Winner of a USDF GMO award, this annual clinic is for—and largely by—junior riders
By Amber Heintzberger‘
Reprinted from the 2020 September/October issue of USDF Connection magazine.
Every year, youth members of the South Carolina Dressage and Combined Training Association (SCDCTA) look forward to their club’s annual Junior Clinic. But don’t credit them as just lucky: These kids get out of the event what they put into fund-raising and organizing it themselves.
Last year, the SCDCTA received the USDF Creative GMO-Sponsored Program Award for its 2019 Annual Junior Clinic featuring 2019 US Pan American Games dressage-team member Endel Ots. The annual award recognizes one USDF group-member organization (GMO) for an outstanding effort made to develop a program that has contributed to the GMO’s membership growth and retention.
Here’s a look at what made the SCDCTA’s program a standout.
A Youth-Fueled Endeavor
SCDCTA youth coordinator Kathryn Butt, of Aiken, South Carolina, encourages the young participants to take ownership of the program.
“The SCDCTA juniors fund-raise all year long to put on this clinic with an FEI out-of-state clinician they wouldn’t otherwise have access to,” Butt says. “They generally raise four to six thousand dollars, entirely thanks to their own efforts. They’ve done a lemonade stand, hosted a bake sale, and they receive various donations, which we raffle off in a gift basket at the Region 3 [championships]. We also compose a letter that kids can share with ‘Great-Aunt Sally,’ their church family, gym family—anyone who might be interested in supporting their interest.”
To be eligible to participate, each junior member must also volunteer eight nonconsecutive hours. Tasks range from scribing and running tests at shows to working at the bake sale.
All those efforts pay off: Thanks to the fund-raising, the Junior Clinic is free of charge to participants. Riders each receive two lessons, stabling, meals, educational lectures, and fun swag donated by sponsors. Auditors are welcome, and kids can audit for free.
The clinic is held at the South Carolina Equine Park in Camden. Riding sessions can be held rain or shine in the covered arena, and a pavilion is the site of lectures and Q&A sessions with the clinician and other experts, who have included veterinarians, farriers, and a nutritionist. Parents volunteer to help supply a coffee station, a welcome table, and snacks and meals. Local tack shops and artists set up booths to showcase their wares in exchange for making donations to the program.
“It’s as nifty as the kids make it—as detailed, classy, expensive, pick your adjective,” Butt says of the clinic. “There’s a direct correlation with how much they put into it. I ‘herd cats’ and book the date for the clinic in February—obviously, grown-up me is needed to make decisions like that—but I’ll ask if the kids want to reach out to Nickerdoodle, for example, and ask if they want to be our treat sponsor.”
The Junior Clinic attracts a broad range of ages and skill levels. The youngest rider at the 2020 event in June was eight, and the oldest was 19, Butt says. A handful of riders were figuring out the mechanics of the Prix St. Georges, while others were learning how to get a horse on the bit and how to ride a leg-yield. Several are highly accomplished: Of the 12 riders this year, four had invitations to compete at the USEF Dressage Festival of Champions in August, according to Butt.
It’s Not Just About Riding
Each of the SCDCTA clinic riders gets a notebook and pen, and they are required to sit ringside—with cell phones turned off—and to take notes and write down questions during the other lessons.
“They can’t show up, ride, and then peace out,” says Butt. “They’re required to watch and learn. If there’s something you’ve been struggling with, something might click when you watch someone else ride.”
Kids have to apply to be accepted into the clinic, and the application process itself is part of the education that Butt hopes they’ll gain from the experience.
“They have to sell themselves and turn it all in, and that’s a horse skill as well as a life skill,” she says. Applicants have to answer such questions as “Name two strengths and two weaknesses in your riding” and “What are your riding goals in the next two months?”
Participants also learn the importance of follow-through and gratitude: They’re required to write at least two or three thank-you notes to sponsors and to the clinician.
Even the choice of clinicians is strategic. Butt says she looks for instructors “who have come up through the pipeline—come up the ranks through the [USEF and USDF dressage] programs, and can talk to the kids about not only riding, but doing the paperwork and juggling college and riding.” Besides Ots, such clinicians as Kassie Barteau, Jodie Kelly, Scott Peterson, and Mary Cameron Rollins “can dialog with the kids about everything in the horse business.”
And, of Course, It’s Fun!
“As much as it is about [the participants] being exposed to awesome clinicians, the camaraderie is timeless,” says Butt, who herself rode in a Junior Clinic when she was a kid. “The program was fledgling when I was young, but…I still have friendships from when I participated. The kids swap texts and Instagram, and even though they’re from all over South Carolina and even North Carolina and Georgia—and we have a few eventers participate, too—they’re always texting each other and wishing each other luck at shows, and things like that. The bonding and social experience is really important. The older kids are really good about lifting up the younger ones and helping show the way, too.”
As Olympian and Dressage4Kids founder Lendon Gray has pointed out, young people want to be with their peers, and so dressage is more likely to “stick” if kids can share the activity with one another (“Youth Outreach,” September/October 2019). So it’s no surprise that the social aspect is a favorite of Junior Clinic participants.
“Along with learning new exercises and tips in my lesson, I was also able to watch my peers and learn from their lessons,” rider Maya Miller, 17, of Charleston, South Carolina, wrote after her clinic experience. “Being able to learn from and support each other is what the Junior Clinic is all about.”
Eventer Clara Richards, 17, of Charlotte, North Carolina, notes that ordinarily “I don’t get to ride with that many young people.” The clinics are a homecoming of sorts for the Charleston, South Carolina native, who’s “made some really good friends” at the event.
“Coronavirus made the social part [of the 2020 SCDCTA Junior Clinic] more difficult because it’s hard to keep kids apart,” Butt reports. Attendees were asked to bring masks and to sign COVID-19 release forms, “and people brought their own chairs so I didn’t have to worry about cleaning the bleachers. We had families chip in with Clorox wipes, and the moms spent a lot of time wiping everything down.”
The protocols didn’t dampen the kids’ enthusiasm.
“When USDF and USEF opened up educational opportunities, the kids were really champing at the bit,” Butt says.
To learn more about the SCDCTA and its award-winning Junior Clinics, visit scdcta.com. Find the nomination form and details about the USDF Creative GMO-Sponsored Program Award at usdf.org/awards/service/gmo.asp.
Amber Heintzberger is an award-winning freelance writer, photographer, and author. She lived on a horse farm in the Carolinas for many years and now makes her home outside New York City with her husband and children.