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November 1, 2011

What’s Happened To The Hunter Industry?

"Let's all put our heads together and bring the hunters back to life," said Shelley Campf. Photo by Mollie Bailey.

As I read through many emails from U.S. Hunter Jumper Association members, I’m struck by the vast differences in the demographics of the group and the varied perspectives of individual members.

For instance, the World Championship Hunter Rider program: Some say, “This is the best program” while others feel it is “not a useful program anymore.”

Trainer Certification: Some members believe in “support the program and invest in yourself” while others consider it “too expensive and I deserve to be grandfathered in.”

Money Won for hunter derbies: This is “essential for the growth of the hunter sport” to some but “killing the sport” to others.

How do these sharply contrasting opinions find a middle ground?

First, it’s important to identify what we’re after. The mission of the USHJA is to “promote our sport and the well being of its participants, offer broad based education for our members and provide the framework for the conduct of our sport.”

The mission is great! Now we need to work together to amalgamate all of the different ideas from everyone in an effort to increase growth. Enter the committee process.

It’s human nature to see things from our own perspective as the “correct thing,” but we owe it to the sport to educate ourselves on how the other half lives. Not all USHJA members are living the same reality. We need to keep studying the history and data to look back at what we’ve done and continue to work together for the future.

Some of the most often asked questions are: “What has happened to our hunter industry? Why are the numbers in the pro divisions declining?” There are no simple answers but rather an intricate latticed network of factors that play into it.

I remember in 1996 having more than 75 horses in the first year green hunter division at HITS Indio (Calif.). In 2011, Indio’s successor, HITS Thermal (Calif.), had an average of 14.5 horses in the first year green division. That’s a stunning 80 percent drop in 15 years. Why is that?

It’s easy to blame the economy, but the economy was flying until 2008. We can’t afford that attrition rate, so what do we do? We need to delve into the facts that data will provide.

Thermal Desert Circuit
First Year Green Entries 2006-2011

           200620072008200920102011
DC I453923161911
DC II464432212214
DC III32252720208
DC IV293026141315
DC V323235212124
DC VI252526191215

This represents a small slice of the market, but it nicely shows the decline in numbers.

What Are The Solutions?

Many people complain about judging, and some trainers teach their clients to be untrusting of the system. Instead of saying to an owner, “I got a 78 because I was too deep to that vertical and he swapped,” we often hear, “I know, the judging is so bad. It’s political.”

Wake up everyone! We’re slandering the very group that we hire to judge us. Do you really think judges cheat? I don’t. I think judges try to do a good job. People typically believe that judges are cheating when they lack knowledge or the trainer makes excuses.

Different judges will officiate the same class and jog it differently, but not because they are cheating. It’s a style thing; some judges reward quality more than performance, and some judges vice versa. Educate yourself to the variances in the officiating, and teach your clients the same.

Why would any owner want to enter a sport that his trainer tells him is riddled with politics and favoritism? This problem absolutely starts with trainers. Instead of having their own self-awareness and the integrity to be honest to their clients about the round, many trainers use the cop-out of blaming the judges. If your trainer is constantly “judge bashing,” consider it a red flag. Maybe you need to find a trainer who takes accountability and does a better job. Who would want to buy a hunter if the favoritism is so rampant? I love the hunters, but I think I would have to buy a jumper instead. Stop tearing down the judges or realize that you are tearing down the very sport that supports you.

Many people feel that they “cannot compete” in the hunter ring. You hear it all the time. “The horses are too expensive” or “The same people win all the time.” The hunter derbies have helped that; many feel like this is everyman’s class. Diversity is good. The more people who feel like they can compete, the more people will want to try.

The only thing declining faster than the number of horses in the professional classes is the number of professionals riding them. Why is that? Is it because we think unless one of the “top flight” hunter riders rides our horse, it won’t win? This is not good for the sport as a whole. This makes the market smaller and the horses more expensive.

I think that the number of horses a professional can ride in each division should be limited to four. Four is still a lot of horses in one division. If you’re lucky enough to have more than four, pass one on for your assistant or an emerging professional to ride. Having the same rider ride 75 percent of the horses in the class is boring. That is why competitions like the CN International at Spruce Meadows (Alberta) and the $500,000 Diamond Mills Hunter Prix Final in Saugerties (N.Y.) limit the entries to one horse per rider. It’s more exciting. It gives the feeling of a more level playing field.

The hot topic of today is “money won versus points.” We’ve learned a lot about our industry from calculating national standings via money won. Money won made us realize we needed to track earnings for horses and riders and to use those earnings to promote and market professional riders and horses. All that is great, but is money won the best method for calculating Horse of the Year high score awards? Is using money won “killing our sport”? The data shows that the decline started long before the idea of money won. That is obviously not the problem.

Let’s delve a little further. Is the increment system in need of an overhaul? The USHJA Affiliates Committee has come up with an excellent new idea about the increment system. Have a base set of points for each level of competition, and add one point for every horse that competed in the class: genius! Should we limit the number of shows that one horse can use for HOTY high score awards? We already do that for the Pennsylvania National. Should we count points? Should we count money? Should we count derby and classic points and/or money? The questions are endless, but the solution is out there.

Don’t let the hunter sport dwindle. Be aware of how destructive negative dialogue can be. Educate yourself and promote this wonderful sport. Let’s all put our heads together and bring the hunters back to life. 

Shelley Campf and her husband Jeff run Oz, Inc., in Canby, Ore. In addition to their training and sales business, Shelley also sits on the USHJA Board of Directors and serves as chair of the USHJA Trainer Certification Program. She also sits on the Zone IX Hunter Committee, the USHJA Equitation Task Force, the USHJA Hunter Re-Structure Committee, the USHJA Open Hunter Task Force, the USHJA Money Won–Special Committee and the USHJA Foundation Board Nominating Committee.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. "What's Happened To The Hunter Industry?" ran in the October 24, 2011, issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.