San Antonio, Texas—Dec. 14
Members from across the hunter/jumper spectrum flocked to Texas this week for the U.S. Hunter Jumper Annual Meeting with plenty to talk about. One theme kept coming up in meeting after meeting: safety. Equine safety has had plenty of play in recent conventions, but this year member after member said: “We want our horses to be safe and healthy, but we need to prioritize human life, too.”
Footing—specifically safe footing—came up multiple times, with concerns about improper types of footing at shows, and poorly maintained or installed footing front and center. Several proposed rule changes sought to indirectly help improve footing, by requiring judges to record and report horse falls to stewards, which can be caused by footing issues, in their rings. (N.B. This is horse falls, not rider falls.) This could lead to data collection to drive changes or penalize shows that don’t provide safe footing. Many argued that the fall rules should apply across the showgrounds and not just in competition rings, but this seemed like a reasonable place to start, as implementation of a showgrounds-wide fall recording policy seemed tricky.
The rule changes got the nod and kick in for the 2019 season. This, as all other rule changes approved or disapproved, must go forward to the U.S. Equestrian Federation. At their upcoming annual meeting they will meet and make the final decision on all rules voted on at the USHJA.
Another driving force in the footing conversation? Jimmy Torano. One of the prominent hunter/jumper rider and trainer’s students suffered serious injury after her horse fell during the Vermont Summer Festival thanks to slick footing, and Torano came to Texas ready to focus on the responsibility of show managers and the governing bodies to keep horses and riders safe, from safe footing to increasing their response time to accidents. He criticized Vermont for its “disastrous” footing and went out of his way to praise the U.S. Equestrian Federation (joking that he never thought he’d say that) for their prompt response. After being flooding with phone calls and poor competition reviews, senior USEF employee and compliance guru Sally Ike headed to the show to check out the situation and hold a Town Hall to hear from frustrated competitors.
At the annual meeting many competitors pointed out that while exhibitors often face suspension and thousands of dollars of fines for violations, there’s little punishment for shows that don’t hold up to required show standards, sometimes just a $200 fine. (“We need to kick them as hard as we can in their license,” suggested USHJA president Mary Babick.)
The Amateur Task Force has glommed onto rider safety as their No. 1 issue. Dana Waters read a heart-wrenching essay about the catastrophic accident and slow recovery of her friend Laura Linback, that had several in the room in tears. The committee is pushing to up the requirements for medical personnel at horse shows and push shows to properly implement their required safety plans so they can handle emergencies quickly.
The USHJA Board of Directors voted to approve expanding the pool of acceptable medical personnel who can work at horse shows to those with ALS training, with the understanding that many want even tougher requirements for medical professionals to work at shows. In fact, everyone in the packed Jumper Working Group meeting hung on Ike’s every word when she explained how the heightened safety protocols are enacted and followed at three-day events, a sport where she serves as a technical delegate and steward.
“They ride in a dangerous sport, but so do we,” pointed out Torano.
Another proposed rule more stringently regulated how many horses may longe in a prescribed area (namely one per 3,600 square feet), which caused plenty of discussion at the final BOD meeting. Board members voiced concerns about enforcing the rules in the early morning hours when many horses are at the end of a longe line, and Board member Diane Carney pointed out that longeing areas aren’t friendly places (she compared arguments over longeing turf to “gang warfare.”) Board member Sissy Wickes put her foot down, pointing out that longing spaces and their maintenance are oft-discussed issues of safety and horse welfare, and the BOD had to start somewhere. That rule was referred to January.
“It’s not an accident waiting to happen; it’s an accident that has happened and will happen again,” she said.
While many large shows already use them, rules requiring Fédération Equestre International-approved safety cups in schooling rings in hunter, equitation and jumper competitions came under consideration as well. Hunter and equitation schooling rings will be required to use FEI safety cups on back rails of all spread fences at premier shows starting in December of 2019. In the 2020 season, this will apply to all shows. A rule applying to jumper schooling areas would require FEI cups on the back rails of all spread obstacles at jumper level 5 and above for the 2019 season, and for 2020 all jumper schooling areas must follow the rule.
A rule requiring horses to sit out for 24 hours after a collapse was widely popular, though many felt it didn’t go far enough. Many wanted a horse that collapses at a show to be benched for the remainder of the show (at least), and some suggested the horse be required to be cleared by a veterinarian before being allowed to return to competition. Procedural rules prohibited the BOD from amending the rule, but they didn’t want to disapprove the rule and be left with no time-out requirement at all. So they approved the rule with the comment that the USHJA would prefer horses to be sidelined longer.
