St. Petersburg, Fla., December 11, 2009 -- Combining the words "dynamic" and "annual meeting" might seem to be as much of an oxymoron as "airline food."
Endless discussions about rule changes, the focus of such gatherings, tend to suck the air from a room while dazing many of those present.
But the energy at the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association's (USHJA) annual meeting here really was amazing, translating concepts into plans toward changes that will pay off. As I went from meeting to meeting, I found I was actually excited by all the possibilities.
"This is a turning point of the hunter jumper sport in the U.S.," declared USHJA President Bill Moroney, the man who has led the organization since its founding.
First and foremost on the USHJA agenda is restructuring the hunter division. Anything passed by the USHJA board at its meeting still must be approved by the U.S. Equestrian Federation (USEF) board at its convention next month, but the groundwork is all done here and in most cases, it's likely the USEF will go along. There was one exception, but more on that later.
A keystone of the restructuring is a new division, the USHJA Performance Hunter, which will offer sections at 3-feet, 3-inches, 3-6 and 3-9.
I asked Bill to explain the project to me.
The convention was held at the stately 1920s vintage Renaissance Vinoy hotel on the bayfront in this west coast Florida city. I had a lovely view of the bay and its adjacent park, but I never got over there--like everyone else, I was just too busy for extracurricular activities.
There were 300 people at the meeting, with many big names taking part. Olympic show jumping medalist Chris Kappler, president of the new North American Riders Group, was on hand making his presence felt, along with World Cup show jumping manager Robert Ridland; hunter riders extraordinaire Scott Stewart and Louise Serio; USEF President David O'Connor, stopping in at each of the various forums and HITS show impresario Tom Struzzieri, just to name a few.
But lower-profile people were well-represented, too, and they made sure their concerns were heard. The top end of the sport is always served, but in the three decades that I've been going to conventions--first the old American Horse Shows Association (AHSA), then USA Equestrian and USEF and now USHJA, there's a segment that feels (and rightly so) that the body of the sport below the top needs more attention. USHJA Director Geoff Teall organized a 7 a.m. session for them on Tuesday.
"I asked Bill if we couldn't try and put a group together at an inconvenient hour, so we'd only get the interested to talk about what I call 'the middle group' and he agreed," said Geoff, a hunter trainer who is also a rider.
"I didn't really know where it was going," Geoff conceded, but more than 100 riders, trainers, show managers and others came, ready to speak about what they thought was important.
"I was so excited to see that many people and hear that many thoughts. It felt good to include them," said Geoff. "We don't try not to include them, but they often feel they are not included enough. It was a very healthy moment for the USHJA. We have to understand better how we affect them, and I feel we're closer to a way to do that. I don't want us to be the new old boys' club."
When Geoff asked the group what they called themselves, Texas show manager/trainer/course designer Britt McCormack spoke up and said, "We're the majority"--"which I thought was awesome," Geoff commented.
I caught up with Britt later and asked for his thoughts.
Geoff told me the USHJA is forming a committee for young professionals up to the age of 35.
"We want to bring them in and teach them how to be involved, so we don't keep reliving this movie," he said.
Another key matter is show standards, with the often-controversial mileage rule wrapped up in that. While there have been calls over the years to eliminate mileage restrictions between shows to let the free market sort things out, Bill pointed out that carrots and sticks are needed to keep a system in line.
When show standards are not met, one way to make management get up to snuff is to reduce the mileage between shows to permit more competition and use the new licensing system to weed out perennial transgressors.
The problem is, USHJA and USEF are still working on quantifiable standards so there can be real recourse against shows that don't meet them. So what will completion of that project mean for you? Eventually, better footing, more spacious exercise areas, a host of other improvements and in the end, nicer shows.
David O'Connor noted that when he took over as USEF president in 2004, "One of the first things I realized was that there was no way to get rid of a show. Now there is a signed contract for the license. It asks you to uphold the standards and if not, there will be repercussions. The Federation (previously) did not have that recourse and now it does and we're not done. We are still three or four years away from the final product."
