Leveling the Playing Field: The USET Foundation

In my work with BarnManager, I have the privilege of experiencing a number of opportunities that I most likely wouldn’t otherwise have. This includes sitting down with Laura Graves during the Washington International Horse Show Barn Night clinic and getting more involved with the United States Equestrian Team  Foundation. Both of which have led me to write this blog post.

The first of these great experiences has been the opportunity to begin volunteering my time with the USET Foundation. They were looking for young voices to come in and help them communicate their mission to a younger audience and to help them launch a grassroots fundraising campaign to complement their existing fundraising efforts. I am one of many who are volunteering their time and experience, and I am so grateful to work with and learn from all of the people that this opportunity has afforded me.

I, like many young professionals, am very busy and constantly juggling a million responsibilities and requests. So I don’t give my time to people or organizations that I don’t believe in. I love horses. Every time I ask myself why I am driving hours to the middle of nowhere to compete or getting up at 6 a.m. on a Saturday, I spend five minutes with my horse, and all of my doubts disappear.

You are here, so it is safe to assume that you understand this type of irrational and sometimes frustrating love that we never outgrow. Part of this love is an awe and admiration for those who compete at the highest levels of the sport. They often appear super-human, completing extraordinary efforts time after time. We become devoted fans and cheer for their successes and mourn their failures. But the story that isn’t told often enough is the role of the USET Foundation in their successes, in our successes.

So first things first, the USET Foundation is NOT the same as the U.S. Equestrian Federation. The USEF is the governing body for equestrian sports. The USET Foundation is a non-profit organization with the mission of supporting the competition, training, coaching, travel, and educational needs of America’s elite and developing International High-Performance horses and athletes in partnership with the United States Equestrian Federation.

To me, that is a long-winded way of saying that the USET Foundation levels the playing field at the highest levels of equestrian sport. And I never really understood this until sitting down with the hard-working team at the USET Foundation and talking directly to Laura Graves, one of the many athletes whose successes at the international level would not have been possible without the Foundation’s support.

A flight to the 2014 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games (WEG) in Normandy, France, for Laura Graves’ Verdades would have cost Graves roughly $20,000 – the approximate going rate for a trans-Atlantic horse flight.

However, Graves—like I venture to say the vast majority of us—didn’t necessarily have an extra $20,000 readily available to ship Verdades overseas to compete in Europe that summer. But that didn’t stop her from competing at the 2014 WEG and bursting onto the international dressage scene in a big way after finishing fifth in the Grand Prix Special, fifth in the freestyle, and fifth with the U.S. team in Normandy.

From that point on, Graves and Verdades together have become a much-loved face for dressage in the U.S. and for the bond between a horse and a rider. They’ve been a vital part of U.S. dressage teams, including the bronze medal-winning team at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, and they will represent the U.S. again at this month’s 2018 WEG in Tryon, NC.

But what if Graves had never been able to pay to get Verdades on that flight to their first WEG – or to any of the major competitions since then for that matter? And how do she and so many other riders like those representing the USA at WEG come up with that sort of money on a regular basis?


The answer is the USET Foundation – the secret to leveling the playing field in team equestrian competition in the United States.  

Now don’t misunderstand me. I am not suggesting that equestrian sports, much less at the elite levels of international competition, are easily accessible to everyone regardless of their backgrounds or access to means. But if you can navigate the challenges and obstacles of getting to the top levels of the sport, shouldn’t talent, ability, and preparedness be the only determinants of your ability to represent your country?

That would not be the case without the work of the USET Foundation. However, what is not widely discussed is what that really means. It means that the USET Foundation is ultimately making it possible for the team selections to be fair and not impacted by a rider’s financial circumstances. There are many intricacies in USEF team selection that I may not understand or be privy to and many that are imperfect, but it is because of the USET Foundation that selection can be based solely on the horse and rider’s ability and fit for the team at the time.

Once a horse and rider have demonstrated the ability and qualifications to be selected for a team, they are able to be a part of that team no matter whether or not they can afford it, thanks to the USET Foundation.

“For me, that support is the only way that the dream works,” said Graves. “People tend to think maybe at this point in my career I’ve just made it and now it’s different. This is an incredibly expensive sport. When it comes to supporting the travel and the competition of these horses, it’s a whole other ball game. There are times still where I think ‘How am I going to pay that bill?’ I am someone who could not have achieved what I’ve achieved without the financial support of the USET.”

