As a rider, trainer, judge, and official, Linda Zang has forever expanded what’s possible in dressage
By Natalie DeFee Mendik
Reprinted from the November/December 2019 issue of the USDF Connection magazine.
Every opportunity I had, I took, which is probably why I ended up being so successful,” says Linda Zang.
The lifelong horsewoman, 72, who was inducted into the Roemer Foundation/USDF Hall of Fame in 2009, followed those opportunities to their zenith: international dressage competitive success. Judging at Olympic Games. And influential roles both as a dressage official and as a standard-bearer of dressage educational excellence.
Along the way, Zang has also enjoyed shaking things up a bit. An avant-garde pas de deux with a barefoot, bare-chested ballet dancer set to Survivor’s rock hit “Eye of the Tiger” at the Washington (DC) International Horse Show in the early 1980s helped elevate the profile of dressage freestyle. Not content with the amount of international exposure offered to North American competitors, in 1997 she organized the North American Dressage Championships in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. Today she’s expanded her horse-world involvement to include Thoroughbred racing, carrying on the legacy of her late husband, the racehorse breeder and trainer Jim Lewis, who died in 2012.
A Life in the Saddle
Born into a foxhunting family on the Davidsonville, Maryland, farm where she still lives today, the young Zang showed her pony locally before moving into horses and later joining the United States Pony Club.
“Pony Club was a big boost for me,” she says. “There were so many people willing to help me with my riding and were very encouraging.”
The aspiring event rider earned her “A” Pony Club rating and racked up wins at national rallies in the US and Canada. She then got the opportunity to train in Ireland, but a concussion sustained while jumping there caused her to rethink her equestrian goals. She decided to finish out the three-month stint, which brought the first of many dressage-related opportunities to come: lessons in long-lining with the master E. Schmit-Jensen outside Dublin.
“It was a lightbulb moment,” Zang told the Florida-based Town-Crier newspaper in 2015. “I knew I could still be great one day, but in the new discipline of dressage.”
Before returning home, Zang traveled to Denmark to visit a friend of her mother’s. On a side trip to Sweden to look at horses, Zang made an unplanned purchase: a two-year-old bay gelding named Fellow Traveller. While in Sweden, she was also invited to come to Strömsholm, the Swedish cavalry school, to ride.
Back in the USA, Zang spent a year working for the Speaker of the House for the state of Maryland. With the money she’d saved she returned to Sweden, where she would spend four years at Strömsholm, studying with several masters there.
On her return to the US in 1972, Zang resumed her involvement with Pony Club. She started as a district commissioner and subsequently moved up to regional supervisor, chair of the USPC’s Dressage Committee, and national examiner.
“I did every possible thing to support the organization,” says Zang.
Two years later, Zang’s dressage career began in earnest. Family members helped her to build an indoor arena at their Idlewilde Farm, and Zang launched a large boarding and training business. Idlewilde soon became a hub for dressage training in the US, with top riders making the pilgrimage from around the country to study under the late Col. Bengt Ljungquist of Sweden (also a future Roemer Foundation/USDF Hall of Fame inductee), who coached the US dressage team from 1974 to 1978, including to its historic 1976 Olympic team bronze medal. Such luminaries as Hilda Gurney, Robert Dover, Lilo Fore, Anne Gribbons, and Kay Meredith trained at Idlewilde.
Among those notable students, of course, was Zang herself. With the talented Fellow Traveller, she represented the USA at the 1978 World Championships, was a member of the gold-medal-winning 1979 Pan American Games dressage team, and competed at the 1980 Alternate Olympics in Goodwood, England.
Zang’s illustrious dressage career came to a crossroads in 1994, when doctors advised her to stop riding.
“After all I had done over the years, my body started to fall apart and I began to have pain in my back and shoulders,” she says. “That was a turning point for me.”
Words of support in charting her course came from her friend and colleague the noted dressage judge Col. Donald Thackeray, when Zang visited him toward the end of his life in 1995.
“He was the person who was the most influential in encouraging me to go the way that I did,” Zang recalls. “When I asked him what was the best thing I could do for dressage in the US, he advised me to be involved in the international aspect of dressage, bringing the FEI [Fédération Equestre Internationale] and what it stands for closer to people in the US, [so they could] better understand the connection and importance of international competition.”
Taking Thackeray’s advice, Zang turned her focus to judging. She became an FEI “O” (now 5*) dressage judge, officiating at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games and at numerous other major championships including FEI World Equestrian Games, FEI World Cup Dressage Finals, and FEI European Dressage Championships. She was a member of the FEI Dressage Committee and of the International Judges Club (now the International Dressage Officials Club).
Add in her other roles and Zang’s accomplishments are almost too long to list. Among them: FEI dressage technical delegate; host of international judges’ forums; competition organizer; US eventing team coach; USDF Region 1 representative (now regional director); member of the US Equestrian Federation’s Board of Directors and other USEF committees.
In recognition of her contributions to equestrian sport, besides her USDF Hall of Fame induction Zang was awarded the USEF Pegasus Medal of Honor in 2012.
“While at a meeting at Aachen [Germany], riders and trainers were really pushing for a manual [for FEI dressage judges]; there had never been anything written on how to improve the judging,” Zang recalls. “I leaned over and said quietly to Mariette Withages, chairman of the FEI Dressage Committee at the time, ‘Just say we are starting and I’ll start it.’”
Zang embarked on her biggest project yet: the FEI Dressage Handbook: Guidelines for Judging, which rolled out in 2007. “I walked around, talking to people, making corrections, and adding to the manual. It took about five years to write, together with a small group from around the world. We went through 25 drafts. I still have all of them.”
Naturally, when in 2011 the FEI created the six-member Judges’ Supervisory Panel in an effort to ensure fair, equitable, and transparent judging in dressage, Zang was among the international judges and trainers selected.
“We attend the Olympic Games, World Equestrian Games, and Dressage World Cup [Final] to oversee the judging,” Zang says of the JSP. “We watch the live performance while also having the ability to immediately play back a [videotaped] movement, as well as to see scores in real time from each judge for each movement. We monitor and watch for any big differences between scores; if there is a two-or-more-point difference between judges, we evaluate. If there is a technical mistake [such as an error of count in a flying-change series], we can make the decision to change the score. This is only if a judge missed the technical [error] and has nothing to do with the opinion of a performance. We do this before the scores go up, so everything is quite fast. Immediately after the class, we meet with all of the judges, discuss, and do a playback, spending about two hours afterward going over everything with the judges. This isn’t fault-finding, but an educational discussion to improve judging and raise the level of judging all over the world.”
Zang points with pride to the elevation of excellence in dressage, both in execution and in judging.
“Every year, you see an improvement,” she says. “From the dressage I started with in the 1960s, the standard has gotten better and better. If you look at the old masters, like from the first Olympic Games, sometimes the horses don’t even look on the bit. This was nothing wrong; that was the best at that time.”
Top training and riding, combined with breeders’ success in producing increasingly talented horses, means that “we are no longer judging for fives, sixes, and sevens in international competition, but eights, nines, and tens,” Zang says. “We do see tens—absolutely fabulous horses and fabulous performances.”
For Zang’s part in advancing our sport, we owe her this grateful salute.
Natalie DeFee Mendik is an award-winning journalist specializing in equine media. Visit her online at MendikMedia.com.