U.S. Equestrian president Murray Kessler met with the organization’s board in Lexington, Ky., for the mid-year meeting on July 24. Kessler is six months into his tenure as president after taking over from Chrystine Tauber in January, and he made waves with the announcement of his plans to drastically expand U.S. Equestrian membership and promote horse sport.
“You should feel pretty darn good as a board. I know that I do, about the things that we’ve been talking about and accomplishing,” Kessler said in his opening remarks.
Kessler noted membership is up 25 percent from last year, thanks in large part to new “fan memberships,” which cater to riders or horse enthusiasts not necessarily competing in U.S. Equestrian-recognized competitions.
Among Kessler’s other top priorities was cracking down on cheating in horse sport, particularly in the hunters. Kessler stated that positive tests coming from the hunter world were down 30 percent from last year and that the board must continue to support the Hearing Committee’s rulings. Most notably, the Hearing Committee recently upheld its decision to suspend hunter professionals Larry Glefke and Kelley Farmer for a positive test for gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA, of one of their horses.
“We have to have the courage to stick to our guns on tough decisions, and we get criticism sometimes when we make those tough decisions,” Kessler said.
Glefke and Farmer’s suspension got quite a bit of traction in the press and on social media after Glefke released a statement to the Chronicle regarding the faults he perceived in the U.S. Equestrian hearing process. Kessler stands by U.S. Equestrian’s policy not to comment on such instances.
“We have to try the best we can to avoid the distractions, and when I talk about distractions I think things like when we make a tough decision and it gets out there in social media or banters around the press,” Kessler said. “We need to resist the temptation to engage in some of those debates.
“There were some things in the press in the last week or so about the future of show jumping, and it took everything I could to resist engaging in that debate,” Kessler continued, presumably referring to the debate sparked by U.S. show jumper Katie Prudent’s comments. “Fortunately I didn’t need to, the federation didn’t need to, because a couple of our athletes stepped up for us, which was even better. But those kinds of things tend to distract from what we’re accomplishing. We’re making great, great things happen together as an organization, so I need you to stick with me. We have some tough decisions to make over the next couple days.”
Disappointed With NAJYRC
Kessler expressed frustrations with this year’s Adequan/FEI North American Junior and Young Rider Championships, which were split between Saugerties, N.Y., and Kalispell, Mont., with the dressage and jumper riders competing in New York and the eventers traveling to Montana. The split wasn’t his concern, but rather that he’d like to form a task force with the purpose of better marketing the championship as well as making it feel more like just that—a championship.
“Tom did a beautiful job; he spent a ton of money,” Kessler said referring to Tom Struzzieri of HITS, whose Saugerties property hosted the dressage and show jumping championships. “He took those kids out for three parties. He had buses take them to New York City. He spent a ton of money, but [at the ring] there was no way to know you were at a championship.”
Kessler noted the lack of signs or banners for NAJYRC, the lack of badges for teams or score cards to track performances, and the fact that there was no live streaming. There were also errors on the social media side with Facebook posts mixing up this year’s event with last year’s in Colorado.
“It was sloppy,” Kessler said bluntly. “And it took a few days of me screaming and yelling. By Day 3 we had all those things fixed, but we just need somebody leading this, making it work, having some money to work with, and then starting to build on the other ideas.”
And Kessler had no shortage of his own ideas for making the championship feel more special.
“We missed huge opportunities,” he said. “We sat there and finished jumping at 12:30. At 1:30 Team USA was jumping at [the Aachen CHIO Nations Cup]. We could have had all those kids and their coaches sitting in a room watching Aachen. And after the press conference Beezie could have called in or Robert Ridland and talked to the kids. For those children, that could have been one of the greatest moments of their riding lives.”
Kessler said he would assemble a task force to start working on the marketing side of the championships (a technical committee already has ownership of the sporting logistics side of the event).
The Glefke/Farmer Issue
U.S. Equestrian’s counsel Sonja Keating reported to the board on the status of ongoing litigation with Larry Glefke and Kelley Farmer regarding their positive medication test and subsequent hearings. Glefke and Farmer have filed a complaint with the U.S. Olympic Committee, which oversees national sports governing bodies like U.S. Equestrian.
“Notably, it was actually filed [with the USOC] before the decision was rendered in the [U.S. Equestrian] hearing, but a lot of it has to do with our procedures and processes and decisions that were made,” Keating said. “We filed a motion to dismiss the complaint. We had an oral argument on July 10, and we are awaiting a decision now. If we prevail, that matter is closed; if we do not prevail, we will move forward on the merits.
“They’ve also publicly as well as privately threatened litigation and made us aware that they will file another complaint, which is referred to as a grievance with the USOC, and they’ve also informed us they’re going to file a lawsuit in the courts,” Keating continued.
