January 12, 2014 -- I've never been to the Oscars, just watched them on TV, but I definitely got a hint of what it must be like during this weekend's ramped-up Pegasus awards ceremonies at the U.S. Equestrian Federation's annual meeting.
Although I've attended for decades, this year's edition was on a whole new scale of awesome, with a towering set, winners coming onstage from the back in well-orchestrated fashion, appropriate musical crescendoes at key moments and even a teleprompter for the emcees.
The convention center adjoining the Hyatt Regency Hotel made for a perfect setting as the equestrian stars were honored. USEF President Chrystine Tauber did a good job with "the envelope, please" suspense to tell us what we suspected--that Beezie Madden had won her third Equestrian of the Year trophy.
The 2013 World Cup Show Jumping Finals winner interests me. She's a great rider, that we all know, but I've studied her for the last couple of years at these meetings, and am always impressed by her diligence. There are a good number of athletes assigned to USEF committee work, but they mostly are absent for the annual meeting.
Beezie is serious about her work on the board of directors. She not only attends, she stays for the whole thing, and pays attention, even at the moments I'm tempted to doze.
It's nice to see someone with her status taking her duties so seriously. Despite her Olympic medals, being number four on the world ranking list and many accolades, Beezie remains modest and is all about doing her job, whether she's sitting in the saddle or around a conference table.
The next night, she was rewarded again during the Horse of the Year dinner when her Cup mount, Abigail Wexner's Simon, was named International Horse of the Year.
Her speech hit the mark, noting as she did that it's all about the horses (easy to forget after eight hours of meetings every day) and she did not stint in her praise for Simon.
"What makes Simon so special is his athletic ability and his desire to shine on a big stage. I actually think he would have liked to be here tonight," she told her audience with smile.
The most emotional moment at Pegasus (and there were several) belonged to former USEF board member Keith Bartz, honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award on his 80th birthday. Guests saw a video of Keith talking about his life, starting off with a grade horse that he took care of in his backyard (nice to know how someone got involved in the sport), tracing his career with saddlebreds and explaining how he took a big leap from a secure corporate job to working full-time with horses when he realized he'd rather be outside with the animals than taking a promotion.
He loved wearing the silver cowboy hat trophy (the award is named after the late trainer, Jimmy Williams, whose trademark was his hat). Keith brought his wife, Carol, up on stage.She is his true partner. He mentioned a needlework she stitched that says, "Happiness is being married to your best friend."
Most of the people attending the awards dinners are oblivious to the real work of the convention--governance of the sport. That means making sure the licensed competitions are run fairly, with competent officials and facilities that are up to snuff. These days, though, even more than that, there's a mission to insure the welfare of the horses.
A lot of what went on sounded familiar to me; I heard it at the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association convention last month. But the outcome was far different here. Plans to regulate shockwave therapy and injections into joints, bursa and tendons basically were pooh-poohed at USHJA, where people felt they were non-starters because they didn't see how they could be regulated.
But tweaked versions of both passed at USEF, and they were so noncontroversial in the end that the board just voted them in on the "consent calendar," where rules are taken together as a group, rather than voted on individually. They will go into effect Dec. 1.
Even when things are difficult to regulate, having a rule on the books means that if someone does spot a violation, there is a way to handle it.
And both the injections and shockwave have been abused and overused. Before this meeting, I didn't realize that shockwave could make a lame horse look sound if it's done before he goes into the ring. That's why the rule requires a waiting period after treatment. Ditto with the injections, which often are done without a diagnosis, but rather, because Fred down the way did it to his horse before it won. Was there a connection? Who knows, so why do it?
Dr. Catherine Kohn explained it to me this way: "I don't think people want to be left behind. They want to do everything they can to make sure their horses perform well."
A veterinary professor emeritus at Ohio State University, she's the one you've seen at Rolex Kentucky every year, looking intently at all the horses during the trot-ups.
