Promoting “the joy of horse sports” was a recurring theme at the United States Hunter Jumper Association annual meeting in Palm Springs, California, Dec. 11–15. While cynical sniggers could be heard here and there, the overwhelming tone was positive and proactive in a way that might surprise those who haven’t attended an annual meeting recently.
Established by United States Equestrian Federation president Murray Kessler’s teaser for the Strategic Plan he’ll unveil at the USEF meeting in January, the mood of determined optimism was downright infectious. In the past, new ideas were often stalled at the in-gate by often-angry objections. This year attendees seemed to accept that new or altered USHJA offerings would not be perfect on introduction, but were worth moving forward on for the good and growth of the sport.
“Listening to Murray today is a breath of fresh air,” said Larry Langer. “If we continue in the way we’ve been going, we’re not going to have a sport. We’ll be talking to ourselves. We’ve got to stop tearing people down and think about how we can actually say to everyone who loves horses, ‘You love horses, what can I do? What can we do as an organization?’” (The Zone 10 manager and governance guru, Larry has a lifetime of perspective on this. In fact, he’s to receive the USEF’s Lifetime Achievement Award in January.)
The realization of near-zero growth for the sport a few years ago triggered the USEF’s “strat plan.” In his preview of the 160-page plan—to be presented “Wednesday, Jan. 11 from 3-5 pm!” he said many, many times while encouraging attendance at the Florida convention—Murray distinguished between “joy of horses and joy of horse sports.” Not everybody can own a horse, but everybody can be a fan of the sport, leading to an enthusiast base big enough to draw the TV coverage and sponsorship needed to propel us into the realm of mainstream sports in the States.
We’ve heard that before, but this time it sounds enticingly viable, perhaps because it’s heavily influenced by Murray’s many years of big-time corporate success outside the horse world. He is 2012 Olympian Reed Kessler’s dad, yes, but he’s also a rider who noted that if horse sports had cost what they do now, he and his wife would never have been able to get into it 40 years ago. “I made about half of what one of our grooms is paid today.”
Here’s a few Strat Plan nuggets that really stood out: The Dutch equestrian federation has 200,000 members and only 40,000 of them actually ride. The rest are fans. That’s compared to 82,000 USEF members, 81,000 of whom ride.
New USEF programs will include a $25 fan membership, a learning center with topics like “How to walk a course with McLain Ward,” and a re-branding to “U.S. Equestrian” with new website, logo and motto, “Feel the joy. Join the joy.” The USET’s mission will shift from “push to pull” when it comes to targeting medals: “winning to inspire in a way that fills the pipeline” and becoming an organization people join “because they want to, not because they have to.”
OK, Murray is the USEF guy and this was the USHJA Annual Meeting, but we dwell on his comments because his message that “bringing the joy of horse sports to as many as possible will guide everything you see going forward” reverberated through the four-day meeting. In sessions on sport integrity, growth and trainer certification, the onus was put on everybody to do our part: talk to or report the obnoxious trainer cursing out his kid in the schooling ring; undergo “safe sport” training that will bring our profession in line with other youth sports; become certified in a way that allows newcomers to understand your abilities, and to lead by example in promoting clean sport.
Of three new programs targeting growth, the USHJA Recognized Riding Academy concept drew the most enthusiasm.Just a few days old, it seeks to connect with newcomers at their point of entry. Everybody’s help is needed to identify beginning lesson programs, especially those without an existing stepping stone to USHJA competitions.
Through an application process, riding schools are lightly screened for best practices involving horse and rider safety to receive the “recognized” status. “We agonized between using ‘certified’ and ‘recognized,’” noted Larry Langer. Certification has heavy insurance implications and the USHJA felt “big brothering” them would have turned many away. “Put too many regulations and requirements and you’ll kill this,” said new USEF CEO Bill Moroney in response to audience questions about how beginner programs would be vetted.
Membership benefits to riding programs include a plaque, listing on the USHJA website and in its magazine, In Stride and discounts for USHJA training manuals, plus access for their students to the “the vast network of our sport.” The organization, in turn, can better identify and encourage the grass roots level of membership and, hopefully, cultivate their long-term engagement.
“This is exactly what I’m talking about,” enthused Murray, who revealed another Stat Plan detail: all 20,000 members of the United States Pony Club would be given free USEF membership to kick start the process of expanding the sport’s base.
Updates on plans for a USHJA National Championship that will be a “crown jewel” of all USHJA events were another part of this session. Task master Tom Struzzieri of HITS described it as a “carrot and stick” inspiring all levels of the national sport to continue to the peak of their division. A request for proposal has been issued to prospective organizers, with the parameters of a fall date, preferably a stand-alone event, definitely indoors and in the fall. It’s not meant to replace any existing competitions, but might incorporate some current national finals already staged at various shows.
