhat esoteric sport of dressage can be a challenge.
As the core dressage-enthusiast population ages, we need to bring the next generation into our sport—but how? Sure, we have the FEI North American Youth Championships for elite youth riders, and we have FEI Pony classes for kids on fancy ponies, but the real hurdle may be getting kids on their “backyard” mounts to give dressage a try.
USDF Connection wanted to know what’s being done to attract youth to dressage. What we found are some successful initiatives that dressage organizations, facilities, and instructors might want to use as inspiration.
Don’t underestimate the impact that watching a dazzling dressage performance can have on a youngster.
Dressage pro Sandy Bussey Turner, of Johns Island, South Carolina, remembers what it’s like to be a kid entranced by dressage for the first time. Turner grew up riding hunters, then evented through Pony Club. In the 1980s her Pony Club district commissioner took a group to watch a US dressage-team selection trial, and Turner was hooked.
“I watched horses skip across the diagonal and was like, ‘Holy cow, how do I do that? I want to do that!’” Turner recalls.
A similar phenomenon occurs when audiences see Grand Prix Freestyles under the lights or freestyle exhibitions complete with costumes, such as the ones USDF FEI Junior/Young Rider Committee chair Roberta Williams produces for Fantasia, the equine musical spectacular that caps the annual Equine Affaire equine expositions in Ohio and Massachusetts.
“Over the years, I have had people tell me how these performances have inspired them to pursue riding,” Williams says, “or that their goal is to ride in Fantasia one day.” Last year, costumed as Dorothy (“complete with Toto in a basket”), Ohio-based CDI competitor Nicole Harrington performed a Wizard of Oz-themed freestyle at Fantasia that was a crowd-pleaser for all ages, attracting fans to a post-show autograph session.
“The kids love the opportunity to interact with the performers, and many return the next day to watch their favorite performer perhaps teach a clinic or make a guest appearance at a booth,” Williams says.
Emphasize the Fun
Dressage requires patience and dedication to learn a test and perfect the required movements. In a culture that craves instant gratification, our sport emphasizes slow, methodical progress and lots of repetitive (some might say tedious) practice.
That doesn’t sound like much fun, especially compared to jumping and cowboy-ing. But some dressage enthusiasts have found that our sport can in fact appeal to young people if they think about it using a child’s perspective.
Ninth-grade history teacher and adult-amateur dressage rider Jennifer Koch lives on a small farm in Fogelsville, Pennsylvania, near Allentown. Five or so years ago, her daughter Ryleigh, then aged about seven, got her first pony, and the family joined the Lehigh Valley Dressage Association (LVDA), a USDF group-member organization (GMO).
“There she was, competing against all of the adults,” Koch says of her daughter. “She was riding Intro A and B and had fun getting out there, but of course it’s more fun to get some prizes.”
Mom and daughter discovered Olympian Lendon Gray’s Dressage4Kids program, which offers educational and competitive opportunities for kids interested in dressage, and Ryleigh’s dressage interest took off. Through the program the girl was paired with an Andalusian pony, and now FEI Pony classes are a future goal. The D4K program and its many offshoots are so successful, Koch realized, because they are developed specifically to appeal to youth.
“Once we got involved with Dressage4Kids,” Koch says, “I wondered why we didn’t have something like that around here. When I went to an LVDA meeting and suggested it, the initial response was that no kids want to do dressage—but I didn’t think that was true. I thought, ‘Why would they want to join an organization that doesn’t have anything to offer them?’ So I attended board meetings as a member and decided to draft a proposal for a youth program. I said I wanted to do it and would find a way to pay for anything; I just needed their approval.”
The LVDA board green-lighted the initiative, which launched in December 2017 with seven youth members. Less than two years in, the club’s youth membership is up to 41.
Koch started by organizing an introductory dressage clinic for kids with her own instructor, “who feels very strongly about youth dressage” and so lowered her rates to enable more children to participate.
“We charged $25 for this clinic as long as they became youth members” of LVDA, Koch says.
