Louisville, Ky., January 17, 2010 -- The 2 a.m. Thursday fire siren (fortunately a false alarm) that shrilled through our hotel wasn't the only wake-up call at the U.S. Equestrian Federation's (USEF) annual meeting here.
The controversial single non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) rule, which had been a point of contention between the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association (USHJA) and the USEF, was approved today by the federation's board of directors in a compromise version that signaled a new tone in the equine drug debate.
It was also, as USEF President David O'Connor put it, "a cultural shift."
The phrase "welfare of the horse" is front and center all the time these days, and that's a good thing. No equestrian organization can operate in this era without paying more than lip service to that concept.
The USEF's veterinary committee and drugs and medications panel (known as D&M) both decided it was time for trainers to stop giving their horses two NSAIDs just to get them to the show ring, when they actually should be resting and/or diagnosed to determine what is wrong with them. While NSAIDs bring down inflammation, they also have an analgesic effect that can mask some lamenesses. Even more important is veterinarians' contention that overuse of NSAIDs causes problems in the horse's digestive system and elsewhere. The single NSAID approach has the endorsement of the American Association of Equine Practitioners and the American Quarter Horse Association, among others, so it was time for USEF to follow suit.
At its December convention, USHJA had opposed the limitation and suggested instead that trainers giving two NSAIDs to their horses file a report to that effect every time they did so, saying that would offer an opportunity for research into the effects of doubling down on the medications. But the open-ended concept wasn't going to fly with USEF.
However, in the spirit of give and take, which is becoming the hallmark of the seven-year-old federation's maturity, intense negotiations resulted in a temporary delay of the proposed effective date for the single NSAID rule, which now will be December 1, 2011. Meanwhile, after April 1, 2010, everyone using two NSAIDs will have to file a special form. Those who don't will be penalized following their first transgression.
USHJA President Bill Moroney, who brokered the deal, thinks the time frame offers a good opportunity for veterinarians to collect data, as well as to educate his constituency about the rule and offer breathing room for trainers to adjust their programs accordingly. Will the new rule result in people flocking to unrecognized shows where there is no drug-testing; less showing, or more unwanted horses once the older ones can't be kept sound enough to compete without their drugs? Trainers have mentioned all those possibilities, but it's yet to be determined whether any of those scenarios will become reality.
One thing is certain, however: the collegial way it all worked out says a great deal about how things have sorted themselves in the USEF universe. Bill Moroney had some interesting thoughts about that.
Most of the convention involved rule change discussions (which get very ho-hum) and in a more interesting vein that requires less caffeine, seeking the way forward for a federation that continues to develop. Anyway, there's always lots of talk.
It's also an opportunity to catch up with what people have been doing since I saw them last year. I chatted with Alan Balch, the former president of USA Equestrian (USEF's predecessor) who is leaving his post as executive secretary and registrar of the American Saddle Horse Association/Registry after six years. He's a USEF board member and will keep busy with the USAE Trust, which funds equine veterinary research.
The fun moments come at night during the two big dinners, Horse of the Year and the Pegasus Awards. The star of both was the partnership of 2009 World Cup dressage finals winner Steffen Peters and his mount, Ravel. Ravel didn't make an appearance, naturally (everything was on the second floor of the hotel, and those elevators are a little small for a horse) but Steffen finally made it. He was named Equestrian of the Year last January as well, then had to miss the ceremony because he was conducting a clinic in Florida, so it felt was good to finally see him here in person.
This year, he was competing in California on the day Ravel's trophy was presented to the horse's owner, Akiko Yamazaki. But just in time for the Pegasus dinner, Stefan showed up. He was one of seven "Equestrians of Honor" who were candidates for the big title. Even though such stalwarts as world championships medal-winning driver Suzy Stafford, veteran in-hand hunter showman Kenny Wheeler and International Hunter Derby finals winner John French were in the running, I figured there was no way Steffen could lose. And he didn't.
I can't wait to see him ride Ravel at the Exquis World Dressage Masters next month in Florida, where he'll meet up again with the Netherlands' Anky van Grunsven and Germany's Isabell Werth. Even better will be the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in September, since he'll be facing wonder horse Moorland's Totillas, Edward Gal's record-setting mount.
I had a chance to visit with Steffen after he received a standing ovation (he must be getting used to them!) from the appreciative crowd at the dinner.
Akiko couldn't stay for Saturday's festivities, but she positively glowed while accepting Ravel's trophy on Friday night. One of the things she likes best is the only-in-America international flavor of Ravel's contingent.
