Rocking M Stables' use of German Level Testings to Mentor Youth Riders up the Dressage Levels
Written by Betsy LaBelle - In Dressage Directory - Saturday, June 9, 2018
Moving to the U.S. in 2008, Yvonne Kusserow noticed that young riders weren’t progressing up the dressage levels with an understanding like the youth riders from her native Germany. Because she had thoroughly familiarized herself with her native country’s dressage training systems through the 8 year German program to become a Pferdewirtschaftsmeisterin and her experience working at the State Equestrian College in Vechta for two years, she first took on the task of studying the complicated USDF/USEF Dressage Tests. Merging Germany’s testing structure with America’s USDF/USEF rules for dressage level test requirements, Yvonne created a highly effective, understandable, enjoyable and effective training program for the young rider.
Deciding that training youth was a particularly good place to start helping riders to succeed in the sport, she became Head Trainer and Program Director at Rocking M Stables (RMS) in Dallas. Since then, Yvonne and her assistant Allison Stai have been steadily mentoring hundreds of youth riders to proficiently climb the levels in the sport of dressage while building solid foundations for the future.
With over 80 students going through the program, the youngest of which starts at the age of 5, Yvonne has based her training system on Germany’s level testing’s for showing. The program emphasizes a solid foundation of classical horsemanship that includes horse care and safety, a systematic structure that follows each horses’ biomechanics in relation to include relaxation, rhythm, contact, impulsion, straightness and collection, the training scale.
In 2013, Yvonne and a few students traveled to Vechta to participate in a German preparation course for competition, “The young riders and adult amateurs participated in a ten-day clinic of two riding lessons and one theory lesson per day to prepare for the final tests in dressage, jumping and theory. After passing the final test (naturally, all riders from RMS passed), they received a certificate and a medal to put on their riding coat or just to keep as a memory. It was a great experience for our American students to see how it works in Germany and it was really fun for the German kids to talk with the American kids.” She acknowledged, “It was also good for me to see that our program at RMS was in line with the German system.”
How Rocking M Stables' Five Levels are Influenced by the German System
In order to qualify for competitions in Germany, a rider must first undertake fundamental tests. Each participant is given a small booklet from the FN (equivalent to the USEF) that is stamped by the official testing instructor when the course is complete. Because it is important that riders know what to expect and feel confident at their first competition and for each level they climb at shows all the way up to Third Level, the FN offers courses at a local barn or that region's state college. With a brief test at the end of the course, each rider gets a medal, starting with the Little Bronze, the Big Bronze, and on up. This system enables riders to know the level at which they are prepared to compete.
At Rocking M Stables, Yvonne took the German level testings and transitioned them into five level tests for each rider to prepare for their entire school year, starting at the end of August on through April. She explained, “We do the level testing, because we don’t have a required medal course to do before showing here in the U.S. where each individual has to know horse care and horsemanship before entering a show. That’s the focus," she explained. "Riding is only a small part. The theory, I think, is the underlined focus.The purpose is to serve as incentives to train, to learn about the well-being of the horse, to understand the rules and formulations of the competitions, and to know what level they’re prepared to complete.”
She continued, “At the end of April, the kids undergo an achievement test which we call ‘Level Testing’ or ‘Achievement Testing’ and they receive a certificate which indicates their level. Allison and I discuss the level with them and also with their parents so they can understand what they’re looking at and what it constitutes, let’s say, a half-halt or full halt. It helps the parents to understand dressage and also builds knowledge and confidence in the student. And, if a parent shows a heightened interest, we’ll encourage that parent to take a lunge lessons to even better understand how hard the riding is for their child. It’s amazing to see a parent and child bond over dressage.”
Yvonne also heartily maintains, “It’s all about making training and learning positive and letting the kids try, try and try again. That’s how they’re going to learn the most and ignite their passion for the sport.”
A wonderful assistant in Allison Stai, who is the coach and mentor to the younger children, Yvonne said, “I couldn’t do what I do without Allison. She’s spot on with the basics and knows just how to prepare them for moving to the next level. If any rider becomes close to moving up to my older group, she’ll toughen them up a little and give them a thorough boot-camp to make it possible. She really gives them a great way to be really ready.”
Working with the older kids as they climb the levels, Yvonne said, “We have students who own their own horses and ride on up to FEI Junior and Young Riders. Many have graduated from the program and are doing really well at the upper levels. It’s true that we teach many students at the introductory level, but it should be noted that over the years we’ve had many students who ride and win numerous Regional and National Championships.”
