Things Were Jumping at the U.S. Equestrian Federation’s Annual Meeting

The national governing body for equestrian sport, branded as U.S. Equestrian, is in a whirlwind of accomplishment with plenty yet to come.

USEF President Murray Kessler gave a recap of 2017 and a look at the future during the four-hour general session at the annual meeting. Photo© 2018 by Nancy Jaffer

You could feel the waves of energy during the USEF’s five-day convention in Lexington, KY, where “a year of joy and change” was highlighted and plans were made to do more, more, more.

The emphasis on “human and horse welfare” was encouraging, increasing the relevance level of the meeting that ended yesterday.

I’ve been going to national governing body conventions since 1980, back in the days when “transparency” wasn’t even a buzz word and the business that really counted went on behind closed doors or in the hallways. It was a social occasion as much as business, a chance for people to see each other before the season began, because showing wasn’t a year-round affair then.

Those were different times, of course, but there wasn’t what you’d call a sense of inclusion unless you were part of the in-crowd.

Since Murray Kessler, an amateur jumper rider and former corporate CEO became president a year ago, USEF has had a real make-over with arms outstretched in welcome. Including $25 fan memberships, the ranks have risen to 105,000 members from what had been generally in the neighborhood of 80,000.

USEF Vice President Elisabeth Goth and CEO Bill Moroney during the final board meeting. Photo© 2018 by Nancy Jaffer

The “mission framework” for USEF mentioned as a “virtual circle,” includes “improving core processes and capabilities” while ensuring fairness, safety and enjoyment; enabling a pathway for riders, drivers and vaulters to win at the highest level and “inspire the next generation.” Marketing spreads the word, helping membership and sponsorship grow, and the circle continues.

Several changes that previously were only mentioned in passing either have been enacted or are on the drawing board; they’re not being ignored. For instance, while General Rule 702–which would have made fraudulent behavior related to horse sale or lease transactions a violation–was withdrawn because it needed more work, at least the idea is going to be examined.

“I get the most calls on fraudulent transactions for horses,” said Murray, who doesn’t understand why people “who buy something more expensive than their home” often don’t bother to do it “on something more than a handshake.”

USEF Vice President Elisabeth Goth sees the potential of this rule as “a way to get a hearing without spending lots of money” on a lawsuit, but finding the right way to write it is complicated and there are those who don’t believe USEF should be involved with such matters..

Murray wants more background on how this should be approached, but he will appoint a task force “to try to wrestle this to the ground.”

USHJA President Mary Babick and Archie Cox, who collected lots of high score awards for his clients, including John and Stephanie Ingram, whose International Hunter Derby winner Cuba was National Horse of the Year. Photo© 2018 by Nancy Jaffer

Two gala evenings, the Horse of the Year Awards and the Pegasus Awards, are big moments for honorees. Show jumper McLain Ward took the Equestrian of the Year title and his number one mount, HH Azur, was International Horse of the Year. The public voted on this, not just members, and Murray mentioned that it was close between Azur and dressage rider Laura Graves’ Verdades for the title, with just about a 100-vote difference between the two horses who had similar records, excelling in their specialties.

Joe Dotoli gave a moving speech about our responsibility to the horse after receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award. Photo© 2018 by Tricia Booker

The Pegasus highlight is always the Lifetime Achievement Award presentation, and the eclectic Joe Dotoli was such a worthy winner. A top trainer (Olympic gold medalist Peter Wylde was his number one student), Joe also is an ethical example, the voice of reason and someone who fights for what he believes is right. He was a leader in the successful battle to require protective headgear for hunter/jumper/equitation riders. He also wrote an impressive book, “A Piece of Chalk” about his experiences with Boston’s explosive busing crisis during the civil rights movement when he was a science teacher. Maybe we’ll see it as a movie someday.

Youth Sports Award winner Tabitha Bell with her father, Paul, and service dog, Sunny. Photo© 2018 by Tricia Booker

Tabitha Bell, who shows Arabians and half-Arabians in western pleasure, arrived with her Belgian Malinois service dog, the adorable Sunny. She hasn’t let muscular dystrophy and numerous operations cramp her style. Sunny has made it possible for her to go to school and lead as normal a life as possible, which inspired her to found Pawsitive Pawsibilities to raise funds so service dogs can be placed with other children.

Also worthy of mention at Pegasus was Connor Farley, the only person in the room wearing a cowboy hat. He won the Junior Equestrian of the Year title and is devoted to the Morgan breed. When his horse comes back from a long van trip after a show, he sleeps in the stall with him to make sure he’s okay.

Education was a big part of the meeting. It started with an innovative four-hour “competition and member summit.” Click on the link to read about discussions on such key subjects as the cost of showing and competition standards. 

There also were seminars on safe sport and crisis management to help people sort out those hot topics.

The big downer of an otherwise upbeat meeting was the news that a mistake made in the USEF laboratory had led to reinstatement of two members who were fined and suspended for what the federation said was a violation of its drugs and medications rule. Click on this link to read the details. The lab is being audited and Murray promised to do “whatever it takes to get that (the lab) in line as quickly as possible.” 

Other things you need to know from the USEF annual meeting:

  • In an effort to reverse the scary decline in the number of licensed officials as people age out and others are reluctant to go through the process, the board approved a new policies and procedures document to increase transparency, take subjectivity out of the process and make it easier for those wishing to become a judge, steward or other official. “We are running out of licensed officials,” warned Joe Mattingly, chair of the International Disciplines Council, emphasizing the importance of the action taken at the meeting.
  • Mary Babick, president of USEF’s largest affiliate, the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association, will head a task force geared to refining the language of a rule requiring those who sign an entry blank as a trainer to take a course in safe sport on line. The board will take another look at it in March. This is especially high profile with the visibility of #MeToo.
  • The North American Junior and Young Rider Championships, which has lost its oomph in recent years, is a priority for USEF. Expect it to become the North American Youth Championships or something like that in the future to eliminate the need for a messy bundle of acronyms. Murray wants to “elevate the importance of this critical event,” which provides a bridge for young people striving to reach the higher levels of their sport and is a qualifier for the FEI Youth Championship in Paris. As was the case last year, the eventing portion will be at Rebecca Farm in Montana. Show jumping and the Adequan dressage championship have been moved from Saugerties, N.Y., last year to Old Salem Farm in Westchester County, N.Y. The jumper portion, which also includes children’s competition (it is formally the FEI NAJChYRC, presented by Gotham North) once was a must-do boasting strong teams from around North America. It has been diminished because so many young people are showing in Europe or Spruce Meadows during the summer. At one time, all the disciplines were together at a single venue; perhaps we’ll see that again at some point.
  • A proposed rule requiring people to make a report after witnessing cruelty and abuse to a horse needs more discussion and will be presented at the mid-year meeting. Criticism included the comment that the concept is “too subjective.”
  • The annual meeting, which has been held in Lexington for years, is moving to West Palm Beach, Fla., for 2019 and 2020 in an effort to “quadruple attendance” from the 312 who were on hand this time. The hope is that folks showing in Wellington will take part. Murray wants to add a session presenting “the big-picture rule changes that came through in the year.”
  • Establishment of a division for amateur jumper riders means those who don’t have a horse for the amateur-owner section get new opportunities to compete, with fences ranging from 1.20 to 1.45 meters.
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