January 18, 2009 -- Guess what the hottest topic was at the U.S. Equestrian Federation's (USEF) annual meeting? You're right: The economy.
For the 2009 season, it's early days yet, as the British would say, but entries do seem to be trending down. At least, that's the verdict from nearly everyone I spoke to over the last four days. Though show manager Bob Bell said it looks like the numbers will be up for his Gulfport, Miss., series, which is a whole lot less expensive to patronize than Florida's Winter Equestrian Festival. I know from conversations before I got here that in some cases, there's also a reverse dynamic for smaller shows up north, with entries bolstered by people who choose to save money by shortening or foregoing their usual pilgrimage to the sunshine.
You have to get used to a whole new way of thinking in these tough financial times, figuring all the angles and how you either can make out or make do.
Membership renewals for USEF are below 2008 levels at this point, but federation President David O'Connor and others are hopeful that as the season progresses, more people will sign up. The thought is that until they get ready to show (and it may be later than usual this year) folks won't fork over their membership money.
Of course, there are those whose fortunes are failing now and won't be around later in the show year. Someone in the bar after hours (when you pick up all the good info) told me about a guy who declared bankruptcy, then took 16 horses to a show as a last hurrah. He advised the show office to cash his check immediately, because by the following week, the bank account would be finito.
Like everyone else, USEF is in belt-tightening mode. There was a lot of concern about the budget during the first board meeting, as some projected marketing revenue fell short, advertising in the federation's magazine was off and the investment portfolio (like everyone else's) had a big loss. It was nearly $1 million, but these are unrealized losses, so the red ink is only on paper at the moment, because the investments weren't actually sold.
How is USEF addressing the situation? Head-on. There are no staff layoffs, but staff positions that were projected to be added and jobs empty because of attrition won't be filled. Staffers likely can forget about raises unless there's an upturn later this year; travel and office expenses are being curtailed and the board of directors will be monitoring the budget on a monthly basis to make sure nothing is getting out of hand and that revenue projections aren't just pie in the sky. That being said, core services aren't being cut, so hopefully members won't notice anything different.
David still envisions the federation as being the go-to organization in the horse world, and gave me his thoughts concerning how the organization will fare in these tough times.
There was also the feeling that perhaps tight money would improve the USEF and affiliates by requiring evaluation of functions and personnel to promote maximum efficiency and productivity.
I don't want to give the impression that the only thing discussed was the economy, but it certainly colored many conversations. Yet there was a ``we're all in this together'' feeling which translated into positive thinking.
A case in point was the all-breed forum where everyone got together and discussed common issues, such as avoiding duplication of services, as well as an interchange and integration between the disciplines and the breeds, linking athletes to the breed organization. For instance, the jumper contingent could help saddlebred members who want to branch out and use their horses in that division.
A joint conference between the FEI and national affiliates earlier in the day also emphasized the importance of synergy
There was a real feeling of cooperation in the air, something board member Mike Tomlinson mentioned to me.
The annual meeting is a funny animal. I've written before about how it's no longer the convention of old, where you saw everyone, from George Morris, Katie Monahan Prudent and Billy Steinkraus to the big names of all the breeds and disciplines. There was almost always a field trip someplace interesting (I particularly remember a fiesta in Arizona in 1988 and a visit to the Budweiser Clydesdales' stable in St. Louis a decade ago). The whole thing was as much a social occasion as a business gathering.
Now, as the affiliates' annual meetings have more bells and whistles to attract their general membership, the USEF's basically is all business, primarily for board and committee members, with the exception of the gala Farnam/Platform Horse of the Year dinner and the Pegasus dinner.
The Horse of the Year evening used to be rather dull, unless you were among the legions getting a high-score award. It got jazzed up a few years back when Farnam came on as a sponsor and five outstanding equines in a rainbow of breeds and disciplines were nominated as Horses of Honor. Members vote on the winner, and it's a surprise, although generally not to me. Maybe I've just got good antennae, but I was pretty sure Jamaica, a member of Chester Weber's individual silver medal four-in-hand team at the world championships, would get the nod. It seemed each horse had a special story; I loved the video they did of the Friesian Dante FQ, who can handle everything from driving to cross-country jumping and dressage. And then there was Flexible, the jumper ridden by Rich Fellers who triumphed over serious injuries the way he triumphed over other competitors at the World Cup finals last year, where he wound up second -- the best American finish in two decades.