Keating told Kessler none of this was cause for concern on her part.
“I feel confident in our position, so we’ll just take that a day at a time,” Keating said.
Glefke has been vocal about his critique of the hearing process and how the U.S. Equestrian’s laboratory handled his horse’s samples that tested positive. Glefke asserts that because U.S. Equestrian owns its own lab, the lab cannot be relied upon as an independent testing body.
“I don’t buy into that at all. Right now Sonja [Keating] or me or Bill [Moroney] have no insight into that lab and how that’s going; we can’t even get into the lab,” Kessler said. “I find out about the Larry Glefke test results the night before you do. I’m not involved with the process, I don’t know what the complaints are, I don’t see the motions—the hearing committee operates independently.
“Have I pushed from the leadership standpoint that I want cheaters out of the sport? You bet,” Kessler continued. “Do I have any idea who is going through the Hearing Committee or have any input? No. I find out just before you find out. And likewise, I don’t know what’s going on in the lab.”
Kessler noted that while the situation with Glefke has not prompted any specific changes to the Hearing Committee process, there have been changes made during his tenure that he views positively.
“The hearing process works fantastic, and I feel great about the changes that we made this year,” Kessler said. “We’re providing the expanded findings instead of just the results, so you can have the color on what actually happened. That had never been done before. At the board level we’ve given stronger penalty guidelines, which are there on purpose in order to get cheaters out of the sport, and it’s having a very positive impact.”
What The WEG: About Paso Fino Soccer…
There was some discussion in the board meeting about how U.S. Equestrian will promote different breeds and sports at the upcoming FEI World Equestrian Games in Tryon, N.C., in the fall of 2018. U.S. Equestrian wants to put on a number of demonstrations between events during the Games for spectators, and the managing partner of Tryon Equestrian Partners, Mark Bellissimo, had a few suggestions for U.S. Equestrian’s chief marketing officer Vicki Lowell.
“We had a really productive meeting with him, and Mark had a lot of big ideas. I’ll just throw one out—Paso Fino soccer,” Lowell said, which drew a number of amused chuckles from the room.
While the suggestion may sound far out there to traditional horse sport fans (it’s essentially Paso Fino horses moving a yoga ball around an arena with their unique gait), Lowell thinks Bellissimo has the right idea when it comes to the demonstrations.
“He has a really good point, which is whatever we bring needs to be very entertaining,” Lowell said. “It needs to be entertaining, educational, tight and quality. So I think we need to canvas the [breeds and disciplines] and say, ‘What are your best ideas? Who are your best players? How do you see this working?’ And then we need to go back to Tryon with those ideas.”
“And he needs to start building hotel rooms,” Kessler added with a laugh. There was some concern voiced by board members that the relatively rural locale of Tryon would not be able to adequately accommodate the number of spectators and volunteers the WEG expects to draw, and CEO Bill Moroney addressed those concerns.
“The reality is that they are hustling down there to get this place built, and we are hustling to keep up with them and get ahead on some of these issues, so we will keep after them and pestering them and make sure we get back to you on the progress on this,” Moroney said. “We’re not just sitting and letting time go by. We know we need to be active; we know we need to be very proactive with this organizer because they have to move mountaintops to get this done. We stood there [in Tryon], and they said, ‘See that hill? It will be there in that valley the next time you’re here.’ So there is a lot still going on down there and keeping focus is really important.”
One of Kessler’s biggest goals when he started at U.S. Equestrian was increasing the membership base. He cited figures from other countries’ equestrian governing bodies where many fans became members despite not riding, owning or showing horses at recognized competitions themselves. Kessler wants to integrate that level of membership into U.S. Equestrian’s current structure, so he has heavily promoted “fan memberships” for people who want to access instructional videos or resources but aren’t necessarily obtaining membership to compete.
The numbers look promising for fan memberships—while senior active memberships remained flat and junior active memberships dropped about 2 percent, the board cited a 29 percent increase in the number of fan memberships—approximately 22,000 new memberships to date.
Moroney also talked about U.S. Equestrian’s efforts to get more of their affiliates’ members directly involved.
“I think there were 57,000 members identified in affiliate organizations that aren’t affiliated with USEF in any way, so we’re launching a second phase of reaching out to our affiliate organizations to bring on those people as free fan members for a year,” Moroney said.
The real issue is getting those members to transition to paying fan members at the end of the free year, but Moroney mentioned a program that would encourage affiliates to get and keep their members signed up by giving some money collected from affiliate members back to the affiliate organization.
In Moroney’s mind, fan memberships play an integral part in U.S. Equestrian’s overall mission to expand membership and reach.
“Fan membership is the entryway into finding out what those [member’s] values are,” Moroney said. “So if we’re really going to try and move the needle we have to move it in a big way.”