December 6th, 2012--If Mary Babick had a sound track for her USHJA presidential bid, it would have started out with Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down." And it would have ended with Gloria Gaynor's heartfelt version of "I Will Survive."
Mary was the surprise candidate for the USHJA presidency in October. A New Jersey trainer, she provides a firm foundation for her students, then sends them on when they are ready to pursue the highest level of their discipline.
She was nominated by the organization's president, Bill Moroney, who had decided not to run for a third term. But a few weeks later, he changed his mind after pleas from major players and constituents, prompting him to put his name on the ballot. What had looked like a done deal turned into a race, with a dose of drama and the finish line at this week's USHJA convention.
Although Mary could have bowed out, she stood her ground on principle and remained a challenger--even though she was convinced that Bill, the establishment candidate, would win. As he did.
While Bill and Mary handled themselves admirably and pledged to support each other, the situation caused a stir, and prior to the election, there was an open forum during which several of the 394 attending the convention expressed their concerns.
"We have a smaller number of people every year making all the decisions, and that should not be what this organization is about," said Gary Baker, a show manager who has a reputation as a gadfly and never hesitates to share his views.
Outspoken HITS entrepreneur Tom Struzzieri followed up Gary's comments, saying, "In the interests of transparency...with the hope that we can understand the unusual process going on right now for the election of the a new president, I have a couple of questions, and a thought that since very few of us can be part of the board--how we select the board is a question that I've always stumbled with; it doesn't seem to be that simple or fair...is it a presidency? Is it a coronation? How many years are we going to have the same president? If it's going to be forever, just let us know. Those are the questions that many of us who are not in the `club' would love to have answers to."
That remark drew massive applause, so you got the idea some in the rank and file might have been wondering the same things. The situation was complicated because the USHJA is undergoing a massive restructuring that gives the jumpers as strong a presence as the hunters in the organization. Last year, show jumpers had talked about starting their own affiliate, but the new model enables the two disciplines to work together in the same organization.
Before the secret balloting (no totals were announced) each candidate had a chance to give a speech to the board of directors (the only folks who are entitled to vote), as well others attending the convention.
Mary's remarks were both stirring and tactful.
"I am the type of leader who listens to what is being said, and what is not being said," she told her audience. "Having Bill and I run against each other has created great unrest in our organization. My vision is that we can shelve our differences, have more and better communication, build a team and go forward to a future focused on success."
Bill's address was more straightforward. After all, he didn't need to introduce himself; he is a founder of USHJA and the only president it has ever had, having been in office for the last eight years.
What he had to explain was his change of heart about running, saying he was convinced that "going for a major restructuring of the organization and simultaneously changing leadership at the helm presents too much risk for a successful transition for the relatively young organization." He believes the next few years will take an effort equal to that involved in starting the organization.
Bill added, "It is important to maintain the already established strong working relationship with our members during this restructuring to insure the jumper component is fully integrated into the organization and we are fulfilling our responsibility as the FEI affiliate for jumping." He also promised to institute a leadership development program, something equestrian organizations too often have lacked.
When he was announced as the winner, Bill stood up and apologized to Mary "for getting you into this situation," but cited her classy handling of the situation and pledged to work with her for the next four years. As vice president for the hunter wing of the USHJA, she will be in a powerful position and can gather more experience if she wants to succeed Bill in four years.
Someone high up in USHJA pointed out that while a lot of people didn't know who Mary was when she got the nomination, they sure know who she is now.
Okay, you say after reading this far: Why should we care about USHJA? Here's why: With more than 43,000 members, it's the largest affiliate of the U.S. Equestrian Federation, but more important to you, the bulk of the rule-making process in the hunter and jumper ranks is done at the USHJA convention, though the USEF board has to approve them. So if you're riding in hunter, jumper, pony or hunt seat equitation classes, you're competing under the rules USHJA makes.
I talked with Bill about what he envisions for the USHJA and its members going forward.
And I discussed with Mary how what happened at the convention would affect the rank and file.
It was interesting to sit at the board of directors meeting this morning, with the election consigned to history, and listen to a productive dialogue as they worked on some rules, shelved others and built a consensus. What's in the pipeline? At some point you'll see a 3-foot, 3-inch junior hunter division, more classes for pre-green hunters and perhaps, only perhaps, a change in the height for small junior hunters from 16 hands, to 16.1. ("Horses are bigger these days," someone told me.)
Conventions have their dull moments, of course, but the best part is catching up with people when they aren't running off to get on a horse or go watch a class.
Outgoing USEF President David O'Connor said his wife, Karen, is recuperating well from her horrific fall and several operations. She may even be riding by February, he said.
Margie Engle was wearing a large surgical boot to steady the ankle she broke months ago. While she rode briefly this fall (and of course, wasn't supposed to) she told me now she's "being good" for a couple of weeks and following doctor's orders so she'll be all set for the Winter Equestrian Festival.
Jane Clark told me she had purchased a stallion named Tick Tack from Belgium for Leslie Howard, who is pointing for the 2014 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games and the 2016 Olympics, nearly three decades after riding on the 1984 Olympic gold medal team in Los Angeles.
Robert Ridland, who took over as U.S. show jumping coach Dec. 1, talked about his new job and how he plans to nurture not only the A-list stars, but also the A30s, as he calls them. That's the group that's mostly 30 and under that needs experience. He wants to help them get comfortable in big competitions by composing squads for non-championship events of three A-listers with two A-30s. That's how he learned when he rode for the team in the early 1970s as he followed the lead of legends Billy Steinkraus and Frank Chapot.
There's always a bit of news out of the convention, too. Dr. Steve Schumacher, who runs the USEF's Drugs & Medications program, gave people a chance to ask about the details of that program, rebuff some rumors and confirm others. What's next on the horizon, probably this month, is announcement of the hearing commitees' rulings on those who ignored warnings from D&M not to use Gaba (often marketed as Carolina Gold) and got caught with positive tests on their horses. This forbidden substance "slows you down" according to Steve, meaning it has a calming effect on horses. That's a no-no for an organization charged with keeping a level playing field.
Annual meetings have their share of awards, and there was a profusion of trophies handed out. The Lifetime Achievement awards always are the highlight, but there was a sad note to the presentation because Artie Hawkins, one of the recipients, was in the hospital with pneumonia and couldn't attend. Artie is a legendary judge, but we got to see a video tracing the story of his life and featuring an interview with him, so at least those on hand got an idea of what he's like.
Pam Baker, the other recipient, was there with gusto to accept her trophy. The Virginia trainer is all about horsemanship, rather than just winning, and her love of the animals is her passion.
Also honored with another award was Harry Gill, whose list of show jumpers includes Idle Dice, Number One Spy, Gustavus, Beanbag and a host of others. Rodney Jenkins, Beezie Madden and McLain Ward are among the riders who have guided them. Harry wasn't able to attend either, but he sent a detailed speech read by Debbie Stephens that filled everyone in on his thoughts, and emphasized his partiality for thoroughbreds.
Though the convention really is all about work and rulemaking, which can be dry when it's not contentious, there are lighter moments when everyone kicks back, at least a little. No theme party at a USHJA convention likely ever will match last year's Mardi Gras fest in New Orleans, but this year's party was still fun. The motif was the Copacabana, with maracas at every plate, band members in ruffled shirts and slinky dancers dressed in purple, with plenty of paella and shrimp for all.
This is my last trip of the year. I wish all of you happy holidays and a great 2013. I'll be putting up a retrospective of photos I've taken over this year at some point this month, so keep coming to Equisearch and facebook.com/equisearch to look for them.
I'll be sending my next postcards in January, with details to come.