By Lisa Schmidt
There are so many facets to the US Finals presented by Adequan®.
There, the people in front of the stage lights are the competitors. They are the performers; they are the stars.
As a rider at the Finals, one sees the grand entrance to the Kentucky Horse Park, the stabling, the weather, the arenas, the hack to the Walnut, Stoneleigh, Murphy and Claiborne rings, the footing, the imposing judges’ booths, and the big screens. If riding in the Alltech Arena, one sees the claustrophobic hallways and the bright lights and electric atmosphere entering the ring. One can also bask in the glory of a victory round in the Alltech if placing in the top 10 and receive some precious photos of that honor. Competitors also have many social opportunities in the barns, at the vendors’ areas and at several parties or in the VIP area. Riders also see on the main floor of the Alltech, the automatic scoring of rides in each arena plus watch the live rides in all six arenas. Riders are the reason spectators watch this national event. Riders are the most obvious people on the showgrounds.
Behind the scenes are the show manager, secretary, computer geniuses, volunteers, TDs, and judges, among so many others.
As a judge, one starts the first day in high-tech central, the Horse Show Office cavern, with a countless number of computers and equipment, where one learns how the computer scoring works. Then it’s onto a communal breakfast on the first floor of the Alltech, meeting colleagues from all over the country and rubbing elbows with the myriad of wonderful volunteers. Then judges are scooped up in SUVs worthy of a presidential cavalcade to make it to the rings in time for the first morning ride and usually eight hours of watching thousands of movements at all levels for four days. Judges also experience the weather but are greeted in the boxes with blankets and heaters and a smiling scribe who comes prepared with snacks. Lunches and dinners are usually in the VIP area where decompression is necessary after focusing for hours.
I have had the honor to have competed twice at the Finals and judged last year. I was a member of the USDF Executive Board when major decisions were made about how to organize and run a US national final. I have seen most aspects behind the scenes and down the centerlines at the Kentucky Horse Park.
My first year as a competitor, I sent my horse with a friend so I drove separately. While not a terribly long drive (11 hours) it was with great anticipation that I met my horse who arrived in great shape. It seemed like the New Jersey group was stabled around each other, which made it comfortable knowing so many. That first hike to practice in the outside arenas was a little spooky, as was the first school in the Alltech. A trainer friend and I traded off giving each other an eye. My horse was first or second in his schooling classes and 7th in a huge championship class. A great introduction to a great national competition!
My second year was not as successful. Again, I drove and sent my horse separately but he arrived with a swollen tendon from a rub from a shipping boot. Sound through it all, we schooled in the far indoor after a very, very scary hack there. Overnight he developed a fever, so my practice ride was a scratch. What was wonderful was the camaraderie around me of fellow competitors stepping up to help. The Hagyard veterinarians were available within an hour and took great care of my horse. On the bright side I had an opportunity to watch my fellow riders a bit and cheer them on. While my horse had recovered in time for the championship class, he wasn’t his energetic self. I think every competitor or performer can relate to a big show where the stars and planets were not aligned.
This past year, I was honored to be asked to judge and was more behind the scenes. I saw some incredibly talented pairs. I judged with some amazing colleagues who have judged around the world. If I had felt intimidated as a competitor showing against internationally acclaimed riders, this was, believe it or not, more so intimidating. The pressure to keep placings in line with two other judges was enormous. And, in some of the booths the heaters still did not stave off the cold thoroughly. But, the computer scoring system was marvelous and so simple to dictate my further remarks. After each ride, when scores from each judges’ position were announced, I held my breath. I must admit, that there was always one ride that we three judges did not agree on and we discussed at length what we each saw. From each position, different highlights and problems can be seen by each judge. At our dinners, I welcomed talking to my fellow judges and picking their brains about different scenarios. Judges never shut off at a show, just as competitors are always analyzing how to improve the next ride. I don’t think many competitors realize what goes on in the judges’ booths or minds throughout the day. Judges, while not on stage, can also be in the limelight.
For those of you who have not been to the US Dressage Finals in some capacity, if you qualify as a rider, take a chance to be in the spotlight! If you just love the sport, work behind the curtain as a volunteer. If you have already been frontstage and backstage, do it again! I know I will.