And it’s not just dressage riders like Graves or riders in the Olympic disciplines of dressage, show jumping, and eventing that the USET Foundation is supporting – it’s all eight of the high-performance equestrian disciplines that will be represented at the upcoming WEG: dressage, eventing, jumping, driving, endurance, reining, para-equestrian, and vaulting.

“It’s impossible to overstate the importance of the support from the USET Foundation in the success and growth of reining on the international stage,” said Jeff Petska, the Chef d’Equipe for the U.S. reining team at the 2018 WEG. “The opportunity it affords athletes to compete on the international level and represent their country is remarkable and has had a great impact upon each athlete’s career.”

The WEG is the only event of its caliber in which all eight of the disciplines are showcased. That means eight times the U.S. teams and eight times the expense. But thanks to the generous support of donors, the USET Foundation is making the 2018 WEG dream a reality for the approximately 50 U.S. riders traveling to compete in Tryon.

“The United States is shipping and caring for 50-plus horses and a delegation of approximately 125 [people] for the WEG,” explained Bonnie Jenkins, Executive Director of the USET Foundation. “This includes providing travel and accommodations for athletes, coaches, team leaders, grooms, veterinarians, farriers, physiotherapists (horse and human), team doctor, chefs d’equipe and a chef d’mission.

“We are incredibly fortunate to have wonderful friends and supporters of the USET Foundation that help make all this possible and ensure our athletes and teams have the financial resources necessary to achieve competitive excellence, not only in the WEG year but also in the critical years leading up to the WEG gaining international competitive experience in preparation for international championships.”

Not all of us are destined to compete on the international stage, but we all revel in the joy and sorrow, the sweat and tears, the patriotism and the passion of the athletes that represent us at the highest levels of the sport. But imagine what this sport would be like if the USET Foundation did not exist. Who would we be cheering for if we didn’t feel like we were sending our best and most able to represent us on the world’s stage? Sure, some riders would find wealthy sponsors to support them, as they do today. This is necessary, and we can thank these sponsors for many of the top partnerships that we see today and that have earned medals and accolades for the US Team for decades. However, we cannot allow team selection to be limited to only those with financial means and to the riders who can secure the support of a generous sponsor. Without the support of the USET Foundation, it wouldn’t be our team, it would be their team.

It is also important to note that many of these sponsors are tremendous supporters of the USET Foundation and responsible for some of the grants and programs that facilitate the leveling of the playing field when it comes to USEF team selection across disciplines. But the USET Foundation exists for all of us. And it is the reason we can proudly cheer for OUR team at the WEG and beyond.

That is what I see as the crowning accomplishment of the work of the USET Foundation. Not the medals, trophies, and coolers, but their commitment to supporting a team that belongs to the U.S. equestrian community as a whole. Like fans of any other team, we can love or hate, take issue with or support blindly any individual player. But we can still cheer for them with abandon knowing that they are ours, and they are the best that we have on that day. Not the wealthiest, not the most connected, the best.

That is how the USET Foundation levels the playing field, and that is why we need this organization to continue to grow and evolve in their support of the athletes we admire, and the dreams that do come true.

To learn more about the USET Foundation and how you can help level the playing field in U.S. equestrian sport and support riders in representing the United States in international competition, visit www.uset.org.


Dina mazzola and Bluesaddles.com

Guest Blog: New saddle, New perspective with Dina Mazzola

BarnManager.com is proud to feature a Guest Blog Post by a fellow Small Equestrian Business owner, Dina Mazzola. Dina wears many hats these days. She is a professional rider and trainer at a top Hunter/Jumper Barn in Massachusetts. She is a USEF hunter and hunt seat equitation judge. She is a wife and mother. She owns and operates Bluesaddles.com with business partner Katy Baldini. And most recently, she is a REINER. Since Jenny and I have also recently discovered our love and appreciation for Reining, and with the 2014 Reining Futurity underway in Oklahoma City as we speak, we thought it would only be fitting to get to know Dina through her recent expedition into this new discipline. We hope that you enjoy Dina’s story! Be sure to check out Bluesaddles.com today to find top pre-owned saddles or to sell your own. Dina and Katy are extremely knowledgable and easy to work with.

