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ALPHABET SOUP - Making Sense of All the Equestrian Organizations

Written by Jan Lawrence

Can anyone please explain all these organizations? What memberships do I need and when do I need them?

The 2022 show season is officially underway and everyone is picking out their new color-coordinated but not-too-bright show outfit.

But hey, first things first please!

All the show acronyms make your head spin, so I will try to untangle the many organizations and help you understand what memberships you might need. However, I am going to gently suggest every horse owner/rider/trainer/coach situation is a teeny bit different and if you aren’t sure if you fit easily into one of these lanes, you should have someone double check your understanding BEFORE the shows start.

Let me start at the very top. The FEI is the Federation Equestre Internationale (website www.fei.org). They are the governing body for international competitions. They oversee the disciplines of show jumping, dressage, eventing, driving, endurance racing and vaulting at the international level. If you go to their website you will enjoy reading about equestrians and para-equestrians from all over the world. They write the rules for international competitions for the disciplines listed above and also determine how a horse and rider will go about becoming an international competitor, or how someone might become an international show official. Their rules decide things like how many riders will get to compete for each country in the Olympic Games or the World Cup. They also are very strict about horse welfare (no bute or performance enhancing substances are allowed, no horses may be shown under the age of 3, etc.). Their rules offer guidance to National Federations for each country’s own rulebooks. The NF’s have to follow the FEI rules for international competition, but not necessarily for national level or lower competitions.

So you are probably thinking about what this means for tests labeled FEI. Those tests are standardized all over the world. So if you ride an FEI Prix St. Georges dressage test in Germany it will be the same test as in the US. Same thing for FEI Juniors, FEI Pony, FEI Young Riders, etc. These tests are “levels” but may also be ridden in international competitions such as North American Youth Championships. Tests lower than FEI, like Training through Fourth Level in the US, are not standardized all over the world. Europe has similar tests for those levels, but not exactly the same as we have here.

If you are riding in international competition in Florida for example, you have to have an FEI membership and your horse has to have an FEI passport. The rules that govern the competitions are complex and tricky to the point that teams actually have someone called a chef d’equip, who can be a coach but is more like a seasoned advisor, to help everyone stay on the right side of them. Even with all that help sometimes people will use a feed supplement or medication that will get them in trouble with the FEI, and there have been some big names who have had that happen.

Unless you are riding in an international competition that requires you to qualify and be selected for a team, you probably do not need an FEI membership, but always READ THE RULES for whatever type of competition you are trying to do. The membership is required for all international competitions, including NAYC, the North American Youth Championships because it is an international competition.

The next level down in equestrian organization is the National Federation, or NF. In the United States our National Federation is the United States Equestrian Federation or USEF (website www.usef.org). USEF has responsibility for licensing and recognizing competitions for FEI disciplines of show jumping, dressage, driving, vaulting and endurance racing, as well as non-FEI disciplines and some breed specific competitions. You can see the full list here at https://www.usef.org/compete/breeds disciplines. USEF writes and enforces the rule book that is the gold standard for most equestrian competitions in the US. Many competitions that are not USEF licensed will run by their rules because horse welfare and safety are the main focus. The USEF rule book strives to align with the FEI rules, but won’t always. If there is a difference, the FEI will usually be stricter, so competitors must keep informed.

All recognized dressage shows will be licensed by USEF, which means competitors will need a USEF membership to compete in them unless you either ride in the Opportunity Classes or pay a non-member fee. USEF requires the horse owner, trainer, rider and coach to ALL be members. Often these are the same person, but sometimes they are not. If they are not the same person, each one must have the membership or pay the non-member fee in order for the horse to compete.

I am going to repeat that. The horse owner, rider, trainer and coach must ALL be USEF members or pay a non-member fee. If all of those people are non-members, you will be charged for each one of them! Since most shows have gone to electronic entry systems to save money, you should get these memberships taken care of at least two weeks BEFORE entries are submitted or you will not be in the system as having a membership and you will be charged non-member fees.

So how do you decide if you would prefer to pay the non-member fee over joining? Here are some things to think about. The non-member fee is about half the cost of a membership, so two shows and you have paid for your membership. USEF membership lasts a calendar year, so even if you join late in the year you will get a full 12 months of membership benefits. Opportunity Classes do not require a USEF membership. They are specifically for people who are new to the sport.

Also, if you want to ride as an Adult Amateur you need to join USEF and declare yourself an amateur in order to obtain an amateur card. If you don’t have one of these cards you will have to ride in Open classes.

Probably the biggest decision for most dressage competitors to join or not to join is whether or not you want to try to qualify for the dressage regional championships. If you do want to participate in those, you have to be a USEF member in addition to being a special type of USDF member, a Participating Member (more about that in a minute). To qualify for the dressage regional championships, your horse must also be registered with USEF. They have two types of horse registrations for USEF. Lifetime is what most people go for and it’s a bit more expensive, but at least it is done and can be transferred if the horse is sold to a new owner. Annual registration is also available and it works well for leased horses or people who know they aren’t planning to have an extended show life on the horse.

