U.S Equestrian’s Competition and Member Summit

U.S. Equestrian’s annual meeting got under way in Lexington, Kentucky, with an innovative Competition and Member Summit featuring panels of experts.

The time had come for some frank discourse. “Facing Challenges Together” was the subtitle of the Competition and Member Summit, a collaborative first for U.S. Equestrian’s annual meeting.

“The conversation goes on in every breed and discipline about the challenges we’re all facing in growing the sport and retaining people in the sport. Let’s all get together and talk about it, instead of having disparate conversations at the ingate,” U.S. Equestrian CEO Bill Moroney told me when I asked about the thought behind designing the four-hour session that drew an audience of about 90 people.

“We need to do more of this and identify the issues and do the analysis of them properly and come forward with relevant plans that are going to help us move forward and increase participation in equestrian sport, regardless of breed and discipline,” Bill commented.

Competition Summit moderator Tom O’Mara with the panel that discussed the costs of competing and participating in equestrian sports: Elisabeth Goth, U.S. Equestrian vice president; Nancy Harvey, president of the Arabian Horse Association; Cindy Mugnier, member of the U.S. Equestrian board and Lynn Walsh, past president, Pin Oak Charity Horse Show. Nancy Jaffer

While U.S. Equestrian membership fluctuates only by about 1 percent, the times a horse competes “is down significantly” as people are showing less.

“We need to get more people involved in equestrian sport overall. We felt it is important to engage people, rather than stand here and lecture,” said moderator Tom O’Mara, a U.S. Equestrian board member.

Several panelists discussed the importance of getting the grass roots involved to help grow the sport. U.S. Equestrian Vice President Elisabeth Goth said the federation is “rolling out Competition Light,” a lower-cost introduction to showing and what the organization has to offer.

The panel on costs of showing and participating in equestrian sport mentioned the popularity of unrecognized shows (which aren’t affiliated with the federation), particularly for those on a budget.

Panelist Nancy Harvey, president of the Arabian Horse Association, takes part in both recognized and unrecognized shows. While she noted that the latter are less expensive and may even use federation rules, their “steward” is basically an arbitrator, lacking power without the back-up of a national organization, and there’s “no avenue for protest.”

Lynn Walsh, former president of the Pin Oak show in Texas, maintained the U.S. federation’s fees, a cause of complaint from some, “are the smallest part of the show experience.” She noted the price of staging a show, from maintaining the rings to hiring staff, “are outrageous.”

“We forget what it costs to put on a competition,” said Elizabeth Goth.

Trainer Frank Madden believes even horse show fees for exhibitors, steep as they can be, “are probably the smaller piece of the pie” compared with costs of travel, training and grooming.

Competition standards are tough to enforce, although a relatively new compliance division is aimed at making shows toe the line.

Frank Madden, who chairs the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association’s competition standards committee, had felt it was important to change the name of the old AA shows to Premier “so newcomers know what to expect.” He had thought there would be a limited number of premier shows, not the 255-260 that wound up in the category, and contends there need to be less—much less—awarded that rating.

“We’re dying for the committee to give us a set of standards to enforce,” said federation president Murray Kessler. He noted that stewards can’t handle such duties as measuring stalls and checking the footing as part of the effort to assess standards, so that’s why the compliance division was formed.

Competition manager Charlotte Skinner-Robson said there’s a misperception among some competitors who say, “I don’t want to go to a national horse show (the next level down). I want to go to a premier show.”

Although shows are categorized by the number of horses competing and prize money offered, several of the panelists agreed that what makes a show special are the ambience and the entire “experience,” more difficult to quantify than prize money.

“I don’t think people are getting a bang for their buck,” Frank said.

Walsh believes, “most people in the sport are doing it for entertainment. Once it ceases to be fun or entertaining or fulfilling, people will start turning away.”

The prize money and bonus money panel discussed whether a large amount of prize money necessarily translates to more entries.

“If you want to grow the sport, big money is not always the answer,” said show manager Bob Bell. He pointed out that some people prefer the lesser entry fees that go with lower prize money.

Stephanie Wheeler, who chairs the federation’s show management committee, believes there is “a place for large amounts of prize money” in the hunter derbies, because people have bought horses to compete specifically in those competitions.

The session on competition organizer challenges focused on calendar management, always a contentious issue.

HITS impresario Tom Struzzieri, said, “we’re all challenged to find clients,’’ adding “people are doing it (riding), but people doing it are not getting out to the events.” He added, “it’s antiquated to base sanctioning (of shows) on hunter prize money,” especially when there may be only three green hunters, for instance, in a class.

A seminar on insurance offered many important tips, with the take-away that competition organizers need to focus on their coverage, investigate what’s best and not take anything for granted just because they have a policy—which may have big holes in it.

I asked Tom O’Mara, a skilled moderator who kept everyone on track, to tell me what he thought about the summit. Watch this video for his comments. 

At some point soon, a video of the summit will go on line. Bill urged members to watch it and offer their comments to the federation. Anyone also is welcome to do so before that by emailing their thoughts to compliance@usef.org. More sessions like the summit are planned for the future to get further input on how to handle the challenges facing the industry.

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