The International Disciplines Council (IDC) of the USEF oversees the eight FEI disciplines: dressage, eventing, jumping, para dressage, vaulting, combined driving, endurance, and reining. On Friday, January 15, Council Chair Joe Mattingly and members of the USEF Sport Department provided updates and answered member questions during a presentation as part of US Equestrian’s Virtual 2021 Annual Meeting.
International Discipline Council & Sport Department
All disciplines are contending with the ongoing effects of COVID-19 and the resulting postponement of the Olympic and Paralympic Games and several major championships in 2020. This has led to a crowded 2021 competition calendar and the need to remain agile and have backup plans prepared for high-performance athletes as international travel remains uncertain.
However, the pandemic has pushed some positive developments within the organization. Namely, many coaching and observation events were forced to go virtual in 2020, which had the positive side effect of making them more accessible to riders and more affordable to run. Many of the innovations that equestrian sports have had to embrace due to circumstance are likely to remain in place as practical options for athletes and coaches in the years ahead.
Will Connell, USEF Director of Sport, provided an overview of the IDC’s budget for the year ahead. This year’s budget is $8.59 million, nearly half of which comes from the USET Foundation. USEF provides 27% of the budget, and 16% comes from the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC). The remaining 9% is carryover from last year.
Connell explained that the funding that comes from the USET Foundation is restricted to the FEI discipline high-performance programs and the FEI discipline U.S. teams. Similarly, the money from the USOPC is earmarked for use on Olympic and Paralympic programs. A significant portion of the USEF funding comes from corporate sponsorship associated with high-performance teams and activities.
Kristen Brett, USEF Director of Dressage Programs, covered the makeup of the IDC:
- One Sport Committee representative from each of the 8 disciplines
- Two Affiliate representatives from Jumping, Eventing, and Dressage
- One Affiliate representative from Driving, Endurance, Para Dressage, Vaulting & Reining. (Currently there is no Affiliate for Endurance & Driving so Sport Committees are fulfilling majority of Affiliate duties)
- One elected Eligible Athlete from each of the 8 disciplines
Hallye Griffin, USEF Managing Director of Dressage, reported that the dedicated dressage rules email address was well utilized by members. The dressage staff have so far received approximately 300 inquiries through that email.
Festival of Champions: “Several years ago, we combined the 12 Dressage National Championship divisions and the USEF Dressage Seat Medal Final into one event,” said Griffin. “We see it as a great opportunity to bring all of our members together at one event, where we have everything from young horses to FEI pony riders and children all the way to grand prix.” The 2020 FOC was a success despite numerous cancellations in the lead up to it. With revised qualification standards in response to the pandemic, there were 162 qualifying competitions in 2020 and an increase in applications over the previous year.
Dressage Pathway: “Our programs cover the whole spectrum, from emerging for youth and young horses in addition to the development and elite programs,” said Griffin. “We organize training and evaluation sessions throughout the year, and we support USDF, our affiliate, so that all nine regions can have a youth clinic…In 2020 we tested virtual sessions for the first time, and this received a lot of good feedback. Now we’re trying to incorporate these virtual sessions in our 2021 plan. We often complain about how country is so big, but with the virtual sessions, it creates an opportunity to see more athletes and maybe make our country feel a bit smaller and more connected.”
Olympics and High-Performance: “We have amended the Olympic selection procedures,” said Griffin. “Our aim is to prepare in Europe, but we know this could quickly get turned upside down, so we have plans B, C, and D in place.” Dressage will be looking for potential Nations Cup team members at the Young Rider, Under 25, and Grand Prix levels, and these Nations Cup competitions are an important part of preparation for the 2022 World Championships and the 2024 Olympics in Paris. At this time, the 2021 FEI World Cup Final for Dressage is still scheduled to run in Gothenburg, Sweden, this spring, and the first U.S. qualifier of the year will take place this weekend.
Other Competitions: Griffin reports that the FEI North American Youth Championship for Dressage will take place in Traverse City, Michigan, in August, and qualifying is already underway. The Festival of Champions will be held again at HITS Chicago at Lamplight Equestrian Center in August.
“Keeping the ship afloat was our theme for 2020,” said Jenni Autry, USEF Managing Director of Eventing. “High-performance remains a major part of our focus; keeping other programs running seamlessly is also a key focus.”
Rule Changes: “It’s important for you to know that as a USEF member not only do you have the ability to submit a rule change proposal, but also to view and comment on rule change proposals,” said Autry. She encourages members to bookmark USEF.org/rulebook and to use this avenue to track rule changes provide input into the direction of the sport.
Cross-Country Course Advisor Program: “This is a program that allows us to send course advisors to different cross-country courses around the country, from preliminary all the way through to five-star level,” said Autry. “This ensures that our courses are built to the highest standards with safety in mind.” In a typical year, the program supports around 24 course visits. Despite cancellations and travel restrictions, there were still 15 course visits conducted in 2020.
