Louisville, Ky., January 13, 2008 -- I feel good, or at least as good as someone can when they haven't set foot outdoors for four days. The U.S. Equestrian Federation's (USEF) annual meeting, held at a downtown hotel, doesn't allow much time for anything but its extensive business.
Admittedly, there is a temptation to nod off after listening to the minute details of endless rule-making discussions, but when attending an event like this, you have to look at the big picture.
And that's the reason I feel good: The meeting has come a long way from the days when it was a battleground between the U.S. Equestrian Team and the old American Horse Shows Association/USA Equestrian. Now there's a real sense of accomplishment and the knowledge that things are being done for the betterment of the members, their horses and the sport.
Programs are being evaluated with letter grades. Conditions at competitions are being scrutinized.
Finally, we're on the road to accountability for the type of experience horse shows provide, and there's more to come.
While in horse sports it often seems as if the breeds and disciplines value their separateness more than what they have in common, I got the sense at this session that they are continuing to come together. USEF CEO John Long mentioned an initiative with the Arabian Horse Association, likely the first in a series of efforts to see how the Mother Ship can work better with affiliates to the advantage of both.
Although work crowded most of the agenda, there were several good awards dinners. Pan American Games double gold-medalist Karen O'Connor turned out to be the star of those, since she won both the Equestrian of the Year title on Friday night and came back to the stage the next evening when her little superstar, Theodore O'Connor, was named the Farnam/Platform Horse of the Year.
Karen was, as they say, over the moon. Both awards were voted on by the membership, the media and the board. Even Karen's husband, USEF President David O'Connor, didn't know if she'd won, since it's a big secret until the trophies are handed out. He opened the envelope himself on Friday, but last night, he was pretty nervous and handed it off to Farnam's Chris Jacobi for the big moment.
Karen is an inspiration. She turns 50 next month (as she mentioned several times over the weekend; there's going to be a BIG party in Ocala!) But instead of slowing down, she's going faster.
I caught up with her right after she accepted the Horse of the Year trophy, and if you listen to this sound byte, you can hear the excitement in her voice (as well as the buzz from all the attendees milling around and congratulating her.)
Oops, I didn't mean to slight another big award winner. Don Burt, a former American Quarter Horse Association president who has also been a key player with the U.S. Equestrian Team and the sport of reining, got to wear Jimmy Williams' sterling silver cowboy hat trophy when he accepted the Lifetime Achievement Award.
As always, a video documented the highlights of the winner's years, and Don has a great appreciation for everything that he has worked for and which has come to him.
"I've never worked a day. I've been a cowboy all my life,'" he admitted in his acceptance speech.
He was a champion in both the western and English worlds and went on a USO tour with cowboy movie and TV star Gene Autry.
"I spent my Navy days riding horses," he said with a happy smile.
Don also had a trick horse act and was involved with movie stars: "Robert Taylor was like a father to me," the Burbank, Calif., native confided, and he taught riding to Bette Davis' daughter, B.D.
His mantra? "In life, challenges give you opportunities."
I was thrilled to be part of the awards picture when I received the USEF's photography trophy for a shot you may have seen on EquiSearch.com, the Young Riders' procession into the arena at last summer's National Dressage Championship. EquiSearch.com won the website trophy for the fifth year in a row. I also got a trophy for the best single article for a piece I did on Gen. Jonathan Burton. His amazing life was what made this one a winner--I was just along for the ride. But as Don said, one of the best things about being involved with horses is the people you meet along the way. Jack and Don are among the best, but so are many of those at the annual meeting.
There's a stellar brand of horsemen and women who give countless hours to make things better. The standouts include U.S. Hunter Jumper Association (USHJA) President Bill Moroney. Does this guy ever lose his temper? He was patient both listening and explaining, never failing to focus on the end goal, which is to improve the hunter and jumper divisions, and the quality of horse shows in general.
But he also wants competitors to take responsibility and let the federation know about shows that have shortcomings, since the new licensing plan means managers face the danger of losing their dates if their competitions (and that includes footing) are not up to snuff.
