Equestrian Canada Board Faces Resignations And Rider Outrage

Feb 2, 2017 - 9:28 AM
All four members of Canada's silver medal-winning team from the 2010 WEG (from left: Kyle Cater, Selena O'Hanlon, Hawley Bennett-Awad and Stephanie Rhodes-Bosch) signed the open letter to Equestrian Canada. Photo by Lisa Slade.

After the resignation of three of its board of directors members, Equestrian Canada held an emergency meeting Jan. 31 and released a statement Feb. 1 pushing back against calls for the resignation of the organization’s president, Jorge Bernhard, and CEO Eva Havaris—with the current board citing “total confidence” in the current leadership.

“The board and CEO certainly acknowledge that this past year has been challenging as we continue to restructure and professionalize EC’s governance and operations,” stated the release. “We’ve made some improvements. We’ve made some mistakes. We’ve implemented some changes successfully and others continue to be a work in progress. Change is not easy. We have implemented changes that have not been easy for everyone to adapt to or accept. Nevertheless, we are fully committed to working with the community and our members to fix our mistakes and build a better Federation.”

Board member Terrance “Torchy” Millar was the first to resign in early January, with fellow members Al Patterson and Ross Millar resigning a few weeks later. In addition, para-equestrian Lauren Barwick resigned from the EC Para-Equestrian Committee on Feb. 1.

“I was not happy with several things. In my opinion, the management is sidelining the disciplines from any meaningful authority over their own sports,” Torchy told Horse Canada. “It appears that the direction they are going is to run high performance for the various sports directly from the EC office, and I don’t think they have the knowledge, background, skill set, or capacity to do so.”

Discontent with the organization has since been voiced from the rider community in two open letters, one from Canadian eventers and one from EC Jumping Committee chair Pamela Law on behalf of the entire committee, as well as in statements from individual riders.

The letter from Law, published on Horse Canada’s website Jan. 28, cited financial concerns—in particular a lack of openness with financial statements—and displeasure with committee restructuring.

“While we supported the streamlining of EC committees and the stated objective of improved efficiencies, the outcome has not been our experience as a discipline,” stated Law. “We were forced to sacrifice the Jump Canada governance structure, which had served us so well for 20 years, in the interest of having one harmonized model across all of EC. This fundamental change in structure has led to less specific knowledge and experience within the EC office and a hampering of our ability to do our job, which is to serve our sport and its athletes to the best of our ability.”

(Read the full statement.)

In the open letter from dozens of eventers—including high-profile Olympic competitors and several owners—the riders discussed their issues with EC conflicts of interest (in particular citing EC Eventing Committee chair Peter Gray), lack of transparency, lack of accountability and unprofessional behavior.

“We the undersigned, representing a significant majority of Canadian high performance eventing riders, owners and supporters, are writing to clarify that Peter Gray does not speak for us,” stated the letter. “His recent statement in which he asserted that the Eventing Committee does not support the Jumping Committee’s critique of CEO Eva Havaris and President Jorge Bernhard is in opposition to our views.”

(Read the full statement.)

Kyle Carter competed for Canada at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Kentucky, winning silver with the team there, and he was also on the 2008 Olympic eventing team for Canada. He noted a lack of adequate communication between the EC leadership and the membership, including the high performance riders, over the last few years.

“The governing staff seems incredibly resilient to criticism because they don’t seem to care what happens,” said Carter. “They just decide to stay with what they’re doing, and within their own little group maybe they do know something no one else knows, and maybe that’s why they’re comfortable carrying on—maybe that’s a possibility. However, then why aren’t you letting your members in on it when they’re so dissatisfied?”

Carter also mentioned the frequent gag orders placed on riders.

“I think the [Feb. 1] statement came across to me very much like, ‘You guys need to quit complaining. We know what we’re doing, so get on with it.’ And the general standard expectation I guess of the riders is, ‘You guys don’t need to say anything.’ They never want comments from the riders in any capacity. They want us to shut up and, ‘Ride your horses, and you shouldn’t complain because it makes it hard to support when there’s griping.’ They even said that in that statement: It’s hard to bring people in if the riders are vocal and complaining. But at the same time, it’s hard to bring people in when all the members are out there saying the same thing.” 

Lack of transparency in the selection process has been another bone of contention, and last year EC was forced to pay $35,000 of Jessica Phoenix’s legal costs after a lawsuit involving Phoenix’s original lack of selection for Rio Olympic team. 

Barwick also discussed EC’s athlete management problems when addressing why she recently resigned from the para-equestrian committee. Barwick represented Canada at the 2016 Paralympics aboard an EC-owned horse, Onyx. But EC terminated her lease later last year, and Barwick said in a Facebook post the organization cited concerns about her natural horsemanship training methods being applied to the 13-year-old horse. 

“I’ve been asking for clarification based on the statement that was given to me in November, since November, with no answer and no clarification as to how the decision was made,” said Barwick, who uses Parelli methods. “I think people come from a good place, but there have been issues with accountability, and that causes trust issues. I wrote it in my resignation—I realized that I couldn’t be a productive member of Equine Canada because my personal issues were getting in the way.” 

In an effort to address concerns that started in 2014, the Feb. 1 statement from EC says the board restructured bylaws and brought in CEO Havaris, who started with EC in June 2014. But the new CEO thus far hasn’t assuaged financial concerns, according to Ross, one of the board members who resigned.

“In my nine months there, I could not get an understanding of where they were financially. We were shown a rough budget for 2017, but none of the details were forthcoming. I first wrote an email regarding this in November, and I have yet to receive a satisfactory response,” Ross said to Horse Canada. “In fact, since joining, and despite many requests, the CEO wasn’t able to provide a balance sheet that would indicate our current financial position.”

The Feb. 1 EC statement blames the former CFO for an operating deficit in 2015, claiming that the former CFO did not apply for grants through Ag Canada as planned or report an operating loss associated with the Pan American Games, and that EC also had to pay severance to that CFO. 

“Rest assured the financial health of the organization is not in jeopardy,” stated the Feb. 1 release. 

The statement also provided a link to financial statements from 2011 to 2016, including an independent audit report from 2015-2016, which the board says discovered the former CFO’s mistakes.  

“EC is fully aware of the public outcry that has been circulating expressing concerns about the management and governance of its organization,” stated the release. “The personal attacks and airing of ‘dirty laundry’ in public does not serve EC or its membership well, and EC will not engage in such action.

“If four strong horses pull in one direction and four equally strong horses pull in the opposite direction, the organization goes nowhere,” the statement continued. “Working together can provide the best benefit for all of us.”

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