You're at a big hunter/jumper show. In one ring, riders you've seen on covers of horse magazines are guiding fabulous mounts over impossibly large obstacles, while at the other end of the show grounds, small children are doing their best to steer ponies over knee-high fences. And then someone whispers that the fellow driving the water truck runs the whole event-and that, Dorothy, is when you know you're not in Kansas anymore-you're at a HITS show.
HITS, or Horse Shows in the Sun, is a nationwide horse-show production company owned and operated by 42-year-old Tom Struzzieri. Struzzieri's dynamic business sense, hands-on management style (yes, that was him on the watering truck) and just-do-it ways are making waves at every level of hunter/jumper showing.
From a modest beginning in 1981 with just one Florida show, HITS has grown to a current six venues across the country (and more may be coming). There are multi-week HITS series in California, Nevada, Arizona, Virginia, Florida and New York-huge affairs hosting an average of 250 classes and 3,000 horse people per week-long event. It's a monstrous business that requires staggering feats of coordination and offers ample financial rewards-and it all started with a simple childhood wish to be around horses.
Growing up on New York's Long Island, Struzzieri always knew that being in the horse business was what he wanted to do with his life. He "rode a bit, showed a little," and at the precocious age of 18, persuaded his father and brother to partner with him in a hunter/jumper riding stable venture in upstate Poughkeepsie. There, Struzzieri served as manager and trainer to a mixed clientele of mostly "middle riders-not very competitive riders who wanted to have fun." He'd take them to local circuit shows and once a year or so haul to bigger ones. He also held shows, one-day events initially, that over time evolved into multi-day affairs.
In 1981 he took a tremendous business leap by staging a winter show in Gainesville, Florida. "Not knowing the potential problems can be a blessing," he says, adding, "I'm not sure that, knowing what I know now, I'd suggest that particular jump." Marketing the show was a challenge. But Struzzieri decided that instead of targeting the already well-served "high-end" rider, he'd create a show with appeal for the type of students he taught at home.
Niche marketing, Struzzieri maintains, was the reason for the success of that first show, and one of the main reasons why HITS has managed to grow enormously in the 20 years since. HITS has become an industry innovator in serving these riders, offering "middle-rider" classes such as non-rated hunter and Marshall and Sterling sections. The Marshall and Sterling League, which Struzzieri created in 1991, is a series in which nonprofessional riders only compete for year-end points.
But HITS also provides amply for riders at the other end of the spectrum: Shows feature traditional favorites including USET and Medal/Maclay classes and U.S. Grand Prix League events (in fact, with the help of sponsors such as Cosequin, HITS offers the largest collective show-jumping purse in the business, attracting world-class horses and riders).
Struzzieri has also taken his get-things-done attitude into equestrian political arenas: He's a director of USA Equestrian (formerly AHSA), Zone 2 vice chairman and president of the National Hunter/Jumper Council. One of his main objectives (and within the USAE it's a somewhat controversial one) is to turn the HJC into an independent organization, like the U.S. Dressage Federation and the U.S. Combined Training Association. Why does he think this would be a good idea? "So we can be discipline-specific," he says, "and take care of the needs of the hunter/jumper industry." There are, he says, 25,000 members of the USAE, one-third of its total membership, involved in hunter/jumper activities. "But there are hundreds of thousands of people involved in hunter/jumper activities across the country. These are the people we want to reach out for."
Add to his HJC duties and business responsibilities the needs of a young family: He and his wife, Jane, have three children, ranging in age from 1 to 6. It's a challenging, demanding life, but one he seems to find hugely rewarding as well. "Any person in business for themselves has a number of obstacles to overcome," he says, "but the greater the obstacles, the greater the potential for gains. That's worked out well for this company-it's proven to be our success story."