Focusing On Sport Integrity
The USHJA continued to push for measures that raise the bar for the sport’s integrity. A rule change requiring professionals and anyone acting as a trainer to pass a background check, complete Federation-mandated concussion training, complete drug and medication training and Safe Sport training gained plenty of traction.
The U.S. Olympic Committee now mandates that all non-athletes in sports they govern—including the USEF—complete Safe Sport training. What’s that? Safe Sport centers around six forms of misconduct in sport: sexual misconduct, physical misconduct, emotional misconduct, harassment, bullying and hazing. This comes out of several high-profile scandals, including former USA Gymnastics team physician Larry Nassar’s pleading guilty to child pornography and sexual misconduct. Licensed officials (including judges) are already mandated to receive the training.
Ultimately the rule change proposal was referred to January, in order to remove the mandatory (but currently unavailable) drug and medication training, and make it a USHJA-specific rule, as some feared that the would be shot down if other affiliates dug in their heels about implementing the rule.
“Because it’s a general rule, we are proposing something that will affect all breeds and disciplines, and I think it will be dashed on the rocks,” said Babick. “What we need to do is insert USHJA [into the rule so that it only affects the hunter/jumper discipline]. I rather that than go all the way to the Federation only to be beat down by the other breeds and disciplines.”
Discussion then turned to the subject of background checks, as USEF and USHJA currently require different types (the USHJA’s is more thorough, examining, say, fraudulent financial dealings). There was general disagreement about which level of background check should be required, but Babick, USHJA Legal Counsel Marianne Kutner and USHJA Executive Director Kevin Price are currently working on a way to reconcile the two, so those who complete a background check for, say, their USEF judge’s license, don’t have to complete another to train at a horse show.
A proposed change to GR839 adds language that would make it a violation to know about cruelty or abuse of a horse at a licensed competition and not report it. The concept was generally well received and did pass, but conversation centered around defining of abuse, as individuals don’t always agree. As always, any rule that involves reporting fellow competitors raises concerns of retribution.
“I’m putting my neck on the line,” said Torano. “If I saw someone beating their horse over the head, they’d say no, and I’d say yes, and then we’ve got a problem with a fellow exhibitor.”
The Sport Integrity Task Force, which was created last year, is working to mitigate some of the concerns about reporting unsavory conduct. The goal is to implement a formal system for anonymously reporting misconduct, but the USEF is reluctant to allow any form of truly anonymous reporting.
Discussions around the definition of “compete” vs. “complete” also came to the forefront. The change to HU133, which did pass, defines a horse as completing a class when it finishes the course and receives a score from the judge. This means that riders must actually complete a course to fill a division. The goal was to, among other things, prevent competitors from adding entries who wouldn’t actually complete the course to certain classes in order to force a split (and therefore get additional points).
But board member and hunter trainer Shelley Campf was concerned that the rule wouldn’t catch the cheaters but would punish those who were doing it right, offering that a class could have three legitimate entries, but have one go off-course, therefore not counting toward the minimum to run the class, thus affecting the class’s points.
Several proposals sought to increase transparency in the hunters. Right now, an entered horse who does not scratch receives the same notation on his record (i.e. DNP) as one who did not place, stops out, suffered a fall, voluntarily withdrew or went off course. A compromise from the original proposal will denote “did not compete” for horses that never entered the ring, as horse must enter an entire A-rated division but often don’t show in every class for a variety of reasons. Lengthy debates centered around a proposal requiring the use of the open numerical scoring system for classes that required a jog, but it was ultimately voted down by a close margin.
A rule change adding the newly created USHJA 3’3″ Jumping Seat Medal to the list of classes permitted to have a guest judge at national equitation finals was disapproved. Several attendees felt that allowing an unlicensed guest judge was a slap in the face to those who were licensed officials (not to mention the fact that the guest judge may not have completed the required Safe Sport training and background check to serve as an official.) The board agreed to draft a letter to the Joint Equitation Task Force encouraging them to reconsider allowing guest judges at all equitation finals.
What Is A Special Competition, Anyway?
