Most people who become dressage instructors and trainers do so because they love horses and they love the sport, no matter where in the world they are born. If you are born in Germany they will have a grassroots system of bringing up riders. Horse culture is a larger part of everyday life in Europe with shows being more bustling and laypeople attending in large numbers. There are specialized high schools that focus on riding and then riding programs thereafter. The Deutsche Reitschule in Warendorf is one example. The country has an apprenticeship and licensing program that is very structured, for both learning riders and learner grooms. Even after they complete their studies they must study for a number of years under a licensed Reitlehrer as a Beireiter or a Ausbildung (please excuse me for any German faux pas – I do not pretend to be fluent). In Sweden there is Ridskolen Stroemsholm and Flyinge. There are also professional riding and instructor specific programs in Norway, Finland, Austria and many more.
There has been a lot of talk about lifting American dressage to the European standards, especially after our somewhat disappointing showing at the last Olympics. Many people believe in bringing up promising young talent through many different programs, including the junior and young rider programs. I believe that this is VERY necessary but not the only piece to the puzzle.
It is unrealistic to believe that the United States government is going to require a mandatory standard or licensing any time soon, but we as professionals should be supporting efforts of a structured program aimed toward lifting the overall level of theoretical and practical knowledge in dressage instructors. Currently, anyone with a pony poster on their wall can go out to a barn and hang their shingle as a dressage trainer and start training. Of COURSE there are wonderful instructors out there with no certification whatsoever. It would be a tornado of idiocy to say otherwise. But my point is, how is a new dressage rider to know which instructors are worth their salt and which are not? How is a young professional to know who is worth studying under as they themselves learn the ropes? And how are instructors themselves supposed to know if there is a better way, or discover a hole in their education, in an information vacuum? How can we move toward unifying and improving the standard amongst all dressage trainers?
Now I am also not saying that the USDF Instructor Certification Program is perfect. For example, currently the only way to ascend the levels in the program is to show that you have taught students to that level, and to show their scores as proof. So in other words, the only way to take classes for, say, second level certification is to have already trained and taught to second level. This is counter intuitive to me. If I am a lower level professional or a working student wanting to become a professional, then I am automatically boxed out of a quality education by not having already been educated. That being said, I understand the Program wants to keep the standard high and actually award its accreditation to those who are instructors and trainers at that level.
Which brings me to my larger point. Just because an instructor takes issue with aspects of a program does not give them permission to back out of participation altogether. I have met brilliant, talented instructors who do not want to go through the program because of a conflict of some sort either with staff or the program itself. Now in my opinion, they have a right to that conflict, but not to denying the program their talent. The ONLY way the USDF Instructor Certification Program will grow and improve is with participation from US professionals. Many, many instructors go to Europe to study under riding masters who are products of their respective country’s riding programs. There is nothing wrong at all with this, but don’t we as professionals have a responsibility to dressage in the United States as well?
The United States is building an excellent judging base for itself with the tough standards and quality education beginning with the “L” Program. This is another program that is not flawless, but because participation is so high, has been improved and revised year after year for a better end product. And if we are waiting for a perfect program, then we will be waiting a long time, for no such things exists anywhere in the world. I had a great experience going through the “L” Program, learned much and met other dedicated professionals.
So now I am heading down the USDF Instructor Certification path. I am looking forward to bettering myself for the students I teach, for the horses I ride and care for and for any young trainers who come to me. I want to meet other professionals and find out about their experiences all over the country. I want to participate and perhaps add to the program down the line. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if in a few decades people coming into dressage knew to look for a series of accreditations? And that we could have a cohesive and broadly understood “American” dressage program amongst the bulk of professionals? Wouldn’t it be something if people started coming to the United States to study under the American system? That will only happen if the best and brightest of our talent throw their hats into the ring and participate to create something special.