I'll never forget how USHJA became the official affiliate of the USEF. For years, there had been a hunter-jumper council in AHSA and USA Equestrian, but it failed to achieve the independent status of the U.S. Dressage Federation or the U.S. Eventing Association. At the USEF's mid-year board meeting in 2004, the question of an independent hunter-jumper group was on the table, and two entities were seeking to become that affiliate. Some on the board wanted to give them another year to flesh out their plans, but David insisted that the board choose one immediately, and they picked USHJA. He was right not to wait.
We reminisced about that fateful decision and talked about his view of how the USHJA is doing.
One of USHJA's successful new projects is the Emerging Athlete Program (EAP), aimed at developing talent among those in the next generation.
Olympic show jumping gold medalist Melanie Smith Taylor has been traveling the country in EAP's inaugural year of 2009, training young people and helping select 12 riders for the EAP's first finals next month in Reno, Nev.
Now organizers of the program are looking at how to tweak it for 2010.
"We are so flooded with applications this year that we have to figure out a way to close the parameters a little bit so we get the right vision," Melanie said. "We want to reach the young people without the opportunities, but we don't want to leave out the talented riders who are looking for help and stepping-stones."
As was the case in 2009, 24 applications per zone will be accepted, with 12 going on to each of five regionals, from which the finalists will be chosen.
While 21 was the upper age limit for the program in 2009, organizers are thinking of lowering that to get more of the younger riders as early as possible in their careers, in order to educate themselves beyond being just riders and to become complete horsemen.
As I said, USEF is likely to agree to most of the plans that USHJA approved, but what won't go over well is the USHJA board's flat rejection of a USEF proposal to ban the use of two non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) in competition horses. The USEF veterinary committee contends it is a welfare of the horse issue, explaining that two NSAIDs in conjunction can cause colic and other problems. The USHJA position is that there hasn't been sufficient data collected on the subject, and that many older horses would not be able to compete on only one NSAID, thus ending their show careers and putting them out in an already overcrowded market for re-homing.
The board passed an alternate proposal that calls for being permitted to use two NSAIDs, provided that the exhibitor files a medication report with the show prior to competition. This will have the benefit, in USHJA's view, of seeing how many horses actually are being shown on two NSAIDs and determining the extent of the problem.
Awards are always a highlight of these meetings, and USHJA offers recognition to many of the deserving. Bill got a special and well-merited honor for all his work in developing the USHJA, which now has its own impressive headquarters at the Kentucky Horse Park.
The course designer's award went to Conrad Homfeld, who was working in Europe and unable to attend. It was accepted by his friends, judge Linda Hough and her daughter, Lauren Hough, who is trying out for the show jumping team at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.
I caught up with Lauren to hear how she has been honing her skills abroad and is now getting ready for the Winter Equestrian Festival. Her longtime mount, Casadora, is back in action after recovering from an injury, and she also has Quick Study in her arsenal, along with a stallion, Prezioso, so I'd say she has a very good shot at realizing her ambition.
The finale of the ceremony was the lifetime achievement award, given to two people this year: Olympic triple medalist Joe Fargis and enthusiastic volunteer Larry Langer, whose managing credentials include the 1992 World Cup finals and the show jumping portion of the 1996 Olympics.
Larry, who started in the business as a rider and trainer, was seated with Ann Grenci, his first riding instructor. I found it inspirational that they have kept in touch all these years.
Although his resume continues to grow, Larry isn't heading for retirement.
"I'm having a lot of fun," he said, adding, "I want to stay in the sport for as long as I can."
Joe, who is always so dignified, showed real emotion at getting the award. We spoke about what it meant to him.
The Eugene R. Mische trophy was presented to Joe and Larry by Olympic course designer Steve Stephens, who gave an update on Gene's condition. Gene, a pioneer of the sport and founder of the Winter Equestrian Festival who has been ill for quite a while, is in the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. He's alert, communicates well and keeps up on everything that is going on, Steve reported, and hopes to be weaned off a respirator and back at the shows next year.
This wraps up my event coverage for 2009. What a year it's been, highlighted by the last World Cup finals for a long time in Las Vegas. But there's even more to look forward to in 2010, when we'll be going to the long-awaited WEG in Kentucky. We're going to have great coverage for you on that, of course.
Next month I'll send you a postcard on the USEF's convention in Louisville before I head for the Exquis Dressage World Masters in Florida.
Until then, enjoy the holidays, and may the new year bring many good things for you and your horses.