December 12, 2014 -- It was an interesting cross-cultural experience: The U.S. Hunter Jumper Association holding its annual meeting in Las Vegas during the run of the National Finals Rodeo. We didn't lack for folks in cowboy hats and boots moseying through the casino hotels, going to one of the four -- count 'em -- western-themed gift shows (custom cattle brand earrings, anyone?) and bellying up to bars all over town.
Meanwhile, the forums at the USHJA meeting were dealing with such burning issues for English riders as pony measurement, classification of green hunters and how much bling is too much bling in show rings that are a long way from this sparkling city's Thomas & Mack Center.
You'll remember Thomas & Mack from the five World Cup finals that have been held here. Don't forget to mark your calendar for number six in April, when dressage riders and show jumpers gather in the arena that is now hosting bucking bulls and barrel racers.
I used to cover the NFR and itched to get back there, so that's where I headed as soon as I got off the plane last weekend. It was as high energy as I remember, without a single empty seat in the arena that holds 17,000. The crowd spirit is incredible; the cowboys and cowgirls are their heroes and heroines. They are so into it, cheering for success and sighing empathetically for those who didn't make it to the buzzer or knocked down a barrel.
Every time a cowboy successfully rode one of those powerhouse bulls, the guy in the row ahead of me turned around in total jubilation and high-fived me, a stranger. But hey, I got it -- I was pretty jazzed myself.
I touched base with the people from Las Vegas Events, who put on the World Cup finals. Pat Christenson, the president of LVE, filled me in with his thoughts on the 2015 Longines Show Jumping and Reem Acra Dressage finals. Vegas always produces a dynamic finals, but I think the five-year gap since the city hosted the finals will make us appreciate the showmanship that goes into them even more.
Take a look at this video of Pat, with the city's skyline in the background.
Now it's time to get down to the real reason for my trip, the USHJA. Let's start with a brief stroll down memory lane, recalling the mid-summer meeting in 2004 of the fledgling U.S. Equestrian Federation, when USHJA got the nod over the National Hunter Jumper Association to be the federation's hunter jumper affiliate.
It's appropriate that the 10th anniversary is in Las Vegas, because then-USEF President David O'Connor took a gamble by betting on the USHJA. It only had a few hundred members at the time, but it also had determination and president Bill Moroney, who still heads the organization. I remember being impressed at that long-ago meeting with Bill's vision, and much of what he envisioned has come to fruition.
The membership is now 44,000. It's a vibrant, innovative group that offers programs to enhance and grow the sport.
There were 355 in attendance at the convention. That's a good number; very few people want to subject themselves voluntarily to slicing and dicing the rules. It's necessary, of course, but not necessarily entertaining (except when a heated discussion ensues.)
The venue was Caesar's Palace, a rambling casino hotel on The Strip, more formally known as Las Vegas Boulevard. The Strip smacks you in the face with an overdose of neon. Yes it's garish, but Vegas makes no excuses for itself. My favorite neon is the "champagne" that's being poured into a glass on the front of the Aria hotel. Driving can be dangerous, should you be easily distracted by such things.
If you've never been to a Vegas casino hotel, you're unfamiliar with the scale of these giant buildings. Suffice to say that each USHJA attendee received a pedometer in their welcome bag.
It's always fun to come to Vegas, even when most of the time (from 7 a.m. or so) is spent talking rules or revisions thereof. The only time you catch the glitter factor is when you go outside for a breath of air and see the lights everywhere.
I was impressed by the seriousness of the committee members. With all the temptations available, from the casinos (Caesar's had several) to the fabulous restaurants up and down the strip and numerous shows (Shania Twain was playing at Caesar's), it was amazing that anyone showed up for the business part of the meeting or even the awards ceremony. But they definitely had their priorities in order, and a lot of work got done.
The USHJA has learned how to listen. I remember at last year's annual meeting, it seemed we ran out of time to discuss things thoroughly. This year, provision was made for full hearing and exhaustive (as well as sometimes exhausting) discussion.
