Organizers Turn to Virtual Dressage Shows During Shutdown

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Nicole Olsen of Florida takes video of her daughter, Jenaya Olsen, to enter in a virtual dressage event hosted by the app Competitor Tent (COURTESY OF COMPETITOR TENT)

Yearning to compete? Options are just a click away.

By Amber Heintzberger

With much of the world on lockdown orders as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, most planned activities have been canceled—including, of course, dressage competitions, from local schooling shows all the way up to the 2020 Olympics.

In the wake of barn closures and travel bans, dressage enthusiasts have turned to technology to get their horse fix and to continue learning. Last month, dressage professionals and amateur riders shared their strategies for conducting virtual lessons, hosting online educational events, and staying in touch with clients and horse owners (“Distance Learning”) In this article, we’ll look at the new way riders who are itching to go down center line are stoking their competitive side: through virtual dressage shows.

What’s a Virtual Dressage Show?

In most virtual dressage shows, the entries consist of videos of horses and riders performing the tests. Luckily for us, our discipline is well suited to virtual competition because it’s easy to film a test from the judge’s position at A. A dressage judge views the videos and scores the rides, and the virtual class is placed. Some virtual shows are more educational in nature, while others offer awards and even prize money. Entry fees are minimal and are often collected in aid of a good cause.

Sound intriguing? We asked one equestrian-facility owner to describe how he’s pivoted from a full schedule of all types of traditional horse shows to a successful series of virtual events.

At Stable View in Aiken, South Carolina, the spring calendar is typically crammed with dressage shows, horse trials, hunter/jumper shows, camps, and clinics. The picturesque facility, located on 1,000 acres of pastoral Sandhills and Piedmont, is also a popular wedding venue. In fact, it was Stable View’s on-site wedding planner who first suggested the idea of hosting virtual horse shows.

“We thought a hunter/jumper show would be difficult, and you certainly couldn’t do a virtual horse trials,” says Stable View owner Barry Olliff, “but dressage might work. Our employee Charles ran with it and laid the groundwork, and our show secretary, Christine, has done the heavy lifting.”

Olliff’s original motivation was marketing-related—to keep his business in the public eye even with horse people stuck at home. He and his staff were surprised at the “huge” response by eager dressage riders—so much so, he says, that they’ve had to limit entries to ten per division, so as not to overburden the judges, who have donated their time. There is no entry fee for the virtual shows, and Sterling Thomas Equine Insurance sponsored prize money. Stable View posts complete results on its website and encourages competitors to share videos to their own social media with the hashtag #SVVirtualDressage.

After the success of Stable View’s initial four-week series, it added a second series of virtual dressage competitions in May, to be sponsored by Attwood Equestrian Surfaces, according to show secretary Christine Rhodes.

“So far it’s run very smoothly,” says Olliff, who lives on the Stable View property with his wife, Cyndy. “We’re all working from home, and to be quite honest, people are pretty grateful; it’s motivating for them and giving them something to do. The judges are reputable, so it’s not as if they could take issue with the results, and it is what it is—you’re looking at them through the camera.”

Stable View virtual-show secretary Christine Rhodes at her desk at home (COURTESY OF CHRISTINE RHODES)

The only judging-related issue so far: Three Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) judges whom Stable View had lined up had to back out after the FEI proclaimed the judging of virtual horse shows to be against FEI rules.

Basic US Equestrian dressage rules apply to Stable View’s virtual-show entrants. Although not everyone has a regulation dressage arena at home, as long as competitors set something up with approximately correct dimensions, they are welcome to make letters out of buckets or whatever they have on hand, Olliff says.

On the secretarial side, “It has been more seamless than I expected,” says Rhodes. “We required everyone to submit their videos through YouTube. I don’t have to download them or save them or take up space; I just made a spreadsheet with the links for judges to access. There’s no downloading or accessing things like Dropbox.” Some virtual-show entrants’ helpers have filmed their friends from horseback, says Rhodes, who chuckles to see the horses’ ears in the frame.

Running the virtual dressage shows has “taken more time than I expected because there have been a lot of e-mails to respond to,” says Rhodes. “I probably had 40 e-mails just for the Training Level riders. The spreadsheets aren’t difficult, but e-mailing score sheets individually and then chasing people for W-9’s to send them their prize money has taken some time.”

As Stable View quickly learned, location is no longer a barrier to participation. Its virtual shows have drawn entrants from as far away as Washington state and New Mexico, says Rhodes, who thinks the wave of interest “also shows the power of social media. EventingNation.com did a story, and we didn’t do any paid advertising for the series.”

The series’ success “begs the question: Why wouldn’t you consider doing it on a permanent basis?” says Olliff. “If you get people as far away as that, why not New Zealand or Australia? Sometimes it’s surprising how adversity is the mother of invention. It could very well be something that gains some traction.”

A Different Way to Involve FEI Judges

FEI judges may not be able to judge virtual competitions, but there’s no rule barring them from taking part in educational activities. A new competition-focused app is making the most of that fact to offer its users a different type of experience while actual horse shows are on hold.

Launched in 2019, the app Competitor Tent was designed to allow equestrians to track and compare their competition scores (it partnered with the show-results site Fox Village), and to connect with their riding friends.

When the coronavirus shutdowns took hold, Competitor Tent founder Dikran Yapoujian decided to delve into the world of virtual shows. Following the FEI’s decision regarding its judges’ participation, Yapoujian changed Competitor Tent’s focus from competition to education. The “Stay-at-Home Dressage Series” is now using a format similar to a ride-a-test clinic so that FEI judges can still participate, with a debut series scheduled to run until May 16 and a second series planned for the future. Georgia Dressage and Combined Training Association (GDCTA) president Karen Caverly is organizing the series.

