Louisville, Ky., January 14, 2007 -- Two icons of show jumping--a legend and a rider who is on her way to becoming one--shared top honors at the U.S. Equestrian Federation annual meeting here.
We were told George Morris was going to get the Lifetime Achievement Award during the Pegasus dinner this weekend, so it wasn't a surprise. But none of us knew (though I suspected!) that Beezie Madden would wind up with the humongous silver Strub trophy for being named horseperson of the year. And, I might add, it was the second year in a row for her. This time, she beat seven other riders for the title, which is voted on by the membership.
"She's the best. Her horse is the best," said George, who was the coach of the U.S. show jumping team at the World Equestrian Games (WEG) last summer, where Beezie picked up two silver medals.
George was a riot as he spoke after receiving a standing ovation and donning the silver cowboy hat that's symbolic of his award. Its first recipient was the late all-around California horseman Jimmy Williams, whose trademark was a cowboy hat, now cast in sterling.
"I always wanted to win an Academy Award," George said while standing at the podium, enjoying being in front of an audience. The reference to the Oscar, of course, relates to the fact that he briefly pursued an acting career before becoming a legendary trainer.
We were regaled with his life story, how he was a timid kid whose first instructor told his mother that he'd be better off playing tennis or swimming. But when he found the right teacher, his skill level increased to the point where he won the Medal and Maclay at 14, then joined the U.S. Equestrian Team, taking Pan American Games gold and Olympic silver, before going on to train other Olympians. He brought up a host of names from the past, thanking everyone in his family and all his teachers and friends, such as Billy Steinkraus and Frank Chapot, both of whom received the award several years ago.
Most honorees get to wear the hat only at the end of their careers, but George, at 68, is still going strong.
"It was overdue, but hopefully premature," said U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation Chairman Armand Leone about the recognition bestowed on his former instructor.
Beezie shared the stage with George Friday night, and the next evening was on the receiving end of a big trophy again, when Authentic, her Olympic and WEG mount, won the Farnam/Platform Horse of the Year title. That, too, was voted on by the membership, and the bay Dutchbred was up against some big competition for the title, including Floriano, who was ridden by Steffen Peters in leading the U.S. team to bronze at the WEG.
Although the honors for George and Beezie were really the headlines of the meeting, a lot of awards are handed out at the Pegasus dinner. Most we know about in advance, but the recipient of the Sallie Busch Wheeler trophy for distinguished service to equestrian sport is always a surprise. And no one was more surprised (or thrilled) than Janine Malone when her name was announced.
"I had a rough year last year," said Janine, whose husband died suddenly in 2006 while she was running a dressage show. Her understanding of the rules is phenomenal, and she is quite a worker, so it's easy to understand why USEF President David O'Connor picked her to get the trophy.
The media gets its shot at awards too, during a special luncheon that is always lots of fun. I was so excited to hear the announcement that not
only had Equisearch taken the honors for the best website, but we also won the Lenehan award for overall excellence among specialized and overall publications. Cathy Laws, the editorial director for Primedia's horse publications division, was kept very busy commuting from her table to the stage to accept the Pegasus trophies, including best specialized publication
for Dressage Today and best publication of the year for Equus.
People get pretty glamorous for the Pegasus and Horse of the Year dinners. It's nice to see folks in something besides riding clothes, though a few of the younger gals had really eyepopping outfits that gave bareback a whole new meaning.
Debbie McDonald, however, looked both striking and dignified, her blond hair contrasting with her black dress and shawl. She admitted to being emotional at the Horse of the Year dinner when a video of Brentina, who won the title last year, was aired.
Brentina is resting after sustaining an injury at the WEG, but Debbie promised she'd be back in the show ring one of these days. Meanwhile, she's going to be competing in the Intermediare II this month on Felix, who has spectacular expression, and she's gotten a new horse, Vanessa. Yes, it's another Hanoverian chestnut mare, just like Brentina.
Although she's only five, this granddaughter of Weltmeyer is something special, according to Debbie, who confessed, "I fell in love with her the minute I saw her." She didn't really want "another baby" (she worked with Brentina from the time she was three), but Vanessa won her over because "she's very steady, incredibly intelligent and very sensitive, but sensible."
