Monday, February 22, 2010

Latest Gleanings from my progress in the "L" Program

The third weekend in February, at the Las Vegas Winter Fling II held at Cooper Ranch, I was privileged to scribe for and sit with Melissa Creswick, another very popular S judge, from Clovis, California. If you've followed my blog, you know that I've also already sat with Janet Curtis.

While the Utah Dressage Society is the organizer of this "L" Program, I live closer to the Las Vegas Chapter of the California Dressage Society. So, much of my training and showing revolved around this club. While the UDS has been amazing in hosting this program, I must say, I have been very surprised and humbled at the excitement and support shown by LVC-CDS with regard to my participation in this program. They have gone out of their way to facilitate my learning and seem genuinely enthusiastic about the prospect of having another graduate in their midst. They are doing all they can to help me prepare. I am very grateful for that!

When I sit and scribe at these shows, I am able to get insight not only into how to judge through Second level, but, through Advanced. The Prix St. George class was as big as the Training level Test 4 class. This is very important for me, in the learning process, because I am asked to watch a cross section in a single day. I am able to see the progression up the levels, and why certain things asked for at Training level through Second level really do matter if a rider wants her horse to be successful at the Advanced levels. Seeing this cross section in a single ring over a 7-8 hour period is really bringing the correlation home to me.

Melissa wanted riders to demonstrate clear transitions. Like Janet Curtis, she was not afraid to use the spectrum-as likely to give a 4 as a 9, when earned. I think this confidence is a hallmark of a well-seasoned and successful judge. She believed very strongly that a horse at Second level must be able to show a clear transition from canter to walk, or from medium to collected, if it is to be successful at the higher levels. She felt excessive reward of extravagent gaits at this level could easily doom this horse having a double bridle put on far too soon, in a misguided effort by the rider to move on to Third level too soon. What I loved about her judging style is that in everything she did, her comments, her scores, etc., she kept the future in mind for that particular horse. She was very careful to address the things most relevant. She reminded me several times to make dead sure I commented in such a way as to not send that horse home to be tortured. While Janet Foy had also discussed this in our B Session, seeing the theory in practice made a huge impression on me. She also stressed to me that comments must be framed in such a way that I do not promote hand riding. No question, she sees far more of this than she would like to see. And yet, she made certain I understood that the rider is my employer. I have to figure out a way to say what needs to be said in a way that the rider will look to herself to find a way to improve, without being unnecessarily harsh. I have found this to be my biggest challenge in this process. I want to pile all responsibility onto the rider, and in so doing, I will find it very difficult to ever give many scores of 6 or better to the rider. While it is true that the entire training process and the ride is the responsibility of the rider, nonetheless, I must take into account that each horse comes with its own set of challenges. I will need to have compassion, for the horse, as well as the rider. I found it interesting that Melissa would not remove her coat so long as the competitors were required to wear their coats.

A personal realization is also making itself known to me through this process. While I've always known, conceptually, that the judge can only judge what she/he sees in that seven minutes of time, sitting in the judge's booth is really bringing that home to me. So, to all you riders out there, and, note to self: realize that, the judge has no idea your horse has been sidelined for years, or, what your horse's breeding is, or its history and baggage. Even if she does know, she is not supposed to know, and therefore, must judge accordingly. So, if your goal is a safe and respectable 60% for the ride, be sure that you can perform all the criteria to a satisfactory degree at home nearly all the time. Also, don't get your feelings hurt if your score is not what you'd hoped. Read your tests and try to understand what the judge wants you to take from his or her comments, without any emotion. Understand that it's much more fun for the judge to be able to hand out higher scores, so, perhaps consider that in your choices. Or, if you know for sure you and your horse might never be capable of having "the look", but, you want to learn by progressing, develop a thick skin,and, try to progress in such a way as to not frighten your horse or make him feel insecure. Always take the time to prepare your horse, whether in the moment of the test situation, or, day to day in your training. Never take your horse up the levels too fast, it will only hurt their confidence at best, their bodies at worst. The judges cannot give you a gift because you've come a long way with your training, or your horse has issues to overcome. Bear this in mind, be grateful for what means progress to you, and, try very hard to understand what the judges want you to know.