“Our judges are four- and five-star FEI judges,” says Yapoujian, of Aiken, South Carolina. “We wanted to give people the opportunity to get in front of really good judges.”

“The whole [equestrian] industry was just crushed,” Yapoujian says of the pandemic, “and we wanted to inject a little light into the situation and give people something to work for.” He also wanted “to try and do something in a meaningful way for the community.” Competitor Tent’s series will benefit the Equestrian Aid Foundation’s COVID-19 fund: “It felt like a good triangulation around mission purpose and market segment.”

“I don’t know if these virtual shows will compete with in-person shows when those shows come back,” says Yapoujian, “but it does seem like it will be a while until they do. [The virtual series] seemed like something nice for the community to be able to stay sharp. The judges also said they’re worried about getting dull and not having practice, so this is an opportunity for them to also do their thing.”

Like Stable View, Competitor Tent has seen participants pour in from around the country. Riders will submit videos several days in advance, and judges’ scores will be posted to the app over the weekend. The current roster includes USEF- and FEI-level dressage tests as well as eventing dressage tests. Part of the aim of the Competitor Tent app is for riders to track their scores and see improvement in their performance; so with the instructive aim of the series in mind, Yapoujian says he’ll “put our best-scoring rides on YouTube so people can see, from an educational perspective, what the best-scoring rides look like.”

The Social-Distancing Approach

One dressage facility is holding a hybrid competition—live rides with virtual judging—including a pandemic-necessitated twist.

“Everyone is itching to go somewhere, but it’s not safe to co-mingle, and they don’t have to,” says Adrienne Iorio, owner of Apple Knoll Farm in Millis, Massachusetts. In April, the farm hosted a show series dubbed Socially Distant Dressage. (A Socially Distant Poker Run “and other fun events” are planned for May, according to the farm’s website.)

Apple Knoll’s expansive grounds allow for a dedicated parking area and dressage ring, so that horses and riders can come to the farm and have a contactless competitive experience.

Apple Knoll Farm’s Socially Distant Dressage show setup (COURTESY OF APPLE KNOLL FARM)

Over a two-week period, competitors are scheduled in one-hour time slots, Iorio says, and “my show manager will come out and video their test. She uses two devices, a camera and her phone, so there’s a backup recording. Having her video also means [riders] don’t have to bring extra people with them to video. They just show up, ride, and it’s all recorded. We’ve also had people sign up for two time slots so they can get it all done.”

After all entrants’ tests are recorded, the videos will be sent to local USEF “r” dressage judge Carol Mayo. Test sheets and comments will be e-mailed to the competitors, and scores will be posted on the Apple Knoll website. Local company Equinature is sponsoring prizes, and ribbons will be awarded to sixth place.

To aid competitors, who may be out of test-riding practice or whose horses may get “reactive” at their first away-from-home outing in some time, “if you come and have a dismal test, I’m letting people submit a couple of rides and you can basically ride against yourself,” Iorio says. The other challenge of Apple Knoll’s format is that some horses get worried when they’re by themselves, with no other horses nearby. “The show manager is there in case anything goes amok,” Iorio says, and competitors are required to send signed release forms along with their show entries, just as they would to school or show ordinarily.

Iorio believes that the social-distancing approach makes for a more realistic competitive experience than a completely virtual show.

“There are a bunch of other shows around here where people can ride from home, too, but there are so many variables when you’re trying to judge 30 tests in 30 rings, and who knows what size they are,” she says. “This is a way to have a controlled environment but an even playing field. This is an opportunity to get off the farm and do a little competing, which is fun.”

A Judge’s View: Virtual May Be Here to Stay

USEF “S” dressage judge Jennifer Roth, whose Across the Diagonal Farm is located a couple of hours from Aiken in Rutherfordton, North Carolina, is judging one of the Stable View virtual shows. With her usual spring lineup of competitions canceled, she is focusing on teaching a few local students and developing a means of digital “distance teaching.” Roth, who relocated to the Carolinas from California a few years ago and who in pre-pandemic times frequently traveled to give clinics as well as to judge, notes that she receives requests from clients around the country for video lessons and virtual “ride a test” clinics.

Virtual horse shows, Roth says, are a fun, inclusive idea that’s attracting interest from riders who formerly preferred to remain on the sidelines.

“I’m talking to so many people I think are interested in the idea” of competing virtually instead of in person, she says. “It’s not just something that is a one-shot deal because of COVID-19. There are people who don’t want the expense; they don’t have to deal with a new environment; maybe they’re overweight; maybe they’re shy; maybe they’re afraid or embarrassed to show. With a virtual show, they just send their videos in and don’t have a bunch of people on the sidelines watching them.”

In addition to the obvious differences, virtual competitions—and their results—don’t necessarily replicate the actual variety. As Roth points out, “When you show [live], you have one shot; with video, you could have a redo before you send your video. If you don’t like your ride, you don’t have to send it in.” And although Roth has found that most virtual-show organizers adhere to USEF rules, there can be leniency regarding attire and arena setup, as at Stable View’s competitions.

If the popularity of virtual shows outlasts the pandemic shutdowns, actual shows may be in for a reckoning, Roth predicts.

“If everybody starts doing this, there’s going to be a lot of competition. If only two shows are doing it, that’s one thing, but what if every horse show goes online? Think of all the money USEF is losing, since none of these are recognized. People can still go to ‘horse shows’ and not have to pay all those fees. Probably 95 percent of adult amateurs don’t even care if the shows are recognized. There’s a whole new market developing.”

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