A multigenerational perspective on the USDF Instructor Certification Program
By Shari Wolke, Maryal Barnett, and Sue Hughes Photographs courtesy of Janet “Dolly” Hannon
Evolved from a series of seminars designed to expand US dressage instructors’ knowledge and teaching skills, the USDF Instructor/Trainer Program aims to instill a standard of classical, humane, and correct dressage training and teaching in this country.
Since its founding in 1989, the program—which now trains, tests, and certifies dressage instructors at levels from Training through FEI—has undergone several significant changes and revamps. At a January 2020 USDF instructor workshop in Michigan, among the attendees were three dressage instructors who represent two generations in the program. Maryal Barnett, of Holt, Michigan, is a retired longtime USDF certification examiner and a USDF Lifetime Achievement Award recipient. Sue Hughes, of Plymouth, Michigan, is a dressage instructor, a USEF “r” dressage judge, a former USDF Region 2 director, and a USDF Member of Distinction honoree. Shari Wolke, of Okemos, Michigan, is a dressage instructor and a USDF L graduate with distinction who attended as an auditor (participant demand for the workshop was so high that there was a waiting list).
The three women compared notes and shared stories at the workshop, which was hosted by the Midwest Dressage Association and held at the Mary Ann McPhail Equine Performance Center on the campus of Michigan State University in East Lansing. As they talked, memories and perspectives emerged that they thought would be useful to those considering becoming certified, attending a USDF instructor workshop, or simply wondering how USDF instructor certification came about and the program’s goals. Read on for their look at the proud tradition of teaching classical horsemanship to the next generation.
How It All Began
As Maryal and Sue can attest, USDF instructor certification grew out of one Michigan dressage enthusiast’s commitment to improving dressage education in the US. That woman, the late Violet Hopkins, established a series of annual seminars for dressage instructors. The USDF Violet Hopkins National Seminars for Dressage Instructors were held at Hopkins’ farm, Tristan Oaks, in Commerce, Michigan, for a decade beginning in 1979.
At that time, most of the world’s dressage masters were European. Hopkins invited the Swedish Colonel Aage Sommer and, later, Major Anders Lindgren “to come and start showing us how to do it in a structured way,” as Maryal and Sue put it. Maj. Lindgren went on to headline the Hopkins seminars for years, introducing numerous dressage instructors to his famous gymnastic patterns and exercises using traffic cones. Today you’ll find cones in dressage barns across the country.
Maj. Lindgren was a strong proponent of the European system of requiring riding instructors and trainers to complete a standardized educational curriculum and to pass rigorous theoretical and hands-on exams in order to be licensed to practice their trade. Certification and licensing were not (and still are not) required in the US, so Lindgren and supporters within the USDF created a program for US dressage instructors, modeled after European licensing and modified to suit the needs and challenges of the American dressage market.
The latest redesign of the program was featured at the 2020 instructor workshop, led by USEF “S” dressage judge and USDF certification faculty member Janet “Dolly” Hannon, of Arvada, Colorado.
Shari Wolke: As we do not have a national requirement for certification of instructors as they do in Europe, it only makes sense that those who want to further not only their knowledge and abilities, but also their connection to the dressage tradition, come to a USDF instructor workshop as an auditor or participant. It was dumb luck on my part that, when searching for dressage mentors, I happened upon Maryal and, later, Sue. What I didn’t know then was that they had participated in the original clinics with Major Lindgren at Tristan Oaks in the 1980s.
One of the remarkable and fantastic components of the weekend was the presence of so many instructors and judges, a fact that Dolly remarked on several times. Between Sue and Maryal, Dolly said, there had to be over 100 combined years of experience teaching, training, and judging.
Educational dressage programs benefit from the sharing of such depth of knowledge. At the January workshop, not only did we learn from Dolly, but she was also able to weave in the expertise and experience of other judges, instructors, and even veterinarians in attendance. One, Michigan State University veterinary researcher and my good friend Jane Manfredi, was called on to answer several technical questions throughout the weekend.
As Dolly mentioned, this emphasis on the sharing of expertise is a welcome change to the certification program’s format. In the past, all of the knowledge was delivered by a single presenter, but today the workshop environment is much more open and collaborative. When Dolly did not have or was not entirely set on an answer, she would look for clarification from Jane, or ask Maryal and Sue to reaffirm her reasoning. The experience was a model for current instructors to seek and share knowledge for the betterment of the sport.
Sue Hughes and Maryal Barnett: What a great redesign of a USDF educational program!
Because of the detailed assignments and assessments, each demonstration rider seemed to enjoy her two rides and evaluations. Auditors got to ask questions, as well. They came in spite of the challenging driving and temperatures—the area was experiencing a fierce snowstorm—to attend this first instructor workshop, which focuses on evaluating riders and horses. There was discussion of current training success, possible problems, suggested corrections, and the setting of long-term goals. For all, this was a super learning experience.
In our opinion, this program redesign is on the right track, not only to find instructors to certify, but also to help instructors to become even stronger and more helpful to their clients and horses.
The redesign of the USDF Instructor/Trainer Program came about because, over time, it became apparent that the program needed to be rethought. And what a good job the certification faculty did. The program has been recreated to move into a teaching mode rather than simply a testing mode. The previous model, as Dolly reminded us throughout the weekend, was more of a disciplined recitation of the principles of instruction, whereas the current program is structured as a problem-solving model.
Shari Wolke: As a USDF L graduate with distinction who completed the USDF L Education Program in 2012, I saw many parallels between the L program and the Instructor Certification Program. These parallels can only be a benefit, both to dressage as a whole in this country as well as to up-and-coming instructors, trainers, and judges.
For example, during the weekend Dolly frequently queried the workshop participants about what they had seen and what their plan would be for the next horse. Just as in the L program, participants had to explain their thought processes and conclusions. The process can be a bit nerve-wracking but is essential to carrying on the legacy of dressage in the US.
After I answered one of Dolly’s questions, she paused, hand on hip, and asked, “Are you sure?” I confidently said yes, and she responded: “Ah, you must have gone through the L program!”
What’s more, the instructor workshop was very user-friendly and adaptable to the ways that dressage instructors currently teach and train. For example, when asking a participant to demonstrate her ability to make a correction, Dolly used an iPad to video what was happening so that the participant could see what others saw. Dolly encouraged the audience to use the technology at our disposal—during lessons as well as for later review. As Dolly pointed out, arena mirrors are helpful but offer only fleeting glimpses. Video and other technology enables riders to capture every moment.
Building a Fellowship of Dressage Professionals
The work of the USDF Instructor Trainer Program faculty cannot be overstated, and our appreciation for them and their efforts is immense. Through a collaborative and supportive environment accessible to all, the program—and therefore dressage instruction in the US—has a bright future, where all generations of trainers can work together toward the betterment of the sport.
To learn more about USDF instructor certification and the USDF Instructor/Trainer Program, visit usdf.org/education/instructor-trainer.