December 2016 - The Gallop: Sea Change in the Desert?

Ideas for improving sport integrity highlight annual USHJA Meeting in California Dec. 11-15.

by Kim F. Miller

Rule change proposals usually dominate discussions at the United States Hunter Jumper Association annual meeting. But there may be much bigger change afoot, says incoming USHJA president Mary Babick, as the gathering comes to the Palm Springs area Dec. 11-15. The lifelong hunter/jumper trainer and sport advocate anticipates that rule changes will take a back seat to debate about big picture concepts meant to bring equestrian sport in line with mainstream sports, especially in safety and integrity.

USHJA president Mary Babick had her farrier create this integrity symbol to adorn the gate to her Knightsbridge Farm in New Jersey.

Mary Babick, president-elect of the USHJA

The Update on Sport Integrity session, set for Tuesday at 2:45pm, will unveil many new ideas. Some will be jarring and unpopular, especially with those unwilling to stand back and view the sport from an outsider’s perspective, Mary predicts. The concepts revolve around requiring trainers to complete various Safe Sport initiatives before they can sign an entry blank at a USEF-licensed competition. Most mainstream sports, especially those with big youth participation, have some version of mandatory training along similar lines.

The intent of the USEF’s Safe Sport program is to “provide information, resources, and a protocol so that all members of the equestrian community have awareness, tools, and a support structure to ensure a safe and positive environment for equestrians to develop their skills. The USEF depends on the eyes and ears of its athletes, coaches, and USEF Designees to support its Safe Sport policies,” explains the USEF website. “It is requested that all who participate in equestrian sport become familiar with the content of the (Safe Sport) handbook and be mindful of its guidelines during training sessions and competitions.”

Background checks, training on how to handle concussions and prevent, recognize and/or report misconduct in all aspects of the sport are also part of the pitch for bringing the equestrian profession into the modern era. Current USEF rules require licensed officials to undergo Safe Sport training and the next step is broadening that requirement to trainers.

So Far Behind

“No one likes to be told they have to start doing this stuff,” Mary notes. When she underwent the training herself, she was shocked to learn that things she’d done for many years at her Knightsbridge Farm in New Jersey could be viewed by the outside world as the actions of a sexual predator. Things like giving a child a ride back and forth to the barn or a gift to make a student feel more special are things that could be called “grooming” a potential victim.

Mary recently spoke with a fellow trainer who also coaches lacrosse. “I asked him how he felt about trainers needing to undergo background checks and Safe Sport training. He said we are so far behind, it’s not funny. As a sport coach, he’s finger-printed and drug-tested, etc. His view is that it was quite a positive to realize that we could join the rest of the sport world,” Mary notes. “It’s going to be quite fascinating to see how people process this information.”

Although it’s going to be a new and likely difficult-to-digest concept, the USEF hopes the hunter/jumper community will lead the way for all breeds and disciplines that comprise equestrian sport.

“For a couple of years, the USEF has been toying with the idea of making it so that all trainers who sign entry blanks would have to undergo the Safe Sport training.” At a certain point, it was decided that having one discipline affiliate lead the way would be more effective, a stance advocated by USEF CEO Bill Moroney, who served as the USHJA’s president since the organization’s inception in 2004 and on up until the handover of the reins to Mary, who will be formally introduced as president during the Annual Meeting.

Joining The Real World

At the moment, Mary emphasizes, the Safe Sport and related requirements are being discussed as a concept, but they would eventually need to be rules. She likens it to requiring a driver’s license. “If you didn’t have to take a driver’s test, what would you do? Even if you are a really good driver, you probably don’t like the idea of having somebody judge you on your driving if you didn’t have to.”

“I think our sport doesn’t like this kind of thing very much, but it’s time to step up and join the real world.”

Ideally, the Safe Sport initiative would help to grow the industry by giving parents and other customers confidence in the professionals they’ve chosen. Mary, however, acknowledges that that scenario may not pan out everywhere. Some may see the additional regulation as too much, triggering them to abandon USEF recognized shows for unlicensed competitions that are also less expensive. Despite that concern, she’s ready to advocate strongly for the new initiatives. “If the USHJA is able to show themselves as a sport leader on safety and integrity, I think more people will start to think, “OK, I can get my horse to the water…”

Mary is ready to listen to a lot of flak about these concepts, but she also expects naysayers to propose solutions, not just state objections.

Along with the Update on Sport Integrity session, Mary encourages all to attend USEF president Murray Kessler’s Strategic Direction presentation, Monday at 9am. “I’m limited in what I can say about it but I think it will spark off quite a bit of discussion.” His Strategic Plan addresses all levels of the sport. “His interests are much wider and deeper than just high performance and he is very passionate about the foundation of our sport, the so-called ‘base of the pyramid.’”

The work of the USHJA’s Anti-Doping Task Force will likely emerge in several meetings and forums. While abuses exist in all hunter/jumper divisions, Mary sees education as the USHJA’s most important role in this area, with the USEF needing to emphasize enforcement. Since the Federation expanded the definition of who is responsible when medication rules are broken, Mary has encouraged riders and owners to educate themselves about what’s happening with their horse.

Two years ago, she sat down with a group of emerging athletes and their parents and urged them “to all know what’s going on with your horse. Ask your trainer about it. You can now actually be held liable and you should know. Afterward, somebody told me they couldn’t believe I said that -- that I had just encouraged kids and parents to get thrown out of those barns.

“Well, they should be happy to be thrown out of those barns,” she continues. “It’s time to put it all out on the table.” Compliance with medication rules is a critical part of sport integrity, and a subject she’s been a hard-liner on throughout her career as a trainer and member of many committees. “I won’t be popular in these conversations, by the way. But fortunately, my self-esteem comes from other places. My family, my clients, my dog!”

More Don’t-Miss Meetings

West Coast attendees can get up to speed on our region’s concerns during the Zone 10 meeting Sunday at 3:40pm. The evolution of the Trainer Certification Program will be part of the Update on Sport Integrity Session Tuesday at 2:45pm and also the focal point of the TCP’s committee session that follows at 4pm.

Rule changes will be discussed Monday, during a 7:30am forum and a 1pm review.  Informational highlights include a Microchip Training & Age Group verification presentation, a concussion training session and meetings addressing subjects put forward by various committees and task forces.

Hopefully the meetings will be well attended by those willing to listen, learn and act for change in the sport. Surely, the turn-out will be strong for Tuesday night’s Evening of Equestrians Awards reception and presentation, sponsored by USHJA Zone 10 and the Pacific Coast Horse Shows Association.

For more information and a full schedule for the USHJA Annual Meeting, visit www.ushja.org.


The Gallop welcomes news, tips and photos. Contact Kim F. Miller at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or 949-644-2165.