December 11, 2015 -- Things are going to get more difficult for the cheaters.
That's a one-sentence sum-up of accomplishments at the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association's annual meeting, which ended yesterday after an intense five-day run. Although any measures passed during the sessions in Orlando still require the approval of the parent U.S. Equestrian Federation at its convention next month in Kentucky (please don't mention the words "rule change" to me between now and then) in most instances, that likely will amount only to a formality.
After the final board session wrapped up, USHJA President Bill Moroney and I talked about what had been achieved during an annual meeting that could be called momentous without stretching the point.
"I think people finally made the effort to put ideas out that are going to address some serious consumer confidence issues in our sport," he told me.
Number one on that hit parade will be mandatory microchipping to identify all hunter, jumper and hunt seat equitation horses and ponies in USEF-recognized competitions. This was a contentious issue when first suggested several years ago, but there was no pushback this time around.
Let's face it--only the cheaters wouldn't want you to know that the horse you're buying is really the horse you're buying. No longer will a seller be able to prevaricate about the horse's age, breeding or experience. A name may be changed, but a microchip will never lie. And on the security side, if a horse gets lost during a natural disaster, such as a hurricane, or is stolen (it does happen) the microchip offers a way to find his owner and get him back home.
USHJA Vice President Mary Babick originally suggested requiring microchipping could take effect on a staggered basis over several years, but in the end, it got relatively fast-tracked. Starting Dec. 1, 2017, all animals in the designated categories (see above) are to be microchipped. If they are not, they may compete but will not be eligible for points or high score awards during the transition year to Dec. 1, 2018. After that, horses without microchips won't be permitted to compete in those divisions in USEF shows.
While the cost of microchipping was a concern initially, it has been suggested as a money-saver that it be done during a routine veterinary visit (such as for innoculations). It is estimated the bill should run between $35 and $60. And don't forget, the chip is good for the lifetime of the horse.
A big part of the acceptance of microchipping should be credited to Summer Stoffel, an Oklahoma warmblood breeder who researched the myths about microchipping and set everyone straight in a ground-breaking article.
Summer and I had a chat about her efforts during the meeting. Click on the video to find out what she had to say.
As Bill pointed out, with microchipping, "if we're going to have sections that are restricted by experience, (then) we have a measurable and reliable system in place to determine what that experience is. The goal with the microchipping and identification is that if this sport wants to keep components such as green hunter with the nomenclature 'green' related to what a horse has done in his career, you've got to have a way for the owners to know what they're buying."
Bill compared it to purchasing a used car, when you'd want to make sure no one has been fooling with the odometer.
There was a scandal a few years back with the big-money Pre-Green Incentive when it was discovered that some horses, which had come from Europe, previously logged so much mileage that they weren't what anyone would call pre-green.
"People want to make sure they're buying a horse that's eligible," said Bill, noting microchipping gives a trainer a way to track a horse being contemplated for purchase.
So that brings us to big changes for the green hunter divisions, and the topic of hunter development. This is part of the thought process that gave us the multi-height of fences in the Performance Hunter division a few years back, replacing Regular Working Hunters.
"For 25 to 30 years, people have been complaining that professional (hunter) sections are dying. They've been Band-Aiding, they've been trying to resuscitate them," said Bill, adding that it got to the point with the "Band-Aids" where "it was like a mummy."
Time for an overview.
"Finally, a group of people got together almost three years ago and said, `You know what? We're going to think outside the box. We're going to put what exists aside and look at the sport from just a fresh perspective.'"
Thus was the hunter development pipeline born, dropping the terms first- and second-year green, but leaving the word green in the designations by height of fences to honor tradition and sync with current sections in terms of enabling existing trophies to stay in place. At the same time, Young Hunters based on age will offer another path and most important, as the horse development folks say, it presents "a platform for American breeders to show, promote and sell their young horses." Both the green and young hunters also are designed to work with the Pre-Green Incentive.
The jumpers, Bill pointed out, dropped their vague designations such as preliminary and intermediate years ago in favor of a system of heights set out in meters to make things both more specific and easier to understand. That worked out well, and hopefully this will, too.
I can't give you all the details of what's happening here; it's too lengthy. Just be sure you and your trainer read up on all this when it is finally in the rulebook.
