US Equestrian hosted an informational session Monday centered around the USEF Para Dressage Centers of Excellence Program and strengthening Para Dressage sport in the United States. Laura Roberts led the session; Roberts is the COE Coordinator with USEF and the Director of Dressage Performance and Event Support. The COE program was launched in 2015, and there are currently nine COEs across the United States.
Roberts worked through a new framework document, which was broken into four key performance indicators: athlete development, competition development, coach development and licensed officials development.
Applications for new COEs are currently being accepted through February 15, 2022. Following the submission of an application, a review panel evaluates the program and further notifies centers if they have been approved.
The COE Annual Assessment and Planning Form is required from each COE, which outlines the program’s annual plan to work with the USEF. The assessment is led by the key performance indicators and asks centers to list their athletes and the opportunities they will offer such as clinics, competitions, and coaching development.
Will Connell, Director of Sport Programs at USEF, spoke on the funding for COEs.
“It’s been a priority after Rio to really kickstart the Para Dressage Program, and I think we succeeded to some extent with the medals they won in Tokyo, but that’s only one part of the pathway,” said Connell. “The Federation is making a significant investment in Para Dressage, and our aim is to appoint a development coach who will work with Michel Assounline to work with the COEs and help new athletes in the sport.”
Michel Assouline, Head of Para-Equestrian Coach Development and Para Dressage Technical Advisor, explained that coaches in Para Dressage are essential to the growth and development of the COE program.
“We need more support and more help; the aim and the essence of the COEs is to really discover and find athletes that are going to potentially win medals in the future for us at the top level,” Assounline said. “Having the COE’s scattered throughout the country, they are antennas for us to rally these riders. The coaches are [not only] teaching and instructing these rides, but they are also the greatest networkers of our force because they are going to be liaising with dressage trainers, sponsors, owners, various stakeholders in the sport to actually bring people together and find riders that are undiscovered. They are the strongest link between the therapeutic riding element and the competition element, so from beginning to end, they’re absolutely essential in what we do.”
Also giving perspective on the COE program was Muriel Forrest, who runs a COE. She said that the most important thing is to give equal opportunities to the riders in COE programs as the rest of the dressage world. Forrest grew up in Ireland, and as a child, her riding program had two entities—an adaptive riding program with therapeutic riding and a sport program.
“I have found the COE experience to be one of the most meaningful to me personally. As some of you know, I have three children with severe disabilities and I am a dressage rider,” Forrest said. “Growing up as a kid, I watched the disabled program side-by-side with the sport program, and it was a wonderful model that continues to this day. The most important message for me as an equestrian and a mother is that it is truly parallel. What we offer at our equestrian center is excellence from start to finish. It doesn’t matter if you have a child in adaptive riding or a child in able-bodied. The standards of education, the standards of the horses, the quality of the facility, the opportunity to participate in competition, it’s all the same.”