For a subsequent youth clinic with Samantha St. Jacques, Koch found a sponsor who covered the rate reduction.
Koch recognized a key issue in the youth-involvement challenge: cost. Many families are trying to pay for various extracurricular activities, not to mention that in some households Mom or another family member may also be active in dressage.
The local dressage community has stepped up to support the LVDA’s youth program, Koch says.
“Kyrena Parkinson of My Saddle Fitter was first to jump on board and took up our biggest sponsorship level at the time, and she came back this year. I did a youth online auction last year and asked community members for donations of items, and we raised $1,200; this year we raised over $2,500 in our second auction.” And most facilities have donated usage for the youth clinics, Koch says.
Another element of the LVDA program’s success, according to Koch, is that the GMO now pins youth classes separately at its five annual schooling shows.
“It’s tough for kids to compete against adults who are often on big, fancy horses when a lot of kids are on backyard ponies,” she says. “Why go to a dressage show when a kid can go to a hunter show and ride in a bunch of classes and come home with a bunch of ribbons? Kids like that kind of thing.”
About those prizes: Find a way to give some cool stuff if you can. The LVDA “got some awesome prizes” to give with its year-end awards, and “when people saw that on social media, we got some new members, too,” Koch says.
The LVDA also hosts youth education meetings, and kids can earn education hours by attending USDF programs. Its youth scholarship program offers credits for fundraising and volunteering so that kids “can build funds for themselves to use for clinics, lessons, and shows. It gives them some help to pay for this very expensive sport,” Koch says.
To Learn to Ride Dressage Well, Kids Need Well-Trained Mounts
Anyone who has struggled to learn to ride on a stubborn or poorly educated horse can appreciate Sandy Bussey Turner’s position that well-trained ponies would make a huge difference for kids who want to try dressage.
“A huge hole that I see is the lack of trained ponies,” says Turner, who operates Mad Kat Dressage with her daughter, Kathryn Butt, an FEI-level rider and the South Carolina Dressage and Combined Training Association’s (SCDCTA) youth coordinator. “I would love to have at my ready access ponies of all shapes and sizes that you can put children on so they can feel what it’s like to be on the bit, do shoulder-in and leg-yield, and feel what it should feel like to apply the aids correctly and have the pony react correctly.”
At Mad Kat Butt handles the school-horse-training duties, “so when a kid comes to me from Pony Club or hunter/jumpers or a Western background, I have a couple of these ponies at my disposal,” Turner says. “When you put a kid on them and the application of their aids gets a positive result, they enjoy the ride.”
Koch, who has two Quarter Horses in her barn that go on the bit easily and are adjustable and responsive to the rider’s seat, concurs.
“That first time a kid sits on a dressage horse has to hook them—and that comes down to the right pony.”
The Magic of the Riding School
FEI-level dressage competitor and coach Michelle Folden operated Stono River Riding Academy near Charleston, South Carolina, for nearly ten years. She now runs her dressage business out of a small private facility in the same area, and over the years 15 of her students have competed at the USEF Dressage Seat Medal Finals, our sport’s national equitation championships for children; last year her students won and took reserve champion there.
If a child has never ridden, a riding school is the ideal place to start, says Folden. Her own dressage-focused school offered students an expanding menu of opportunities, with the older kids teaching the younger riders and nicer ponies becoming available for children moving up the levels.
“A riding school is great for the kids—and adults, too,” Folden says. “You see a lot of uneducated riding in general, and people have to have horses they can learn on. A lot of the time kids learn a little bit and want to go show, but they’re not ready for it and their mind doesn’t understand the process. If they have more of a schoolmaster, then they can evolve to the fancier horse and keep upgrading.”
Of course, as Turner points out, a child’s dressage education requires access to a capable instructor who is willing to teach kids, which not all trainers want to do.
“That has to happen at the grass-roots level,” she says. “You have to have instructors willing to work with kids from posting trot on up.”