I also caught up with another dressage rider, George Williams, who hopes his campaigner Rocher will be back in the summer after more than a year's absence from the show ring. Sue Blinks was at the meeting as well, and told me about Robin Hood who, like Felix, will be competing this winter in California.
"What do you call him for short?" I asked.
"Robbie if he's good, the Hood if he's bad," she told me.
The parties are fun, but the real reason for the annual meeting is rule-making, planning for the future and sometimes trouble-shooting. In the old days, the convention, as it used to be called, was a place to visit with friends and make new ones. There were always field trips to horse farms or attractions in the area where it was held.
But over the last few years, the gathering has become mostly business. There's a lot of yawning through endless rule discussions waiting for a pearl to drop. Sometimes they do. Other times, people nap. The big thing this time, though, seemed to be text-messaging during the meetings. Not only were some people using it to sway votes or make points on the topics at hand; others, I'm told, were busy selling horses. Could be...
I'm going to briefly sum up a few of the major items at the meeting. Number one is the "Roadmap to 2010: Outline of a Strategic Plan." This is designed as a long-range look at what the federation should be doing, and you'll recognize the date as that of the WEG in Kentucky. It is viewed as an opportunity for all horse sports, which means it's a big chance for the USEF to step up.
Meanwhile, David told me he envisions the USEF as a go-to organization for people who want to know about horses, to give it an identity as more than just a regulatory body, and inspire folks to want to join--rather than having to join. Among the initiatives mentioned for further down the road is an all-breed show, inspired by a trip to the headquarters of the American Kennel Club, which puts on an all-breed affair of its own, the Westminster Kennel Club dog show in Madison Square Garden. There are a marketing focus and efforts to give horse sports a higher profile in the plan. Though there were some misgivings expressed, directors voted to allow further work on the project to flesh it out and put in specifics.
The U.S. Hunter/Jumper Association got approval for a plan to fast-track aspiring judges under a mentor system so the hunter division can license more officials, offering a way for busy top professionals to skip some of the usual steps in obtaining a license which discouraged many of them from even trying.
A new youth council met that will be telling the organization what they need, as opposed to living with what the organization thinks they need. USEF CEO John Long guessed that someday, one of them could be president of the organization.
During the meetings, if you're alert (and sometimes it really takes willpower not to doze off amid the seemingly endless discussion) it's possible to hear what's coming down the pipeline.
So there's talk of riders having to qualify to move up from Second to Third Level in dressage and again from Fourth Level to Prix St. Georges and from Intermediare I to Grand Prix. The object is to improve the quality of what goes on as the riders reach for the upper levels, and to make sure they don't go there before they're ready.
On the good news front, the USEF is going to take over many of the costs and responsibilities of the North American Young Riders Championship (NAYRC), which has struggled so often. With marketing and public relations, among other things, handled by the federation, organizers will have an easier time of it, assuring the event's future. Things should be especially good for NAYRC in 2008 and 2009, as some envision it as a test event for the WEG.
Though I hate the idea of being in a hotel and not breathing fresh air for four or five days, I can't dismiss the synergy of getting together and just talking. And it doesn't have to be in the hotel. As I write this, I'm sitting at the Louisville airport with Tom McCutcheon, an impressive guy from the National Reining Horse Association (NRHA), USEF show jumping director Sally Ike, Armand Leone and Jim Wolf, director of sport programs for the USEF.
We all know reiners would love to be in the Olympics, but it should be fairly obvious that it ain't happening, at least not in the immediate future. So there was a bit of brainstorming as we waited for our plane, and the idea blossomed that reining could go after a berth in the Pan American Games, which includes sports that are not in the Olympics. Tom got some really good suggestions about how to go about it. Now that's positive.
While I'm on the subject of reining, the NRHA is presenting its own strategic plan next month, one that will call for spinning off a separate U.S. reining affiliate, since NRHA became an international organization when the FEI asked it to handle the sport globally.
I could tell you lots more, but I have to repack my suitcase. I'm off to Florida this week, where I'll be filling you in on the George Morris Horsemastership Training Session Friday, Saturday and Sunday.