Much conversation centered on a last-minute USEF rule, GR309, that defines special competitions and the application process to apply for them. The rule defines special competitions as the World Equestrian Games, World Cup Finals or qualifiers, the Pan American Games, Olympic Games, Nations Cups and the Nations Cup Finals, Federation national championships and “additional competitions as determined by the Federation.” This initiative, drafted by USEF Chief Compliance Officer Matt Fine, became a bone of contention at the meeting as this has been the process used by standalone hunter derby competitions such as the Chicago Hunter Derby and there still wasn’t an official final draft of the proposal at the end of the meeting.
Derby proponents drafted a last-minute rule of their own to allow for standalone competitions, but it wasn’t quite ready for prime time, and with the future of the special competition rule unclear, the board was hesitant to pass this rule, so it has been referred to the January board meeting.
“As the committee, the [USEF National Hunter Committee] created this as a safety net with a lot of emphasis on what happens with the GR309 rule,” said USHJA board member and interim chair of the National Hunter Committee Tom Brennan. “I want to be clear that the International Hunter Derby and Green Incentive Task Force feels this would be crippling to the derby program.”
Rule Changes Of Note
Rule changes will go forward to the Jan. 17-20 USEF Annual Meeting in Lexington, Ky., where that Board of Directors will have the final say.
- The most contentious rule of the meeting—the so-called “one horse, one handler; one handler, one horse” rule—had arguably the most passionate advocates. That rule would have required that a handler could work with exactly one horse in a class, and that each horse may be handled by exactly one handler in the class. In the general rules forum and Hunter Working Group, those less familiar with the hunter breeding division and its rules and customs asked lots of questions to try to understand the rule’s implications, and in fact there were more USHJA member comments submitted about this rule than any other suggestion in the rule book. Committee members looked at data (avid hunter breeding competitor and rule opponent Emily Belin brought pages of spreadsheets on the topic) and talked to show managers. Still, the stakeholders remained completely divided on the issue after hours of discussion. Babick suggested, and the Board eventually passed, a rule allowing a handler to handle multiple horses at Regional II and Regional 1 shows (i.e. B and C shows) and requiring one horse per handler, one handler per horse at Premier and National shows (I.e. AA and A shows.) Babick admitted this was a compromise that pleased no one.
- A group of proposals were put forth to standardize the schooling rules across the hunters, jumpers and equitation, however, the hunter rule received pushback as many considered Swedish oxers, walk and trot jumps to be vital parts of preparing a hunter to go into the ring. The board decided to amend the rule to include FEI-approved safety cups but to keep all current schooling rules the same.
- A proposal that would have added “making untruthful statements, misrepresentations or engaging in fraudulent behavior in any horse sales or lease transaction” to a list of official USEF violations was shot down.
- A proposal to allow juniors to ride stallions in 3’6″ equitation classes failed to pass. (Juniors may currently ride stallions in the USEF Show Jumping Talent Search series.) Members worried about the unpredictable nature of stallions, which could affect their riders and the riders around them. And Wickes pointed out that the rule had far-reaching implications, potentially creating a market for stallions suited for the 3’6″ equitation in their prime years, and lower heights than that afterwards, retaining some of their unpredictability even if gelded later in life.
- All poling is now banned at showgrounds.
- The board considered rules affecting prize money at shows seriously. One rule requiring gifts over $10,000 (say, a car given to a grand prix winner) be counted toward a show’s rating had strong support but was referred to the board’s January meeting for additional tweaking. Why do gifts this matter? Apparently some shows give away less prize money to maintain a lower jumper rating but give away generous prizes, in order to circumvent the tougher regulations of the “mileage rule” for higher jumper ratings.
- As the pool of stewards shrinks and ages (the average C1 steward is in his or her mid-60s), a rule dropping the minimum age to apply to 21 from 25 failed to pass. One member in her early 20s pointed out she didn’t think that experienced trainers would respect her or her decisions. Other experienced stewards pointed out that the tremendous maturity required in the heated situations stewards sometimes handle would probably be over a 21-year-old’s head.
- Two helmet rules regulating how helmets are fastened, requiring riders to turn in their helmets to the USEF after a possible concussion and prohibiting riders from wearing their hair up in their helmets did not pass, partly thanks to a lack of research in the hair up, hair down debate. That said, a concussion training presentation by neurosurgeon Dr. Lola Chambless and Charles Owens president and concussion researcher Roy Burek was well attended by an engaged audience.
- A rule clarifying the definition of the catch rider passed without much discussion.