Meet the L Graduate – Martina Mertens


My name is Martina Mertens and I am a long-time dressage enthusiast. I was born and raised in Berlin, Germany; however, I have lived in the Chicagoland area for over 20 years now. Starting out with vaulting in my very early years and moving soon on to jumping, dressage, and now judging, I feel that I have a true appreciation for the entire sport of riding and for quality horsemanship. When I am not at the barn, I manage my house along with my real estate holding company. I am supported by my wonderful husband Jim and my two boys, Logan & Jack, with whom I enjoy traveling and golf.

How long have you been involved in the sport?

Since about 1980. When I was six years old, I started with vaulting. This was typical at the time. It was great for learning how to balance and to develop an independent seat right from the beginning. A couple of years later, when my parents finally felt I had acquired sufficient balance and was truly comfortable on a horse’s back, I moved on to dressage and jumping. My father was an avid jumper and my aunt enjoyed riding dressage. So, it was sort of a family sport.

How long have you been a USDF member?

I became a USDF member in 1995 when I moved to the United States. Prior to that, I was a member of the German FN, the equivalent to US Equestrian in Germany.

What made you decide to participate in the USDF L Education Program?

My German friend and trainer, Juergen Helmert, was a dressage judge registered in Germany. He worked here in the US and we used to watch videos together for training purposes. He would quiz me on what I saw. He thought I had a good eye for judging and recommended I try the program.

How long did it take to complete the program, start to finish?

It took about a year from signing up for the program, to taking the seminars, and then the final exam. Participation did require me to travel because I had signed up for one on the East Coast. 

Do you plan to further your dressage education and to continue to apply what you learned in the program to become a licensed official?

Yes, I am hoping to continue and become a licensed official. 

Do you serve as a judge for schooling shows in your capacity as an L Graduate? If so, on average, how many per year?

Yes, absolutely. I love judging schooling shows in my area. We have wonderful barns who put on well-organized shows and the IDCTA (Illinois Dressage and Combined Training Association) keeps a great schedule. The schooling shows are so much fun to judge and people are truly happy to learn. Typically, I judge at least five schooling shows per year.

What impact did the program have on your dressage knowledge?

Both the program and the instructors are great. The USDF L Education Program offers a different perspective and new insight into competing and the sport of dressage. Originally, I was not sure if I would truly enjoy judging. However, my concerns were unfounded- I love it. I also enjoy attending the continuing education programs and seminars. Continuing to learn is a big part of judging. The program proved to me again that dressage is a journey and that there is so much more to this sport. There is always new knowledge and insights to discover. 

Name three things you took away from the program that you think every rider should know.

I think, first and foremost, it’s important for the rider to understand that the judge is held to standards when viewing a test. They do not randomly arrive at a score. Their decision is based on knowledge of how to evaluate the basics (quality of the horse’s gaits and quality of the training) and the essence and execution of each movement. The judges’ program trains judges to quickly and decisively evaluate, comment, and score. The judge should have a clear understanding of what is expected at each level and the horse is evaluated accordingly. This is not as easy as it might seem, especially because the judge needs to remain positive and concise with the final evaluation. Second, it does require a lot of concentration to judge each and every horse fairly that comes into the ring. Sometimes judges spend many hours at C. Finally, the rider should always remember that the horse’s wellbeing comes first and if a judge rings out a horse on lameness, he or she hasn’t made that decision lightly or to inconvenience the rider. That decision was made out of concern for the wellbeing of the horse.

Have you participated in or completed other USDF programs? Describe.

Yes, I have participated in the USDF Instructor/Trainer Program Workshops and several judging seminars. Among them was one that specialized on freestyle judging with 5* German judge Katrina Wuest. She was a fantastic instructor. 

Tell us about your horse(s).

I have had several horses, and all of them were special to me. When I first started out, I had a cute little white pony named “Lotte.” I also rode and competed club-owned ponies. Later, I rode my father’s horses and those of his friends. When I first came to the US in 1995, I could not afford to bring a horse, so the first horse I finally had here actually belonged to my father. My father was a jumper, not a dressage rider. However, he sustained an injury that prohibited him from jumping. Because he loved his horse and he didn’t want to sell him, he decided to ship him to me. We had a wonderful time together, and that horse taught me a lot. He tried really hard to be a dressage horse. Then, I purchased a young horse from a breeder and later a ten-year-old FEI horse. My favorite horse was purchased at the Hanoverian auction. His name was “Waldi” and he was a three-year-old Weltmeyer x Donnerhall gelding. He was very beautiful and talented and so much fun to train up the levels.

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