Dressage Training in Aiken, SC
Amy McElroy

Stable View interviews Amy

Amy and Deseado, photo by Meghan Benge

The following appeared in Stable View’s email newsletter, “The Stable ‘View'”:

Amy McElroy has been a great friend and supporter of Stable View and is a familiar face with her students at our Dressage shows. Therefore, we asked her to share a bit more about herself for those riding enthusiasts who are new to town! Amy is a USDF Bronze, Silver, and Gold medalist who coaches students of all levels here in Aiken as well as across the country, and she has worked with several horse and rider teams competitively through the Grand Prix. She especially enjoys helping riders achieve their goals, and being a part of the journey that accompanies their education. In addition to the teaching that she loves, Amy is a USEF Dressage ‘S’ judge who shares her knowledge while officiating, as well as her passion for the sport in her popular “Ask the Judge” column in the Aiken Horse publication.

How long have you lived in Aiken? How has it changed?

I have lived in this wonderful town for nearly thirty-nine years! I moved to Aiken in 1983, but I moved to South Carolina in 1981. After graduating college I took an equestrian position for the former Reflections Stables in Columbia, South Carolina. After three years I decided I wanted to change my direction to enhance my riding career as well as become more involved with dressage. A working student position was the way to learn. Back in those days, you didn’t just go over to Europe to train. I contacted my friend—the late and great Bari Von Buedingen—for advice. Luckily she was looking for a working student at her Graf Bae Farm, a top-notch Hanoverian dressage and breeding farm in Aiken, where the newly hired Swedish dressage rider Hokan Thorn was based. I did an interview and was hired. My experience was priceless and lasted for seven amazing years.

I could write an entire article on how Aiken has changed since I moved here. I think in the past it was more of a winter colony for equestrians. eventing and dressage were limited in this area. Aiken did host two dressage shows held at a lovely facility called Ramblewood. We even had Hilda Gurney judge there one year. Unfortunately, this property is now a housing development. I think the only event at that time was Hopeland Farms run by Robert Dennison. Lellie Ward of Paradise who had just returned from England, and Johanna Glass of Sporting Days Farm were some of my first equestrian colleagues in the area. The town, stores, restaurants, homes, farms, and horse shows have all developed more than one could have ever imagined.

What would you like to see happen in terms of this area’s future equestrian development?

I think Aiken’s equestrian development has amazingly transformed thus far, especially with the influx of eventers (Aiken is nearly the eventing capital of the U.S. in the season). We are lucky to have so many professionals and Olympians who train and call Aiken their home, even if only three or four months of the year. Dressage is becoming more and more popular with many moving here not just for the winter, but year-round. As far as dressage, it would be incredible to see Aiken host a CDI dressage show (maybe even at Stable View?).

We hear many riders are opting to spend time in Ocala over Aiken during the winter season. Why do you think this is?

I actually have not heard that riders were opting for Ocala. I do know back in the 80s Ocala was where all the eventers went. As far as dressage, I still think many are coming to Aiken. Ultimately, Wellington, Florida is still the mecca for dressage during the season. The new and amazing World Equestrian Center facility in Ocala is attracting many dressage riders for showing. Ocala is a quaint horsey town similar to Aiken in many ways.

Is there anything you would like to share about your own business?​

I am a dressage trainer, coach, and a USEF ‘S’ dressage judge. My business is based out of Fair Lane Farm, owned and operated by Holly Spencer, aka The Saddle Doctor. I have happily been at the farm for almost twenty-five years. I currently own with my mom my wonderful horse Deseado, whom I am hoping to compete in the FEI classes this fall. I really would like to do a bit more showing and especially a few more Grand Prix tests. I am often asked, “Do you still ride?” and that answer is yes, yes, yes. I ride usually two to three horses every day, although sometimes more when I am in town. I also teach a lot of dressage lessons every day. I have a great group of riders known as The McElroy Group. I am very lucky to have such dedicated and talented horses and riders. When I am not at the farm, I do get to travel all over the country to judge. This year I am scheduled to officiate at thirty dressage shows including two championships.

Where do you turn for feedback or advice?

There are so many people I can thank that I turn to for advice. My number one would be my amazing husband of thirty-one years. Although he is not really involved with the horses, he can be objective and supportive with any concerns that arise while operating your own business. Others I often look to for horse advice are Holly Spencer, (farm owner, student, gold medalist, and friend), and my dear friend and an exceptional equestrian, Simon Eades. For vetting questions, I refer to my vet Dr. Mitch Byrd. He is always available to answer any questions day or night, and always willing to explain and go beyond whenever needed. As for judging, again there are so many, but my main mentor is the one and only Natalie Lamping.

Any book or YouTube channel or other sources you’d recommend to our readers?