Sadly, Geoff Teall, who has been the point man on these hunter revisions, did not stay for the board vote on this matter. After he was excluded from a last-minute meeting about refining the rules the night before the final board session, he decided to go home. Politics, politics; it's everywhere.
Geoff explained he didn't feel it was proper after so much work to make changes at the 11th hour, and that's why he left. But I talked to him today and he feels "better that those rules appear to be going forward; with amendments, which is great, without my help and on their own merits. That gives credibility to all the work a bunch of us have done on that. This was a group effort."
While some may have contemplated major changes to the rule, as it happened, the tweaks basically were minor.
"I'm glad it's gone through," said Geoff.
"I'm not going away and I'm going to be part of the process of amending the rule to make sure it fits."
During the meeting, the USEF held a town hall session on widening the net to catch cheaters who violate drug and medication rules to get an edge. This is part of an ongoing education process and effort to make the D&M rules more effective, and the punishment for violators more severe.
One of the things I was very glad to see at the gathering is a new mandate to grow the sport and include people who aren't on the elite/high-end, high-performance level. It seems equestrian sport has been relatively stagnant in terms of growth, and USHJA is working to change that. A focal point will be a national championship (with zone and regional championships as part of the package) in the various divisions. The championship, slated for 2017, would enable the hunter/jumper group to join all the other USEF affiliates that have national championships.
I asked Bill Moroney to explain this initiative; click on the video to learn about it.
In line with Bill's comments, I discussed with Mary Babick how important it is that the organization is paying attention to those at the middle and base of the equestrian pyramid. Find out what she had to say by clicking on this video.
There was quite a discussion in one of the forums about growing the sport, and Will Connell, the USEF's director of sport, had an excellent insight. I caught up with Will after the session, asking him to go into more detail about his thoughts. In case you're wondering about his British accent, Will was the world class performance director for the British equestrian federation before coming to work here late last year. This fellow has been around at all levels of the sport, so I think he had some interesting things to say, and others at the annual meeting agreed with that assessment.
To listen to Will's comments, click on the right-pointing arrow.
So many things happened at the annual meeting that I can't go into all of them. You can find out more at www.ushja.org. While there was little time for partying, we did enjoy a nice welcome reception, and then the awards dinner, which was really a gala affair. Graeme (Butch) Thomas and his wife, Lu, earned the Lifetime Achievement Award. But these Californians sadly couldn't attend, beause they are spending time in Butch's homeland of New Zealand.
Kimberly Kolloff of Massachusetts, who won the Amateur Sportsmanship Award, talked movingly of how horses lifted her from a childhood in an abusive home and helped her cope with multiple sclerosis. She is a dedicated volunteer with Danny & Ron's Rescue, that has saved the lives of thousands of dogs under the guidance of Danny Robertshaw and Ron Danta.
The Jane Marshall Dillon Award is a very important one, because it goes to the teachers who hand on not only the principles of good riding, but good horsemanship as well.
It went to a very cool guy, 84-year-old Richard Watson, a Floridian who is still riding and still learning, as he is proud to say.
He told an amusing story about a student he had long ago, who was having a little trouble trying to ride her horse over fences.
Always patient, Richard told her, "Lucy, you have to ask him to jump."
"She looked at me with tears in her eyes," he recounted, and asked, "`But Richard, what do I say?'
He chuckled and told his audience, "Here I am some 60-odd years later trying to figure out the answer."
USHJA has come a long way since that day in 2003 when then-USEF President David O'Connor gave the nod to Bill that made the USHJA the federation's official affiliate for the disciplines. The range of programs and services it offers is amazing, especially in the perspective of its timeline. I am always impressed by the hard work put in by its volunteers. For many, the time involved takes on the ramifications of a full-time (upaid) job. They're terrific. Endless talk about rule changes is not scintillating conversation, but there's no other way to insure the good of the sport and fair competition.
This is my last postcard of 2015, a year with so many highlights, with the Pan American Games in Canada and the World Cup finals in show jumping and dressage in Las Vegas among them. Let's see what 2016 brings. I'll be back in January with a rundown of what happens at the USEF convention.
Until then, happy holidays!