Dressage Training in Aiken, SC
Amy McElroy

Ask the Judge – Dressage rule questions

Dear Amy,

I am new to dressage, although I have done some eventing. I am planning to stop jumping and show straight dressage from now on, so I have a few questions about equipment. First: is it acceptable to ride a dressage test in my jumping saddle? I don’t currently own a dressage saddle and I feel safe and comfortable in the saddle that I have. Second, am I allowed to use a neck strap for “just in case” at the show? Third: my horse prefers to go without a noseband. Is this allowed? Thank you for your help.



Dear Newby,

Welcome to the dressage circuit. These are great questions and the answers are important to know as an equipment violation could mean elimination. Let’s start with your saddle.

You are in luck with your jumping saddle. In all levels of eventing dressage, any English-type saddle is compulsory according to USEF EV 115.2a. In straight dressage up to Fourth level, any English saddle is also allowed as long as the saddle has flaps and stirrups with closed branches. When you ride at the FEI Levels (anything above Fourth Level) a dressage saddle then becomes compulsory. You might be interested to know that saddle pads are optional at dressage shows, but I don’t recommend riding without one.

However much you like your jumping saddle, if you continue your pursuit of dressage you may want to try a dressage saddle because it will encourage your body to be in a more correct and balanced position. This will make is easier for you to be effective and you will find it more comfortable to do sitting work with the dressage saddle’s deeper seat and strategically placed stirrup bars.

Next, let’s address the issue of the neck strap. Neck straps are permitted in eventing dressage as there is not currently a specific rule about their use as a “gadget.” It’s a different story entirely in straight dressage competitions. Under the penalty of elimination, a neck strap is strictly forbidden as it is considered a “gadget.” You can’t use it in your test. Of interest: other gadgets that are illegal according to USEF rulebook DR 121.7 include martingales, bit guards, nasal strips, tongue ties, and bearing, side, running or balancing reins. Any kind of boots, bandages, blinkers, ear muffs, ear plugs, and seat covers are also illegal.

Finally, let’s consider the noseband. In all dressage levels, a noseband is a requirement. There are many styles to choose from. When you are using a plain snaffle bridle, you can use one of the following nosebands: a regular caveson, a drop noseband, a flash noseband, a combination of a caveson and a drop, or a crossed noseband (also known as a figure eight noseband.) Of interest: a padded noseband is allowed, but you cannot use a noseband that has any metal on the inside touching the horse’s flesh. Other equipment that is required includes a browband which can have as much decoration and “bling” as you like. You are also required to use a throatlatch or its equivalent, such as the jowl strap that is a feature of a Micklem bridle.

With so many nosebands to choose from, there should be one that suits any horse. Also, remember that there is no ruling on how loose a noseband may be, only on how tight it may be. The noseband may be fitted snugly, but not so tight that you can’t fit two fingers beneath it. Your ring steward may check the fit of the noseband after your test when he is examining your bit. He may also check the length of your whip, the length and severity of your spurs and the sides of your horse for blood. If your horse is wearing a bonnet, you will have to remove it so that its ears can be checked for noise-canceling devices. If the steward discovers any violations, you may be eliminated.

I hope this answers all of your questions. So, come on down the centerline in your jumping saddle while maintaining a correct dressage position with a perpendicular straight line between ear, hip and heel. Find a noseband that suits your horse and fasten it loosely if that makes him happier. You will have to leave the neck strap at home; when you feel comfortable doing this, that would be a good indication that you are ready to start showing. Enjoy!

Ask the Judge – Studying Dressage

Dear Amy,
I know that the eventing dressage tests have changed this year, while the USDF tests are still the same. But I have heard that there are also changes that were introduced in the FEI tests. Can you tell me what they are?
Studying Dressage

Dear Studying,
You are absolutely correct. There is a big change in the scoring of the FEI tests. They have also introduced a new freestyle at the Intermediare A/B level. Let’s take a look at these modifications.

In the FEI tests starting in 2018 (except young horse and freestyles) the existing four collective marks (paces, impulsion, submission and rider position) have been reduced to a single collective mark for the rider. The rationale for the elimination of the paces, submission and impulsion scores is that each of these factors will be assessed in every movement of the test and reflected in each scoring box. Although there was considerable opposition to this change, it was voted on and approved at the FEI general assembly in Geneva in November 2017.

From now on, at the bottom of your FEI tests, you will see a single box for rider position and seat, correctness and effect of the aids, and this will have a coefficient of two. The rules and the directives for awarding the rider mark remain the same as before. Judges will be taking into account the rider’s position and seat and the way in which he or she is able to influence the horse in order to produce an expressive, harmonious and fault-free performance. This score will be diminished if the test has many faults, there is obvious tension or resistance, there is discord between rider and horse or there are other negative factors, such as the use of voice.

Because the only collective mark is for the rider, this means your equitation is more important than ever. I encourage everyone to really work on developing a strong core so that you are able to have independent aids and an elegant and effective seat. The new Intermediare A/B freestyle is an exciting addition. This test is at a higher level than the Intermediare I freestyle, but not as advanced as the Grand Prix. For this test, horses must be at least 8 years old. The Freestyle has a 5- to 5-minutes- and-30 second (5.30) time limit. The freestyle will include half passes right and left in the trot and canter, extended trot and extended canter, a minimum of five tempi changes every second stride and a minimum of five tempi changes every stride. There is a single canter pirouette right and left that has a coefficient of two (in the Grand Prix, double pirouettes are allowed, but at this level they are not.) There is a minimum of 12 meters of passage, also with a coefficient of two. There is a minimum of eight straight steps of piaffe – at this level the horse is allowed to move forward as much as two meters, whereas in the Grand Prix the horse should not travel and ideally performs on the spot. The freestyle also includes an extended walk and a collected walk. There are also separate scores for transitions into and out of the piaffe.

These are the two main innovations on the FEI level this year. Here are some other things to consider, especially as we look forward to the World Equestrian Games, which will come to the Tryon International Equestrian Center in North Carolina in September.

From the USEF rulebook: “Intentionally taking the reins into one hand to produce impulsion or to promote applause from spectators will be considered a fault and reflected in that movement and in the collective for rider position.” It is, of course, still permitted and in fact mandatory, to take the reins in one hand when you salute the judge. All horses must wear a browband and a noseband.

A competitor may not withdraw or scratch from a class after a final salute – some people might want to do this after a disappointing ride so that they would not get a bad score. If for some reason you feel you cannot continue your test, you must ask the judge at C to be excused, and he or she might grant your request.

Another reminder: in the FEI tests, your first error is worth two percentage points off your final score, and your second error is elimination. This means that an error is much more serious at this level: at lower levels, an error is two points off your raw score and you are allowed two errors – you would be eliminated after a third error.

Also, remember at all levels that you are not allowed to use your voice at all – no talking, whispering or clucking. There is a two-point deduction for each movement where you can be heard.

Thank you for giving me an opportunity to explain some of the changes at the FEI level in 2018. I know there are many riders who are looking forward to competing in the new Intermediare A/B freestyle, which will give more opportunities to riders who are not quite at the Grand Prix level yet. From a judge’s point of view, it will be interesting to see how the new, single collective mark will affect the final percentage scores. This change may result in higher scores overall, and certainly reward riders who take the time to work on their equitation. We shall see!

SDCTA year end winner!

Congratulations to Lisi Tibrea and Tali for all their success in 2017, looking forward to more in 2018!

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.”