Friday, February 5, 2010

USDF "L" Program

In the whirlwind of the last months, between actually studying and preparing for sessions A & B; getting my mare back to good health and the inevitable hours of research involved in making sure her diet is perfect; and keeping up with my clientele and life in general, I have not taken time to write about my experience thus far with the "L" Program.
I mentioned in a prior post months ago that I'd been fortunate to qualify for the program, and more importantly, land a spot in the current program being organized by the Utah Dressage Society. Seems there are not nearly enough programs to go around(we have candidates flying in from Ontario, Maryland, and California!), and I must again express my deepest thanks to the UDS for taking this on. It seems UDS has managed to draw more auditors than any other program.
We have now put two sessions in the books. Session A was taught by Sandy Howard, Session B by Janet Foy. Session A, hosted by The Promontory in Park City, UT, focused much of the information on the rules, conduct as a judge, judging methodology, and biomechanics. Session B, hosted by Sage Creek Equestrian in Charleston, UT, focused on judging criteria for gaits and paces, movements and figures, and discussed in detail the criteria of Training through Second level. Both sessions included the opportunity to view demonstration rides, and to practice honing not only our eyes(which frankly should be fairly honed at this stage in our learning), but also honing our ability to process visual input into a relevant comment and score to what we see, in a very short amount of time. The amount of territory these two sessions has covered is expansive. The scope of this program is impressive-I can't recommend it enough, to anyone-any aspiring trainer, judge, or amateur. The information is theoretical and practical, instantly useful. You will leave each session with enough knowledge to process for years. You do not have to be a candidate! Just audit, believe me, it is WORTH IT! The instructor judges who take on this task and agree to be a part of the education process of our judges are to be commended. This is a grueling job for them, so one can only assume they are doing this not for the money but for the betterment of the sport in our country. Our program for training judges is recognized worldwide for its thorough preparation of dressage judges.
There is no way I could do justice to the amount of information covered in this program in a single, or even daily, blog post. So, I won't attempt it. What I will do is attempt to stress to the riders I work with what the judges really want to see. The next time you think the judge has it in for you, make a point of offering to scribe at the next show. Among the requirements for this program are hours serving as a scribe, and hours "sitting" with a licensed judge. I have been able to sit with Janet Curtis already, and also served as her scribe. Trust me, folks, these judges want in the worst way to see a good ride. They want to give good scores. They do not enjoy being mean. Please don't make them work very hard just to find something nice to say. It is more often than I realized very hard for them to do this. Help yourself as a rider, help your horse, and make the judges happy, by actually reading the directives for the level at which you choose to ride. Read the definitions of the movements, it's all available for free to members on the USEF website! Know the directives for the movements, understand what the essence of each movement is, and understand the essence of the level at which you seek to ride. Know the Training Pyramid. Understand how it applies to your scores. Here's a tip: acceptance of the bridle is a requirement in dressage! Yes, even at Training level! Know where the movements begin and end. Prepare your horse for every transition and movement. Know where your horse's hind legs are. Know what your horse and you need to do, biomechanically speaking, to meet the criteria of the movements. Be honest with yourself if your horse's gaits are not clear. It really does matter! Dressage is not the movements-it's the quality...of the gaits, the connection, the riding, the execution of the criteria. Know what those numbers mean...10-Excellent; 9-very good; 8-good; 7-fairly good; 6-satisfactory; 5-marginal; 4-insufficient; 3-fairly bad; 2-bad; 1-very bad; 0-not performed. Next time you are happy with a 60%, enjoy that happiness for a moment, but when you go home, sit down and study that score sheet and really try to understand what the judge wants you to know. In the end, are you REALLY happy with just Satisfactory??? Maybe. Maybe your horse is not ideal for the sport. It is an Olympic sport afterall. Maybe you've just moved up a level. Maybe you or your horse has come back from injury or other reason to be sidelined. Maybe you don't get to train with a trainer on a regular basis. We all have our burdens to bear. Regardless of your station in life and as a dressage rider, consider this: Would it not be more noble to develop a very high quality Training level horse than to mindlessly move up the levels with no understanding of the requirements?
I challenge each of you: Pursue excellence in your riding and training. Believe me, you will not be viewed as a hero if you keep moving up the levels despite low scores. Judges would much rather see a good(80%-yes, 80% is only just "good"!) Training level ride than a marginal(50%) First level ride. When you look at it in light of this, does that 57% on Training level test 1 really seem like something to write home about? Now believe me, there is absolutely no shame in riding your average horse, and in being happy with a 57%. Like I said, we all have to start somewhere. Maybe a 57% on your horse is a 67% on another horse. And this certainly is not to say that riders should not be happy when they are consistently scoring above 60%, do not misunderstand. I am not minimizing anyone's accomplishments here, but at the same time, keep perspective. But as Janet Foy so aptly pointed out, this is an Olympic sport. The reality is, if your horse lacks the natural, God-given conformation and scope to its gaits necessary to perform the hardest movements with the greatest ease, then to expect the judge to be Santa Claus and give you 70% on a horse that doesn't even track up in the working trot or remain pure in its canter rhythm is unrealistic. There are some that will, from time to time, but do not expect this. I challenge you to be thorough and positive in your training. I also challenge you to be realistic in your expectations.
I started this program with no other goal than to learn as much as possible and make myself a more viable candidate for USDF Trainer certification. After two sessions, I now deeply desire to become a judge. I see it as an opportunity to, again as Janet Foy said so perfectly, "sell hope". Only those candidates who pass with distinction will be eligible to continue on to become a candidate for "r" designation-the right to judge through Second level at National competitions. This is no given. The last program, of ten candidates, only saw two pass with distinction. Regardless of my final evaluation by the instructors, I will leave this program deeply transformed as a trainer and rider.
I cannot thank enough the UDS, the USDF, the instructor judges, the hosting facilities, the demonstration riders(who by the way have to hear a lot of bad judging as we muddle through!), and the judges who allow candidates to sit with them. These people and groups make our education possible. They are what make our judge training program the envy of the world. I am humbled and honored to have my foot in the door.