In a few years, a complete overhaul of the hunter division will be finished. There are going to be many changes, including a switch to "levels" of various heights, rather than the old First-Year Green, Regular Working Hunter and other classifications that seem to have been with us forever and appear to be contributing to the decline of the professional divisions. We're in a brave new era.
Another person who is the competitors' friend is Andrew Ellis, head of the safety committee. He's the persistent guy who insured that everyone who jumps in shows wears approved helmets. You can bet Andrew isn't through yet with trying to make shows as safe as they can be.
His dedication turned around some opponents this weekend and produced a new rule that insures shows of more than 250 horses will have at least a First Responder trained in emergency care to help an EMT.
George Williams, like Andrew and Bill is a member of the board of directors. He's probably best known to you, however, as the rider of Rocher (who is making a comeback this winter). He's also head of the high performance dressage committee.
George, along with Janine Malone and a host of others, has been involved in an effort to create qualifications for moving up to Third Level and beyond in the discipline.
The idea is a way to improve some of the bad riding that has become a horse welfare issue and evaluate riders' competency before allowing them to try a higher level.
It's been controversial, because people feel their aspirations might be stifled, and USEF board members have received a slew of emails to that effect.
But care is being taken to make sure qualification is a fair deal. It's a time-consuming process and likely won't be in place until the start of the 2010 or 2011 show seasons. The board tabled a motion that would have held a place in the rulebook for requirements to come, but expressed support for the concept. The first elements will be developed later this year.
It's sort of a complicated situation, and when I ran into George after the meeting, I talked with him about it.
Another dedicated soul is David O'Connor, who has reversed his first impulse and decided to run for a second term as president this summer.
He wants to make sure all the benefits are realized from the 2010 World Equestrian Games and feels some of his original objectives--including better sponsorship and promotion for the high-performance divisions--have not been realized.
Mike Tomlinson, a California veterinarian who has been mentioned as a possibility for USEF president at some point, noted, "There is nobody else as qualified to lead the organization at this time. David is a very fair person; he is inclusive, rather than dismissive."
Yes, and David gets things done. There probably wouldn't be a USHJA today if it weren't for his insistence. The fact that he is an Olympic eventing gold medalist gives him stature and respect that helps the U.S. on the international scene.
David noted that one of the reasons for his decision to run again was the lack of a good succession plan. But I think the solution to that could come down the road from the new Youth Council, which drew 100 representatives from the various breeds and disciplines to their own convention in the hotel next door to ours.
I was impressed by the young people's dynamism and their desire to have a seat on the USEF board, which is being taken into consideration by the panel. These folks are, as so often has been said, the future of the USEF.
The Sallie Busch Wheeler trophy for distinguished service to the sport went to Matt Fine, an eventer whose name is indicative of his character. The University of Colorado student explained that when his horse died two years ago to the day during a lesson, "I made a promise to him then to do everything in my power to give back to the sport as much as he had given to me."
Matt became the inaugural chairman of the Youth Council, and David predicted he might be the next president of the USEF. That could be right, though I expect 21-year-old Matt will need to be a little older before shouldering that kind of responsibility. But he's definitely waiting in the wings.
Though covering the annual meeting isn't as much fun as being at a competition, it's necessary if you want to keep your finger on the pulse of what's happening with the association. I've barely scratched the surface of what happened at the meeting, but I'm sure you'll be hearing much more about many of the programs and improvements as time goes on.
Being in Kentucky is always fun because it's such a horse-oriented state. As I was going to my room, I heard an employee tell another guest proudly, "Kentucky is the home of the 2010 World Equestrian Games."
I loved the Do Not Disturb sign that hung on my hotel room door. It was cut out in the shape of the twin towers of Churchill Downs and had a picture of a yawning horse. The message? "I'm hitting the hay."
And so I am. I'll be writing you again near the end of this month with the happenings at the George Morris Horsemastership Training Session, when I also will give you an update on the progress of the rejvuvenated showgrounds in Wellington.