Los Angeles, CA, January 19, 2004 -- For the last few days, I've been on a honeymoon with a couple of hundred other people. I'm only speaking metaphorically, of course, but it's fair to say the first annual meeting of the U.S. Equestrian Federation practically felt like a love-in.
What a welcome contrast this was to the bone-chilling bitterness that pervaded the last few conventions of the old USA Equestrian (the former American Horse Shows Association) during the fight with the U.S. Equestrian Team over which should be horse sports' National Governing Body. (Article continues below)
"We have a new lease on life and a new direction," USEF board member Robert Ridland told me. "There's a feeling of unity that filters down to the committee level."
The USEF was produced by consolidating the USET's operating functions with USA Eq. Its new logo, unveiled here, reflects the USET's traditional red, white and blue shield, with the USA Eq symbol, Pegasus, superimposed on it. The USET is now a foundation raising money from individuals (while the federation seeks corporate sponsorship) to support American teams in international competition, pay the coaches and offset some international high performance overhead. The USET's former operations staff is working for USEF, which will now develop and field teams the way the USET formerly did. USA Eq became a trust that raises money for national causes.
Got that? Admittedly, the whole arrangement is a bit confusing, and many peoples' tongues still were tripping over the NGB's new set of initials(USEF's official birth was just 50 days ago). But there was no stumbling about the organization's goals. USEF President David O'Connor, the 2000 Olympic individual eventing gold medalist, gave a rousing speech early in the convention to set a new course for the federation. That inspired the leaders of the sport assembled here to take the bit in their mouths(I'm in a metaphor mood) and run with it.
"He hit it out of the park," former USET employee Jim Wolf, who now works for USEF, said about O'Connor's pep talk.
The new CEO, John Long, also made a vivid statement with his address to the board about an ambitious organizational vision. The former Churchill Downs racetrack executive used M&M candies as high-calorie props, explaining that in his view, two words -- members and medals -- sum up USEF's focal points. Using one container of M&Ms to represent members and another to signify medals, he poured them together to make his point.
"We need to ask ourselves, where is the value in being a member and what do you get out of it?" he said. Toward that end, he announced service and marketing agreements that will offer direct benefits to those joining USEF, whose officials hope to double its 80,000-plus membership. They believe earning medals, at the Athens Olympics and beyond, will supercharge the process.
"Medals are extremely important, because of the stars they create. The visibility and awareness of our sport comes from the high-end competitions," John explained, contending everyone missed the boat on David's gold medal as an opportunity to promote the sport.
"We can't let that happen again," he vowed, noting international victories give grass-roots riders something to which they can aspire. One of the potential medalists was honored at the USET's luncheon, where dressage icon Debbie McDonald was on hand to accept the Whitney Stone Cup for her achievements as an ambassador of equestrian sport.
Substantive rule changes were not much in evidence, understandable considering USEF's fledgling status, and an awful lot of things were put off until the July board meeting. Still, there are many significant initiatives on the horizon that will affect everyone who takes part in USEF shows. For one thing, it looks like we're finally going to get some action on changing the outdated mileage rule that keeps bad shows in business and prevents new, potentially better, competitions from emerging. There will be a marketing survey on this matter and a task force appointed to study it.
Plans are in the works to require everyone on the showgrounds who is jumping to wear an ASTM/SEI safety helmet, no matter what their age, breed or discipline. Currently, only junior riders are required to wear the helmets. Andrew Ellis, the energetic co-chairman of the safety committee, feels it is hypocritical to tell kids they must wear the helmets when adults don't have to.
There is definitely going to be a hunter/jumper affiliate (like the U.S. Dressage Federation) that eventually will take the burden of administering the disciplines from USEF and offer innovations in education and competition.
I don't want to give you the impression that there weren't any rule changes, because there were pages and pages of them, many of which would not be of much interest to the average competitor. Except, perhaps, for the new rule permitting mules to compete in dressage.
"Most countries probably run on less rules than it takes to operate the federation," John observed.
Happily, when our eyes glazed over, there were several awards dinners to rejuvenate us. The awards are the payoff for a great year or a great career, and the backdrop here was suitably spectacular for the occasion, since we were staying in the stately Millennium Biltmore hotel, an early home of the Oscars. We got our share of emotion and drama in our version of the Oscars, too. Chris Kappler, the spectacular show jumper who got the Horseperson of the Year honors, lost his cool competition demeanor in his acceptance speech, his voice breaking as he thanked his wife and mother for everything they had done for him.
Former eventing coach Jack LeGoff, recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award, happily donned the silver Jimmy Williams cowboy hat trophy after a mini-roast by David.
Jack was known for working students hard at the sitting trot, and David said when he recalls "the larger-than-life" Frenchman's influence, it was "pretty much in the seat area, which is still recovering from my 4 and 1/2 years with him."
A video recounted Jack's triumphs, but his wry sense of humor jolted the audience when he took the stage to explain a horseman's life this way: "You start to be a rider, then become a trainer, then a judge. Then you give seminars, then you're on the jury of appeal and then the worms eat your feet. I'm at the last stage before that."
Jack always leaves them laughing.
But it was David's wife, Karen, who arranged the last laugh of the convention. She hired a Marilyn Monroe lookalike to make an entrance at the final board meeting with a birthday cake for David, who was born on January 18, and sing, "Happy birthday, Mr. President," the way the real Marilyn did for Jack Kennedy a few decades ago.
With any semblance of dignity departed as his cheek glowed from a lipstick kiss, an embarrassed but good-natured David suggested that next year's convention be held during a different month.