Chester obviously was moved by the honor accorded his horse, and he gave quite a speech in accepting his award.
The human equivalent of Horse of the Year comes at Pegasus, where there are five Equestrians of Honor. This time I was sure (and I have witnesses!) that Steffen Peters would win. After all, he came close to an individual medal in the Olympics, where he was fourth. Unfortunately, Steffen couldn't get to the meeting from Florida, where he was conducting a clinic, so he offered guests an emotional thank you through the magic of video.
Speaking of videos (there were so many inspiring ones this year) Theodore O'Connor--the 2007 Horse of the Year--was memorialized in a beautiful tribute that had us all missing that terrific eventing pony. Many tears were shed for this little guy who died in a stable accident last spring. I saw David wipe his eyes, but I couldn't even look at his wife, Karen, who rode Teddy. We all empathized with her.
I wish I had the space to tell you in detail about the many emotional moments at the Pegasus dinner, but I'll just mention a few. Cecile Dunn, a longtime dedicated board member, equine science educator and fan of a variety of breeds, was overwhelmed to receive the Sallie Busch Wheeler Trophy for her service to equestrian sport. She had earlier gotten a Pegasus Medal of Honor, so this was an extra flourish that came as a complete surprise.
"I'm speechless," she said afterwards, still overwhelmed. "It was such an honor...Sallie Wheeler was a dear, dear friend and a great mentor of mine."
The lovely Jessica Moctezuma won the Junior Equestrian of the Year title not only for her stellar record with saddlebreds in the show ring, but also for her efforts with rescue horses at home. The daughter of Nealia McCracken, her trainer and one of the founders of Saddlebred Rescue (which is more eclectic than the name would indicate), Jessie evaluates all kinds of rescued horses to help them be placed in proper and loving homes. While the idea is for her to teach the horses so they can go on and make a new owner happy, she noted graciously that they have taught her so much in the course of their collaboration.
The Lifetime Achievement Award went to Gene Mische, who is really the founder of grand prix show jumping in this country. Gene is a man of vision who dreamed up the Winter Equestrian Festival, the American Invitational and so many other competitions that have made the sport grow and prosper here.
Gene got to try on the silver trophy that is a replica of the Stetson worn by the late Jimmy Williams, the first recipient of the awards. USEF board member Alan Balch, who started the lifetime achievement concept, said Jimmy and Gene knew each other quite well, so it was nice to see the circle their lives made. It's all about connections, isn't it, and Gene had many connections with other award recipients, including former USET show jumping coach Bert de Nemethy, Bill Steinkraus and longtime USET member Frank Chapot.
Gene's mantra is "You take care of the sport, and it will take care of you," as he told the folks who saluted him last night. He spent more time thanking his family and those who have helped him than he did talking about anything else as he accepted the award that was so well-deserved for a lifetime of effort in crafting the modern face of American show jumping.
Of course, the convention also had plenty of rule change forums. David, who celebrated his birthday with a cake at the final board meeting today, was hoarse-not surprising, considering the amount of talking he had to do during the meeting.
David is a very determined guy; you know all about his Olympic gold medal riding career. But beyond that, he also is a tireless proponent of things he believes are important for the sport. Several years ago, he pushed the establishment of the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association, and what a boon that has been under the presidency of the very capable Bill Moroney and his legions of dedicated volunteers.
At this meeting, David pushed a "Return to Play" rule that would impose a medical suspension on participants in a competition who suffered unconsciousness or a concussion from returning to the arena until they got a signed note from a medical professional. A lot of the forums disapproved of this one (there were six drafts of it as objections were taken into consideration) but it got passed, with five board members abstaining.
Other rules of interest that passed included a welfare provision specific to hunters, a requirement that all shows appoint a safety coordinator and establishment of a cap of 10 percent on hunter entry fees for any division offering $5,000 or more.
So that's it from chilly Cincinnati. My next postcard won't be written with frozen fingers, thank goodness. I'll be at the Exquis Dressage Masters in Florida the weekend after next, so be sure to check back then for my take on this inaugural competition.