Certified Instructor Jen Truett tells us her experience at the 2020 U.S. Dressage Festival of Champions
By Jen Truett
WE MADE IT! Competing my horse in the U.S. Dressage Festival of Champions (“FOC”) has been a long-time goal of mine. Originally, I hoped it would be my Grand Prix horse, Lafayette HQ (“Taffy”), who I brought through the levels after buying him as a green-broke, 7-year-old cripple (from a fight he lost with a manure spreader at age 4) for $1. However, Taffy and I only dabble in CDI’s because he isn’t internationally competitive, and CDI’s are the only way to qualify for FOC at Grand Prix. So, I didn’t have the opportunity to qualify until recently.
In October 2016, on a shopping trip to Holland for clients, I found my new dance partner, Absolute Dream (“Dreamy”), for sale at Reesink Horses (where Laura Graves bought Verdades). I instantly fell in love with his big doe eyes, super elastic body, and larger-than-life goofy personality in his perfect two-and-a-half-year-old package.
My coach, Olivia LaGoy-Weltz, and I thought he’d be a great Four-Year-Old candidate, but he popped an ugly splint that kept him out of work all that spring so he really wasn’t ready to show until that fall. Then we thought for sure he’d be ready as a five-year-old, but it turned out he was quite difficult to show because that’s when his spicy red-headed side burned bright! He probably only entered 2/3rds of the classes he was signed up for because in the middle of a normal warmup, he would escalate to the point of wild, giving me no choice but to lunge my fire-breathing bronco! Then there’s the Great American Insurance Group Region 2 Training Level Open Championship ride that year (this was just last year) where he walked around on his back legs for a bit before even getting to X. I earned my cowgirl points that day!
Six-year-old “Dreamy Pumpkin Pie” has been somewhat easier to manage at shows this year, but still requires quite a bit of special management and lungeing. My recent addition of Perfect Products supplements has definitely helped him to start and stay more relaxed and focused throughout the show.
We only had one opportunity to qualify for the FEI Six-Year-Old championship this summer due to the limited show schedule from COVID-19. Our single score was good enough to qualify based on the modified rules this year, and we wound up ranked in 11th place, tied with two other horse/rider combos. The top 15 horse/rider combos are invited to FOC, so I was thrilled we earned an invitation!
When the USEF Pony Finals was canceled in Lexington, it was unclear if FOC was actually going to happen since USEF said they would decide on proceeding with FOC based on the Pony Finals. Everyone was on pins and needles wondering if it was actually going to happen. Thankfully, we kept getting reassurances from those “in the know.” Everyone breathed a sigh of relief when we got the official news from USEF that they were proceeding with FOC.
I was lucky to be able to also have a couple students join me there competing in the open show. I was thrilled to have my assistant, Sophie Bayer, debuting at Grand Prix with her personal horse, Rohan, who she bought and trained up from 3 years old. Happily, Sophie earned her USDF Gold Medal that weekend! Another student, Jeanne Brose, showed her Il Divo in both First and Second Level and earned the show’s high score award each day.
I was very fortunate that Olivia was able to attend the show and coach us all week. I am used to showing on my own, so I consider it a blessing to not have to be the only one making decisions while preparing for a ride. Olivia even arranged for the Emerging Young Horse Coach, Christine Traurig, to teach us on our day off and then she coached us before our final test! This lesson was truly a life-altering experience because Christine has such depth in her coaching, she was able to fill in a void in my understanding that made a dramatic improvement in my Dreamylicious’s contact, suppleness, and throughness. I’ve since been able to take this new information to my training horses, students, and clinic participants this past weekend with wildly successful results!
“Dreamy Pants” wound up just out of the ribbons after the preliminary test in 7th place and in 9th place in the final class, ranked 10th overall in the championship. He would have placed much higher in the final class had he not decided that it was a good day to show off his flying changes! I couldn’t be prouder of my little munchkin and how he handled the big atmosphere of the championship and the awards ceremony.
As a trainer and coach, the value of the information and guidance I received from Christine about what our next steps should be to continue along the “pipeline” was worth everything it took to get to FOC, even if we hadn’t been able to compete!
I know everyone was unsure what this major national championship was going to look and feel like with the USEF COVID protocols prohibiting spectators, requiring masks at all times while on the grounds (unless mounted), 6’ social distancing, etc. We got daily emails from show management providing the event schedule for the next day, reminding us of the COVID protocols and answering multitudes of questions. The amount of electronic communication provided really did meet our needs. I did not feel that I missed out on being able to talk with management in person.
I think no one felt short-changed in their experience at FOC. Management went above and beyond to make this a very special occasion for all involved. Actually, I can foresee many of the new no-touch protocols staying in place once we are post-COVID, such as the way they laid out the ribbons for each horse/rider-appointed person to deal with dressing the horse, no-touch steward inspection, and all entry requirements handled electronically.
What I missed the most at all at shows this year was having our friends and family able to come cheer us on and the social gatherings and celebratory parties. Horse shows are social events and many times are the only time we get to visit with our friends. But, in the midst of this pandemic, we are all willing to sacrifice our personal/social desires to be able to dance with our horses and continue to strive for our personal and professional goals.
We competitors owe quite a debt of gratitude to those who work tirelessly in show management, volunteers, and the decision-makers at USEF/USDF who designed the protocols and insisted that we really can safely have dressage shows in the midst of this worldwide pandemic. I thank you for all that you’ve done for our sport because as everyone knows, horses provide a certain level of sanity and levity to our lives, which is so important right now in our otherwise seemingly out-of-control world.
About the Certified Instructor
A rider since she could sit up independently in front of her mother on a horse, Jen has a lifetime of riding, training, and teaching. Starting with Quarter Horses in 4-H, switching to Eventing and Pony Club as a teenager for more excitement, through Eventing she discovered her love for the art of Dressage. Jen is an active and successful Grand Prix competitor and popular clinician.
Over the years, she has competed, trained, and coached hundreds of dressage horses and riders at all levels. Jen on various horses over the years, has been named Regional Champion at least 6 times and at least an equal number of Reserve Champion titles. She has earned her USDF Bronze, Silver, and Gold Medals, as well as her Bronze, Silver, and Gold Freestyle Bars. Jen is an L Graduate with Distinction and a USDF Certified Instructor through Second Level.
She and her husband, Lenny own the expansive Dancing Horse Farm (DHF) in Lebanon OH. DHF houses 40-50 Dressage and Eventing horses and is home to three other Dressage trainers (including “S” and “r” judges) and two Eventing trainers. DHF also hosts multiple clinics and shows each year.