Are the people tasked with running our governing bodies working for the best interests of the sport or of themselves?
“May you live in interesting times.” That’s an old English expression often referred to as “the Chinese Curse” by many who know it. In today’s turbulent political environment, it feels like we live in very interesting times.
With so many enormous issues swirling about, the day-to-day happenings within the horse world can seem mundane by comparison. Indeed, times like these send me into a pervasive melancholy wondering if my devotion to equestrian pursuits isn’t too self-centered and frivolous to have any real value in the world. Shouldn’t I be working to feed the hungry or shelter the homeless or something truly meaningful?
The last time I felt this uneasy about the future of equestrian sport was immediately after the tragedy of 9/11. At the time, it appeared the world would move in a direction that might extinguish equestrian sport. How would we justify running our little equestrian entertainments with people flying planes into buildings and pledging to wipe us off the earth for our devotion to things like liberty and freedom?
My brief existential crisis after 9/11 ended when I listened to Austin Kiplinger address a crowd of spectators who had come to his farm in Potomac, Md., the weekend after the towers fell to participate in the Seneca Valley Pony Club Horse Trials. As the first planes in a week flew over the showgrounds on their flight path into Dulles Airport in Virginia, Mr. Kiplinger addressed a crowd of about 200 eventing enthusiasts still in shock from the week’s events.
He reminded us that for half a dozen millennia, the horse has served mankind— as plough horse, carriage horse, war horse, mode of travel, pony express, source of food, as a valued commodity for trade, as a source of recreation and companionship—in countless ways and would likely continue to do so. Whole economies grew and still thrive around their breeding, care and management. There, in that moment, Mr. Kip, as we knew him, spoke so eloquently of community, shared values and the gifts of equestrian life that I became convinced that world peace could be achieved from the back of a horse. I still believe that, though it seems less likely now that Kip has passed on.
Lately I’ve been getting that queasy 3 a.m. feeling again about the future of horse sports and the ability of the Fédération Equestre Internationale and the U.S. Equestrian Federation to manage their health and well-being. While the events of 9/11 signaled that seismic changes in the world can set it on its head, my current malaise relates to the many small red flags being raised throughout the equestrian world that indicate we are not on the right track. Everywhere we look in the equestrian press and on social media people are talking about these things in ways that signal concern. Where 9/11 could have blown up the horse world, I am afraid now we face death by a thousand cuts.
Lack Of Accountability
In a recent podcast interview, Katie Prudent sparked a lively debate about the state of show jumping, lamenting the “dumbing down” of the sport at the highest levels in order to cater to the “fearful, talentless amateurs” who provide much of the money fueling that discipline.
That bombshell was followed by numerous responses from show jumping insiders like McLain Ward, George Morris and most thoughtfully by Peter and Leslie Howard. They identified other trends in that discipline indicating a weird drift toward elitism.
Horse sports generally and three-day eventing in particular have taken up residency in International Olympic Committee purgatory, under constant threat of being cut from the Games in favor of newer, more telegenic and less costly sports. From all reports, chief among IOC concerns would be the need for participation by a greater number of countries (more flags as they say), or a better cost-benefit ratio, or concerns over animal welfare, or whatever else the aristocrats in charge can think of to further their desire to replace equestrian sport in favor of expanded ping-pong or beach volleyball competitions.
What, if any, steps has the FEI taken to address IOC concerns in order to keep equestrian sport in the Olympics? This remains unclear. In his commentary in Horse & Hound, Mark Todd recently expressed confusion over the proposed changes to the FEI eventing format, noting that the proposals bear no logical relation to the problems they are meant to address. Whatever the IOC’s stated problems with equestrian sport, I doubt seriously if renaming the levels of sport and allowing teams to use replacement horses will do much to address their concerns.
Here at home, the hunter world seems particularly ill at ease with the issue of drug testing and the dispirited disciplinary actions taken against offending riders and trainers by the USEF Hearing Committee. Although I don’t condone in any way the intentional drugging of horses for competitive advantage, I can certainly understand the frustration with the current situation given the secrecy and force of the Hearing Committee’s activities. Chief among the complaints I’ve heard are the utter lack of reasonableness when positive drugs tests are proven accidental or when trace amounts of prohibited substances are detected at such levels as to have had no possible influence on the animal in competition.
Concerns over the lack of due process are not limited to substance abuse among competitive hunters. The USEF recently published guidelines regarding penalties for abuse that raised the hackles of every thinking professional in its membership. This anxiety could have been easily avoided if only the USEF had spoken meaningfully regarding questions of procedural due process, specifically how and when these penalties could be enforced.
No one has suggested that abuse and horse safety aren’t important and appropriate issues for the USEF to police. However, the length of suspensions and size of the monetary penalties suggested in the guidelines could easily force people completely out of the industry. The proposed penalties are far too severe to leave the process so poorly defined, shrouded in veils of secrecy, and with little or no apparent accountability for their actions.
Drifting Toward Oligarchy
David O’Connor’s recent resignation in the middle of his contract left USEF High Performance Eventing with no unbiased, effective leadership at a time when these qualities are sorely needed. Indeed, his ouster appears to leave control of the entire High Performance Eventing program in the hands of a very small group of insiders and USEF staff. How the staff and powerful elites charged with managing that program proceed from here will tell us a great deal about whether they are acting in the best interest of the sport or have in fact already devolved into a closely held and secretive group bent on acting in their own selfish interests.
I could go on, but you get the picture. It’s the fact that so many problematic issues have arisen all at once that keeps me up at night.
Given the unruly condition of the industry, I cannot help but wonder if the themes of shared values, community and history haven’t gotten lost among the market forces and personal agendas pushing equestrian sports toward a future that looks increasingly elitist and tailored to the needs and desires of a privileged and powerful few.