Treatments should be based on a diagnosis, not just performed willy-nilly. That's how horses and people get in trouble.
"There's tremendous pressure on trainers to get placings," she said. Those who are not dealing with horses day to day or don't have a background in horses don't always understand why their horse should be resting instead of competing.
"People are always looking for the easy way to be a world beater. It takes a while to change the culture," Cathy said, pointing out that bute was overused before rules regulating it went into effect years ago.
The USEF's goal is to make sure the horses are treated fairly and in their best interests.
"We want to be horsemen; we all aspire to that," she said.
One other rule that was discussed at the meeting is waiting in the wings, having been referred for a rewrite before being re-presented at the board's mid-year meeting.
It calls for freezing blood and urine samples taken from horses at shows so that they can be tested sometime in the future.
The idea is that if a test eventually is developed for exotic prohibited substances, the samples can then be screened to determine what was in them. If any come up positive, what happens next would be up to a hearing committee.
The original proposal called for freezing the samples for eight years, which is the international standard. No one seems to be in favor of that. A guess here is that the rule it might pass if the freeze time were changed to three years, which is the period for which shows keep entry blanks.
Mandatory microchipping of horses, a hot topic at USHJA, did not come up at USEF. That has gone back to the drawing board and my guess is we won't see it again for awhile. However I think it's inevitable that at some point, it will be phased in gradually. The FEI (international equestrian federation) already is requiring it.
Board member Tucker Johnson was fond of quoting Bismarck at the meeting: "Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made."
It can be instructive, however, to witness the process in action and know how we got from point A to point B, and why. The work was being done by a greatly reduced board, down to 19 people from 54.
That makes for a more agile board. The concurrent formulation of international, national and administrative/finance councils handles more of the bread-and-butter items, leaving the board free to focus on long-range planning.
But despite the "agita" (as one in attendance described her feelings) about the new governance plan, it all worked out. Before we left, I asked Chrystine for her assessment.
There are many other things I could mention from the meeting, but I don't want to be long-winded. However, a biosecurity seminar was full of good ideas for handling crises such as the outbreak of equine herpes last year that put the HITS Ocala show in quarantine and scared a lot of other people.
"Horses and riders are always one step away from a calamity," we were told, so a National Equine Health Plan is being devised by the American Horse Council and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The American Association of Equine Practitioners has designed an equine disease communication center to stop rumors like those that went wild last winter and give updates when there is an outbreak.
We got a lot of good tips for shows to prevent an outbreak and handle one when it does happen, but I can't summarize two hours here. Let me just say that everyone, whether a showgrounds or a private barn, needs to have isolation stalls to stop the spread of disease if a horse or horses are infected.
I have to say what made my trip this time was the group of people who helped me through the last five days, people I didn't know but who made my life easier. I got to Kentucky completely frazzled; my plane flight had been cancelled, the next one was delayed, and by the time I arrived, I found myself in a traffic jam caused by thousands of basketball-mad Kentucky fans, on the way to see their Wildcats at the Rupp Arena adjacent to the hotel.
There were a few hundred more of them in the lobby, and I couldn't get through until a tall, grey-haired gentleman--just a guy in the crowd--grabbed my huge, heavy suitcase and guided me to the front desk. There I was greeted by an extremely sharp supervisor who became my friend over the next couple of days, always with a smile and a helping hand. Another person who stood out was the Hertz employee who drove me to the airport in my rental car when I worried I would be late for my plane because of a problem with my rental contract.
These are all little things that add up, especially when you're spending hours in meetings that range from mildly interesting to sleep-inducing. Much of what happens goes on behind the scenes, in the halls and the bar, but you can't skip the meetings.
Okay, I'm through with meetings for another 11 months. Now it's back to the horses, starting next month, when I'll be covering the dressage Nations' Cup and the next weekend, the show jumping Nations' Cup, as well as a variety of other competitions in Wellington. Look for a heads-up at facebook.com/practicalhorseman and facebook.com/equisearch along about Feb. 19.