New Awards Recognize ‘Grass Roots’ Competition Excellence

EARLY ADOPTER: Georgia Dressage and Combined Training Association member Kim Abernathy rode her Connemara, Foxberry’s Infinite Wisdom, to the inaugural Region 3 Training Level Open Schooling Show championship title in 2020

Despite the pandemic, riders embraced the new USDF Regional Schooling Show Awards Program

By Penny Hawes

Reprinted from the May/June 2021 issue of USDF Connection magazine.

By anyone’s standards, 2020 probably wasn’t the best year to launch a new program; however, the USDF rolled out its new Regional Schooling Show Awards Program as scheduled on December 1, 2019.

Those involved with unrecognized (schooling) dressage shows had eagerly awaited this new awards program; and despite ever-increasing COVID-19 restrictions, more than 150 shows were able to proceed as planned in 2020.

The program is a new twist on USDF’s robust array of awards programs, most of which are based on scores earned at US Equestrian-licensed/USDF-recognized dressage competitions. Prior to 2020, there were no USDF awards for riders who competed at schooling shows.

Given the statistics, it was a significant gap. Although more than 80 percent of USDF members say they compete in dressage, thousands of riders do not participate in licensed competitions. Previously, schooling-show participants could earn awards only through a USDF group-member organization’s (GMO) year-end awards program or other local club-level program.

Another barrier to entry was finances. To participate in a licensed dressage show, there are higher-tier membership and horse-registration requirements for both USDF and US Equestrian. But to earn USDF Regional Schooling Show awards, the rider need only be a USDF group member, with a USDF Horse ID number for the horse and a USDF nonmember number for the owner.

Let’s take a look at how the schooling-show awards program came to be, and how it’s progressed to date.

A Strategic Move

The USDF Regional Schooling Show Awards Program grew out of the organization’s long-range strategic plan developed in 2017. The strategic plan centered around three core values: welfare of the horse, quality education, and fair play. Goals, objectives, and strategies were created to move the USDF forward in each of these areas.

Understanding the need for growth in all segments of membership, the organization made it a high priority to “explore expanding year-end award and recognition opportunities at the USDF regional level, including schooling shows.”

Then-USDF vice president Lisa Gorretta, who became president in 2019, was involved in the project from the outset. She led the USDF Regional Recognition Task Force and personally recruited many of the members of the group, which she continues to oversee.

As USDF senior competitions coordinator Cristen Brown explains, “The USDF Regional Schooling Show Awards Program was developed to supplement existing schooling-show awards programs and connect with our ‘grass roots’ membership. Within the structured program, USDF offers the opportunity for regional recognition for those who choose to participate while offering a fair and level playing field across all nine USDF regions.”

To further the program’s reach, any type of dressage schooling show, even if it’s not hosted by a USDF GMO, is eligible to participate. This opened up the opportunity for shows hosted by farms or other types of equine associations to be a part of the program, which in turn gives competitors more options for earning qualifying scores.

How’s It Going So Far?

The first competition to participate in the new awards program was a show in the Mitchell Dressage Series in Virginia, which was held on the first day of the program’s introduction.

Reception to the new awards program has exceeded expectations, says Brown. A total of 308 competitions applied to participate during the 2020 program year, but the coronavirus pandemic took its toll and only 187 of those were actually held. By the end of the 2020 competition year, the USDF had received 161 nominations from riders wanting eligibility for the new awards.

We asked schooling-show competitors and GMO representatives to share their thoughts on the new program.

June Brewer, the Georgia Dressage and Combined Training Association’s (GDCTA) webmaster, Facebook-page manager, and newsletter co-editor, was looking forward to the new awards program as both a GMO official and a competitor. She contacted several schooling-show managers in her area to encourage them to register.

“As the most visible voice of GDCTA,” Brewer says, “I was promoting for them and also did a little prompting of my own!”

INVOLVED ON BOTH SIDES: GDCTA official June Brewer helped to administrate the awards program with area schooling shows and also worked to qualify for an award at Fourth Level with her pony, Roo

Although only three organizations ended up participating as a result of her invitation, Brewer notes that “there were plenty of their shows available to easily fulfill the five-score requirement.”

As a competitor, Brewer signed up to participate last year to give her a goal to work toward, explaining that “I find setting goals with tangible results helpful. I zeroed in on this program as a way to work on Fourth Level without all the costs of going to the [USEF/]USDF open shows.”

In 2020, Jennifer Koch managed five schooling shows for the Pennsylvania-based Lehigh Valley Dressage Association (LVDA). The GMO didn’t originally intend to participate in the new awards program, she says, but “our members were all in,” so the LVDA registered all of its shows.

LVDA members “get quite a bit of benefit” from the program, Koch says. “The GMO invests in it for the sake of their members. Our riders did participate, and we’re going to register all our shows again this year. It can get expensive for riders with horse ID [fees], entry fees, and registration fees, but it gave locals a different way to gain points and win.”

Gaining Traction

“There are a few other organizations in the area now offering the program, so it’s starting to develop some momentum,” says Koch.

When the schooling-show awards program was announced, some wondered whether it would siphon attendance away from smaller licensed competitions. Brewer says she hasn’t seen that happening so far.

For the 2021 competition year, no changes have been made to the program, says the USDF’s Cristen Brown. She notes that “the USDF Regional Recognition Task Force will meet as needed to evaluate the program and consider any future changes.”

With luck, the biggest change will be that restrictions mandated by the COVID-19 pandemic will no longer be necessary, the program will get a wider rollout, and more competitions and competitors will experience the benefits of a program designed to recognize the dressage achievements of the USDF’s many “grass roots” members.

Quick Look: How the Awards Program Works

To participate in the USDF Regional Schooling Show Awards Program, competition management enrolls the schooling show by submitting an online application and a fee. Riders submit a yearly nomination form and fee for each horse/rider combination, which is good for the entire program year.

Seven levels are recognized within four award divisions (open, adult amateur, junior/young rider, and non-professional) per USDF region. Competitors can qualify for awards (ribbons and certificates) at Introductory through Fourth Levels and at FEI levels (any combination of Prix St. Georges, Intermediate I, Intermediate II, and Grand Prix scores). The open division is not available at Introductory Level.

To earn awards, eligible competitors submit scores from the required number of shows and judges (which may vary by level) via the USDF website.

For division definitions, score requirements by level, eligibility requirements, and other details, see the 2021 program rules on the USDF website (from, navigate to Awards / Performance / Regional Schooling Show Awards).

Penny Hawes is a coach, writer, and experienced GMO board member. She lives in Virginia with her husband, daughter, and a plethora of cats, dogs, and horses.

Related Links:

USDF Regional Schooling Show Awards Program

Reasons to Nominate for the NEW USDF Regional Schooling Show Awards Program

Five Facts About USDF’s NEW Regional Schooling Show Awards

My Experience at the Great Lakes Regional Schooling Show

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