Clarifying the path for ascent in the sport, especially in show jumping, was the part three. Larry Langer used a fictitious 12-year-old “Maggie,” who’d been in her first show and pronounced to her mom that she wanted to be the next Lucy Davis, a young member of the silver medal USET jumping team at the Rio Olympics.
Helping Maggie and her mom know what that entailed is critical to keeping them in the sport. It’s an idea that’s been addressed from “the top down” for riders already competing at a relatively high level. The thriving U25 program is an example of that level. The new mission is addressing it from the bottom up, with “benchmarks” and “markers” for riders who are younger and/or jumping at the lower levels. The addition of a 12-14 Child division the North American Young Riders Championship, starting this summer, is an exciting component of this program.
Hot Topic: Trainer Certification
Tuesday’s session detailing evolution of the Trainer Certification Program was super well attended and the shift from one “basic” to four levels of certification was very well received. Committee leader Shelley Campf recalled dodging a lot of hurled tomatoes when levels of certification were first proposed three years ago. At the time, trainers wanted the system to distinguish them from their peers, but often objected to what category they fell into. The new Basic, Regional, National and Premiere levels are determined by years as a professional – from seven years for Regional to 15 years for Premiere – combined with coaching students to success in hunters, jumpers or equitation at various levels. Using equitation as an example, the range is 3’ divisions for Regional to 3’6” and above divisions for Premiere.
The Basic level continues to be met by education: passing the TCP test, plus taking the new Safe Sport training (through the United States Olympic Committee), paying a $100 application fee, then $45 annual renewal during the five-year certification period.
Hands shot up the instant Shelley outlined the new program. But instead of tomatoes, they hurled nearly universal praise. “Oh my God, you got it right,” exclaimed one of several speakers who said they had not planned to renew their certification but now would. A plan for “grandfathering in” trainers at various levels was also well received.
Not to say that the TCP is now perfect. The current system doesn’t offer much marketing benefit to certified trainers, but there was acceptance that that would come in time. Help and input in that department was welcomed.
Like the Safe Sport training that was a centerpiece of an equally well-attended Sport Integrity session, trainer certification is not going to be mandated now, but there were clear hints that is coming.
Administered by the USOC and common in most sports that serve youth, Safe Sport training was proposed as an eventual requirement, along with background checks and training on concussions and drugs and medication basics, for all professionals who sign an entry blank at USEF-recognized, USHJA-sanctioned competitions. Incoming USHJA president Mary Babick explained that the organization was asked to lead the way in this area, as the largest of the USEF’s 29 discipline affiliates. She was pleased when a show of hands indicated strong support for voluntary compliance with these proposed requirements.
Most of the initiatives provide protections to customers and professionals. Equally important, if the various USEF and USHJA growth initiatives take hold, they’ll be needed to create an industry that can stand up to the increased public scrutiny that would come with it. Anti-doping measures are a huge part of this, Murray noted, especially when the USHJA membership represents a very high percentage of equine doping abuses, nationally and globally. There’s also the reality that approximately 20 percent of the USEF’s budget is spent “catching cheaters,” rather than promoting the sport. The organization’s new vision “can only happen if we protect the culture of transparency and fairness and we do that by leading by example.”
The USHJA was often described as “coming of age.” Many cited a marked decrease in the amount of time and often-fractious emotional energy required to get through the rule change proposals that have dominated annual meetings of the past. There were plenty of rule change proposals, to be sure, but none that hijacked attention from bigger priorities of the sport’s growth. For the latest drafts of proposals that will go forward for votes at the USEF meeting in January, visit www.ushja.org.
The USHJA’s transition into adolescence was illustrated in a moving tribute to Bill Moroney during Tuesday night’s Evening of Equestrians. As president, he saw the organization from his often-contentious spin-off from the American Horse Shows Association through its first 12 years. Today, it’s an organization of 45,000 members with its own building in Lexington, a large capable support staff and hundreds of volunteers.
Surprise guest David O’Connor summed up many accolades in saying, “Billy is a horseman. He asked horsemen to step up and they did, which is unusual. His honesty, integrity and openness were something that everyone could believe in, whether they agreed with him or not.” After thanking all for the privilege and pleasure of leading them, Bill praised Mary Babick’s ability to see the USHJA on through its teenage years.
Circling back to Murray Kessler’s “joy of horse sports” speech, the perfect coda came with the Foxfield Drill Team’s performance during Monday night’s reception at the HITS Desert Horse Park in Thermal. Watching the young riders perform without bridle or saddle, in complicated crisscrossing patterns and jumping, in one case, a four-foot fence, was delightful. Even more delightful was watching the professionals cheer on the Foxfielders with big smiles and ceaseless applause. It seemed we were all reconnecting with the joy that brought us to the sport way back when. The task ahead is to act on ways to pay that forward.