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.”

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