I am an avid book collector but mostly I have a large dressage collection. The most important read for any competitor is your current USEF rulebook. I also enjoy Natalie Lamping’s Facebook group called Lamp Post. I enjoy listening to Amelia Newcomb, I would recommend her to all riders at any stage in one’s dressage. As far as magazines, I subscribe to the Chronicle of the Horse. When surfing the web, I do spend time on the USEF and USDF pages where you can find many great articles and videos.

You recently received a nice surprise from USEF, please share its significance!

I recently received a congratulatory letter and pin for twenty years of being a USEF dressage judge. After passing the USDF ‘L’ program with distinction, I applied for and earned my USEF ‘r’, my USEF ‘R’, and finally my USEF ‘S’ with a designation in Freestyle, Young Horse, and Dressage Equitation. I am hoping to be able to judge another twenty years! FYI, my mentor Natalie Lamping recently received her fifty-year pin.

What can Aiken do to promote Dressage?

I believe Aiken is very much promoting dressage already. We have many rated dressage shows and wonderful facilities, especially with Stable View. Aiken is a destination for many who compete. Those who are lucky enough to live in Aiken never need to travel far in order to experience opportunities to come down the centerline. We have an array of trainers wintering here, as well as living here full time. There are dressage clinics offered all year long. I think Aiken is becoming a dressage mecca.

We’d love to know some of your favorite spots around town!

Aiken has a very unique downtown with several nice restaurants. I am kind of a homebody though. My days are long when I am in town, and I do eat out a lot due to my traveling. However, my favorite place to hang out is my home with the best chef whom I am lucky to call my husband. We do enjoy sitting on our porch and eating outside or snuggling on the couch watching a movie. If I had to pick a favorite spot though, I would say it is the Willcox. The hotel and restaurant hold a very special place in my heart, as this is where we had our wedding reception. My parents rented out the Wilcox in 1991 for my reception, a sit-down dinner for 100 and all of the rooms for our guests, and of course the honeymoon suite. Another Aiken treasure is the Green Boundary Club (although I am not a member). It is always a great treat to be invited by some of our friends. Another favorite is Solo Vino Wine Parlor or The Stables restaurant at Rose Hill.

You have been a great advisor to Stable View. Any additional advice?!

I have enjoyed and have felt honored to be an advisor to Stable View. The facility grows and amazes me each time I visit. I look forward to seeing what big plans are to come!

Mountaineer Flight Dressage Show

Dear Amy,

We have received a “Member’s Confidential Evaluation Form” from a Federation member commending you on your officiating at the MOUNTAINEER FLIGHT DRESSAGE SHOW (341484) competition that took place 5/28/2022 – 5/29/2022.

While we cannot disclose the name of this member or their exact comments, we can share with you the substance of their comments. This member reported that you provided excellent feedback and were very fair!

USEF would like to thank you for upholding the high standards that we set forth for our officials and for helping to promote the pursuit of excellence in equestrian sport.

Thank you,

https://www.usef.org/content/images/logo/useqlogo_email.jpgLICENSED OFFICIALS DEPARTMENT

Ask the Judge – Wondering About Judging

Dear Amy, 

I compete regularly at local schooling shows in dressage and combined tests, as well as recognized shows in both disciplines. I am wondering about the judges. Could you explain what the qualifications are to judge at schooling and recognized shows? I am also curious about a score I received for a Beginner Novice dressage test at a schooling show. My test was perfect, accurate, and obedient, my best ever, so I was surprised to see my score was not reflective of this. What could I be missing? 

Wondering about Judging

Dear Wondering,

Thank you for asking for clarification on what qualifies a person to judge at different types of shows. It is a little complicated but good to know. Aiken is very fortunate to offer so many opportunities to compete at dressage and combined training events. Qualifications for judges do have many variables, so let’s take a look.                                                   

A schooling show that does not have any ratings from a local or national organization may hire anyone to be their judge. This officiator is not required to have any specific judge training or licensing.  

Schooling shows that are recognized have some requirements for judges, for example, the SCDCTA (South Carolina Dressage and Combined Training Association), requires the judge to be a USDF L graduate or hold a USEA (United States Eventing Association) or USEF (United States Equestrian Federation) judging license with a minimum of an ‘r’ distinction.

An eventing competition with a USEA/USEF rating requires the organizers to hire a licensed USEA eventing or USEF dressage judge to officiate. The level of divisions being offered and the judges’ individual qualifications would determine what classes they would be allowed to judge.

A dressage show with USDF/ USEF recognition requires a licensed USEF dressage judge to officiate. Once again, the levels being offered and the judges’ qualifications would determine what classes they would be allowed to judge.

Therefore, a rated USEF dressage judge in good standing may officiate at a schooling show, USEA event, and USDF/ USEF dressage show. A USEA eventing judge may officiate only at schooling shows and rated USEA/USEF events: this license will not permit them to judge at a USDF/ USEF dressage show. Unrecognized schooling shows are not required to have a certified judge.

