Written by: Kim Izzo

What’s wrong with the sport of dressage in Canada, and how to get it back on track.

Thumbnail for State of the Union for Dressage in Canada

Terry Bramham Photo

“What does Dressage Canada do for me?”

“Don’t get me started on Dressage Canada.”

These are just two of the comments from adult amateurs overheard at the inaugural Dressage Symposium held last October during the town hall portion of the event. Technically, there is no longer a Dressage Canada; that was dissolved in 2015 when Equine Canada became Equestrian Canada and the Equestrian Canada Dressage Committee (ECDC) was formed. But no matter what it’s called, there was no doubt that the AAs were venting about whatever and whomever is governing dressage in Canada.

In other words, ECDC has a public relations issue, and that gets to the crux of what is wrong with the organization and its membership. There is lack of communication between the two, with ECDC members pointing to a lack of support or interest in the “grassroots” and “backbone” of the sport – but it is a two-way street.

Bridging the Gap

The Dressage Symposium was created by the ECDC to try and bridge this gap. Held at the Caledon Equestrian Park in Palgrave, ON, to coincide with the Carl Hester clinic, it included various sessions including an arena session that covered the training scale and test riding. Other components featured rider fitness and freestyle choreography.

At the end of the day’s sessions, there was a public ‘town hall’ where dressage enthusiasts could air their grievances and offer suggestions to the committee. Issues ranged from the lack of shows, a need and desire for ECDC to organize clinics and other events, and a concern over dwindling numbers and what that means for dressage in Canada.

The ECDC is chaired by Victoria Winter, a Toronto-based lawyer who has represented Canada at both Pan Am and World Equestrian Games. There are nine other members, including EC staff member Christine Peters. Sitting on the committee is a volunteer position and therefore its members are hardworking people with day jobs who are passionate about the sport and want to improve things.

The committee members tried their best to answer a variety of questions and concerns. “We are aware that participation numbers and membership numbers for dressage in Canada are down,” admits Equestrian Canada’s Christine Peters. “We are hopeful that some of our new initiatives will start to gain traction and bring excitement back to the sport.”

How down is down? The stats from 2010 (the first year that membership was tracked) showed a total of 2,514 members. Of those, 2,350 were women with an average age of 38.96, and 164 men with an average age of 48.10 (an average age of 40 for both genders). Juniors made up only 374 members to seniors’ 2,140.

In 2017, the membership numbers dropped to 2,177 (a 13.4% decrease from 2010), with 138 men and 2,039 women. Average age remained fairly consistent at 42. The average number of horses owned by dressage members was 1.95. What this means is that the average dressage rider in Canada who competes as an AA is a 40-year-old woman who has one or two horses.

New and Continuing Dressage Incentives

New initiatives meant to inspire and aid members include the Am I Ready Series, whereby members submit a video of themselves riding a test and it will be judged by a certified official to assist with training. This is free to members and a handy new way to get help from a pro even if you’re in a more rural area.

The Young Horse Development Program makes a comeback and includes national rankings for horses five, six, and seven years old. If you enroll your horse in the program, you will receive invitations to training sessions with FEI-certified young horse dressage judges and identified national or international young horse development experts, as well as annual evaluations.

For juniors – and the ECDC needs to attract a younger demographic – there’s the Brosda Bursary, which awards $10,000 towards developing riders for the 2024 Olympics. The Rising Stars, a pilot project and the main initiative for junior competitors in 2018, offers two competition components in BC and Ontario, plus mentorship opportunities, first evaluations and support, plus education sessions with international officials.

Dressage Levy Funding

As for that Dressage Levy you pay into each show, it has been redesigned after the ECDC took a hard look at the various programs and saw that they didn’t engage the community enough. The goal now, according to Winter, is, “To offer a multi-faceted event with a wide array of experts coming together in one place, so that passionate equestrians of all levels could receive direct education on topics including development using the training scale, coaching evaluations and assessments, athlete fitness, performance analysis, sport psychology, freestyle choreography, mental training and perfecting test riding.”

While the symposium launched in Ontario, the plan is to move it to the west in 2018. In addition to these programs, levy funding is also used to support the high-performance teams representing Canada at major games (WEGs, Pan Ams, and Olympics).

Members who attended the inaugural symposium were asked to fill out a survey which asked what the most valued event was at the symposium. The vast majority – 74% – valued the arena session, followed by the town hall, which proves that members want to directly communicate with their committee members. Also telling was that while 69% were competitors, a whopping 87% were horse owners. It’s that nearly 20% of non-competitors that the ECDC need to engage and encourage to compete in order to raise the level of competition across the country.

Connecting with PSOs

As part of that engagement with grassroots owners and riders, Equestrian Canada is seeking to strengthen their connections with the provincial sport organizations. This past November the Dressage Committee met with the PSO representatives at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair as a starting point for creating this alignment. The Committee is also looking to re-introduce the social event that was previously held there each Thursday night – traditionally “dressage night” – which had always been a good opportunity to network and gossip.

Of course, not all the issues with ECDC have to do with competitors. “Speaking as an official, they need to reinstate the Officials Committee,” offers Karen Ashbee, a medium judge based in Calgary, AB, who judges across western Canada. “We need a group that can make cohesive decisions regarding the future of our judging programs. Instead, I get the feeling that decisions are made by a very select group of individuals.” She would like the committee to address the lack of judges moving up the ranks. “We have a glut of recorded and basic judges and very few medium and senior judges. Perhaps the ECDC could look at developing a mentorship program to allow for more individuals to upgrade. The current qualifications to do so are expensive, both timewise and financially. I am not suggesting making the process easier, merely more accessible.”

