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May 20, 2011

Who’s Responsible For Our Sport? Everyone.

“I’m active in governance of this sport, so I’m often approached by people who want to discuss things that we need to ‘fix,’ “ said Geoff Teall. Photo by Diana De Rosa.

Our columnist believes we can’t fix everything with rules—we just have to do the right thing.

When asked to begin writing occasional columns for Between Rounds I was struck by the title of the column and what it means. As active horse show participants we’re all part of the constant discussions that are held while waiting in and around the in-gate.

I’m active in the governance of this sport, so I’m often approached by people who want to discuss things that we need to “fix.” More often than not these problems aren’t things that can possibly be corrected with rule changes, but instead require each of us to regulate the behavior of ourselves and the people around us. At some point I believe all of us as professionals, amateurs, owners, exhibitors and parents have to take responsibility for our own actions and do what is right, not just for ourselves at that moment, but for our sport over the long term. This is a great sport, and we have to protect it for the future. We’re all obliged to make this responsibility our own.

One topic I’m hearing a lot about at the moment is “poaching.” This is when top riders show in divisions for which they are technically eligible but that are created for competitors who don’t have the skill or experience of these same riders. Often they’re entered in these divisions on horses that are also eligible to compete in the division according to the rules, but who have the ability and quality to compete at much higher levels. This appears to be happening more often across the country and at all levels of show. The most disturbing aspect of this practice is that it most often affects the lower level divisions such as ponies, children’s and adults. It also reaches down into the low children’s, adults, short stirrup and other true entry-level divisions.

This practice is discouraging people away from our sport just as they are starting to get involved. Imagine that you’re one of the riders of the appropriate age and experience for the class. You have the round of your life, and you’re anxiously awaiting the results in hopes that you will get a nice ribbon or perhaps even win the class. The class is on hold for one more rider who is on her way from another ring.

When she arrives, you realize this person is late because she’s just finished up the jog in another ring, where she ended up first, second and fourth in a division that you know in your heart you will never be able to participate in. When she arrives, you also realize that this rider has not only one horse in your division, but in fact she has three horses waiting for her to show in your class. Your heart sinks when you realize that you’re probably not going to win the class. While you’re fine with the idea that you did your best, and you realize that ending up with any ribbon in this type of competition is a good thing, it’s still discouraging to get beaten once again by someone who not only has the skill, experience and horse flesh to be winning in the higher end divisions, but who is in fact doing just that at this very show.

If we want to encourage people into our sport then we’re going to have to police ourselves and not keep taking ribbons and success from the people who belong in these divisions with riders and horses that are far past this level. This short-term success for us, our horses and our owners is not in the best long-term interest of our sport.

Be Honest

A second hot topic at the in-gate at the moment is closely related to this problem, and that’s the increased number of “shamateurs” showing. A problem that is becoming more prevalent in both the hunter and jumper disciplines, competitors are becoming very aware of the people who are showing horses that they don’t really own in the amateur-owner divisions, or showing in the adult amateur divisions when their amateur status is under scrutiny.

The incredible amount of work the Amateur and Owner Committees of the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association have done recently on the rules concerning amateurs proves to me that there a lot of people out there who are very concerned about this problem and that it’s nearly impossible to write rules that will prevent people from doing what is wrong.

All the amateur divisions are designed so that amateurs have divisions that allow them to compete against amateurs. Many of these people have family, jobs and other commitments that don’t allow them to ride or compete as often as they would like. This makes it more difficult for them to perfect their craft, so they deserve the chance to compete against people with the same limitations as themselves. These same people who have worked hard and spent either a lot of time or a lot of money in order to own their own horse to compete in owner-rider divisions deserve the chance to compete against others with the same circumstances. It’s not right or fair for others to make false arrangements that thinly veil either their amateur status or their ownership of the horses they’re showing in order to compete in these divisions.

Again, this is discouraging to the very people who are following our rules and trying to compete fairly in the divisions for which they’re legitimately eligible. Although the short-term success for the people taking advantage of these divisions is certainly good for them, I have to wonder what effect it’s going to have on our sport over the long haul. I think we need to take a good look at what we’re doing and be sure that we’re doing the right thing.

