Dressage Training in Aiken, SC
Amy McElroy

On Top of Her Game

Amy McElroy Gets Her “S” Card

By Pam Gleason
Originally published in The Aiken Horse

This February, Amy McElroy achieved a major distinction when she became an “S” dressage judge. Amy is a trainer, teacher and FEI competitor based at Fairlane Farm in Aiken, and S (“senior”) is the highest judging level granted by the United States Equestrian Federation. S judges may officiate all levels, from Training through the Grand Prix at all national shows in the country. The process of becoming an S judge is both rigorous and selective, entailing many different types of training, apprenticeships, and examinations. It also requires extensive (and successful) competition at the highest levels. All of these requirements are difficult to attain and demand a very high level of dedication and knowledge. Amy is now one of two S judges in the state of South Carolina, and one of just 107 in the country.

“It has been my career dream goal to earn my USDF gold medal, show successfully at Grand Prix and earn my USEF S judge’s license,” says Amy, who has now ticked off all three boxes. (She earned her gold medal in 2015, a United States Dressage Federation award for riders who have competed successfully at Intermediate and Grand Prix in at least two different shows and under different judges.) She explains that S judges are in greater demand because they can judge all the classes in a show. Since attaining S status, she has already received many judging invitations from around the country and she is excited about this new stage in her career. “I’m really thrilled and honored to have been selected as an S,”’ she continues. “I look forward to my new status as a licensed official, traveling and judging around with country with my colleagues and I’m excited to see so many new horses and riders.”

Amy’s official journey to the S card started when she entered the USDF L (“learner”) training program about 20 years ago in Raleigh, N.C. After graduating with distinction, she was accepted into a USEF “r” program, which prepares candidates to become “recorded” judges. The r program required her to travel to Colorado for her initial training sessions and final testing. She received her r and was then licensed to judge at recognized shows all over the country up to Second Level. After two years of judging as an r she was allowed to apply for the next step, to become an “R” (“registered”) judge. For this program, she traveled to California for her official sessions and testing. In 2007, she attained her R rating, allowing her to judge up to Fourth Level anywhere in the country.

All of the USEF judging programs require candidates to spend time apprentice-judging, observing, studying and being evaluated at every step. They all also require candidates to show and compete successfully at the level they are hoping to judge. Amy says that it took her a little longer than she had hoped to be able to apply for S judge status because, although she had competed at the FEI levels on many horses, for a variety of reasons she did not have the Grand Prix scores that are required to begin the application. Then, she was offered the ride on a recently-imported horse in 2015. Although the horse had not yet competed at the Grand Prix level, he had schooled all the Grand Prix movements. Amy competed him in his first Grand Prix, did three shows and earned all the scores she needed for the S.

Amy’s S program started in the fall of 2015 in Devon, Pennsylvania at the Devon Horse Show. Then, during the course of the next year, she obtained a slew of recommendations and traveled around the country both observing and apprentice-judging under some of the top dressage names in the country. Her final exams were held at the Devon Horse Show in the fall of 2016, and she earned her approval and her card this February.

Of course, Amy’s road to the S started long before she entered the L training program in North Carolina. It started when she was a small child who was obsessed with horses. Amy comes from New York, growing up in Brooklyn and then on Long Island, and her family was totally unconnected to the horse world.

“I don’t know why. I had a craze; I wanted to ride,” she says. When she was very little and her family went to amusement parks, all she wanted to do was take pony rides, or ride the merry-go-round as a second choice. When she was 6 or 7 and living in suburban Long Island, people used to show up on her street with ponies, all tacked up with Western saddles, offering pony rides, for a fee, to the neighborhood children.

“I’ve never heard of this happening anywhere else,” she says. “I used to watch for them. They were like the ice cream truck, except that they were selling pony rides instead of ice cream. You would get on and ride – no helmet, nothing – and they would take you up and down the street. I couldn’t wait for them – they must have come through four or five times a year.”