When Competing was Fun

This is all serious stuff. But what about the fun of competition itself? Those of us old enough to remember the heyday of the sport during the 1980s saw the World Dressage Championships leave Europe for the first time ever and land in Ontario at what was IESS and is now RCRA. Then there was the dressage team’s bronze medal at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, led by Cindy Ishoy and the legendary Dynasty, who went on to place second in the World Cup Final in 1989, a result that remains the highest individual placing for any Canadian dressage competitor. The shows back home were raucous events, with dances, barbeques, and fundraisers that gave riders, parents and coaches the chance to mingle and support one another.

Canadian team members Jaimey and Tina Irwin recently obtained High Performance 1 (HP1) status – the most advanced level in the EC Coaching Program, designated for those teaching advanced riders at the international level. To earn the distinction, dressage coaches must have a proven track record, both in the saddle and at the in-gate as a coach. The Irwins – the sport’s “power couple” – have been fixtures on the Canadian dressage scene for nearly their entire lives and, while too young to remember the ‘80s, still recollect a time when competing was a highlight.

“We have both been competing on the dressage circuit in Canada since we were very young,” says Tina. “I think I was eight years old when I started to compete my pony, Coco, at the local CADORA shows and Jaimey was 10 years old competing at the Rice Lake CADORA shows.”

“We definitely used to have some pretty great dressage venues and competitions at the grass roots level all the way up to the international levels,” says Jaimey. “Shows such as Kilburn Farms in London, Leitchcroft in Toronto, and Blainville in Quebec were some pretty major ones. There were freestyles under the lights, parties, fundraising events and many competitors from adult amateurs up to Canadian Team riders vying for a spot on one of the Canadian teams.”

But as many competitors have noted over the years, the shows have disappeared and with them, the number of competitors. With the average three-day show costing approximately $1,000, it does add up. Many average dressage riders who are that middle-aged woman with one horse, and often a full-time job and a family, may struggle to make ends meet. For those who are not wealthy, horse ownership is akin to entering a convent: you take a vow of poverty.

Dollars and Sense

With costs of horse ownership rising in alignment with the overall cost of living, budgets are strained. Fewer entries means the cost of running a show rises dramatically. That was one reason why, after 25 years of running gold shows in Ontario, Barb Mitchell and John Taylor (“JT”) decided to make their final salute at X last summer. “After 25 years [we] decided it was time to retire and enjoy our summers. Entries were down, expenses were up, and it was becoming more difficult to make it a viable proposition,” explains JT. “Our gold shows were down about 30% over the last five years. We added in a bronze show and that helped somewhat,” he adds. “While we had many supportive exhibitors who showed at every show, there were many who would skip years, come to one show a year – or not at all. Showing for the dressage competitors doesn’t seem to be a priority and that is what leads to the demise of the shows. When you look at the shows that have disappeared over the last ten years, the trend is alarming.”

“All shows are down in the last couple of years due to the economy,” agrees Ashbee of dressage shows in western Canada. “Most competitors tell me that due to the escalating costs they have cut back the number of shows they attend. For example, if they competed in three or four shows they would choose to attend two or three now.”

For those who do have the means, the biggest draw for their dollar is south of the border – where each year nearly 4,000 horses migrate to compete in Wellington, FL, alone.

“Our very first year traveling to Wellington was in 2006. One of our sponsors and clients, Mary Ellen Horgan, encouraged us to go, as she thought it would be good for us as young up-and-coming professionals,” explains Tina. “This was a crucial step for us, our business, and riding careers, as it introduced us to a bigger and more competitive competition circuit. It allowed us to network by meeting new people. It was also an excellent experience for our clients to train and compete in the warmer weather during our cold winter months.”

The Irwins have approximately 20 horses in daily training at their facility in Stouffville, ON. Their first year in Florida they took five horses; this winter, 20 horses will be shipped down south. “Our clients really enjoy the experience of Florida, as they can continue their training with us year-round, compete if they wish and enjoy the amenities of the Disneyland-like horse community that Wellington offers,” adds Tina.

One thing the Irwins noted during their years competing in the US was a different approach to the AA experience. “The USDF has an excellent program in place that gives all of the riders in the country an incentive to participate in numerous shows each year. They have regional championships which they must qualify for and once they have been successful at the regional championships they qualify for national championships,” explains Jaimey. “The national championships are a huge deal and the riders receive a lot of press, prizes, and recognition.”

While there are similar programs in Canada, most competitors don’t know about them nor are they promoted enough to create incentive to compete. “It really doesn’t mean anything to be part of our regional or national championships [in Canada] as there is hardly anyone in attendance and the qualifying score is 53%,” Jaimey adds. “This is not going to progress our sport and in fact, it is proven that it is not, as our numbers have gone down each year.”

Back on Track

“If adult amateurs, juniors and young riders and professionals want to have the goal of participating in a meaningful regional or national championship each year, they will train to become better and therefore put more money into training with a top professional to achieve their goals,” Tina suggests. “This is what will help our sport get back on track. We also need to have better sponsorships in place and also treat the sponsors very well by providing them with VIP services in order for them to want to continue sponsoring for more years to come.”

The takeaway from all this? The dressage committee is listening to AA concerns and wants to change things and promote the sport we all love. But the AAs need to do their part and get involved, including by sitting on the ECDC itself. As of this printing, no AA has put their name in the hat, despite more than one person standing up at the town hall and criticizing the committee for not having an AA in its fold.

Dressage owners and riders also need to enter competitions to support show organizers, or else there is a grave danger we will have fewer shows. And if it’s fun they want, why not pool resources and work with the committee and show organizers in your area and create parties and fundraising? The sport of dressage in Canada needs all of its fans to step up and enter at A.