On the Rail: Hunters to Undergo Extreme Makeover

A new committee plans to tackle issues such as the future of the professional sections, qualifying procedures and a potential national championship.
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A new committee plans to tackle issues such as the future of the professional sections, qualifying procedures and a potential national championship.

Read award-winning journalist Nancy Jaffer's latest report on the world of equestrian sport. Brought to you by Practical Horseman magazine. Visit Nancy's archive for past columns.

The hunter divisions will be undergoing a makeover. | © Nancy Jaffer

The hunter divisions will be undergoing a makeover. | © Nancy Jaffer

July 23, 2008 -- Get ready for a whole new look in the hunter division. You'll have plenty of time to prepare, because the finishing touches could take as long as five years. They will, however, be far more than a facelift. Plans are underway for a complete redo of the way competition is structured.

When the project is completed, the hunter specs will look more like those for the jumpers, with "levels" geared to fence heights, rather than such old-fashioned designations as First Year Green, which often cause confusion.

There is a wide range of issues to be addressed, including the future of the beleaguered professional sections, how hunters qualify, the way competitions are rated and approval and establishment of a real national championship.

"Nothing is going to change quickly. What we're doing is OK," commented Geoff Teall, who heads the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association's (USHJA) new Hunter Restructure Committee.

The big question, Geoff said, is, "If we work our brains out and are innovative and creative, can we put a master plan to all of this madness and come up with something that makes more sense for our horses, our riders, our exhibitors, our owners, our managers?

"There's got to be a way to make it more understandable, more manageable, more interesting and more fun."

USHJA President Bill Moroney said the changes are overdue.

"It's been a long time coming. I feel like we've been asleep for the last 15-20 years. As our environment and calendar have changed, the discipline hasn't changed to keep up. And people have been talking about the decline of the professional division for years."

Bill noted that years ago, people wanted horses to jump more in shows because there were fewer shows. But with the proliferation of shows and ways to qualify for various competitions, "We weren't thinking enough about the horses. We need a system that doesn't wear our horses out," he commented, adding that consideration should apply to trainers, owners, grooms and riders, too.

Although many hunter divisions, such as the Children's and Amateurs, are doing well, Geoff said saving the professional sections is important because it gives riders in the other sections "someone to emulate," similar to how riders in the lower levels of the jumper ranks look at the grand prix competitors.

While the professional sections should be rescued, Geoff cautioned, "We need to save them by turning them into something that will save itself."

Geoff Teall | © Nancy Jaffer

Geoff Teall | © Nancy Jaffer

The undertaking started with an effort at a retreat last fall to rewrite the division's rules, a package that was presented at the U.S. Equestrian Federation (USEF) annual meeting in January.

"We did the rule changes knowing they would be turned down," said Geoff, "but what we got people to do was stand up and say 'We like the idea of levels, we like what the jumpers do, why don't you come back to us with a different plan?'"

There were so many issues with the entire division, it was decided a top-to-bottom rethink was necessary. An April retreat quantified what needed to be done by a committee that is balanced between exhibitors and show managers, as well as all levels of competitors representing a broad range of geographic areas across the country. Another meeting on the project is set for August. Geoff said the mantra for the changes could be "Jump less, win more." While noting that pertains mostly to the professional sections, he explained, "We're trying to get where, as you progress through the ranks, you have the opportunity to earn more money, as is the case with the jumpers."

Here's how he sees it: "You start with a lot of young horses and at the very end, you have a nice group of horses doing [the jumper equivalent of] grand prix. The owners are excited to own them, people are excited to watch them and there's money enough to bring it in as a spectator sport."

But the needs of all the different sections will be addressed, with the idea that people won't have to be showing nonstop, that there will be time for lessons at home and horses can have easier lives.

Geoff also noted, "I really don't think the qualifying events we have now--Harrisburg [Pennsylvania National], Washington [International], the National and Devon--are the right ones to be leading our sport. We've got a lot of people from all over the country trying to qualify for very few slots in the Northeast at a strange time of year."

What exactly is a national champion anyway? He asked, "Is the Green Hunter champion at Harrisburg the champion, or is it the horse than won at the National and is that only when it happens in Florida?"

That is why he sees the need for a real national championship, for which it is easier to qualify, held "at the end of the summer, instead of fall, when kids are back in school."

He sees one model as something similar to the USEF National Pony Finals, in which "most people" get to take part.

"It's an inclusive championship," as opposed to something requiring "endless showing" that is "putting it out of reach for most people." But, he warned, all of the pieces have to fit for any of it to work.

Where does the American Hunter/Jumper Foundation (AHJF) and its World Champion program come in? Geoff, who co-founded AHJF with Louise Serio, said it had voted to merge with the USHJA's new foundation. The USHJA Foundation must now do the same.

"We are trying to get all these pieces to mesh together," said Geoff. "There are a lot of ideas we have kept alive in AHJF for the right time to happen, and now we are there."

Building the Pipeline

The USHJA Foundation will be offering scholarships, promoting grass-roots growth and offering emergency relief for equestrians and others in the community who are in need. It also will be working with the new Emerging Athletes Program.

