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January 30, 2011

Investing In The Young Hunter: What Can We Learn From The Reining World?

The National Reining Breeders Classic awarded $1.3 million in 2010, with the open champion, Boom Shernic Syndicate’s Boom Shernic and Craig Schmersal, earning a $75,000 check.

Many of us have wanted to encourage and promote the development of hunters in this country for a long time. Show managers have presented some bonus classes for young horses and tried to answer many of our questions. Breeders have contributed with programs to try to get things going with young horses, and hunter committees have developed some positive contributions for progress.

We still haven’t been able to put together the perfect program that successfully ties together all of the investors in our sport to ensure consistency, strength and longevity in a specific hunter program. But recently the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association’s Pre-Green Hunter Task Force, formed by the USHJA’s Open Hunter Task Force, has been working to change all that.

My husband, Tim, and I have been involved in the reining horse industry for more than 30 years, and that experience has taught me how to build programs based on nominations, enrollments and add-back entry fee formulas. That experience was part of my contribution to the USHJA Task Force working on this concept.

Twelve years ago a small group of breeders developed the National Reining Breeders Classic, a championship competition that paid out more than $1.3 million this year in one class, to enrolled 4-, 5- and 6-year-olds. Tim and I were a part of that group and that competition, which has brought together breeders, owners, trainers and show management to revolutionize the sport. It’s financed largely by reasonable enrollment fees and add-back entry fees. While there are differences between reining and hunters, I believe many lessons from what we’ve done there apply to the hunter world.

The sport of reining also features the National Reining Horse Futurity, founded by the National Reining Horse Association. That program has helped to develop and improve the sport, as well as reining breeding programs. This annual event for 3-year-olds features a purse that tops $1 million and will soon exceed $2 million. This money comes from enrollment fees and add-back entry fees. It’s open to any 3-year-old with no breed restriction; the horses only have to be enrolled in the program.

This futurity and the NRBC program have encouraged owners to invest in young horses. Now we have some top granddaughters and grandsons winning and proving the results of these programs. By looking at the winners in the divisions, seeing how they were bred and building on those bloodlines, we’ve been able to foster the right breeding programs in this country for reining horses as well as promote our sport.  

This means that yearling and 2-year-old sales can be profitable to breeders. When you are dealing with young horses, people are “buying the dream” and will gamble on young horses. The best yearlings will sell from $30,000 to upwards of $125,000. Quality, well-started 2-year-olds from reputable programs can go for up to $130,000, and the sale-topper this last year was $175,000. Sure, this is the top end; of course not all of the reining breeding industry colts bring in numbers like that. But there’s no doubt that the futurity program created the possibility of selling yearlings and 2-year-olds for the breeders. Coupled with the NRBC for 4-, 5- and 6-year-olds, the industry now has the solid base we’re hoping to establish in the hunter industry.

Developing a breeding program is time-consuming and costly, as is developing a training program for young horses. In the hunter and jumper world, it takes longer to develop a horse than in reining, so you probably have more money in them by the time you do sell them. With-out an incentive program for breeders, there’s little encouragement for owners and trainers to focus on early training, and we end up going to Europe to buy a great deal of our horses.

There’s nothing wrong with going to Europe to buy a horse. There you see quality horses with more mileage in greater numbers than what you’ll typically see in the United States. And often times you can see more of a finished product. But with the right incentive program in this country, we may be able to develop more of that same opportunity here as well.

Many of us really enjoy training pre-green horses and developing hunters. For many people, budget alone will direct them to a pre-green horse. By developing an incentive program there’s a way to compete your young horse without overtaxing him, and there’s more of a chance that you’ll be able to develop a pre-green horse and recoup some of your investment.

Our goal is to provide an inclusive, stable, reputable, accessible and level-appropriate high-money competition as an incentive to develop young hunters here in this country.

The Concept: Inclusive And Simple

Over the last 15 to 20 years we’ve had a lot of good people try to build some type of breeding incentive programs for hunters. But they were so exclusive you couldn’t garner the numbers of participants to end up with any high-dollar events that could pay well at the top and also support a deeper pay scale.

A successful pre-green incentive program must be inclusive and simple. Our committee agreed that for us in the hunter world it would work best not defined by age or breed, at the beginning, but rather developed based on our existing and popular pre-green hunter divisions. Everyone should be able to enroll in the program—even if you don’t know the breeding of your horse. There would be a reasonable annual nominating fee that would reward you for registering early in the year.

Over time we’ll be able to gather a lot of statistics about breeding for horses born in this country and in Europe, and it will encourage people to pay more attention to pedigrees. Down the road we could develop domestic breeding program bonuses, bonuses for mares, eventually age splits and so on. The possibilities are endless. But to start, we need to keep the program inclusive and simple.

The USHJA Pre-Green Task Force would like to start a series of pre-green incentive stakes classes across the country, culminating in a championship competition with a big purse.

