This is the third installment in a multi-part blog series that reviews and attempts to analyze the emerging trends in US Dressage using data collected by CenterlineScores.com related to participation in recognized Dressage shows for the 2003 – 2012 show seasons. For the most part, the trends and analyses reviewed in this series and in this blog have not (to date) been explored or discussed anywhere else online or in print. In the first article, Trends in US Dressage – Part 1, we reviewed the overall downward trend of Dressage Activity in the United States since 2007. In the second article, Trends in US Dressage – Part 2, we segmented the downward trend and found a segment of Active riders (comprised mostly of Adult Amateurs) who continue to show year after year that have not decreased their overall participation in Dressage. In this, the third post in the series, we look at a more detailed breakdown of that downward trend, specifically, the relationship between the Open and Adult Amateur divisions. For the purposes of this analysis, I have excluded Junior /Young Riders, so the group below includes only Adult Amateur and Open riders. In addition, because of the difficulty in identifying historical data for USEF-recognized Adult Amateurs, this analysis only covers the Competition years between 2008 and 2012.
The Rise of the Adult Amateur
Despite the recent flurry of anecdotal evidence (we’ve all seen the discussions on the Chronicle forums as well as the letters to both USDF Connections and Dressage Today) that might lead an outside observer to think that Adult Amateurs have been leaving the sport in droves, the data seems to show something different. The overall Adult Amateur participation between 2008 – 2012 (as measured in # of rides at USEF-recognized shows) has stayed roughly the same (between 34-35k per year). However, with the decline in overall participation discussed in parts 1 & 2, the % of rides ridden by Adult Amateurs has continued to steadily increase (from 35% in 2008 up to 46% in 2012) as shown below:
The data shows that the downward trend observed in Dressage participation was driven almost completely by an exodus of Open riders from the recognized show ring. As cited above, the Adult Amateur participation between 2008 and 2012 held steady at around 35,000 rides per year. During this same time, the participation by Open riders plummeted by over 22,000 rides as illustrated below.
Which Pros are Taking a Break?
Based on the data then, it appears that over the last 4 years a significant and increasing number of Open riders are choosing to school their students from outside the rails of the warm-up arena rather than pulling on the white breeches themselves. So one of the first questions to be asked is who exactly is leaving? If we segment the downward trend we find that this exodus originated almost completely from the lower levels.
While the Show activity of Dressage professionals (Open riders) could be the subject of several lengthy blog posts, it is useful to review the typical show profile for Open riders in order to understand their role in the recent decline in overall participation. In 2008, there were 64,206 Open tests scored at USEF recognized Dressage Shows. Of those, over 42K were ridden at Training, First and Second Level (what we are calling “Beginner”). This means that 66% or 2/3 of all of the tests ridden by Open riders were Beginner level rides.
While we expect to dig into these numbers a bit more in future posts and analyses, this breakdown of Open tests is important to have as background when we look at the declining trends. As we looked at this trend in more detail, what we found was that the VAST majority of the drop-off in Open participation (which itself accounts for most of the observed drop in overall participation) was due to a significant drop in the number of tests ridden at the lower levels.
A drop off in Beginner Level (Training, First & Second level) tests by Open riders accounts for most of the decline in Open participation. The drop in Beginner level rides accounts for over 20K of the 22K total drop for Open riders (88% of the change). Beginner level Open rider participation dropped so significantly between 2008 – 2012 that by the end of that period, there were more Adult Amateur riders in the lower levels than Open riders.
As can be seen above, while Open riders did see a decline in the upper levels as well, it is not nearly as pronounced as in the lower levels. In addition, the overall participation of Adult Amateur riders held steady or slightly increased at the upper levels.
As detailed in Parts 1 & 2 of this series, there was a drop-off in overall dressage participation from 2008 – 2012. Despite the conventional wisdom that Adult Amateurs have been leaving the sport en masse due to the struggling economy and showing expenses, over the last 4 years overall Adult Amateur participation has in fact stayed the same or increased. Meanwhile, there has been a significant decline in participation in Dressage shows by professionals (i.e. Open riders). While the data offers us no insights into the motives behind their choice to stay out of the show ring, it does provide some small road signs.
Open riders electing not to compete have some distinctive traits as a group:
- Lower Level Riders: The overwhelming majority of the dropped rides are from the Beginner levels (Training, First & Second).
- Lower Scoring Riders: There are indications that the riders leaving have also historically scored lower than those electing to stay. At every level, Open riders who dropped out of the show ring in 2012 scored marginally (but statistically significant) lower in 2011 than their counterparts who continued to compete. In addition, the number of low-scoring (below 55%) riders in 2011 was 68% higher for those who stopped showing in 2012 than those who didn’t. The premise that lower scoring Open division riders have been dropping out of the show circuit seems to also be borne out by the fact that during this same period of decline in Open division participation, the average score for the group has seen a steady increase.
2013: The Year of the Amateur?
It is still too early to make predictions about 2013, but given that the four years ending 2012 witnessed a dramatic shift in the balance between Open and Amateur divisions, it is very likely that we will see a continuation of this trend. Given this shift, combined with the rise of grassroots lobbying efforts like the Adult Amateur Dressage Initiative as well as the historic US Dressage Championships (to include Amateurs) at the end of this year, this may indeed turn out to be the year that Adult Amateur riders take center stage.