The committee running the program is trying to ensure there is a pipeline of riders reaching for the top level. Trainer Ronnie Beard and Olympic show-jumping gold medalist Melanie Smith Taylor, the U.S. show-jumping developing rider coach, head the committee.

U.S. show-jumping coach George Morris is always commenting about the country's lack of depth in show-jumping at the top level, especially compared to Germany. There's a reason for that.

"We're not getting down to the grass roots and seeing young talent. Our feeling was if we could find them at a very young age, we could send them up the pipeline to the Developing Riders and hopefully from the Developing to the Team," explained Ronnie.

Screening trials around the country will emphasize horsemanship as well as athletic ability. Legendary U.S. Equestrian Team Coach Bertalan de Némethy used to travel the United States looking for talent, and this is a similar concept.

"We not only are trying to find the good riders, but also those who want to do it the right way," said Ronnie.

The best riders at regional screening trials would continue to a national trial. "Out of that, we want to come up with two people really ready to come on. We'd set up two grants for them for a month of training with a very special person," said Ronnie.

The committee also will not lose track of other participants. "We'll be keeping a report card on everybody and be there in a mentor capacity if they like. If they have questions about their career, we'll be in a position to help guide them," he said. "If they didn't make it the first year, they also could come back."

The age range hasn't been set yet, but it could include kids as young as 12 or 13. After all, as Ronnie pointed out, Charlie Jayne (who was on the list of Olympic alternates this year) was competing in grands prix at 13. The program will end at age 21, when participants will move on to the Developing Rider pool.

While the basic concept is in place, details still need work. "We've got a little bit of coloring in to do," said Ronnie.

USHJA President Bill Moroney said one aspect of the program that particularly excites him is the participation of a younger generation on the committee, riders such as Georgina Bloomberg, Allison Firestone Robitaille and Eliza Shuford.

"They're helping people who are in the same position they were in 15 years ago find their way," he pointed out.

Making Conditions for Championships Optimal

Stabling for millions of dollars worth of horseflesh at the national dressage championships and Olympic selection trials in California last month was far from optimum, with holes in the doors and flimsy partitions.

"We came out here thinking we'd be dropping down into paradise, and the stabling wasn't up to par," said Shawna Harding, who rode in the Intermediaire I Championship. "I got off the van and asked, 'Where are the good barns?'"

USEF High Performance Dressage Committee Chairman George Williams noted that while much of what went on at the venue was excellent, "the stabling was a serious concern for the riders and owners" and teetered "on the edge of being unsafe in a lot of ways."

In an effort to prevent a repeat of the situation at future championships, George noted the committee members are "aware of the issues with the stabling" and will discuss how to ensure that the standards for everything at such an event are at an acceptable level. One possibility for handling the concerns could involve sending a representative to examine the site prior to deciding where to hold such important competitions, although he noted that isn't foolproof either.

George did emphasize, however, that it's important to stage the competitions around the country, and that a West Coast venue certainly will be considered in the future.

Horse Parks on the Rise

Texas is joining the ever-increasing ranks of states that are opening horse parks. Set on approximately 650 acres only eight miles from Dallas, it will incorporate a trail system that will enable people to ride from Dallas to Fort Worth. It's an anchor of the Trinity River Corridor Project, which will be one of the world's largest urban parks. The location ensures the atmosphere of the horse park won't be marred by development on the margins.

The project is in the fundraising stage with a $20 million capital campaign as the park works to match and go beyond $14.5 million in bond money backed by the city.

The site will have five arenas, both covered and open, and eventing and driving marathon courses, as well as warm-up and longeing areas and extensive facilities for spectators. There will be a boarding stable and lessons are going to be available as well.

Horse parks are growing ever more numerous in the United States, as development continues to gobble up privately owned open space. The granddaddy of them all is the Kentucky Horse Park, which 30 years ago announced its presence in a big way by staging the World Eventing Championships. Now it's the site of the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games (WEG). The Texas park would like to follow Kentucky's lead at some point and host a WEG, according to its executive director, Jaymie Sattiewhite.

"I think there's every possibility that the Games would come back here," said John Long, CEO of the USEF and chairman of the World Games 2010 Foundation.

"I think what we'll see post-2010 is that the visibility of horse sports in this hemisphere is going to increase and that the relationship between the U.S. and Europe is going to change a little bit.

"If we do as well as I think we're going to do [with the Games], there will be a distinct possibility to bring them back. I think the European community really sees the opportunity for growing the sport and making it more universal by getting the big competitions off the continent on occasion. I would be very optimistic we would have the Games back in the U.S. sometime over the next decade."

The USEF is, understandably, very interested in working with horse parks.

"The combination of horse sport, tourism and economic development that comes with them is a terrific thing," John commented.

He has been in contact with the Texas organization and noted, "They've got a very energized group of volunteers and professionals working very well with state and local government. It's going to be a terrific facility."

Also in the works is the Monterey Horse Park in California, on the decommissioned Fort Ord military base.

"It's absolutely breathtaking country. They're in a fundraising campaign now. When it gets done, think about the Kentucky Horse Park and Pebble Beach rolled into one. That's what it's going to look like," John said.

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