The process begins with an enrollment program, and anyone could enroll. At horse shows there would be a special pre-green incentive stakes class. The classes would be run in add-back format, so the more horses in the class, the bigger the purse.

We believe these classes are a great fit at all levels of shows, not just at AA shows. At the start they may not be at every show, but owners and trainers will soon determine their needs based on the area, time of year and so on. Eventually I’d like to see these incentive classes at every show. The show managers with healthy pre-green attendance will have no problem hosting these classes, and the managers who have a weak pre-green attendance may try the program to increase their chances of getting more entries.

Even if you don’t want to go to the final, you’d still benefit at your local shows if your pre-green horse is enrolled because you could enter the stakes classes. We want to encourage everyone to join the program. The more entries at the local, regional or national level, the more prosperous the program will be.

In my vision, being inclusive also means having a final where we can have huge numbers of pre-green horses from across the country. To participate in the final you would have to be enrolled—a reasonable fee that funds the pot for the final—but otherwise the requirements for participating in the final would be extremely minimal, maybe just competing in one or two of the qualifying classes through the season. We don’t want anyone to over-show his or her horse to qualify, and we do want to encourage everyone to come to the final!

Part of being inclusive means paying out money beyond the top tier. I’m not a big proponent of giving all the money to the top players at the championship. In both the hunter and the reining worlds, you’ll always have the top players, and it would be very discouraging to the second tier, much less the third tier, if they thought they didn’t have a chance. More people need to win more money in the hunter world!

The Stakeholders

Promoting pre-green hunters has been discussed for a while, following in the vein of the Legacy Cup, created by the American Hunter Jumper Foundation (now part of the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association), which promotes excellence at different stages of hunter competition, not just the elite level. The USHJA’s Hunter Restructure Task Force, chaired by Geoff Teall, grew out of that effort, and they’ve done a lot of work analyzing the industry in order to improve the way we horse show.

Joey Darby inspired the latest effort to pull everyone together and work toward a rewarding pre-green program when he approached the USHJA’s Open Hunter Task Force with an idea and a sponsor for creating a big-money pre-green class. He “relit the spark.” His suggestion got us started down this road where we’re finally getting close to putting together a viable program.

Susie Schoellkopf, as the chair of the USHJA’s Open Hunter Task Force, created a task force subcommittee, the Pre-Green Incentive Task Force, to try to put together a program that will work. Those of us on that Task Force have been working hard to flesh out this idea and get input from everyone who’s involved, especially the major stakeholders. We’re still working out the details. We want to get it right.

There would be six major stakeholders in this program:

    1.    The USHJA

    2.    Show management

    3.    Owners

    4.    Riders/trainers

    5.    Breeders

    6.    Sponsors

The first five “investors” will be constant and form a strong foundation for the program.

This program would all start with the USHJA. As the governing body it’s the vehicle that serves its members. Because of the process the USHJA has developed building programs and fostering programs, they’re the first stakeholders. They will do the bookkeeping, marketing, and ultimately be the producers that host the final.

The show managers are an important component to any potential program involving competition. We simply cannot do it without them. When I first started talking about this idea to my friends who run horse shows, they were skeptical. They said, “Wait, this will cost me money to add these incentive classes.” But when we discussed the program they understood it was no different than the derbies: They may cost management money at the beginning, but exhibitors want them, and it has a trickle down effect on general show attendance. An example I used to sell my point was that if I have two or three pre-green horses, I may bring only one at a time to help cut down expenses. If a show has a pre-green incentive stakes class, I would probably gamble and bring all three, thus selling more stalls for the show.

The owners, riders and trainers would now have more reason to invest time and money in young horses, which would benefit breeders. The product is proven right in front of you. And because there’s a shorter amount of time between the breeding shed and major show ring success, breeders would see results more quickly.

Our sponsors—while greatly appreciated and necessary—will form the icing on the cake rather than the main ingredients. But with that said, we believe this will be a very creditable program with great benefits for our sponsors—from coast to coast.

The biggest challenge to this vision is that we’re bringing in a concept that hasn’t really existed in the hunter world. Everyone’s trying to grasp how it works or could work. I wouldn’t have the understanding of it that I do
if I hadn’t lived for so many years in another discipline. Once people understand the concept of enrollment,
we’ll be able to develop a program that’s self-sustaining.

There are other challenges too, like how to come up with the ideal situation for a final. That’s always a question with a new program. We want to be sure to have a final that will be well run, in the right location, to develop stability for the program.

While this program will encourage people to buy and show young horses, I don’t think for one minute that any incentive program—especially in its early stages—will pay all the bills. But if you figure it will cost you at least $20,000-30,000 a year to care for, develop and show your horse, and you may have the opportunity to win even half that back—isn’t that reason to participate in the program? As horse people we’ve already proven that we’re not afraid to gamble. I’m ready to gamble on this program. Are you?

 
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