Make It Fun
Getting a child involved in dressage doesn’t mean subjecting her to endless 20-meter circles. Successful youth trainers and programs recognize that kids need variety and fun in their activities.
“We got youth involved through summer camps, and parents wanted an activity after school,” says Folden. “They might have cotillion on Wednesday, soccer on Saturday, and one day a week they’d ride a horse. And then maybe they would get hooked and want to ride more.”
Stono River Riding Academy offered summer and holiday-vacation camps that proved a big draw for kids, Folden says, and her riding school also put on small in-house shows that gave kids the opportunity to ride a simple pattern—not necessarily a whole test—and get feedback.
The school’s kid-centric efforts put the emphasis on fun, and the result was an increase in business, Folden says.
“I did an advanced camp for kids who wanted to show, and my husband worked with the little kids who just wanted to play and ride a pony and eat a popsicle. It’s a great way for kids to get involved,” she says. “We also did Christmas camp, Easter camp, and trick-or-treating on horseback on Halloween. Word got out that, if your child hadn’t ridden before, we had fun things for kids to do.”
In developing her business model, Folden drew on her own childhood experiences at a dressage riding school in Cincinnati. “My parents would drop me off Saturdays with a packed lunch and leave me all day; we had a lot of kids who did that too…. Kids love the horses but also enjoy the friendships that develop.”
Like many other adults who enjoyed the riding-school experience as children or who are familiar with the plethora of riding schools and riding clubs in Europe, Folden “wish[es] we had more of that…. You know, it’s great to go to the World Equestrian Games and see a fancy freestyle and be inspired, but the lesson barns and riding schools are where kids really develop their skills.”
As the SCDCTA youth coordinator, Butt organizes a yearly clinic with instructors like Jodie Kelly, Scott Petersen, and this year 2019 US Pan American Games dressage team member Endel Ots. She finds guest speakers and gets “swag” for the kids, and makes the event into a real occasion.
“It’s a fun weekend, and we fund-raise all year long,” says Turner of the youth clinic. “Kids are very social: We do dinners, Q-and-A’s, essay contests. [Butt] puts a lot of effort into making it special and making it mirror the USDF Junior/Young Rider clinics. She also just implemented a volunteer requirement, so kids must submit eight hours of volunteering to participate.”
Recognizing that prizes are great motivators for kids, Stable View, in Aiken, South Carolina, offers a high-point award in each ring for juniors, says marketing manager Christine Rhodes. Stable View’s unrecognized Eventing Academy competitions, which earn riders points toward SCDCTA awards, provide a low-stress introductory option for eventers and dressage competitors, including a dressage test-of-choice class and a 50% entry-fee discount to Pony Clubbers.
Some clever instructors get creative to make plain-vanilla dressage schooling more fun for kids.
“I use music to teach rhythm and tempo and pace and transitions,” says Jess Hargrave, who puts her master’s degree in early childhood, special education, and international education to use at her Charis Equestrian in Temecula, California. “It’s fun for kids to ride to music. Also, I use a lot of cones to teach geometry, and I have kids walk their tests before riding them. I connect the idea that dressage and jumping are the same but with ‘speed bumps’—jumps—and we also have little ‘competitions’ where I score their tests.”
If We Build It…
The admittedly cerebral sport of dressage tends to attract riders—regardless of age—who are “type A” and detail-oriented, in Koch’s experience. But even the most diligent youngster may lose interest if the element of fun is missing, she says.
The formula for success, Koch believes, entails “putting kids on schooled ponies, and then when it’s time to compete, you need to have classes for them to compete in….[W]e need classes for every kid. When you’re ten years old, it’s the here and now that gets you hooked. I find I lose kids in the fall to softball or other sports, and then they’ll come back to riding, but if you can get them successful and have fun things like team competitions for their age and level, that’s fun, too, and keeps them involved. We need to be creative with a child’s imagination to get them to try it.”
Koch says she’s discovered that a lot of kids are in fact interested in dressage; what’s lacking are the opportunities to do it.