I wonder why, for example, we cannot make more effective arguments at the IOC, why we have no strategic plans for growth that might bring equestrian sports to areas of the country and the world that are not participating, why the actions taken by the people in charge of the sport don’t seem related directly to the problems they have been asked to resolve, why unacceptable conflicts of interest continue to go unchecked. And when thinking about what it will take to resolve these questions, I cannot help but wonder if the organizations charged with overseeing the welfare of equestrian sports are up to the task at hand.
The issues I’ve identified above do not arise all at once or by accident. My research into management of institutions in general and sports organizations in particular shows that these problems come up fairly regularly. Indeed, most of these issues arise from the simple premise that when allowed to operate free of democratic checks and balances, individuals tend to act first in their own self interest. Problems such as undue secrecy, conflicts of interest, self-dealing and ineffective strategic planning typically arise when the people in control of an institution care first and foremost about retaining their power rather than the power and welfare of the institution itself.
That institutions, no matter how democratic from the start, tend to drift toward oligarchy, is a well-established theory and was initially described by Robert Michels as the Iron Law of Oligarchy in his 1911 book Political Parties. It should surprise no one, then, that the IOC has been for some time the poster child for the kind of corruption that can cripple an organization in the effective prosecution of its mission statement. (See The Lords Of The Rings: Power, Money And Drugs In The Modern Olympics by Vyv Simson and Andrew Jennings.)
As equestrians looking out for the welfare of our sport, we have little or no influence over IOC corruption. Books have been written on it; laws have been enacted to deal with it. However, we can and should assert democratic checks and balances wherever we can in order to ensure that the institutions charged with guiding the sport are well equipped and positioned to be effective. In this effort, all stakeholders’ interests need to be represented, not just those of the powerful few. This requires that the current leaders of our sport commit themselves to instituting practices that ensure the best governance possible, put forward policy changes that neutralize conflicts of interest, add oversight to prohibit self dealing, and promote levels of transparency that respect input from the rank and file.
Sell The Horse
Ridding the USEF and FEI of conflicts of interest and expanding the checks and balances meant to ensure good governance will not on their own resolve the problems facing us today. Incompetence is at least as good as conspiracy when trying to explain why people act and institutions fail. Ensuring the future of equestrian sport in the Olympics and effective management in other areas requires that people with particular education and talent be engaged in targeted efforts designed to position the sport for growth and health in the future.
Mark Todd said a mouthful when he wrote in Horse & Hound in July that, “The level of professionalism among the participants seems to have outgrown the level of professionalism in the governance of horse sports, and it needs addressing.” He further noted that in his 40 years of competing internationally, he has never seen this level of dissatisfaction with the FEI and other national governing bodies. I’m not saying that our current leaders are not doing their best. But let’s face facts: Running equestrian sports is a really big job.
This points to a pervasive problem throughout the industry and is (again) reflective of a lack of good governance. We repeatedly put volunteer horsemen with little or no management expertise in poorly defined roles with poorly defined expectations and with few or no appropriate resources to assist them in their efforts. Because the problems we face are complex and involve millions of people, with many more millions of dollars at stake, we can no longer rely on a well-intentioned, energetic group of volunteer horsemen if we expect to achieve our goals. It is way past time to reach outside our encapsulated equestrian community for real help. Experts in athlete management, television broadcasts, government relations and lobbying, public relations, experts focused on research and development in matters of veterinary science and safety issues, marketing professionals, legal and financial experts, and others must be employed to assist in the development and implementation of a coherent strategic plan.
We won’t be the first or the last sport to try for this type of expansion. And it looks almost impossible given the shape of the organizations charged with the task. But if golf and tennis can grow into sports with global reach from the modest hobby sports they once were, so can we. Volumes have been written on how this was accomplished. Indeed, I would think their task was pretty hard given that they had only clubs, rackets, balls, and horrible fashion sense to work with.
We have something far better to sell. We have the horse. And the horse comes fully loaded with all his nobility, history and the magic that making a bond with him inspires. In our fight to stay relevant in the modern world, we must remember that horses and their importance have been memorialized by the thousands of equestrian monuments in the public square and in countless masterpieces of art that include horses as subjects.
We must remember that riding as an art form has a long history in western culture and has been preserved in centuries-old institutions like the Cadre Noir and the Vienna Riding School and that its methods and techniques can be found in a vast library of equestrian works from Xenophon’s The Art Of Horsemanship written in 400 B.C. to George Morris’ Hunter Seat Equitation and Harry Boldt’s Das Dressurpferde. We must make a future where children still read stories like Black Beauty and The Black Stallion, and where true stories about Phar Lap, Seabiscuit, Snowman and Secretariat still get told. We need to ensure a future where new equestrian stars find immortality in their own stories of adventure and heroism.
I know these are really first world problems. It’s almost sad that the horse still provides basic needs of daily life in the underdeveloped world, just as they did for us before the invention of the automobile made them almost obsolete. But in western culture at least, a huge economy has grown around the use of the horse for sport and recreation, and these endeavors bind us in a global community of horsemen. That shouldn’t be so hard to nurture. Unless the people we have entrusted to act on our behalf can put self interest aside and start acting first and foremost for the good of the sport, our lifestyle could be lost for generations of horsemen yet to come.
I would like to thank both Dr. Susan Glover and Mr. James Wofford for the suggested readings that informed this commentary.
Patrick McGaughan was rider in residence at the U.S. Equestrian Team from 1981 to 1982. He graduated from Duke University (N.C.) in 1987 and from the University of Maryland School of Law in 1991. A team gold medalist at the 1987 Pan American Games aboard Tanzer, he is now “a reformed lawyer spending my time teaching, riding and training horses” at his Banbury Cross Farm in Clarksburg, Md.