Eventing Pathway: One of the current goals of the Eventing Pathway Program is to create more access points into the program and by extension, bringing more athletes into the high-performance pipeline. Among the initiatives to that end are the Futures Team Challenge and the new Youth Team Challenge.
“For the Futures Team Challenges, any athlete can apply to compete in a simulated team competition,” said Autry. “This is a way for athletes to put their hand up to say, ‘I want to get team experience and I want to be considered for a training list down the road.’ The Adequan®/USEF Youth Team Challenge is an evolution of the NAYC and one that we’re really excited about it because it’s going to give more youth athletes the opportunity to compete in a team environment…so that we can get more athletes into the pathway early on.”
Olympics and High-Performance: The eventing team will focus on preparing for Tokyo in the U.S. The Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event CCI5*-L and the Jersey Fresh International Three-Day Event CCI4*-L will be the main preparation and selection events. The team will also benefit from world-class, discipline-specific coaching. Peter Wylde is coming on board to coach show jumping and Johann Hinnemann will coach dressage.
Adapting the Finals: Show cancellations threw a wrench into the qualifying calendar for the fall championships, but adaptations put in place for the 2020 season proved to have some benefits. “We analyzed various scenarios and worked with the USHJA in order to develop the criteria in a way that was equitable and balanced for athletes across the country,” said Lizzy Chesson, USEF Managing Director of Jumping. “Ultimately, the qualifying criteria we put in place are solutions that we’re implementing for 2021. For Talent Search Finals, the qualifying criteria that we put in place doubled our numbers on the west coast. And for Prix des States, we’re shifting from a total money won qualifying criteria to a system of the best five scores to count so that quality is being prioritized over quantity.
“The greatest accomplishment that we pulled off last year was moving the fall finals and championships to Tryon. It was a great team effort by Tryon, Washington [International Horse Show], [Pennsylvania National Horse Show], and USEF to be able to put all those puzzle pieces together and maintain a fall calendar that worked for our junior athletes, our senior athletes, and our FEI athletes.”
Jumping Pathway: “We’re here in Florida this week for the relaunched Horsemastership Training Series,” said Chesson. “It’s an enhanced product. It’s now going to run throughout the year. We’re really to improving on the educational components.”
Chesson adds that the Pre-Junior division will debut this year at NAYC, and the Junior Jumper Finals and Prix des States will return to PNHS for 2021. Additionally, the Junior Jumper Finals will be expanded to include 20 additional individual invites.
“The main goal of the pathway is to utilize existing championships that we have here at home and maximize the opportunity that is here and to help further our athletes along the pathway with what we have in place,” says Chesson.
Olympics and High Performance: Although the North American League for the 2021 FEI World Cup was canceled last year, the sport department will be able to use the FEI ranking list and USEF horse list to rank athletes to qualify for the Finals in Gothenburg.
The qualification procedure for the Olympics had to be altered as well, but preparations for the rescheduled Olympic Games continue. “Our Plan A is [to prepare in] Europe, but we need to be realistic that that a Plan B needs to be in place in the event that we may not get there,” said Chesson. “World Cup Final is still on the table in Gothenburg. We’ll hopefully have the FEI Nations Cup Final in Barcelona. We have the relaunched World Cup league, which has eight qualifiers. We’re targeting this fall for it to start.”
Para Coaching Program: “Our para coaching program was developed by [Head of Para-Equestrian Coach Development and High Performance Consultant] Michel Assouline to ensure that coaches around the country had the proper tools and knowledge to coach an athlete with disabilities,” said Laureen Johnson, USEF Director of Para Dressage and Vaulting. “Thirty-one coaches from 17 states have completed the program. We’re currently developing the continuing education will be ongoing over the next year. We’ll offer a virtual theoretical session in this year for the first time, and we’re hoping to get more participation from able-bodied dressage coaches and therapeutic riding instructors and really develop the program.
“In addition, we aim to secure a development coach to work with our Centers of Excellence and support Michel. They would be working with the grassroots athletes and continue developing that foundation for our future development of elite athletes.”
Centers of Excellence: The Para Dressage Centers of Excellence (COEs) are therapeutic and dressage riding centers that can help connect riders from a therapeutic riding background with the competitive sport of para dressage. “The goal of the COEs is to recognize potential talent,” Johnson explained. “Through education and training, we build those athletes up to the competition level. Currently we have nine COEs around the country, each with their own strengths. Some function as an educational hub and some function more as training centers.”
Veterans’ Programs: Equestrian programs for veterans have become increasingly popular, and Johnson reports that some COEs are working in this space to “build a bridge between USEF and veterans’ programs to provide more competition opportunities.” The Veterans Administration offers a monthly stipend to disabled veterans who are on a championship pathway in para sports.
Paralympics and High-Performance: There will be two international FEI Para Dressage competitions in the U.S. ahead of the Paralympics in Tokyo this summer: one in Wellington, Fla., in January and one in Tryon, N.C. in June. An additional national competition in Wellington in March will also count toward Paralympic selection. The 2021 USEF Para Dressage National Championships will be held in Tryon in October.
