A lot has changed since this veteran equestrian journalist attended her first AHSA Convention 28 years ago.
Unless you’re on your honeymoon, it’s never fun to spend five days in a hotel, not knowing, or caring, what the weather is like outside because you’re so wrapped up in the business at hand.
But the five days for which we were sequestered in the Louisville Marriott Downtown at the U.S. Equestrian Federation’s Annual Meeting certainly were worthwhile and reassuring—even if they couldn’t exactly be described as fun.
There was such a contrast with those dark years in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the U.S. Equestrian Team and the old American Horse Shows Association/USA Equestrian were feuding. The levels of dread at the annual meeting were sky-high then, and each meeting room seemed to be divided by an invisible wall bristling with weapons.
Sitting at lunch one day during this month’s genial meeting, a friend told me about how he heard something slipped under the door of his room in the middle of the night.
“Oh no, it’s starting again,” he thought, recalling the days when notices of secret meetings (“Don’t tell anyone!” recipients were warned) had been routinely slid into rooms after midnight as part of the hostilities in the USET/AHSA battle.
When my acquaintance got up to see what was going on, he breathed a sigh of relief after discovering that it was only a newspaper delivery. But that anecdote made me think about how far the USEF has come since its birth in late 2003, and how the attitude of key players in the governance structure is far different than it was even in the days long before the “War Of The Equestrian Organizations.”
My first AHSA Convention, as it was called then, was in 1980 in New York City, which was then the organization’s home. There was none of the current emphasis on transparency. Deals were done in the hall (well, they still are, to some extent, but then they are also discussed). Many of the meetings were closed. Forums were held for each breed and discipline, but votes in these sessions often were meaningless, as the chairmen seemed to simply say what they wanted when the question of what to pass came before the USEF Board of Directors on Sunday morning. In too many cases, I fear, self-interest ruled the day.
On the plus side, the old conventions were much more social than the current annual meetings. There was sometimes a small trade show and a chance to see new places as we traveled all around the country: One year on the East Coast, the next in the South, then enjoying the California sunshine—because we did leave the hotel for various outings in the area.
And nearly everybody who was anybody came—that was long before sunshine circuit shows were practically crowding New Year’s Eve.
These days, you usually don’t see riders or trainers unless they’re on committees, and sometimes not even then.
Now the meetings are held only in the Lexington/Louisville/Cincinnati area (not exactly resort territory), saving the cost of flying around staff from the Lexington headquarters and shipping the dozens of expensive sterling silver trophies that highlight the Horse of the Year dinner.
“This is purely business; the board decided that five years ago,” USEF President David O’Connor told me about the character of the yearly gathering, which happily is still highlighted by two big awards dinners.
He believes the affiliates’ annual meetings have taken over many of the functions of the old convention, as they offer educational seminars and handle the bread-and-butter of the rule change process, with plenty of time for input and deliberations.
One thing they can’t do, though, is re-create the way people from the breeds and disciplines—who might never meet again during the year—interacted at the old convention. They got to know each other, appreciating the broad spectrum of the equestrian scene rather than just their little corner of it, and came to realize that all of us, whether we ride Paso Finos or Arabians, American Saddlebreds or hunters, have a lot in common.
The smaller numbers at the annual meeting allow that experience only in microcosm, but on the plus side,
there’s a feeling that “we’re all in this together.” Partisanship seems to have taken a back seat to the good of the entire organization.
A number of new leaders, including the USEF Safety Committee’s Andrew Ellis and the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association’s Bill Moroney, have made a mark on the scene. They’re both outspoken and well-spoken, but they also listen and know how to think outside the box. That symbolizes the character of the USEF, which can be characterized as a progressive organization, sneering at the old boundaries and forging ahead.
The feeling of achievement—what has been done and what is to come—was palpable at this annual meeting. I miss some aspects of the old days, and yes, I would rather have been in California or Florida, but this session in Kentucky convinced me that things are being done right. It was nice to head home in an upbeat mode with the knowledge that something, actually, a lot of things, had been accomplished.