By George Williams
The summer that never was: Yes, it sounds like the title of a book you might have read while at the beach during a normal summer. In many respects, as youth coach, this past summer basically feels like it never was.
Summer is when some of our most important events normally happen for youth in dressage, such as the European Young Rider Tour and the North American Youth Championships (NAYC). These represent the pinnacles of achievement for many. And they’re designed to be just that.
As a rambunctious 9-year-old boy, I had lofty dreams of someday competing in the Olympics in both dressage and skiing. I wanted to grow up to be like my heroes at that time, Harry Boldt (dressage) and Egon Zimmerman (skiing).
Most of us need aspirational events. They first inspire, then motivate us to learn, practice and work hard. They can become that big, audacious goal that allows us to set many smaller goals we want to achieve as we proceed on our journey. Having a dream is important, but learning to set goals is perhaps just as important to make what might be a vague vision become a clear reality.
No matter how one looks at it, the NAYC is a unique competition and an aspirational goal or dream for many. First, as an FEI continental championship, it’s played a special role in the development of U.S. dressage for approximately 40 years. Several of the movers and shakers of that era pushed it into existence.
General Jack Burton, Captain Jack Fritz, Captain Andy DeSzinay and Col. Donald Thackeray were some of the more outspoken proponents. Of course, it wouldn’t take long for Howard Simpson’s name and Tempel Farms to become synonymous with the event.
Over the years, it’s been hosted at many wonderful venues with a number of different organizers. Similar to the Olympics, World Championships and other continental championships, NAYC is a team competition providing the valuable experience of learning to work with others and being part of a group effort working towards the primary goal of earning a team medal. It’s an eye-opening introduction to all that it means to represent one’s country in an international competition.
Due to a special exception, the three geographically large North American countries are allowed to send multiple teams at each level. For U.S. dressage, that means we have the possibility of sending nine teams of four, one from each USDF Region, at both the FEI Junior (Third Level) and the FEI Young Rider level (Prix St. Georges). In other words, 72 U.S. athletes can actually compete.
Perhaps even more importantly, having teams from USDF Regions allows athletes from all parts of the country to participate and ensures that as a national federation and national governing body, US Equestrian has a vested interest in the growth and development of dressage throughout the entire country.
It’s hard to imagine a summer without the NAYC. It goes against the dressage circadian rhythms.
The same disturbed summer dressage rhythm can be said of the European Young Rider Tour.
Not only is being able to take our top Young Riders to Europe an incredible experience, it represents the highest level of recognition for their achievements.
The European Young Rider Tour has been in existence since 2015. The final highlight of the Tour is the CDIOY, held as part of the Future Champions competition hosted by Hof Kasselmann, Germany.
Prior to the Future Champions, the FEI Young Rider World Cup, held indoors during CDI Frankfurt, served a similar role. The World Cup only lasted a few years, and only one athlete per country was invited. Fortunately, the Kasselmanns created the Future Champions event and filled a tremendous need.
Unfortunately, it too has been a victim of COVID-19, and was no longer an option for our athletes.
Returning to Competition
There’s a lot of discussion about the importance of “return to competition,” not just regarding the how-to of physical distancing and other precautions, or regaining physical fitness and readiness, or mental preparation, but of the importance of competitions (especially major ones) in providing sustained motivation and interest.
I’m a firm believer that we first and foremost have to return to competition safely and when the time is appropriate. However, you can bet I’m looking forward to when we can.
These events certainly play a role in helping the development of our young athletes to become our future senior athletes representing the U.S. at prestigious world events. I believe they play an even bigger role in continuing to keep our sport interesting and relevant to our youth.
There’s no doubt dressage can be challenging, as the skill set needed requires hours of practice. Dressage can also be a lonely activity — although the friendships made are wonderful and can certainly last a lifetime. Let us not forget the challenges of keeping horses and riders healthy and sound, and then, of course, there are those odd times when horses have slightly different plans in mind than we do.
Continuing to bring youth into our sport should be a concern of all of ours. Where would we be if 30, 40, 50 or in my case 60 years ago, no one cared? While some may have taken up equestrian sports as adults, the chances are good their instructors took it up earlier. We all benefit from having youth involved.
Events such as the NAYC and Future Champions, along with USEF Festival of Champions with all of the National Championships for youth at the FEI levels, play a vital role in keeping our young athletes engaged.
While only a few get to stand on the podium, many more are motivated with a desire to try — perhaps not just for that event, but over much longer periods of time, and, thankfully, some even for life.
Photo by Ruby Tevis