Virtual Coaching: During the pandemic, Assouline used Pixio to coach athletes remotely, and will continue to do so. Athletes were also able to utilize video technology to get feedback from judges through an online judging program. Johnson says that athletes were able to submit videos of their tests to international judges and receive scores and comments back.
Borrowed Horses: “We’re aiming to increase the pool of available borrowed horses for our [emerging level] competitions,” said Johnson. “We borrowed high-end horses for Tryon in October and it was very successful.” Horses are needed for riders of all grades, and Johnson asks anyone who might have a suitable horse available for future competitions to get in touch with her.
Vaulting Pathway: “The pathway program has been revamped and relaunched,” said Johnson. “We have vaulters who have achieved the required scores, earning 75 hours of virtual private coaching sessions with three of the world’s top coaches.” Participants use online tools for goal setting and tracking, and receive personalized support from coaches, including monthly meetings held virtually. Additionally, vaulters submit videos and receive feedback from a four-star FEI judge, which has proven to be a helpful tool.
Coach Development: “We have 21 coaches who are participating in monthly virtual coaching sessions following four-star judge Rob de Bruin,” says Johnson. “As the coaches watch from their homes, they are able to interact with the vaulters and Rob and ask questions. Rob describes his progression of drills to develop his technique. It was an extremely cost-effective method of training and the coaches loved it.”
High Performance: The FEI Senior Vaulting World Championship that was scheduled for 2020 was postponed for 2021. As a result, the Senior and Junior World Championships will both take place this year. The Junior World Championship will take place in Le Mans, France, in June and the Senior World Championships will be held in August in Budapest, Hungary. Additionally, the U.S. is aiming to send a team to Aachen, Germany, to compete this summer. The National Championships will take place in Utah.
2020 Season Review: “Driving Events had record high entry numbers and a successful winter season last year,” said Danielle Aamodt, USEF Director of Driving. “We were lucky to be able to fulfill our national championships in 2020. Our spring season was cut short, and we had cancellations and necessary withdrawals from [the FEI World Singles Driving Championships in France], which was especially sad."
New Driven Dressage Tests: “In 2019, the Driving Sport Committee took on the role of serving as the affiliate,” said Aamodt. “The committee produced new driven dressage tests for Training, Preliminary, and Intermediate, slightly increasing the level of difficulty [and making them progressive in order to] to connect to the FEI levels…The FEI published two new tests for the two-star and three-star dressage for singles, which show a significant increase in difficulty. So while we took the first steps in the right direction, there’s more work to be considered there now.”
Driving Lite: A new “USEF Lite” for driving competitors and short-format driving events will be available as an entry-level onramp for organizers and competitors interested in recognized competitions. “USEF Lite is an entry level pathway for organizers who are trying to get a new driving event off the ground, and short-format driving events are a la carte options for the competition phases of dressage, a modified marathon, and cones. It offers a shorter format of one or two days and easier officiating requirements. This has and will continue to stimulate an increase in competition opportunities for driving. It’s better for athletes, horses, officials, and organizers.”
Driving Pathway: “The criteria [for elite and developing athletes] was streamlined based on a more statistical approach, and educational opportunities are going to be a major focus this year with several new remote options to connect everyone nationally,” said Aamodt, adding that the USEF is also hoping to launch the Emerging program for driving in 2021.
National Product Development: “This summer, the Endurance Sport Committee was tasked with developing the national product within the USEF before the end of the year,” said Steven Morrissey, USEF Project Director, High-Performance Programs. “They met many times over the year and developed rules for the national level of the sport under the USEF.”
Endurance Lite: “Competition Lite provides more opportunities at the grassroots level for people to compete and bridges the gap from the lower levels to the FEI levels and the full national levels under USEF,” said Morrissey. “It provides additional opportunities for athletes and horses to gain their FEI novice qualifications before moving on to the FEI international level.” The first USEF Lite endurance competition was held in December 2020.
Future Championships: The rescheduled 2020 Senior World Endurance Championship will be held this May in Italy. The Pan American Championships for Seniors and Young Riders is scheduled for July, and the Young Rider World Championship will take place in September in the Netherlands.
Reining within the USEF remains in a holding pattern as the FEI and the National Reining Horse Association (NRHA) have not been able to agree a new Memorandum of Understanding.
“Obviously the NRHA are the powerhouse of reining in the U.S., and USEF’s involvement has been as a link to FEI reining, especially in the build up to World Championships,” says Will Connell, USEF Director of Sport. “Until we really know where the FEI is going, it’s difficult to plot what reining might look like within USA Reining and what our connection might be with the NRHA. There is a real appetite internationally for Championships to continue. Personally, I hope we maintain our connection with reining because it’s our connection to a major Western riding discipline.”
Steven Morrissey covered the Human Clean Sport education programs and his work supporting the Therapeutic Use Exemption process for FEI athletes.
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