Coach a Winning Intercollegiate Dressage Team

Here's how creative coaches enable Intercollegiate Dressage Association riders to produce a successful dressage test on an unfamiliar horse.

Secrets, for coaching dressage? you may ask. Riding dressage is riding dressage. True.

While there are some similarities, competing in the Intercollegiate Dressage Association (IDA) is not like riding in traditional shows. In the IDA you don’t bring your own horse, the one you’ve trained on for weeks or even years. Instead, the host college provides the horses and tack. Riders draw their horses’ name out of a hat and have 10 minutes to warm up before entering the competition ring.

Lake Erie dressage team members with Coach Katrina Merkies (center) and the 2005 Dressage Today championship trophy. | Photo by Cami Harkless

“In regular competition, the horse and rider have been working together for sometime developing a partnership and understanding,” says Dr. Katrina Merkies, who coached her Lake Erie College team to the IDA national championship in 2005. “With IDA competition, the rider has to be prepared for anything without knowing how the horse will react in a given situation.

“And, as a coach, you only have only 10 minutes to get the combination of rider and unfamiliar horse together; you can’t spend the time on basics. You have to get the combination to look as good as possible in a short amount of time, running through all the movements the pair will encounter in their tests. It means covering a lot of things, especially with school horses that know all the tricks of getting out of working.”

Fie Studnitz Andersen, a full-time Teikyo Post University Student who founded and coaches her college IDA team adds, “When you are coaching for a ‘regular’ competition, you are aware of the weak spots in the rider and horse combination and can work specifically on those issues, as well as practice the test, getting it accurate before you enter the competition ring. In IDA competition there isn’t the time or the familiarity between horse and rider.”

The emotional aspects are also a big part of the equation. “I think as a coach, you really need to know your IDA riders inside and out to be able to know the right approach to take with them to get the best out of them and get them fully prepared during their short warm-up,” says Merkies. “For a rider who is timid and nervous about showing, you don’t have 20 minutes to spend getting them focused and over their show-ring jitters.”

Pre-show coaching has its own challenges. While many IDA colleges offer equine related degrees, horses and full-time coaches, other colleges have student-run and coached teams that have to find places and horses to ride. Even teams that are fortunate enough to have faculty coaches don’t have the same advantages of private dressage instructors.

Despite these challenges, it is possible to adapt and formulate ways to compensate and build successful riders.

Lisa Moosmueller-Terry, IDA coach and Assistant Director of Equine Studies at Virginia Intermont College, has an impressive record. Her teams have been champions of their region and qualified for the IDA National Championship since the IDA was formed in 2001.

“At the competition, I spend the first few minutes of the warm-up assisting the rider in getting a feel for the horse, then we move on to components of the test. We practice … transitions and those components of the test that I feel are more difficult for each horse and rider combination to master,” says Moosmueller-Terry. “I don’t worry or dwell on a particular movement if I feel that this is the best we can do on this horse on this day. I don’t always use the full 10 minutes of warm-up. If my student has it and we both feel good in eight minutes, we save it for the ring.

“With IDA you have to adapt,” Moosmueller-Terry continues. “One style of riding isn’t going to work on every horse. Riders must be sensitive and adjustable to compete in intercollegiate competitions, to ‘catch’ ride horses of varying background, training and ability. You will not train a horse in a 10 minute warm-up, so don’t even try. Instead, ride well, with a good feel and show the horse off to its best ability, ride sensitively and correctly and you will be rewarded.”

The availability of a large variety of horses is one of the greatest advantages colleges with large on-site riding programs have over student-run teams that may have access to only a handful of horses. Changing the horse and rider combination is the single most common secret to coaching an IDA team.

“At Centenary, we are fortunate enough to have over 85 horses so the students are able to ride horses of all shapes, sizes, and temperaments,” says Marchese. “The students learn how to get the best out of each horse, and that each horse cannot be ridden in the same manner. Most importantly, they learn how to change their riding style to fit each type of horse they may draw.”

But for all the work involved, the coaches feel that participation in IDA is well worth it.

“The IDA gives riders the opportunity to ride a wide variety of horses that they would not typically get the chance to,” says Marchese. “It also gives students that do not necessarily have the financial means to compete at recognized competitions a chance to get into the show ring.”

Moosmueller-Terry advises newcomers to IDA coaching to “go to a competition in your region or a neighboring region and learn all you can about the format before taking your team to their first competition. IDA is not hard, just a little different and it will be a lot easier if you can see how it works without the added responsibility of coaching your team. Read the rules … and make sure your riders know the rules as well.”

Opportunities to ride in college are on the increase! Read about the growing choices in the December 2005 issue of Practical Horseman magazine. For more IDA information, visit

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