Sport integrity and new thinking in governance and promotion dominate hunter/jumper get-together.
by Kim F. Miller
Having covered the hunter/jumper sport for close to 20 years, I left this year’s United States Hunter Jumper Association annual meeting newly excited to be a part of this sport. I’ve always been bowled over by the quantity and quality of planning, time and effort volunteers put into governance and guidance, and this year a spirit of constructive cooperation seemed to maximize those contributions. Not everybody agreed on everything, but they were all pulling in the same direction.
The meeting took place Dec. 11-15 in the Palm Springs area’s Rancho Mirage.
The United States Equestrian Federation’s new president Murray Kessler set the tone with a sneak peak at the 160-page Strategic Plan he will unveil at the Federation’s convention in Florida this month. He is well-known as 2012 Olympic show jumper Reed Kessler’s dad, but he’s also a longtime amateur jumper contender and, most importantly, has a resume of significant corporate accomplishments. Coming from the tobacco industry, he wasn’t too worried about the debates and controversies he’d be stepping into in the new position.
His inspiring presentation was rooted in upending old ways of looking at things. The USEF, he said, had to become an organization people joined “because they wanted to, not because they had to.” The push for international medals needs to become a system for using those medals to pull new people into the sport. And participants at every level need to own the endeavor of building the fan base well beyond those who own horses and ride. The Dutch equestrian federation’s constituency is something to aspire to, he noted. It has 200,000 members, only 40,000 of whom ride themselves.
We’ve heard calls for more fans many times over the years. That’s crucial to generating TV coverage and sponsorships that would enable the sport to shift toward being funded from the outside, not the inside -- as in we exhibitors. But Kessler’s strategy, although he only revealed snippets of it, seems like an actual, actionable plan of attack.
Overall sport integrity and, in particular, clean sport, will be critical to this process. The USHJA’s new anti-doping task force is open-minded to ways of upending the disciplines’ status as having far, far more abuses than the rest of the USEF’s 29 affiliates. Noting that the USHJA is responsible for education, while the USEF’s domain is regulation, incoming USHJA president and anti-doping task force member Mary Babick quipped, “We are not a Gestapo force, just a task force.”
Her co-chair Tom Brennan said the process would start with conversations. “We want to look at what pressures there are that cause people to cheat. Why is it so incentivized? We want to gather all the information we can as to why it happens.”
They have already determined that many owners have no idea what medications their horse is getting and they hope that outreach and education will address that.
New approaches are under consideration. “Would changes in course design or judging prove beneficial?” Brennan asked. Echoing Kessler’s broader message, he said, “How do we go from members needing to comply (with the drugs and medications rules) to wanting to comply?” If these kinder, gentler approaches fail, “the task force needs to determine if we are ready to hand out serious penalties and whether we are going to hand them out consistently. And if we do that, then what role or liability do we take on in terms of responsibility to protect our members?”
The ideal fix, Kessler later stated, was to lead by example, but the path to clean sport won’t be that simple. “It feels like the cheaters are always one step ahead,” noted Brennan. He and Babick welcomed members to the task force.
This Sport Integrity session was well attended and, when asked for a show of hands, the majority seemed willing to undergo voluntary training/education in several areas. These included drugs and medication and United States Olympic Committee Safe Sport, and how to recognize and handle concussions. These were all proposed as optional for the time being, but seemed likely to become mandatory going forward, in keeping with the mission of promoting safety, fairness and transparency in all facets of the sport.
The familiar complaint that USEF licensed stewards being paid by show managers negates their willingness to pursue an exhibitor’s complaint arose again. So did the feeling that many are intimidated about making complaints for fear of repercussions. There was no easy answer for either, other than to, again, lead by example.
“If you are sitting in this room, you probably don’t need this talk on integrity,” Kessler concluded. “But you need to go out and be heard. This is our sport. Let’s make it great.”
The Trainer Certification Program session detailing changes to that program was another very well attended session. Look for a report on that in an upcoming issue.
USHJA Recognized Riding Academy
Larry Langer led a well-received presentation on another new endeavor, the USHJA Recognized Riding Academy. This seeks to bring beginning riding programs and their students into the USHJA fold. The application process screens for basic horse and rider safety and welfare practices and requires that at least one instructor be a USHJA member. The outreach will encompass “lesson programs, riding facilities, equestrian schools and other types of educational equestrian programs that emphasize horsemanship and sportsmanship, promote safety and offer introductory hunter/jumper lessons.”
The riding schools get a USHJA website listing, a plaque, the opportunity to participate in the USHJA Affiliate Equitation Awards, discounts on Trainer Certification Manuals and USHJA member benefits. The organization, in turn, gets access to new riders typically before they’ve entered the competitive realm and the opportunity to cultivate their lifelong engagement.
The Recognized Riding Academy was included in a Sport Growth session. It also updated members on progress toward a USHJA National Championship and a more clarified “pathway” for riders who aspire to top sport – and their families. The system’s “benchmarks” and “markers” mirror those in place for USEF-supervised “developing” riders, starting with the “emerging riders” at lower fence heights and/or younger ages and working up toward the “developing” and, eventually, “elite” rider ranks.
A new Childrens 12-14 division at the North American Young Riders Championship, starting this summer, drew much excitement as reflecting the point at which the emerging and developing rider paths intersect.
Although riders are not limited to this designated path of ascent, it’s a clear plan for getting on the USHJA and USET radar screen and one that allows families to target available time and budget efficiently.
The annual USHJA meeting is a waypoint for rule change proposals affecting the hunter, jumper and equitation divisions. Committees work year-round to consider these proposals for their intended and unintended consequences, carefully wording and re-wording them for accuracy, consistency of interpretation and enforceability. And the process is far from finished when they arrive at the meeting, where multiple review sessions allow committee members and attendees to weigh in. All of that input is considered, some rules move forward in a final draft to be voted yeah or nay at the USEF convention in January, some are voted down and some are referred for further discussion and voting at a later time.
Rules regarding horse welfare are the most broadly applicable. This year, GR (general rule) 843 was changed to clarify that, if a horse dies at a show, competition management is responsible for making sure that a drug test is administered to it. Two other welfare-oriented proposals were welcomed in concept, but referred for further work. One sought to mandate necropsies for any horse that died at a competition, as is the case at FEI competitions. Another attempted to further define cruelty and abuse.
For a complete list of the rule change proposals and their latest status, visit www.ushja.org.
There was much well-deserved fanfare for outgoing USHJA president Bill Moroney. He signed on to launch the organization 12 years ago, amid stormy organizational seas of the American Horse Show Association’s transition to the United States Equestrian Federation. His honest character and famously ceaseless work ethic were critical to the USHJA’s growth.
Several local USHJA members were also recognized for their contributions to the sport. Trainer Patty Ball received the Jane Marshall Dillon award, Denise Wiemers received a Vital Horse Show Staff award and HITS founder Tom Struzzieri received a Distinguished Service award. Larry Langer was among those honored for their special role in launching and steering the USHJA, a warm-up for his receipt in January of the USEF’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
In his Strategic Plan preview, Murray Kessler revealed that “Feel The Joy. Join The Joy” is the theme of a total rebranding for the association. There was no better embodiment of that idea than the Foxfield Drill Team’s performance Monday night at the HITS Thermal venue. The young riders, horses and ponies executed their complicated drill patterns, including jumps, in their trademark tack-less mode: no bridles or saddles, just a wire round the neck. Watching from the berm beside the Grand Prix arena, professionals of all ages were made freshly aware of that joy that brought us all into the sport.