Leases are another situation entirely. If you are leasing a horse and planning to show there is specific paperwork that must be filed with both USEF and USDF. These take time to get filed and processed so do not wait until the day before the show. Papers must be signed and notarized and then sent in for processing. If you show without filing the lease and the owner of record isn’t a USEF member, the scores you earn at that show will not count, and you will be back charged non-member fees. Be careful and get everything done on time!

Okay so the next level organization is the United States Dressage Federation, or USDF. Their website is www.usdf.org. This is the national level dressage club or dressage education organization. USDF and USEF work hand-in-hand with each other on everything dressage, but USEF has the final say because they are the National Federation and the only one who can liaison with the FEI.

At this level outside of dressage are many other organizations which represent other disciplines. There is one for eventing (USEA), one for hunters and show jumping (USHJA), one for driving (ADS), etc. They are all basically national “clubs” who represent their members and help to funnel membership needs upward to USEF, the National Federation.

USDF provides guidance to USEF on all things related to dressage, but USEF has the final say on things like the rule book, competition requirements and mandates (like biosecurity and Safe Sport) and especially international team selection and funding.

USDF has many programs and awards for riders of all ages and abilities. They also administer the various horse award programs for Horse of the Year and All Breeds Awards. They have a vast network of educational resources available to members. They oversee the dressage regional championships held at the end of the show season, usually late September, and the national championships in Lexington which are held in early November. The regional champions get automatic invites to the national championship, but others can get wild card invitations based on their standings across the nation. USDF is also responsible for overseeing the Musical Freestyle program, training of judges before they are licensed, certifying instructors, training of Technical Delegates and much more.

If you are going to ride in recognized dressage shows, you will need a USDF membership or you will have to pay a non-member fee, just as you do with USEF. You must also register your horse with USDF too, but what you want to do during the show season will determine what memberships and registrations you need to obtain.

Okay, this is where you need to pay attention. If you are trying to get qualified and ride in the regional championships, you must have a USEF membership AND a USDF Participating Membership. Participating Memberships can only be obtained directly from USDF. They cannot be purchased at the local level. Local dressage clubs are Group Member Organizations or GMOs, and while those memberships do have some limited USDF benefits, they DO NOT count for qualifying for the regional championships. (More about GMOs in a minute.)

The horse must also be registered with a USDF Lifetime Registration if you are trying to qualify for the regional championships.

All of the USDF awards can be earned with a Participating Membership, but that is not the case with a GMO membership. Every person who joins USDF each year, whether through the Participating Membership route or GMO route, will receive the USDF Member Guide. It’s a handy sized book that most people refer to as “the caller book” because it has all of the movements for every dressage test listed in it. There are pages and pages of descriptions of all of the various awards USDF offers to riders and for horses in it too, along with all of the rules that govern each and every one of those awards. If you plan to try to earn any of those awards, you need to read and reread those criteria. They are VERY specific. They describe how many rides, how many judges, what percentages, score calculations and so on, which you need to help you plan your show season. Sometimes only certain tests can be used for score awards, so you have to read the rules carefully. Every award has slightly different criteria, so read, understand and know so you don’t lose out on something that you were close to getting.

Both USDF Participating Memberships and GMO memberships are active from December 1st to November 30th. If you join on November 1st the membership would end at the end of that month. If you are planning to show, you should get your membership early and enjoy the full benefits for as long as you can.

Okay the final level of organization is the local level, or Group Member Organization, the GMO. These are the local clubs organized around the support and development of dressage in YOUR area. In Utah we have the Utah Dressage Society, or UDS (which can easily be confused with USDF). Their website is www.utahdressagesociety.com. This grassroots organization consists of your friends, trainer, barn owner, tack store owner, retired riders and dressage enthusiasts who ride at every level from Introductory to Grand Prix. Many of these people will become members of all of the organizations I have already listed because they are showing, perhaps own a horse that someone else is showing, maybe sponsor a rider, or just want to stay in touch with the dressage community. For some who aren’t showing at this time, a GMO membership is perfect because you gain access to all of the educational materials on the USDF website and also get the USDF Dressage Connection magazine. If you are a Utah Dressage Society member, you are eligible to compete for the cool year end awards and also to earn a coveted spot on the perpetual trophies. You can also get scholarship money, volunteer at shows, attend clinics and hang out with others who are as passionate about dressage as you are.

A GMO membership counts as a USDF membership for recognized shows but isn’t the right type if you are trying to qualify for the regional championships or other national awards. But if you are working on your own development, riding for Bronze/Silver/Gold Medal or Freestyle Bar awards, those scores will count.

Remember: FEI - International. USEF - National Federation responsible for everything equestrian inside the United States. USDF - National Dressage Club. UDS - local dressage club affiliated with USDF. Different layers of responsibility and we have to work inside of them all to one degree or another.

Many of us belong to more than one GMO. We might join the Colorado GMO of Rocky Mountain Dressage Society, or we might add ourselves to the Idaho GMO of Idaho Dressage and Eventing Association. It depends on where you want to show, what your goals are, and what you hope to accomplish.

I hope this guide was helpful to you to figure out what memberships you need, but before I finish, a gentle reminder to read the rules because they do vary greatly from organization to organization, and award to award. Pay attention to the details and don’t wait until the last minute to get your memberships in.

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