Use Professional Courtesy

The next two subjects I hear discussed are directed more to the professionals in our sport, but I think they involve everyone to some extent. Although we’re living in somewhat difficult economic times, and although we are all also usually quite busy, it’s time to put some courtesy back into the process of trying, buying and leasing horses.

I think the first and most important issue in all of this is that as both buyers and professionals we need to have a very clear idea of what it is we’re looking for and what we can realistically spend. I’m a firm believer that if you don’t know what you want you won’t find it. I also feel strongly that it’s grossly unfair to everyone to look at horses that in your heart you know you cannot possibly afford to buy or lease.

The next step is to get in touch with a few people you trust and would like to do business with and enlist their help in finding you the right horse. So many times people are trying so many horses with so many people that they’re getting themselves confused in the process, often ending with purchasing the wrong horse. But the really important piece here, and the piece that to me is non-negotiable, is to communicate with everyone involved in the process before, during and after about the business being conducted. Let people know what you want, what you can spend, your travel plans, etc.

And out of courtesy, let people know what you’ve decided regarding any horses that they’ve gone through the trouble of arranging for you to see. Any time anyone presents a horse for sale or lease it takes a certain amount of work and energy, and the presenter deserves to know as soon as possible what your intentions may or may not be going forward.

No one likes to hear that their deal isn’t going to go through, but we all need to know where the deal stands. It seems like a lot of work, but the reality is that after you’ve tried someone’s horse you should pick up the phone and let them know your thoughts. “Thank you for showing us your horse today. We don’t feel that it’s a good fit for us so we’re going to pass, but we do appreciate you making it possible for us to see your horse” will go a long way to finish up a deal in a professional and thoughtful manner. The call will only take a moment and is far better than texting, or even worse, never getting back to the selling agent at all.

How To Handle A Breakup

The last topic that I often hear discussed—clients changing trainers—is difficult. Leaving a trainer is almost never easy to do, anymore than losing a client is easy for professionals to understand and accept. I do believe that when things are handled up front and with open communication, people get through this difficult time and move on.

There are a few crucial pieces to having this go well. The first is for all professionals to remember what it’s like to lose clients and be sure that you’re not in any way soliciting or encouraging another professional’s client to come ride with you. It’s very easy for all of us to justify some of our actions, but we know when we’re behaving badly, and we need to resist that urge. We’re all professionals, and we’re all in the sport for the long haul. If we do what’s right we’ll all be able to continue in the business and work together.

If a client/trainer change is inevitable and unsolicited, then I think the next big key is again communication. The professional who is thinking about taking on a new client needs to pick up the phone and contact the current professional. The client who wants to make a change also has the same responsibility to contact his present trainer. I think the order in which these calls are made varies in different circumstances, but both calls need to be made and reconciliation with the present trainer attempted by all parties. If that’s not possible, and everyone agrees to the change in trainer, then all financial commitments need to be taken care of before the change proceeds. Although it’s never easy, it’s the phone call between all parties that will get everyone through the difficult time.

When looking at these issues a few things come to light. None of us, me included, can plead innocent to all of this. Clearly we’ll never be able to write enough rules to cover all of these problems. The only solution is to continue to take a good look at what we’re doing, talk about it with anyone involved, and push forward trying to do our best to protect our horses, each other and our sport.

Geoff Teall, of Wellington, Fla., trains in the hunter, jumper and equitation divisions—with an emphasis on amateur and junior riders—and shows in the professional hunter divisions. An R-rated USEF judge, he has presided over the Pessoa/USEF Medal Finals, USEF Pony Finals, USEF Pony Medal Finals and many prestigious horse shows such as the Washington (D.C.) International and National Horse Show. Teall also co-founded the American Hunter-Jumper Foundation and serves on the Board of Directors of the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. "Who's Responsible For Our Sport? Everyone." ran in the May 23, 2011 issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.

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