January 15th, 2012 -- Days that made you yawn; nights that brought tears to your eyes. There you have the range of sensations experienced during the U.S. Equestrian Federation"s annual meeting in Cincinnatti, Ohio.
The USEF is operating so smoothly that the taking-care-of-business sessions often bordered on boring. It"s both a relief and a testament to how far the organization has come since the tempestuous days less than a decade ago, when the organization was formed out of the power struggle between USA Equestrian and the U.S. Equestrian Team.
Many of the rule changes these days are hammered out at affiliates, such as the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association or the U.S. Eventing Association. These proposals come to this meeting for the final touches in most cases, and many are not even voted on by the board (they are approved through what is known as a consent calendar). So the discussions over the last four days were fairly dull, with one exception (more about that later).
The two big dinners, however, are another story. The Horse of the Year affair on Friday night and the Pegasus last night each were emotional, fonts of sentiment for the heroes, both human and equine, of equestrian sport.
The most moving experience, as always, was the presentation of the Lifetime Achievement Award. This year it went to Jimmy Wofford, an icon in so many pursuits. You may know him best as the brilliant and witty eventing columnist for Practical Horseman. But the son of a cavalry officer was a fabulous performer in his sport before retiring for good in 1986, winning medals at the Olympics and the world championships with class and style. He rode in steeplechase races as well.
He"s a tough guy. Jimmy just had an operation to fix an ankle that he injured in 1974; (yes, nearly 40 years ago) when he fell off one of his mother"s horses. He kept a stiff upper lip all that time, but I thought you"d wonder when you saw photos of him on crutches.
As a trainer, Jimmy excels. Every Pan American Games, world championships and Olympic team since 1978 has one of his students on it. They include Kim Severson, USEF President David O"Connor (who you may have heard was an individual Olympic gold medalist) and his wife, Karen O"Connor.
You likely do not realize, however, that Jimmy had a key role in governance. He served as an officer of both the U.S. Equestrian Team and the U.S. Combined Training Association. In the 1980s, he was a president of the old American Horse Shows Association, the predecessor of USAE and USEF.
When it comes to the "level playing field" that"s mentioned repeatedly at the USEF convention, Jimmy was uncompromising in his disdain for the cheaters and determination to stop them. It was a focal point of his acceptance speech, along with his reverence for horses.
The presentation of the silver cowboy hat trophy (inspired by the headgear of the first recipient, multi-discipline Californian Jimmy Williams) put Jimmy into an exclusive club that includes coaches Bertalan de Nemethy and Jack LeGoff and show jumping gold medalist Billy Steinkraus, legends all.
I asked how he felt about it all.
Jimmy wrapped up his speech this way: “I am no longer involved in sport governance. This is not from a loss of faith in the process, but rather from a conviction that our affairs are in good order and in good hands. I am now able to turn to my abiding passion with all my energies. I devote my life these days to horses, and the riders who train and care for them. I have always been fascinated by riding and training theory, and by the application of classical methods to modern competitive circumstances. I now return to those endeavors with a grateful heart for the honor you have shown me tonight.
“When I was the President of the AHSA, I wrote a monthly column for our magazine. I always wanted to keep my remarks to our membership focused on horses, and therefore closed my column each month by saying ‘I’ll see you in the warm-up ring.’
Those have been the happiest moments of my professional career, in the background of a warm-up arena, helping yet another aspiring rider discover the joy of partnership with God’s noblest creature, the horse.
And so, Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you yet again. I’ll see you in the warm-up ring.”
Just so you know that not everything was serious, after stepping down from the podium, the man of the hour was ambushed with Silly String by his grandsons. (For a priceless picture of the incident, be sure to check back this week and look at the gallery.)
Steffen Peters was a lock for Equestrian of the Year for the third time, a contest in which only USEF members and the media could vote.
He"s amazing. On Friday, the Pan Am Games double gold dressage medalist was riding in a show in California, where he made his debut with Legolas, the new grand prix horse who will be the back-up for his superstar Ravel. Akiko Yamizaki, who owns both horses, and Steffen"s wife, Shannon, urged him to compete with the horse, instead of just schooling him at the show as he had planned.
Steffen told me he had to think about it and then realized that he could blame it on them if something went wrong (said with a smile). Of course, nothing did, and both horses finished with scores of more than 80 percent before he flew out to accept his trophy.
Since the outcome of the Equestrian of the Year contest was predictable, Steffen came prepared with a very professional slide show to thank everyone who had made great things happen for him in 2011. That included his mom; his wife, the horse owners, natch; grooms, vets, and of course, the horses.
Even Friday the 13th couldn"t stop the unstoppable Neville Bardos from claiming the Horse of the Year Trophy for the international disciplines.
Well, to be exact, Neville didn"t step up to get his trophy. Rider Boyd Martin (who had to borrow a blazer from another guest after showing up in casual clothes) stood in for his horse. Neville was in Florida practicing dressage with Boyd"s wife, Silva, who is working on that phase in preparation for a shot at the London Olympics (Boyd and Neville are short-listed).
For the first time, the public could vote for Horse of the Year and that made Neville a cinch. (The title was divided for the first time. Neville got the title for horses in international disciplines. Sjoerd, a marvelous Friesian stallion, took national honors.)
Neville has been very well publicized and may be even more so; Boyd said he got a call from Warner Brothers the other day about the possibility of a movie based on the horse"s remarkable life.
Neville should be the posterboy for thoroughbred racehorse recycling. If people thought they could wind up with a horse like Neville (who only cost Boyd $850 when he saved him from going to slaughter) wouldn"t they be tempted to get an athletic thoroughbred, rather than some fancy warmblood (who"d be a lot more expensive)?
And anyone casting the movie who doesn"t use the extremely handsome and personable Boyd as the lead should be pushing papers in a cubicle somewhere.
I"m sure you all know Neville"s tale, so just in case you need a reminder, here"s the long story short: Boyd brought him to the U.S. when he pokie games left his native Australia. They won the 2009 Fair Hill 3-star and were the top-placed American duo (Boyd became a U.S. citizen) in the World Equestrian Games.
Last May, Boyd and Phillip Dutton rescued Neville from a stable fire, where he was moments away from death. Despite having breathed in smoke and suffering burns, Neville pulled through. His five-figure veterinary bills were paid by his fans.
Unbelievably, the tough chestnut gelding recovered enough that three months later he was able to finish seventh at the Burghley, England 4-star.
Boyd was aglow with pride at the USEF dinner. Here"s what he said when we talked.