St. Petersburg, Fla., December 11, 2009 -- Combining the words "dynamic" and "annual meeting" might seem to be as much of an oxymoron as "airline food."
Endless discussions about rule changes, the focus of such gatherings, tend to suck the air from a room while dazing many of those present.
But the energy at the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association's (USHJA) annual meeting here really was amazing, translating concepts into plans toward changes that will pay off. As I went from meeting to meeting, I found I was actually excited by all the possibilities.
"This is a turning point of the hunter jumper sport in the U.S.," declared USHJA President Bill Moroney, the man who has led the organization since its founding.
First and foremost on the USHJA agenda is restructuring the hunter division. Anything passed by the USHJA board at its meeting still must be approved by the U.S. Equestrian Federation (USEF) board at its convention next month, but the groundwork is all done here and in most cases, it's likely the USEF will go along. There was one exception, but more on that later.
A keystone of the restructuring is a new division, the USHJA Performance Hunter, which will offer sections at 3-feet, 3-inches, 3-6 and 3-9.
I asked Bill to explain the project to me.
The convention was held at the stately 1920s vintage Renaissance Vinoy hotel on the bayfront in this west coast Florida city. I had a lovely view of the bay and its adjacent park, but I never got over there--like everyone else, I was just too busy for extracurricular activities.
There were 300 people at the meeting, with many big names taking part. Olympic show jumping medalist Chris Kappler, president of the new North American Riders Group, was on hand making his presence felt, along with World Cup show jumping manager Robert Ridland; hunter riders extraordinaire Scott Stewart and Louise Serio; USEF President David O'Connor, stopping in at each of the various forums and HITS show impresario Tom Struzzieri, just to name a few.
But lower-profile people were well-represented, too, and they made sure their concerns were heard. The top end of the sport is always served, but in the three decades that I've been going to conventions--first the old American Horse Shows Association (AHSA), then USA Equestrian and USEF and now USHJA, there's a segment that feels (and rightly so) that the body of the sport below the top needs more attention. USHJA Director Geoff Teall organized a 7 a.m. session for them on Tuesday.
"I asked Bill if we couldn't try and put a group together at an inconvenient hour, so we'd only get the interested to talk about what I call 'the middle group' and he agreed," said Geoff, a hunter trainer who is also a rider.
"I didn't really know where it was going," Geoff conceded, but more than 100 riders, trainers, show managers and others came, ready to speak about what they thought was important.
"I was so excited to see that many people and hear that many thoughts. It felt good to include them," said Geoff. "We don't try not to include them, but they often feel they are not included enough. It was a very healthy moment for the USHJA. We have to understand better how we affect them, and I feel we're closer to a way to do that. I don't want us to be the new old boys' club."
When Geoff asked the group what they called themselves, Texas show manager/trainer/course designer Britt McCormack spoke up and said, "We're the majority"--"which I thought was awesome," Geoff commented.
I caught up with Britt later and asked for his thoughts.
Geoff told me the USHJA is forming a committee for young professionals up to the age of 35.
"We want to bring them in and teach them how to be involved, so we don't keep reliving this movie," he said.
Another key matter is show standards, with the often-controversial mileage rule wrapped up in that. While there have been calls over the years to eliminate mileage restrictions between shows to let the free market sort things out, Bill pointed out that carrots and sticks are needed to keep a system in line.