When she was a little older, she was able to take weekly riding lessons at Bethpage Riding Academy through her Girl Scout troupe. The girls bought booklets of tickets that got punched every time they took a lesson. Amy used to write the name of the horse she rode on the back, with notes about whether or not she liked it. The level of lessons you took depended on how many punched tickets you had. After 10 lessons, you would graduate from beginner to advanced-beginner, then after 10 more lessons, from advanced beginner to intermediate, and so on. Once you had graduated from the advanced group, you were sent on to another riding school that had jumping. Amy rode as much as she could, on Long Island during the school year and then at summer riding camp in New Hampshire. She always fantasized about bringing her camp horses home and keeping them in the backyard and garage. “I didn’t know anything about zoning,” she says with a laugh.

By the time she was nearing the end of her high school years, Amy was determined to pursue an equestrian program in college. This was the late 1970s, and dressage was not yet a popular sport in America. She remembers that her first exposure to the discipline was a demonstration given by Kay Meredith, then one of America’s top upper level riders.

“She was on her fancy horse Domino, and she was riding to music. It was the first time I ever saw anyone do tempi changes, passage, and piaffe and I thought it was the coolest thing I had ever seen in my life. I knew right away that was what I wanted to do.”

And so, when she applied to Meredith Manor Equine College in Waverly, W.V., she entered their dressage program. At the time, Meredith Manor had a strict and demanding curriculum. There were top level instructors and the stable had accomplished schoolmaster horses for the students to ride and learn from. For students, the washout level was high: Amy remembers that about 200 people started the program, but only about 60 actually finished it. She was one of them, graduating with a Riding Master III degree, the highest level offered. She also obtained a Bachelor of Science degree in equestrian studies. Then she followed one of her former instructors to South Carolina, to serve as an assistant teacher and trainer at Reflection Stables, a lesson and boarding facility in Columbia.

“That is how I landed in South Carolina,” Amy says. “Then, after a few months, my former teacher decided she didn’t like the job, so she left, and I got the head position.”

Amy was doing a lot of teaching as well as riding and competing. Her dressage education made her something of an anomaly, since there were very few dressage riders in the area who had competed at higher levels. There was a lot of interest in the sport, however, and soon Amy found herself called upon to judge at schooling shows in dressage, combined training and eventing. Her fledgling judging career put her in contact with other serious dressage riders in the area, including the late Bari von Buedingen, an upper level rider based at her Graf Bae Farm in Aiken at the time.

Wanting to pursue dressage more seriously and ready to leave her job in Columbia, Amy asked Bari where she should go. Bari had just hired Hokan Thorn, a Swedish dressage trainer, and he was looking for a working student. “Why don’t you apply for the position?” she asked.

Amy applied, got the job, and moved to Aiken. She worked with Thorn for three years, then stayed on at Graf Bae for four more years before starting her own business. Today, in addition to judging, Amy also teaches at Fairlane Farm, where she specializes in adult amateurs. Her own showing pursuits were on hiatus as she finished her S program, but she hopes to be back in the ring soon.

“Because I am still showing and I do have students who show, I think, as a judge, I am very compassionate about the horse and the rider,” she says. “A lot of judges don’t ride any more, and it is easy to forget what it is like from the rider’s perspective. When I judge, I am very concentrated and focused. I want to give good comments. Most of all I want to be fair. I will literally lose sleep over it if I think I might have judged someone unfairly – if I was too hard on someone, or too easy on someone else.

“Good comments can really help people improve their riding,” she continues. “You can’t teach them with the comments; you can’t tell them how to ride, but you can give them insight into what they are doing well and what they are doing not-so-well. I hope people will want to come and ride for me. I
don’t want to be known as Santa Claus; I want them to come and ride for me because I am fair and they know that if they are good, they will
get a good scores.”

Amy says she is grateful to all the people who helper her on her way and ready for the new opportunities and challenges that having an S
card will bring her.

“I hope to continue to develop my eye at the upper levels and earn respect from riders and trainers around the country,” she says. “I want to be the best I can be and hopefully I’ll be sought after. I also look forward to continuing my education as a judge – the learning never stops.”

NCDCTA Summer Mountain Getaway Dressage


Dear Mrs. Amy McElroy,

We have received several “Member’s Confidential Evaluation Forms” from Federation members commending you on your officiating at the NCDCTA Summer Mountain Getaway dressage competition that took place 8/6 to 8/7/2011 in Fletcher, North Carolina.