This is how she described it: "The team is composed of, starting with Ravel himself, who was born in Holland; the rider, Steffen, who was born in Germany; myself, I'm of Japanese descent; his vet is Mexican, his groom is Mexican, his farrier is a French guy and I think only in America can you have this success...Go USA!"
Dressage icon Jessica Ransehousen, who rode in three Olympics (in both the '60s and the '80s, talk about staying power!) was as entertaining as she usually is upon accepting the Lifetime Achievement Award. I don't think she really enjoyed wearing the silver cowboy hat trophy (even begging wouldn't make her put it on a second time for an encore round of photos), but she really enjoyed herself, surrounded by many of her admirers.
She's been as stellar a dressage chef d'equipe as she was a rider and trainer, one of the few you could always count on to speak her mind without worrying what people would think. And so it was when she gave her entertaining acceptance speech that told tales about her many adventures along the way with such personalities as George Morris, the late U.S. Equestrian Team chairman Whitney Stone and various authority figures who couldn't wear her down.
Following the ceremony, I got a chance to ask "what now?" since Lifetime Achievement seems to signal retirement.
She also wanted me to mention her daughter, eventer Missy Ransehousen, someone of whom she is rightfully proud. Missy followed in her mother's chef d'equipe footsteps by becoming the paraequestrian team coach, but she veered off the path by sticking to eventing, rather than concentrating on dressage. I know that hasn't done much for her mother's nerves, but ever-supportive Jessica told me she'll be at Rolex Kentucky this spring to watch her daughter compete.
One of the evening's sweetest moments came with the presentation of the Sally Busch Wheeler Trophy for distinguished service to equestrian sport. David gets to pick the winner (always kept a secret), and the USEF's managing director of show jumping, Sally Ike, was flabbergasted when her name was announced.
"I was totally, totally surprised. I feel like I just do my job every day and lots of people do as good a job as I do,'' said the way-too-modest Sally, who has nothing to be humble about. She's a superb horsewoman, a talented course designer for the show jumping phase of eventing, a technical delegate and especially important in David's view, a fabulous mentor. She has brought along the current director of high performance show jumping, Lizzy Chesson, and her daughter, Sara Ike, who holds the same position in eventing. Both women share Sally's work ethic and ideals, a wonderful legacy.
In the most touching moment during the Horse of the Year presentations, an emotional John French accepted the First Year Green Working Hunter high score trophy for Small Affair, trained by Scott Wilson.
"It meant a lot to Scott. He was really excited about this," John said, noting how the trainer had looked forward to the occasion.
But Scott never made it to Kentucky. The trainer, who suffered from asthma, died two weeks earlier after he had trouble breathing during a ski trip.
The victory meant a lot to him, John said, because he took "a diamond in the rough" and made him into a winner for his bookkeeper, Liz Reilly and barn manager, Chris Iwasaki, the owners of the Selle Francais.
On Pegasus night, I was impressed by the young people who got awards. They are part of the federation's youth movement, something in which David is very interested because it is, of course, the future of the federation. In fact, he pointed out, a USEF president may one day come from the ranks of those who have been part of the youth council, which held its convention in association with annual meeting and treated us all to a fashion show of USEF-wear.
Extremely poised Morgan horse enthusiast Maxi Gumprecht of Mercer Island, Washington, Breyer's USEF Youth Sportsman Award winner, is majoring in international studies at Johns Hopkins University. California eventer Maxance McManamy, the Junior Equestrian of the Year, won double gold at the North American Junior and Young Rider Championships. Her cute acceptance speech was couched in a movie analogy in which she paid a moving tribute to her late stepfather, who sold his motorcycle collection to buy her favorite mount, Beacon Hill.
If all you did was watch the videos screened at the dinners, you'd know 2009 turned out to be quite a year. But those of us who listened to all the reports at the board meetings had a deeper insight. At the 2009 convention, the economic picture looked bleak. Somehow, however, the USEF wound up with a $2 million surplus. How did it happen? I discussed that with USEF CEO John Long.
There's always something on the horizon with USEF. The most major changes out of the hunter division will be discussed at the board's August meeting, which likely will produce a definitive list of regulations that set quantifiable standards to which shows will have to measure up.
I'll be sending you my next postcard from the Exquis Dressage Masters. Let's hope it's another triumph for Ravel as we build up to the excitement of the WEG.