“We [in the US] don’t have the [numbers of] dressage riders they have in Europe,” she says, “and I think we don’t have the widespread programs to support that development. We have some talented kids in this country who don’t have access to the programs they need to be successful.”
One unexpected benefit of the LVDA’s youth program: a surge in adult involvement that’s led to some positive life lessons for the kids.
“This year,” Koch says, “more parents are offering help and willing to give back. They’re seeing a return on what they’re putting in. Kids have been stepping up to try new jobs, too. Some have been scribes. They’re learning to give back.
“The kids are supportive of each other,” Koch continues. “I like to think of them as becoming more rounded individuals. It’s not just about the competitions but building relationships, learning to give back, and the educational component.”
Amber Heintzberger is an award-winning journalist, photographer, and author of two books, most recently Modern Eventing with Phillip Dutton. She lives with her family outside New York City.
Want to Reach Youth? Get Social
Most kids today are tech-savvy, and tapping into that world is key to reaching young people, particularly teens. Beautiful photos of dancing dressage horses on Instagram, coupled with trending hashtags, grab attention. Fun and stylish apparel and equipment add a creative element (bring on the bright colors and bling!). Post hashtagged images and videos to popular social-media platforms to reach prospective young dressage enthusiasts where they live.
If you nab a cute photo or video of a child riding dressage—or better yet, of a parent and child riding together—run with it. At a recent show at Stable View in Aiken, South Carolina, “there was a five-year-old competing in her first show, at Intro A level with her pony,” says marketing manager Christine Rhodes. “We shared her photo on our social media, and people loved it.”
Parents may be intrigued by the idea that riding and showing are activities that they can share with their children. That little girl at the Stable View show is the daughter of an equestrian mom, “and it was a really fun mother-daughter weekend,” Rhodes says, adding: “I think horse showing in general is a family experience; you can’t go to a soccer match and play with your kids like you can all get involved with horses.”
Lendon Gray: The Youth Champion
No article about dressage for kids would be complete without a word from the Dressage4Kids founder herself. In our sport, the person who has arguably created the most opportunities for youth-focused dressage education, competition, and fun is Olympian Lendon Gray. Starting with the annual Youth Dressage Festival (which celebrated its 20th anniversary last year), the Dressage4Kids organization (dressage4kids.org) now offers scholarships, training programs, and the Winter Intensive Training Program in Florida.
The Youth Dressage Festival is a unique competition, Gray says. For one, “it’s technically a schooling show, so kids don’t have to be members of various organizations,” which lowers one potential barrier to participation. Unlike most dressage competition, the YDF is team-based. The greatest departure from traditional dressage showing is that, besides the usual dressage test, competitors must also ride in a dressage-equitation class and take a written test of their theoretical knowledge. Even walk-trot riders can participate, and such classes as Prix Caprilli (a dressage test that includes jumps) and a dressage trail class are just plain fun, Gray says.
“The Youth Festival has brought kids into dressage because it’s fun, inclusive, and doesn’t heavily favor the fanciest horses,” Gray says. “Like the hunter world, dressage has gotten expensive; you have to have a fancy horse. I hate to say it, but I see dressage going in that direction.”
As Gray sees it, “The hardest part of getting new kids in dressage is that there are not many [dressage] facilities for the ‘Mommy, I want riding lessons’ kids. Most barns strongly take them in the hunter direction….I think more kids should be taught [both] dressage and to jump, more like in the European system.”
Young dressage enthusiasts often have to deal with a lack of like-minded friends at the barn, as well, Gray says. When she travels to give clinics, “I often ask the kids, ‘How many of you are the only dressage rider in your stable?’, and there are so many of them who are the only one. Kids want to be with their friends, their peers, and that’s hard.”
USDF’s Youth OFFerings
From clinics for youth riders and sport-horse handlers to awards for sportsmanship and volunteerism, the USDF oversees a robust slate of offerings for young dressage enthusiasts of all ages and experience levels. Grants and funding are available to help young people participate in the sport of dressage. Learn more at usdf.org/education/youth.asp.