Bluesaddles company logo

Dina Mazzola on Fantasia Rouge

Dina Mazzola and Fantasia Rouge

So I have this friend.  She rides and teaches at one of the top hunter/jumper barns in New England.  She also is super nice and models for SmartPak.  I want to hate her, but I can’t.  But the most important feature of this friend is that she has a hobby, and that hobby is reining.  As part of this reining addiction, said friend also teaches western horsemanship and reining at another local barn.

My 11 year old recently expressed a renewed interest in riding.  I love her dearly, but she is not a brave child nor is she an athletically gifted one.  So I did some thinking and came up with a brilliant plan. She can ride western with SmartPak model friend.  Fantastic.  I won’t have to teach her myself, provide a pony, or watch someone else teach her English riding at a painful beginner level.   I schedule a lesson and off we go. Smartpak model friend has my daughter walking, jogging, and loping in her first lesson on this very safe, quiet, quarterhorse. I feel like a genius. And then she asks if I want to get on.  I’m in my sneakers, skinny jeans and Mom t-shirt. Sure, why not?  It looks kinda cool.

horse in western tack

Ziggy (the Wonder Horse)

But I quickly learned just how cool it could be.  The very same ultra quiet and safe beginner horse my daughter just rode (Ziggy) has a secret.  And that secret is that he has a throw it in the dirt sliding stop and a wicked fun spin.  In one ride I had a new addiction. I had found yet another way that horses could infiltrate my life and bring me new forms of happiness and thrill.

So I’ve been taking reining lessons now with my Smartpak model friend, and now trainer, twice a week for about 3 months.  Some of my hunter/jumper trainer friends don’t really understand why I would go to another barn to ride after I’m done teaching and riding at my own barn. But it is not just me that has benefitted from this whole new learning experience. I have become a significantly better teacher and trainer as a result of my time spent learning to ride reiners. My customers are noticing the trickle down effects of my new found hobby, and they love it!

rider on a horse in western tack

Dina and Mega

I find that I demand more precision in their riding, especially in the downward transitions.  We do a LOT more reinbacks, and we do them correctly.  No sitting in the bridle while being dragged backwards. We go forward and backwards a lot at the canter and gallop, and practice working over the pace and slowing down immediately to a collected canter.  We do it on the big circles and on the quarter lines.  They can all gallop down the quarter line now, halt with no trot steps, do a perfect turn on the haunches away from the inside leg, and gallop away again.  No one is late with a lead change anymore after the jump, a minor miracle in itself, and everyone can SIT in the tack. 

I thought I could sit in the tack before my time in a Western saddle. But now I can really sit in the tack.  I’m straighter.  I’ve always struggled with my right side leading, but riding one handed with my left hand holding the reins has forced me to sit truly in the center of my horse and to be square.  I’ve opened my whole right side and stopped grabbing the left rein. I ride more forward, much more forward. My instinct now is to solve problems with leg.  And as I have improved the efficacy of my aids,  I am able to  demand more precision from my horses.

horse and rider going over a jump

Dina and Fantasia Rouge

These are all principles I’ve always taught and always strived to execute.  But now I have different exercises, different ways to apply, and different ways to explain these key principles that are the foundations of any kind of riding.  Reining has helped me to become a better rider and a better teacher.   And my clients love hearing how I was almost launched like a lawn dart while trying to execute a sliding stop with my eyes down.

My daughter, who can now canter bareback, and I are enjoying this experience to learn and grow together. When it comes to horses, the learning never stops, the lessons never get old, and the successes and achievements are perpetually rewarding!

About Dina:

Dina mazzola and Bluesaddles.com

Dina Mazzola (left) and Bluesaddles.com Partner Katy Baldini (right)

Dina Mazzola is a partner in bluesaddles.com, an online retail store that sells quality preowned saddles from fine saddlers such as Butet, Voltaire, Devoucoux, Antares, CWD, Delgrange, Tad Coffin, and more.  Bluesaddles was launched in the spring of 2014 to meet the demand from trainers and riders for high quality, affordable used saddles that are in great to almost new condition.  Dina and her partner Katy Baldini recognize that while all riders wish for the level of performance and comfort offered by high end saddles, not all riders necessarily have the budget for a new saddle. They offer fitting advice to both horse and rider and a 14 day trial for each saddle to ensure every horse and rider get the best possible saddle.

When not working at bluesaddles, Dina rides, trains and teaches out of Fair Harbour Farm in Acton, MA. She also holds her USEF judge’s license in hunters and hunt seat equitation. Dina can be reached at info@bluesaddles.com

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