While we cannot disclose the names of this member or their exact comments, we can share with you the substance of their comments. This member reported that you were knowledgeable in regard to the USEF rules, displayed a positive attitude toward exhibitors, and your scores were consistent with your comments on score sheets.

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.

Very truly yours,
Jan McKinney
Continuing Education Coordinator, Licensed Officials Department

Dressage at the Ridge competition


Dear Mrs. Amy McElroy,

We have received several “Member’s Confidential Evaluation Forms” from Federation members commending you on your officiating at the Dressage at the Ridge competition that took place 10/2 to 10/3/2010 in Tuskegee, Alabama.

While we cannot disclose the names of these members or their exact comments, we can share with you the substance of their comments. These members reported that you had a positive attitude and demeanor toward exhibitors and your comments on your tests were instructive and consistent with the scores.

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.

Very truly yours,
Mary Smith
Director, Licensed Officials Department

2010 American Eventing Championships

Subject: Congrats

Charlie [Musco] and Amy,

Just wanted to say a hearty “well done” on your judging at the AECs, you two were the best pair of the 12 judges there. Your scores were right on – super job – thanks so much.

Sue Smithson

Ask the Judge – 2018 USEA Eventing Dressage Tests

Dear Amy,

I have heard that the USEA eventing dressage tests will be changing soon. Could you tell me when the new tests go into effect and what changes there might be? Also, where can I find these tests?

Eventer Chick

Dear Eventer,
The new USEA eventing dressage tests go into effect December 1, 2017. These tests were published in November and can be found online on the USEA website, among other places. There are some significant changes in most of these new tests. Let’s take a look at a few of the changes in Beginner-Novice through Preliminary, In all the tests at all levels (Beginner-Novice through Advanced) halts are now required to be sustained for at least three seconds. This rule makes the eventing tests conform with the United States Dressage Foundation dressage tests. In the past, the length of the halt was not specified in the eventing directives.

Changes in Beginner-Novice
Beginner-Novice still has a Test A and a Test B. These tests have basically the same movements as before, with the biggest difference being that the final halt in Test A is at G rather than at X. The letter G is an imaginary point on the centerline beyond X (which is in the center of the arena and before C.) The exact point is the intersection of the centerline with a line drawn from H to M.

Changes in Novice Tests
The Novice level still has Test A and Test B. In Test A, the new tests now include a serpentine of two loops, from A to C. The judges will be looking for the quality and regularity of the trot, the shape and size of the loops and the changes of bend, accuracy and balance. Remember: serpentines do not use the corners: they have the same curvature as a circle. To ride this movement correctly, you would start with a 20-meter half circle tracking left from A to X. Approaching the intersection of X, you should straighten for at least a stride or the length of one horse from nose-to-tail before bending to the right and continuing on to the half circle of 20 meters to the right. This movement is only asked for in one direction (starting from the left.)

In Test B, there is now a “stretchy” circle. Your judge will be looking for your horse to be going forward with a downward stretch over the back into a light contact, maintaining his balance. The judge will also assess the quality of the trot, the bend, the shape and size of the circle, and the willingness and calmness of the transitions before and after the stretch. The aim of the stretchy circle is not to lengthen your reins as much as possible; it is to show how much your horse can stretch over his back. This movement is only asked for in one direction, to the left.

Changes at Training Level
Training Level still has Test A and Test B. In both tests, there is a new movement at the end of the test. Instead of turning down the centerline from A to make your halt, you will be making a half circle of 10 meters at B onto the centerline. Then you will continue straight on the line towards G. At G, you will halt and salute. The turn and the halt are scored separately.

In Test B, they have added new movement. At B, half circle right of ten meters at the trot, returning to the track at M. Going the other way, this same movement is E, half circle left of ten meters, returning to the track at H. Some people call this movement the ice cream cone, because that is what it looks like on paper. The judge will be looking for the bend and balance in the figures, the size and shape of the half circles and the regularity and quality of the trot. When riding this movement, remember to prepare your half circle with bend, and have it centered around your letter. Then, when you finish the half circle be sure to be on the centerline before making your return on the half diagonal. Be sure you keep the straightness and ride this half diagonal to the track the way you would ride a full diagonal.