I talked about that to Mary Babick, the USHJA's hunter vice president.
Listen to this video to hear what she has to say.
Much of what was considered at the convention is a work in progress. A big moment was the unveiling of a five-year strategic plan, a project of USHJA Secretary Larry Langer (who once headed a predecessor group of the USHJA) and his wife, Marnye.
Members are asked to send comments to "mailboxes" for each aspect of the plan, which is aimed at growing the sport and provide value for members. (That's the very short version.)
It examines the organization's strengths (such as the membership base and demographics), weaknesses (one is a disconnect with grassroots riders) opportunities (including using resources to set new standards for education) and threats (medication misuse issues, among others).
An effort is being made to begin solving the pony measurement situation, which is a continuing cause of angst for owners, trainers and riders, when ponies measure out of their division or other competitors lodge a protest over their size. This will take a while, and its success likely will hinge on development of a new, more accurate measuring stick.
Geoff Teall, the new national vice president of USHJA, put forward a plan for "developing hunters," a category that would include a new division, young working hunters with jumps at 3 feet, 3-3 and 3-6, depending on age, as well as green conformation hunters at 3-6 and green working hunters at 3-feet, 3-3, 3-6 and 3-9. It's an evolution from the traditional way of looking at the green horses.
These initiatives show USHJA as being proactive instead of reactive, as so much unfortunately can be in the horse sport world.
I asked Bill Moroney what message he would like to send to members about the convention.
He told me, "Big sport concepts for changes to our sport were discussed in proposal form, conceptual form. Those were a great example of communicating with membership, engaging with membership throughout the year, and then discussing solutions."
He and several other representatives of the organization took issues to the members and held town halls around the country.
"The more we went to, the more different issues came up. People participated in putting forward possible paths to follow that would lead us to the right solutions," he observed.
The highlight of the convention is always the Evening of Equestrians, which salutes deserving people in the sport. There was a lovely "in memoriam" video to remember those we lost since the last annual meeting. Unfortunately, it was too long a list.
The Lifetime Achievement Award honored two people. Leo Conroy, a judge and co-manager of the National Horse Show who was a successful trainer (Overdressed, Calling Card) sadly couldn't attend because he is still recovering from a stroke he suffered in August while on Long Island to officiate at the Hampton Classic. He is at a rehabilitation center in New Jersey now, so his longtime friend, Karen Healey, and former student, Jennifer Cronin Alessi, stepped up to accept for him, along with National Horse Show President Mason Phelps.
Sally Ike was the other honoree, and it's hard to think of anyone who could be more deserving. She has done so much for the sport and is a true, old-fashioned horsewoman who had great success in eventing as a competitor and designs show jumping courses for eventing. The former managing director of show jumping for the USEF, she now serves the organization by heading its educational and licensed officials efforts.
Sally was joined by her daughters, Beth and Sara.
I asked each of them to say something about their mother and what she meant to them.
"I'm so blessed to have her as my mom," commented Beth
"Speed, balance, impulsion and direction," was Sara's contribution to the conversation.
"She's my (surrogate) mom, she's my mentor and I'm so lucky to have her every day in the office," said Lizzy Chesson, who took over as managing director of show jumping.
Sally, a very modest person, seemed a bit overwhelmed but pleased.
"I'm in shock," she confided with a smile.
I have to salute the USHJA staff for everything they did to make the convention run smoothly. It's a ton of work, but they always smiled and were always helpful.
If you want more details on the USHJA meeting, there will be a summary in an upcoming issue of Practical Horseman.
I'm looking forward to returning here in April for the World Cup. For more information, click on the World Cup microsite on Equisearch.
In the meantime, happy holidays to all, and best wishes for 2015. My next postcard will come from another convention (sigh), the USEF's annual gathering in Kentucky next month. Doubtless there will be important things to know, so check back in January.