A Bill Of Sale: Too Much To Ask?

Dec 12, 2013 - 6:01 AM
Debbie Bass, co-chair of the USHJA Joint Owners Task Force, staunchly defended a rule change proposal requiring a bill of sale in horse sales transactions that caused vehement debate. Photo by Mollie Bailey

Yes, said those gathered at the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association convention, Dec. 8-12 in Atlanta.

It was meant to be so simple, but I don’t think there was any issue with more confusion surrounding it than the bill of sale rule change proposal (GR702.1n).

The end result: the proposal was withdrawn at the USHJA Board of Directors meeting on Dec. 12. But that’s not the end of the story.

“Our messaging is in trouble,” said USHJA Joint Owners Task Force co-chair and general Joan of Arc of the bill, Debbie Bass. “One of the major concerns turned into the perception that the bill of sale for a horse sale or lease needs to be filed with the USEF, and that is not the case.

“This concept is so fundamentally simple; it’s a little confounding how you can further explain it,” she added. “You just need bill of sale with four pieces of information.”

That information includes the full sale or lease price, the full names and addresses of the principals and their agents, and the names of anyone other than the agents taking compensation in excess of $500. Dollar amounts of commission are not even required.

Nor does the rule require sales documents to be filed or kept or ever even shown to anyone at USEF, unless a complaint is filed—in which case the paper would be presented to simply determine if it exists, nothing more.

But there was surprisingly little support for the concept. Here’s a sample of comments various committees noted on the rule change proposal:

“This rule is unpractical.” – USHJA Young Professionals Committee

“Do not want sale price and commissions to be public knowledge or required to be reported in order to register a horse with the USEF. Cannot expect all exhibitors to use a standard Bill of Sale.” – USHJA Amateurs Task Force

“Transactions are not the business of the Federation.” – USHJA Children’s/Adult Jumper Task Force

“This is overstepping the bounds between the governing body and the participants.” – USHJA Jumper Working Group

“Do not want to be forced to disclose the private transactions with owners.” – USHJA Pony Hunter Task Force

“To protect privacy of all parties.” – USHJA Professionals Task Force

Bass, of Gates Mills, Ohio, continually defended the bill, often against hostile complaints. Her intelligence, research, motives—all were insulted, but she kept taking another deep breath and calmly repeating her explanations. “Oh that, that doesn’t bother me,” she said of the rabid opposition, shrugging it off. “Now my committee is getting radicalized. This was scary, but after this reception, we’re pretty unhappy.”

By Wednesday afternoon, after quite a battering, she was looking a little deflated. You could tell she was disappointed, but her determination was still there. 

“I commend Debbie on still standing,” said USHJA President Bill Moroney at the conclusion of the Owners Task Force meeting. “Whatever happens to this rule, you have raised the temperature and the issue. You’ve stated that this is out there, and as owners, you’re not lying asleep at the wheel anymore. I commend you for having the fortitude.”

Over and over, she was asked, why don’t owners DEMAND a bill of sale and full disclosure? Why do business with someone who wouldn’t give you that?

Because owners are intimidated, she insisted. Owners are taught not to question anything. They are told this is how it’s done. Then they’re embarrassed to find out they’ve been swindled.

“But everyone has one of these stories,” she says.

The rampant—and illegal—abuse of the sales process through dual agency and hidden fees is making news. It’s only a matter of time before this hits the front pages of The New York Times, resulting in more bad press for the industry and, possibly, in government regulation someday down the road, such as is required in real estate transactions.

Trainers are the ones with expert knowledge. Owners hand over their confidence and their cash—frequently very large sums—to people from whom they expect professional behavior. Trainers need to be responsible for the effects of their expert advice, whether it’s where and when to show, what to do to prepare the horse for the ring, or which animal to purchase and at what price.

“I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I still have to beg for a bill,” said Bass. “I’m paying someone to look out for my interests, and I still have to beg. It’s creepy to buy a horse, and it should be exciting. I have to sit my husband down and give that speech every time, and it makes me feel fraudulent too.”

USEF general counsel Sonja Keating said that based on the number of calls the USEF regulatory department receives related to sales and commission questions and confusions, they’d need to significantly increase staff to handle the call volume if this rule passed.

But I ask, what better evidence than this that people are looking for help with this issue?

“This rule is exceedingly simplistic, asking for a bill of sale,” said Bass at the general rules forum. “I have to ask you, is that really too much to ask?”

And the response—not so much from her peers but from a room full of trainers, show managers and officials—was that yes, it was. Might that change if the conversation is available via live-stream broadcast so that owners and riders at their day jobs can follow the conversation? Bass thought it would and that this could possibly happen by next year’s meeting.

As one person stated, “In the discussion, the offenders made it pretty clear that they’re the offenders.” 

Bass believes, rightly so, that the USEF isn’t just charged with regulating competitions but is responsible for the overall health of the sport as well.

“We lose owners, and we lose the sport in the end,” said Moroney. “This is important to the culture of our sport. The owner deserves the right to have that receipt. It is important that this issue is not forgotten, or this will come back to haunt you.”

I wish that people had been more willing to listen to the arguments in favor of this, be open-minded enough to really understand what it was asking and consider if that might not be in the best interests of keeping people in—and enjoying—the sport. Bass may be out in front of the culture shift here, but it’s long since overdue. She deserves a standing ovation for her work and her fearlessness in presenting and defending it. It seems to be part and parcel of commendable USHJA work toward making all aspects of the sport and its governance more transparent. My hat is off to Debbie and everyone else who worked to advance this proposal. The discussion she initiated here is only beginning, not ending.

Read more in-depth discussion of this topic and many others that were debated at the USHJA annual meeting in the Jan. 13 print edition of The Chronicle of the Horse



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