Louisville, Ky., Jan. 16, 2005--The inaugural U.S. Equestrian Federation annual meeting in 2004 was groundbreaking. This year's, to borrow an expression from president David O'Connor, emerged as positively "revolutionary."
Issues that had been on the back burner for years suddenly got resolved, or took a major step in that direction.
David pushes the organization in the same forward fashion as he rides his horses. When the natural tendency of the board is to get behind the bit and delay, this Olympic eventing gold medalist shows the way and gives members the confidence to leap into action where appropriate.
As a result, USEF finally is in the process of solving the long-running show date predicament. Today, as the meeting ended, the board approved a package of changes geared toward licensing shows and eventually raising show standards, while finding a way for new shows to get on the calendar. Bottom line? You should have better places to compete not too far down the road.
Another biggie is the headgear rule that will go into effect Dec. 1. Basically, it requires everyone riding over fences anywhere on the showgrounds (and, interestingly, all Paso Fino riders 12 and under) to wear American Society of Testing and Materials (ASTM)-approved protective headgear. It's the first time this requirement has gone beyond the junior rider ranks.
I think this is, to use a malapropism that David endearingly made his own this weekend, only "the tip of the ice cube."
The safety committee is continuing to evaluate injury reports.
At some point, and I'm not predicting a date, I'm betting all hunter/jumper exhibitors will have to wear an approved protective helmet whenever they're mounted at a competition, even if they're just hacking. Eventually, that may extend to all exhibitors, regardless of disciplines. It makes sense. My opinion is that you're crazy to get on any horse, anywhere, without protective headgear. If you fall without it, you could wind up being really crazy--or dead.
Despite the importance of what is being achieved these days at the annual meeting, it's not a date I anticipate with glee when I look at my calendar. It is, however, a necessary stop when such major issues are on the table. It's important for me to hear the debate, so I can be properly informed. That way, I'm able to tell you what's happening and, hopefully, why.
Admittedly, though, my eyes are glazed over. Revising rules is never pretty. Five days of discussions and debate from 8 a.m. into the evening can erode even the most determined effort to stay alert. After awhile, it's hard to distinguish rule GR204.3a from article 2716.1.1 in a morass of yellow, pink and white papers for which far too many trees have died.
Old-timers still familiarly call this "the convention," a holdover from one of USEF's predecessors, the American Horse Shows Association, during a less-frantic era. In those days, before all the sunshine circuits had expanded into mid-January, you'd see nearly everybody who was anybody at the annual gathering, and it was a social occasion. We'd go en masse on field trips. I remember visiting the Budweiser Clydesdales in their stable when we were in St. Louis.
Now the majority of those who fly in are officials, judges and show managers. It's rare to see an ordinary exhibitor anywhere but the Horse of the Year high score awards dinner. Too few trainers and active athletes attend. Eventers had a good turnout for part of the meeting, though, because of a session about the future of the sport (more on that later) but otherwise only a handful of top-level competitors showed up at the historic Seelbach Hilton.
Some, like Chris Kappler, came to collect awards--there were three dinners and two luncheons for that purpose.
Chris, the Olympic individual bronze show jumping medalist, got the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation's Whitney Stone Cup for his efforts as an ambassador to the ranks of international equestrian sport. I don't have to remind you how Chris lost Royal Kaliber after the Olympics. He's had a difficult couple of months, but now he told me he's "re-energized" and will be looking forward to competing with Primeur, another grand prix horse who was always in Royal's shadow. Although Chris's situation has meant he doesn't have much in the way of World Cup Finals qualifying points, it would be wonderful if he could get a wild card berth to compete in Las Vegas this April.
Our other 2004 Olympic individual medalist, eventing silver winner Kim Severson, was the Equestrian of the Year, while the Jimmy Williams Lifetime Achievement Award went to U.S. Dressage Federation founder Lowell Boomer. Unfortunately, Lowell, 93, couldn't make it from his Nebraska home to Kentucky, but we were treated to his insights and sharp wit via a video made when David and Jimmy Wofford went to visit him last fall and present him with the famous silver cowboy hat that goes with the title.
Interestingly, when David and his family went on their cross-country ride in 1973, one of the places they stopped with their horses was at Lowell's farm. While they were there, he was busy organizing the USDF. Of course, David told me, he never would have dreamed at the time that he'd be back more than 30 years later as president of the USEF to honor Lowell.
"Circles within circles," David said, his favorite expression when discussing the compelling and often-inexplicable drama that is life.
At the media awards luncheon, one of the trophy recipients was your faithful website. EquiSearch took the honors in the internet category for the second year in a row. I was proud to accept the trophy on behalf of our team.
One of the best things about the convention was the four-hour meeting that I referred to earlier that set a course for eventing's future from a U.S. perspective under the skillful direction of facilitator Howard Pike. Now it looks as if all 1-stars in this country will go in what is being called the "classic format" with steeplechase. The 2-, 3- and 4-stars will have the option to use that or the "Olympic format," run without steeplechase or roads and tracks.
There will be an effort to save the 4-star classic format by having an individual championship at Rolex Kentucky in the future, though that thinking is in the very preliminary stages. But the feeling is that our eventers better start concentrating on polishing their dressage and show jumping, because those phases are integral to success in the Olympic format that is now the ballgame.
There were so many meaningful rules enacted that I can't tell you about all of them. One that should have a big impact will prohibit minors from driving golf carts, cycles or scooters on the showgrounds. Actually, the idea is to AVOID impact--there have been too many accidents involving horses and pedestrians due to kids losing control of these vehicles.
Another new rule puts greater responsibility on veterinarians to abide by and know USEF rules. If one in the small minority of unethical practitioners, for instance, pulls up to the back of the showgrounds distributing vials of liquid "that won't test" to calm or otherwise affect horses, they can be reported to their state licensing board.
More regulations are still in the development stages. Sarah Friedman, whose horse, Lancelot (Lenny) had to be put down after being kicked in a crowded schooling ring at Washington last fall, came here to suggest better control in schooling areas and is working with dynamic safety committee chairman Andrew Ellis on the wording.
The proposed rule, which she'd like to call "Lenny's Law," is slated for presentation at the board's July meeting. It would mandate shows to appoint a schooling supervisor with the authority to regulate the number of horses and their activities in the schooling ring. It's a welcome idea to tame what is often far too wild and dangerous a scene.
There are a number of other interesting things in the wind. The federation is exploring the concept of its own national championship show, perhaps a multi-breed affair, though it's by no means certain it will ever happen. And the HITS facility in the Catskills will host a $150,000 official U.S. national jumper championship in June, which manager Tom Struzzieri hopes will be the date for America's second Nations' Cup the next year.
The 2006 reining Masters is going to be in Las Vegas, which underlines the appeal of that city for equestrian competitions.
And the U.S. is going to join with other countries to make the FEI more responsive and insure America has more influence with that organization in the future.
It looks to me like our sport organizations, both the USEF and the USET Foundation, are on track and really chugging along, having put years of turmoil behind them. That's good news for all of us who care about equestrian competition.
Whew! Well that isn't everything, but as David said when asked what was next for USEF, "I think it's time to take a breath."
After I do, I'll be heading down to the Winter Equestrian Festival. Be looking for my postcard next month!