As for your second question, I am glad to hear you had such a nice Beginner Novice dressage test. Accuracy and obedience certainly go a long way but this alone will not earn you a good score. Let’s take a look at the purpose of this level dressage test. On the front page of all tests, the purpose is clearly stated. For all Beginner Novice tests, this is: “to show an understanding of riding the horse forward in a steady tempo and a clear rhythm. To confirm that the horse’s muscles are supple and loose and that it moves freely forward in a clear and steady rhythm, accepting contact with the bit. To show proper geometry and bend in both directions at all gaits. All trot may be done rising or sitting. Halt may be done through the walk.” 

So what does this all mean? Riders should keep in mind when trotting you will not earn higher points just because you sit to the trot. At this level sitting is optional. This means a “10” is a possibility even if you are rising. Often at this level, horses can move more freely when you are rising in the trot work, even if you have a beautiful secure seat. Remember to think about swinging back with ground-covering strides. Your horse should have forward intent and be tracking up (stepping in the tracks of their front hooves with their hind hooves). Do what is best to show off your horse’s gait.

In your trot and canter tours, it is important to keep your horse’s frame at least level while accepting contact. Be careful not to let the frame become too long, short, low, curled, or behind the bit to name a few. Focus on keeping the horse’s poll the highest point. Your judge will also take into account how your horse accepts the bit. Ideally, you want a quiet mouth and connection. Mouths that open and get too busy, or a tongue coming out will have a negative effect on your score. It is also important to have your horse bending to the inside in all turns, corners, and circles as well as going straight on the long sides, diagonals, and centerlines.

In these tests, you are asked to show a medium walk and a free walk. You want to show a clear difference between the two. What they both require are a clear, four-beat rhythm and forward energy. In the medium walk, the frame and stride should be more open than in a working walk, with marching energy. In the free walk, you should let your reins out and allow your horse to stretch the stride and frame in a relaxed manner. If your horse over-tracks in the free walk it is even better. Keeping the forward intent is key. 

When it comes to the halt, remember that a few walk steps (two to three) are permitted between the trot and the halt. This means you could get a 10 whether you have walk steps or not. Do whatever will set your horse up to be straight, square, or close to square, and, most important, immobile. The tests require three seconds of immobility.

Finally, the new eventing tests now have just one final mark for the collective. This mark takes everything into account. So you can see that there are a lot of different factors that go into your final score. Obedience and accuracy are important, but the training scale and purpose of the test have a big influence.  

Whatever type of shows you ride in and whatever the judges’ qualifications, they are there to share their knowledge and to report on how each scoring box was presented. The best way to understand a disappointing score is to look over your test sheet carefully and read all your marks and comments. Hopefully, your judge has shared the highlights of your ride: in your recent case this may have been an obedient horse and accurately ridden test. But your judge should also have shared the places where you and your horse have room for improvement. Maybe your horse needs to move more freely forward or stay in a better-balanced frame; maybe you need to work on straightness on the long side or bending on your circles. 

Keep enjoying your dressage work and try to learn from all your scores. A main goal of showing is to obtain an objective opinion of how you and your horse are progressing in your dressage journey and to learn what you need to do to advance. Judges want to help you do that: their feedback is intended to help bring out the best in you and your horse.

Ask the Judge – Musical Freestyles

Dear Amy,

I have been a spectator at some of Aiken’s dressage shows this winter. I have especially enjoyed watching all the musical freestyles. I was surprised when some of my favorite rides, with the best music, did not place very high – I thought they would win! Can you explain how these rides are judged?

Spectating

Dear Spectating,

I am so glad you have been able to come out to these shows. It is especially nice you were there to support and watch the musical freestyle rides. They certainly are fun to watch, and they are fun to ride. These tests can highlight a horse’s best qualities and movements, and a lot of time and work goes into performing a competitive ride. As you have probably guessed, these tests have a different system of scoring in comparison to straight dressage tests.

Let’s take a look at how judges evaluate musical freestyles. This type of ride includes two separate scoring categories per test. One is known as the technical side, which is similar to a standard dressage test. The other is called the artistic side, which you do not see in a standard dressage test.

All the USDF levels (Training through Fourth Level) offer freestyle tests. There are also FEI freestyle tests at these levels: Intermediate 1, Intermediate A/B, Grand Prix, Juniors, and Young Riders. For any level of test, there are certain required movements that must be performed. You are allowed to perform any additional movement or transition as long as it’s not above the level you have entered. For example, if you ride a First Level freestyle, you are not allowed to perform flying changes, because they are not introduced until the Third Level.

