December 13, 2013 -- Did I need to be in Atlanta, far from home, two weeks before Christmas?
Yes, (sigh) I did, even though the wreath (equestrian-themed) on my front door is just about it in the way of seasonal decorations at my house. The tree isn't up, the cards aren't sent and the shopping? I cringe considering what I have to wrap up in that department.
Despite that, I needed to drop everything so I could attend the five-day U.S. Hunter Jumper Association's annual meeting. Among other things, it's a chance to talk for more than a minute with people I usually only see in passing on the way to the ring at a show. Even more important, it's a barometer on where the industry is going, and how it will get there.
It's also interesting to witness how contentious issues are brought up, discussed and sometimes resolved. In this instance, however, a few of the biggest items will have to wait until the U.S. Equestrian Federation's annual meeting in January -- or beyond -- for resolution.
Resistance to change comes early and often at the meeting's forums. That isn't just the nature of horse people; it's the nature of people, period.
There were plenty of hot button topics. They all demonstrate, as USHJA President Bill Moroney said, "an acknowledgement that we do have issues in our sport. They need to be talked about and we need to create solutions."
A big one was the pre-green situation. Turns out that there is a U.S. Equestrian Federation inquiry into five of the horses that competed in the USHJA's Pre-Green Incentive Championship in August. Someone (no one will say who, but it appears to be more than one person, and not a competitor in the class) spent time on the computer and found that these horses did not meet pre-green specs. That is, they had more competition experience, and at greater heights, than was permitted.
I'll let Bill explain.
There is going to be a retreat of those involved with the issue to come up with some answers. But to avoid all the cheating, intentional and otherwise, it seems using age as a qualifier for pre-green instead of experience is the most logical way to go. And if you have a horse who is outside the age limits, say, a 12-year-old former dressage mount that you want to start in hunters, there's always the Performance Hunter division, at its lower heights, to teach him the ropes. You just don't get a part of the youngsters' pre-green financial action which, admittedly, is considerable. And that's one of the reasons why there's cheating.
So in line with that, there was a furor over a proposed rule calling for having a bill of sale on every horse. It would have to be executed by the buyer, seller, leasor and agents and distributed to everyone involved. Amazing to me there's a lot that owners don't know much about the horses they spent a fortune buying.
Wonder why professionals started frothing over the prospect of issuing a bill of sale? Many won?t deal with a bill of sale, and as a result, a lot of horse owners are clueless about transactions that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and even more. Without a bill of sale, you might not know the real purchase price (so the trainer tells you it's $60,000, but is it really half that, with the rest being padding or commissions to a plethora of unseen agents?) And if there's been a name change on the animal, you can't easily find out what he did before you bought him.
But the proposal, which is similar to what is required for real estate transactions, had a Big Brotheresque feel to many in the forum where this was discussed.
Some said they didn't want the sale price and commissions to be public or reported to the USEF. The proposal didn't call for that, however.
In the minds of fervent opponents, the whole subject boiled down to this, as one objector put it: "transactions are not the business of the federation." Meaning the USHJA and USEF shouldn't get involved.
So Debbie Bass, the determined woman who kept the ball rolling on the issue as co-chair of the Joint Owners' Task Force, withdrew it from consideration yesterday. It's not that a remedy for the situation is dead. She noted USEF President Chrystine Tauber said her organization will educate and promote ownership issues. (Some owners are just clueless and while they might use caution when buying or selling a boat, for instance, they put themselves completely in their trainers' hands when it comes to equine issues.)
Debbie said, "we're happy with that conclusion. We'll evaluate it in six months and see if it addresses some of the programs owners have."
You haven't heard the last of this subject.
Ironically, the key word used over and over at the meeting was "transparency." There are some who want it for what USHJA and USEF do, but won't consider it for their dealings.
Along the same lines, there was vehement opposition to a proposal calling for microchipping horses competing in USEF shows. FEI horses have to be microchipped, but objections to making it mandatory across the U.S. divisions include cost (especially important for owners of multiple horses) and lack of assurance during the meeting that it's foolproof identification, which can't be tampered with or removed.
This rule proposal is being rewritten and will be re-presented at the USEF annual meeting next month (at least it's after the holidays!) We'll be going through everything (and more) again there, because the federation is the final word on enacting rules.
Other proposals that didn't make it but likely will at some point are a limit on how long before competing a horse may be administered a joint injection, and how long before showing they may be administered shock wave treatment.
The latter has analgesic properties that could make serious problems worse by covering them up so the horse can show.
As I said, spending time with people you know and meeting new ones is a big part of the week. Janet Greenlee, the USHJA's new executive director, is scheduled to start her job next month.
She was soaking up everything, though when things got hot, I wondered if she was doing a re-think. With a bright smile, she said no, she will still move from Texas to Kentucky and obviously is eager to start working. She has a background in marketing and strategic planning that will pay off in her new job. The fact that she is also a rider and horse owner means she wasn't thrown off when all the insider talk swirled around her.
Speaking as I did earlier about getting a chance to chat with people who are generally on the run at shows, I talked with U.S. show jumping coach Robert Ridland. Of course he and new Young Rider coach DiAnn Langer had much to go over with Lizzy Chesson, the USEF's managing director of show jumping, but high performance isn't his only purview. He's interested in the horse and rider pipeline. Here's what he had to say.
David Distler, the USHJA's vice president for show jumping, felt rules that came out of the Young Jumper Task Force will well serve development of horses in the division. They take care of everything from stating what type of obstacles should be used when, to making sure the five-year-olds won't be racing around over low fences, to their detriment.
Mary Babick, USHJA's vice president for the hunters, believed the week had worked out well. Though some issues remained unresolved, there was a spirit of working together on other items that made it feel much had been accomplished, even if it wasn't as much as had been hoped for.
When you think of annual meetings or conventions, as they are often called, do you have a vision of people in funny hats dancing around and having a high old time? This gathering was nothing like that. Mostly, it involved business, with the board getting together as early as 7 a.m. at one point and often-intense meetings continuing throughout the day and past that in strategy sesssions. But there were several receptions to give people a break (though I didn't see anyone in a funny hat) and the Evening of Equestrians is the one major dinner.
It's always a time to honor the deserving. This year, they included trainers Timmy Kees, Ralph Caristo and Nick Karazzisis. All are 65 or over and have spent a lifetime giving a firm foundation to their students. That brought them the Jane Marshall Dillon Award, named after the author of "School for Young Riders," which I read avidly when I was a kid.
It was very emotional for the audience to see how moved the recipients were by the honor. Ralph is a New Yorker you probably best know as the highly successful coach/cheerleader of the Zone II junior and Young Rider teams.
A Californian, Nick works with his family at Far West Farms. Among the big names who have started there is international show jumper Ashlee Bond.
Timmy, who lives in Connecticut, created his reputation by working with equitation, junior hunter and junior jumper champions, but it was neat to find out he grew up riding in Pony Club, galloping racehorses and as a real hands-on horseman in Maryland.
And then there were the Lifetime Achievement Awards. Standing ovations were in order both for course designer Steve Stephens, whose acceptance speech was a hoot, and the always gracious hunter rider Betty Oare, who is a volunteer extrordinaire for the sport's organizations.
Happy holidays to everyone. I hope you have time to spend with your horses during this busy season. After all, that's what it's about (though in the middle of a long meeting, it might be too easy to forget).
I'll be sending my next postcard from the USEF annual meeting, after I take down the Christmas tree (maybe that will have to wait for my return, or perhaps Valentine's day...)