The new Training Level B test also introduces canter work on the diagonal. In the canter left, leave the track at H and at X, make a transition to the working trot and continue along the diagonal to F. The judge is looking for balance in the canter, the smoothness and accuracy of your trot transition, the quality of the trot and the overall ease and straightness of the line. When riding this movement, your transition to the trot ideally should be when you body crosses over X. Remember to ride your diagonal as straight as possible and letter to letter, H-X-F.

Modified Level Changes
Modified Level was introduced into the eventing world in 2017, and is a steppingstone from Training to Preliminary. In its inaugural year, Modified Level had one dressage test, which took place in the small arena. In 2018, there are two Modified Level tests, Test A (in the small arena) and Test B (in the large arena.)

In Test A, in the trot, you have a pair of conjoined 10-meter half circles in opposite directions. (First, E-X half circle left, followed by X-B half circle right.) There is also a leg yield from D to H going to the left, and then from D to M going to the right. In addition, in the canter, you will be asked to do 15-meter circles.

Test B introduces the “counter change of hand in leg yield.” This is two connecting leg yields, with one change of direction. In this test, you leg yield right from F to X, and then immediately leg yield left from X to M. This test also has a halt at C as well as a rein back of three to four steps.

Preliminary Level Changes
Preliminary still has two tests, A and B. Preliminary Test A rides in a small arena; Test B rides in a large arena. In Test A there are single leg yields from D to H and D to M. There are 10-meter trot circles. This test also has the same “ice cream cone” half circle movement as in Training Level B, but this time at the canter. The movement is shown in both directions, and introduces the counter canter: the half circle is performed in the true lead, but as you return to the track on a diagonal line, you will be performing a counter canter. A similar movement was seen in the former Intermediate Test A, so it can be considered quite challenging for this level. When riding this movement it is important to keep your accuracy. Make sure you steer and finish your diagonal line at the designated letter.

In Preliminary Test B the entry does not have a halt or salute. There is also a “stretchy” movement similar to the stretchy circle in the Novice test, but this time it is performed in a two-loop serpentine at the trot. When riding your serpentine keep the shape like you would in Novice test A. Be sure to show a clear stretch of frame: the outline of your horse should look different in this movement than in the rest of your test.

There is more counter canter work in this test as well. You have a canter loop that starts from the long side on the true lead, goes to the centerline and then heads back to the track while maintaining the same lead. This loop must touch the centerline before heading back to the track: It is important that your horse’s front legs step onto the centerline. Remember to maintain the bend of your lead throughout. This movement is only shown in one direction, starting from the left.

The final halt in this test is at L. L is an imaginary letter on the centerline after A and before you get to X; it is at the intersection of the centerline and a line drawn across the arena from V to P.

I think these new tests look interesting and a bit more challenging than the previous tests. Remember all to ride:your corners, stay accurate, have correct geometry and preparation for all transitions: attention to all the small details will enhance your presentation. I look forward to seeing how these new tests ride! Good luck.

Kathryn Berning

In 2005, The McElroy Group lost a dear friend in Kathryn “Kat” Berning after she fought a long, hard battle with lymphoma. Kat is survived by her husband Duanne and their sons, Aric and Kevin. Aric, her oldest son, is interested in pursuing a career in the medical field. Kat’s struggle with cancer no doubt has had a big influence on him and his desire to eventually specialize in oncology.

Kat was a smart, beautiful woman with a wonderful sense of humor. We miss her and think of all the joy and laughter she brought to all of our lives, especially to her best friend, Amy–she was like a sister to Amy. She was a great mom, and like Amy, she was very involved with her boys and their activities. She was also a long-time student of Amy’s, and she successfully competed with her Trakehner mare, Larkin, from Training to Second Level. Though she had Larkin for a long time, many will remember her up and coming horse, Slam, an Oldenburg gelding she purchased after Larkin’s retirement. Not only was Kat a talented rider, but she was also a gifted musician. She played the piano and gave lessons and also played the violin.

If you would like to make a donation to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, a fund has been set up on Kat’s behalf. Please be sure to indicate on your donation “in memory of Kathryn Berning” and her family will be made aware of your generosity to this cause. See the side bar to the right for details on how to make donations. Kat’s untimely passing reminds us all to enjoy each day and to live life to it’s fullest.