On the technical side of a freestyle, you can earn your scores in full points or in half points, just like in standard tests (For example 6.0 or 6.5.) Each time a movement is performed you will earn a score. At the end of your ride, if you have multiple marks for a movement they will all be taken into account to arrive at a final score on that movement. Let’s say you are doing a First Level freestyle. Although only one leg yield is required in each direction, if you chose to do more than one, you would earn a mark each time a leg yield is performed. You might earn a 6.5, 7.0, and a 7.5 for doing three leg yields to the left. In this case, your final mark for “leg yield left” would likely be a 7.0. 

The score you earn for each movement is evaluated the same way as on your regular tests, but in a freestyle, there are no final collective marks. Instead, there is a single scoring box on the technical side for “Rhythm, Energy, Elasticity.” Overall, the more confirmed and reliable your horse is performing at the level you are competing in, the higher your technical score is likely to be.

When judging the artistic side of a freestyle test there are five scoring boxes for your judge to consider. The scores for the artistic side can be considered more like the collective marks in a standard test. These scores may be given in tenths, for example, 6.2, 7.7, etc. The artistic boxes for USDF freestyles are as follows: 

 1. Harmony between Horse and Rider, which has a coefficient of four. For example, if you earn a 7.0 here, your final mark for this category would be worth 28 points. This score is based on the technical execution of your ride. It also takes into account the trust, confidence, calmness, and attentiveness of the horse, and the ease of execution of the moves. Any tension or disobedience would be part of this score, similar to the criteria you would have for the submission score on a standard test.

2. Choreography also has a coefficient of four points. This score is mostly independent of the technical execution. Your judge is looking at the design of the test, including the use of the arena, balance, and creativity. The judge would like to see you use the entire arena while keeping it easy to recognize the individual moves and follow along. In the best tests, the horse and rider execute moves equally in both directions, and in interesting patterns, not similar to a standard test. 

3. Degree of Difficulty has a coefficient of one. This score is based mostly on technical execution. The test should be advanced for the level: it should be harder than the highest test of the level you are performing. For example, if you are showing First Level, your freestyle should be more difficult than First Level, test three. However, you must be careful not to include any movements that are above First Level, as these are forbidden. The more difficult the ride, the higher the mark – as long as it is successful!

4. Music has a coefficient of three. This score is mostly independent of the technical score. You want your music to be memorable. It should enhance the way your horse moves at each gait, and it should be distinctive: music for the walk should not be the same as music for the trot. In this scoring box, the editing, seamlessness, and cohesiveness of the music are a factor. When mixing music for a freestyle, it is also suggested to use a common genre, theme, or instrumentation.

5. Interpretation has a coefficient of three. This category is mostly scored independently of technical execution. The judge will be looking for music that shows off the horse’s gaits and matches his footfall. The ride should have clear phrasing, with a suggested minimum of six variations of music per test.

The scoring for FEI tests is different. In an FEI freestyle at a national show, there are also five artistic scores, but all of them have a coefficient of four points. Let’s look at these scoring boxes.

1. Rhythm, Energy, and Elasticity, which is based on the technical aspect of the ride. This score takes into consideration gaits and impulsion. 

2. Harmony, which takes into consideration overall submission and the relationship between the horse and rider. Judges are looking for reliability and ease. This is scored similarly to the “harmony” box of the USDF tests.

3. Choreography is scored similarly to the USDF tests. Creative use of the arena is important and interesting lines, different from standard tests, are key. For example broken lines when doing flying changes, using quarter lines and centerlines for movements.

4. Degree of difficulty is scored similarly to the USDF tests. Here judges would like to see more calculated risks as long as you can successfully perform everything. 

5. Music and interpretation are scored similarly to the USDF test. Judges are really looking for music that matches and expresses the horse’s gaits and movements. Once again, much phrasing can really highlight the horse and the test.

There are many more factors and scoring details that come into arriving at a final score. When the ride is complete, the technical side and artistic side are tallied together to derive a final percentage. 

So in other words, freestyle is not all about the music, since you can’t get a high score without good technical marks. Music is definitely a big factor and can and should enhance the ride. You want the judge to be humming the music – some of the best freestyles I have judged, I truly wished would not end, and the music stayed with me long afterward. This is a winning freestyle. 

I hope this helps you. Please support all these riders. A lot of time and work goes into making a magical freestyle test, and many riders appreciate an enthusiastic audience.

SCDCTA Springtime Dressage

Dear Amy,  

 
We have received a Member’s Confidential Evaluation Form from a Federation member commending you on your officiating at SCDCTA SPRINGTIME DRESSAGE II (341059) competition that took place 4/3/2022.  

 
While we cannot disclose the name of this member or their exact comments, we can share with you the substance of their comments. This member reported that your judging was excellent. 

 
USEF would like to thank you for upholding the high standards that we set forth for our officials and for helping to promote the pursuit of excellence in equestrian sport.​​