Is there any silver lining in the seemingly endless bitter dispute between the U.S. Equestrian Team and USA Equestrian (formerly the American Horse Shows Association)?
Surprisingly, perhaps, the answer is yes. Tradition tends to rule in the equestrian world, and this conflict at least has inspired a new look at how the sport is governed in the 21st century.
Another plus--the expensive and time-consuming duplication between the USET and USA Equestrian in handling international responsibilities will be over with a decision on which organization should be equestrian sports' National Governing Body.
The only immediate glimmer of light, though, is the fact that a U.S. Olympic Committee hearing on the controversy is two months away. It should shake out some of the misinformation and misconceptions that have become so widespread during this battle. Most in the equestrian community don't understand the issues at all, and who can blame them? It's far from black and white, with people's partisanship for one organization or the other muddying the waters further.
Does an NGB need to be all-encompassing, taking charge of the sport from its grass roots to the highest echelon of athletes? That's the view of USA Equestrian, which is currently the NGB. Or is the purpose of an NGB to concentrate on the top-tier competitors, ensuring America fields its best teams to win the most medals in international championships? That's how the USET sees it.
Both organizations have bolstered their cases by citing examples of NGBs in other sports that structure things their way. If the USET wins, its plan envisions USA Equestrian as an affiliate in charge of the national picture; that is, everything but the international disciplines. According to the USET, it would pretty much be business as usual for USA Equestrian under that scenario--though USA Equestrian disagrees, of course.
The USET, on the other hand, faces the possibility of extinction if it loses its bid for the title. Should USA Equestrian win, its president, Alan Balch, maintains the USET could stay intact and continue raising money for international efforts. He contends USET leaders can "exert their influence as an organization by helping populate" USA Equestrian's new international high performance committee, which is in charge of international matters. He cautions, though, that "the USET itself would not be the high performance committee."
On the other side, USET President and CEO Armand Leone Jr. doesn't anticipate much of a future for the USET if USA Equestrian wins.
"I think people are not particularly interested in giving money to the AHSA to fund programs over which they have no control," he explains.
If USA Equestrian wins, USET Chairman Finn Caspersen has said, "I don't know what, if any, role would be left for the USET."
After the USOC board makes its decision in October, the loser could opt for binding arbitration. That likely would drag the fight into the beginning of next year. But it's got to end sometime.
The dispute has been costly, as well as divisive. USA Equestrian spent $260,000 on it from Dec. 1 to the end of May, while the USET spent $290,000 from Jan. 1-May 31, according to the most recent figures available. And of course, the meter continues to run. Think of all the staff and volunteer time that has gone into this process.
USA Equestrian hopes that having everything under one umbrella will propel a massive marketing effort for the sport that could raise its profile and bring in more sponsors to pay for programs, including the international end of things. The USET, meanwhile, fears the umbrella approach will cause the international effort to lose its focus, affecting American performance in such competitions as the Olympics and World Equestrian Games.
Whatever the outcome, both groups already are in the process of transforming themselves from the entities that went into this fray, and that should mean better things for the horse world.
This conflict has spurred both organizations to change. The USET created a number of committees it didn't have before, including vaulting and hearing panels, so it could broaden its functions as required if it becomes the NGB. USA Equestrian, meanwhile, has done the same, amending its constitution this month to add such committees as international high performance and certification. The latter may finally allow for establishment of new shows that have been stymied by the restrictive mileage rule. And, after years of discussion, the AHSA finally had the motivation to change its name to something more evocative of what it actually does.
The USET's functions will be reviewed and evaluated by the Harvard Business School's Community Partners to determine how the organization can operate more efficiently and better serve members.
"The USET has also grown significantly over the last 10 years and will hopefully grow even more in the next year, which provides us with the perfect opportunity to make appropriate adjustments and changes..." says Bonnie Jenkins, USET assistant executive director.
On the USA Equestrian side, Balch says people have commented to him, "`It really is remarkable that now the federation is acting like a federation...' It's quite amazing that it's sort of a cathartic thing, that this dam that's held all these things back breaks because of something like this...Now the flood gates are open for a lot of forward movement."
CHANGING THE SUBJECT--The proposed 2004 Olympic format for eventing will get a trial at the Burghley Pedigree Horse Trials in England Aug. 30-Sept. 2.
On show jumping day, all the competitors will jump in the morning to decide the team and lower individual placings. Then the top 25 will jump again in the afternoon to determine the top individual placings.
At the Athens Games three years from now, such an approach would eliminate the need for separate dressage and cross-country tests for the individual medals. But in the Olympics, the second show jumping round for individuals would take place a day or two after the team show jumping, rather than the same day.
As Karen O'Connor pointed out during an FEI (international equestrian federation) eventing forum in Kentucky last spring, that means horses whose riders are competing for individual honors could not have medication for several days to ease their aches and pains after a formidable test. And it would require an extra effort for the horses who were stars in the team competition.
But this proposal also would enable the horse/rider combinations that did best in the team competition to get some extra recognition. They were unable to vie for individual medals under the 1996 and 2000 Olympic formats that called for completely separate competitions for the two sets of medals. International Olympic Committee rules no longer permit giving two sets of medals for one effort.
Eventing is trying to make changes to stay in the Olympics, where its time-consuming format, the expense of running it and the danger to competitors have not worked in its favor. The pity of the suggested format, though, is that spectators won't have the treat of a second day of cross-country, which drew huge crowds in Sydney.