For some, the horse show world is an escape from the complications of everyday life. But for those involved in equestrian governance, there is no escape from the issues involved in ironing out the sport’s wrinkles and trying to improve their industry in an ever-more complicated world.
More than 300 people last week came to San Antonio for the USHJA annual meeting, where they aired grievances and sought solutions, speaking frankly about hundreds of pages of proposed rule changes with the potential to reshape the sport and take a step toward improving it.
There also was an emphasis on creating a sense of community, building shared attitudes and values in the horse world. A keynote talk on the subject was given by Lisa Roskens, the force behind bringing the 2017 Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping finals to Omaha.
A highlight of the gathering, as always, was the Evening of Equestrians. Lifetime achievement awards were given to USHJA Vice President Dianne Johnson, a former competitor and respected show manager, along with Phil De Vita, a former trainer and a judge for more than a half-century. Alvin Topping, who was instrumental in the birth and growth of USHJA, received the title of director emeritus, while Cheryl Rubenstein was named Volunteer of the Year.
During the five-day convention, we heard disturbing stories about horse show shortcomings, whether it was failure to get medical aid in a timely fashion for fallen riders who lay in the dirt as the show swirled around them, footing so poor that it caused horses to fall and shows that were unresponsive to the needs of exhibitors.
With 44,000 members, USHJA is the largest affiliate of the U.S. Equestrian Federation that oversees 29 breeds and disciplines. USEF, which must approve any regulations passed by the USHJA before they go in the rulebook, has set up show standards, but compliance is still a work in progress.
It’s a messy process, noted USHJA President Mary Babick, comparing it to the painful need to cut away the proud flesh on an injured horse before it can begin to heal properly.
She started a sport integrity task force after last year’s annual meeting, but is “extremely dissatisfied with the resistance we feel to change.” Mary added she thinks that “most people in the horse world are honest.” But it’s those who aren’t who get the attention.
Some of the comments that came up over the week were eye-openers. Trainer Britt McCormick suggested during the sports integrity forum that perhaps serious violations should be career-ending. At the other end of the scale, show jumper Jimmy Torano noted, “If we as exhibitors do something wrong, we get heavily fined. I think they (horse show managers) should be fined like we are fined.”
There was a comment that hunter division problems, involving everything from use of calming substances to excessive longeing, have driven people to the jumper division. Those involved with jumpers are worrying about how to divide classes of 80 or more, while too often, the hunter folks are scratching to find a handful of entries to fill a class.
Hunters that go around a course like zombies don’t do anything to promote the division. “We are asking horses to perform unnaturally,’’ said trainer Robin Greenwood. “We’ve taken out the bounding stride.”
From my room at the hotel where the meeting was held, I had a view of the Alamo. Those who fought there so valiantly lost the battle, but in the end, the war was won and we have the state of Texas to show for it. There are many battles that have yet to be won on the governance front, but those involved in governance are not surrendering.
Social media brings issues to the forefront far more quickly than they were recognized in the past. That presents a greater challenge for the sport’s organizations, as everything comes under intense scrutiny but fixing the problems takes time—though some have lingered for many years.
One step in the right direction is a new rule tasking officials with keeping track of horse falls in competition arenas on the show grounds. That will give a data base that could be useful in finding ways to stop accidents.
You can expect more rules in the future governing medical personnel and the need for ambulances on the showgrounds. Changes undoubtedly will be inspired by the horrifying story that was told about amateur show jumper Laura Linback, who had a life-changing fall when her horse collapsed at the ingate. The EMT at the show couldn’t help when she stopped breathing, and it took a person with medical experience coming down from the stands to save her.
A rule that passed about qualified medical personnel now includes the addition of someone trained in Advanced Life Support, but it was pointed out in one forum that the hunter/jumper group is far behind the medical protocols that prevail in three-day eventing, where the safety officer is one of the most important people at a competition.
Other items from the annual meeting:
- It’s a sign of the times: Professional trainers and coaches who sign entry blanks at recognized shows will be required to take a course in “safe sport” training aimed at protecting their students from abuse that runs the gamut from sexual to mental, get training about concussions and undergo a criminal background check before signing an entry blank at a show.
- The first USHJA national championship show is set for November 2018 in conjunction with the Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping Las Vegas. Stephanie Wheeler of Bleinheim Equisports will manage the Cup qualifier and the marquee jumper classes, while Pat Boyle and Tom Struzzieri will do the honors for USHJA. The long-awaited show, proposed several years ago, probably will move around the country in the future. “The children’s/adult hunters, the amateur adult hunters, the lower-level jumpers, those are our core audience throughout the industry,” Pat said. “They never had a place to have a finals. You go to Harrisburg, Washington and Kentucky (the National Horse Show), it’s all the big boys.” It is a concept similar to the U.S. Dressage Federation’s championship show at the Kentucky Horse Park.
- One of the biggest controversies involved presentation of a new hunter breeding rule that would allow a handler to show only one horse per class. The idea was to open up the division, which often has been dominated by a few name players. After much back-and-forth, it was decided that the one-horse-per-handler rule would only extend to competitions that are designated Premier and National. At regional shows, a handler may present multiple horses.