George Williams, Leader of USA Dressage, on Changes in Sport

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George Williams standing beside Big Tyme ridden by Betsy Juliano, a major financial supporter of United States horse sports, at a recent horse show. © 2013 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

By KENNETH J. BRADDICK

After eight years heading up the United States Equestrian Federation’s policy-creating High Performance Committee, George Williams sees a new type of sponsor emerging to support elite dressage in America and a move to greater support for top team prospects instead of a single coach calling the shots.

The changes that directly impact America’s championship teams were discussed by George ahead of the U.S. Equestrian Federation annual meeting in Louisville, Kentucky, and the first meeting of a high performance committee that will have a majority of new members.

The new committee will determine how to structure high performance program for at least the next four years which includes the World Equestrrian Games in Normandy, France in 2014, the Pan American Games in Toronto in 2015 and the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

George is popular as the rider of Rocher, a mare with big, floppy ears that he competed at premier Grand Prix events in Europe and the United States for more than seven years before retirement when 18 years old in 2009, has become chairman of the USEF Eligible Athletes Committee of active team riders.

He is beginning a second three-year term as president of the U.S. Dressage Federation, the organization of about 32,000 members–down about 10 per cent from its peak–that administers the grassroots sport in the country and focused on education and records of competition at all levels with a staff of about 30 that is 10 times that of the USEF. He says he does not plan to seek a third term.

As the leader of dressage in the USEF, the national governing body of the sport, and the grassroots USDF placed George, aged 52 and based in Delaware, Ohio in summer and Wellington, Florida in winter, has been in an unique position of influence.

Though coincidental with his changed role in the USEF, a vacuum exists in leadership of the U.S. championshp teams since the resignation as coach of Anne Gribbons in October after three years in the job. The position is officially called Technical Advisor.

The committee he chaired held a summit meeting in Houston, Texas late last year to get the views of riders, trainers, owners and sponsors on the direction of elite program after two Olympics in which the U.S. did not fare well. The team was disqualified in 2008 and placed sixth in 2012–after five successive Olympic medal performances.

With a new committee on which more than half the 11 members are new and appointed after the Houston get together, was the summit worth while?

“What was important was to listen to the athletes, to hear their thoughts,” he told dressage-news.com.

“The main thrust of what we heard, first back in 2004 at Chicago and more strongly in 2012 was that most of the riders have personal trainers and coaches and they want to be sure those relationships are maintained.”

“The message of the importance of personal trainers has come through loud and clear.”

Janet Foy, who replaced him as chairman, was among those in Houston.

One issue with individual trainers, he said, is the difficulty in obtaining credentials from the International Olympic Committee for more individual coaches. However, some nations assign credentials to coaches rather than support staff.

George, who rode Rocher and Marnix that were sponsored by a single family, said that horse sports were in the midst of a transition with new sponsors coming into the sport, a transition from the years when wealthy families provided a large part of the funding for teams.

George Williams and Rocher stoking the Saturday Night Fever that is the Grand Prix Freestyle at Dressage at Devon in 2003. © 2003 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

“It’s hard to predict how it will happen,” he said. “There is more discipline specific funding, which has its pluses and minuses. My gut feeling is that it will go more in the direction of specifically for the discipline.

“That means fund raising will be the responsibility for each discipline.”

Dressage, he said, cannot count on funding from the USEF with competition among approximately 30 disciplines and breeds for money.

However, as one of the three Olympic equestrian disciplines “one of the things we face is that we do have to get to Europe” to compete at the top levels.

A disadvantage for the United States, he said, is that a significant portion of money raised for the sport goes to transporting horses and humans across the Atlantic, and there is no government or lottery funding in the United States.

The Florida circuit that is trying to bring in European competitors for the winter circuit “is a huge step in the right direction. We will see ultimately how many riders come from Europe, but it has to be the best against the best no matter what happens.”

Especially, he said, since increasingly higher scores led by Totilas that has created two levels of the sport.

“It is hard for us to keep up with that if we aren’t there,” he said.

He singled out Steffen Peters of San Diego, California as having performed “an amazing job to stay as competitive as he has” when faced with escalating scores in dressage.

A major accomplishment during his leadership of the USDF has been the creation of national championsips using a format different than those produced by the USEF. Qualifying for the USEF championships are based on CDI results and the goal is produce national teams while the USDF qualifying is through grassroots regional championships and are for riders that may not have international aspirations.

“You look at the Florida circuit and the FEI (International Equestrian Federation) levels and how well they are doing. High performance will always be the elite level.

“But it is also important to inspire the entry level and adult amateur riders,” George said, ” those that do not have international apsirations but you want to keep them involved in the sport. The USDF finals can help inspire, give goals to people whatever level they are competing.

“It is a different mindset. A competitor who wants to do high performance has to be involved in CDIs and make that commitment that is fulltime.

“We want to make sure we do not exclude those who do not have international aspirations and that riding FEI doesn’t mean that they can’t have fun.”

There are indications of moves by the USEF, the national governing body of the sport, to lean more on the USDF, a neighbor in the Kentucky Horse Park complex, to take on more responsibilities outside of the international championship programs.

“We see ourselves as basically willing to step in to help in areas when asked,” George said. We represent the entire dressage community–a lot of our programs are geared toward greater numbers and greater participation. The number of pariticpants in the elite programs is much smaller. Where the USDF can be of benefit is in tranng, certification of trainers and instructors, those types of programs that ultimately benefit a lot of members.”