Clinicians, top riders and instructors such as Lisa Wilcox, Lendon Gray, Jan Ebeling and others have given clinics at Rocking M Stables during its school year program to offer additional integral points. Lisa Wilcox said, “I could not believe what I was seeing. The kids are having fun while learning. Yvonne and Allison know how to ignite their enthusiasm in a way I haven’t seen before. They understand how young riders' minds work and teach them to try in such a natural way. They are fueling their confidence until they succeed. I’ve never had an opportunity to teach kids. I was floored by this program.”
Rocking M Stables Leads a Scavenger Hunt at Dressage Shows
Yvonne shared, “We also require beginning riders who’ve never shown to come and participate in a scavenger hunt during two local competitions where the older students compete. It’s important to get the kids and their parents there because if they don’t understand what they’re looking at, then the sport of dressage can be boring. By educating the families of the riders, they come to appreciate the sport a little more and you can see their growing respect in their children.”
“The scavenger hunt includes many wonderful things for everyone to learn. For instance, we write down scavenger tasks on paper on a clip board for the kids to find which judge is judging Third level Test 3 and make a note. The game makes them learn about the scoreboard. There are many tidbits to hunt for, actually,” she chuckled. “We have also given them all USEF dressage test sheets to judge me in a test so they become familiar with a dressage test paper and how the judge scores. It’s hilarious to see everyone concentrating so hard as I ride the test.”
Smiling, she said, “At the end of the day, everyone always leaves more equipped and inspired. It’s so much fun to watch everyone enjoying themselves this much.”
In addition to their training, students are taught that teamwork is important during competition. “With so many kids in the program,” said Yvonne, “it’s truly important that every student feels at ease with each other.”
Cultivating the Next Generation of U.S. Dressage Riders
“It’s true,” says Yvonne, “that we teach many students at the introductory level and it should be noted that over the years we’ve had countless students who have won many Regional, National and International Championships.”
Yvonne spoke about 18-year-old Allison Hopkins who competed 11-year-old Rusty, aka Royal Falcon, a German Warmblood gelding owned by Yvonne's husband Mike, in July’s Young Rider Division for Region 9 at the North American Junior/Young Rider Championships in Colorado. She will compete at the Dressage Seat Medal Finals at USEF Festival of Champions in Chicago. "Allison didn't have a horse to compete," said Yvonne. "Allison and her mom, Karey have been good friends of ours since Allison started at RMS at age 12. They have been great supporters of the program at RMS." She continued, "Allison is a very strong, determined rider who has ridden Royal in clinics that were given at RMS so we decided to let her try for the Young Rider program. Royal is not a full confirmed Young Rider horse yet and can be somewhat anxious at shows, but Allison managed to make the Region 9 team and competed at NAJYRC."
Abby Fleischli is 17 years old and has been training at Rocking M Stables since she was 15. This year she competed in the Junior division at the North American Junior/Young Rider Championships. She will also be traveling to Chicago for the USEF Festival of champions to compete in the Junior division where she is currently ranked 6th in the nation. She rides Laguna, an 11-year-old Hanoverian mare that she has owned for three years. Before riding Laguna, Abby showed her first/second level pony. With limited experience at the upper levels, Abby has come a long way in a short period of time. She earned her USDF Silver Medal in 2015 and will show Laguna in Prix St. George/Intermiediaire I level in the fall.
Isabel Gregory, now 18 years old and who has been riding with Yvonne since she was 13 years-old, owns a pony named Charlie Brown which she bought when she came to RMS. Training the naughty, spooky pony herself with Yvonne's in-hand work, Charlie Brown is now competing at Second level and is currently being leased to an 11-year-old student training at RMS. In lessons, Isabel continued to ride and show school horses until now, she leases a privately owned Warmblood mare. “The highest level she had reached was second level.” Continuing, Yvonne said, “This year they started a ‘lease’ on Rock Star, a 16-year-old Oldenburg mare whose barn name is Rose from the Dressage4Kids Foundation (Lendon Gray). Isabel and Rose have been in partnership for 6 months now and they’ll show at Prix St George by the end of this year."
Rocking M Stables Contact Information:
Yvonne Kusserow Phone: 214-235-4039
A book highly recommended for the program: https://www.amazon.com/Principles-National-Equestrian-Federations-Complete/dp/1872119719/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1467762274&sr=8-1&keywords=principle+of+riding