This is the first in a two-part series from Brian Wee, a certified financial planner and former-professional-turned-amateur rider living in Woodbine, Maryland. In the past year, Wee has become a vocal proponent for changing the way the business of horse shows operates. As part of that effort, he started a Facebook group, Next Level Horse Businesses, which serves as a place for its 3,900 members to propose ideas, ask questions and view video interviews with leaders in the equestrian industry. This article appeared in its entirety in the May 3 & 10, 2021, issue of The Chronicle of the Horse.
The majority of participants in show jumping and hunter sport are clearly demanding the same thing: more affordable competitions. I’ve outlined four ideas to help accomplish this, and they all have something in common: They involve cutting programs or sizing them down.
If you’re saying, “I want things to be more affordable; I want lower U.S. Equestrian Federation fees,” you have to come to the table with what you’re willing to cut. A lot of people will say we want lower fees, and the next thing they say is, “USEF should create this new program!” That doesn’t work, so I’m coming to the table with things you can gut to improve the USEF horse show product.
When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, the tech company he’d co-founded more than two decades earlier was on the brink of failure. Jobs reviewed the product line and found Apple was making multiple versions of the same product to cater to requests from different retailers. Instead of producing one good computer model, Apple was producing 12 mediocre ones. Jobs cut the number of products Apple produced by 70 percent and saved the company. Today nearly every person reading this owns one of his products.
“Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do,” Jobs said.
In order to save our sport and make it affordable and accessible, it’s time to cut the fat and focus our efforts on programs that work. Here are four ideas to change the business of horse shows so we can all afford to compete in the sport we love.
1. Stop assigning points based on a show’s rating.
Currently, when someone applies for a horse show license, USEF looks at the facility where the show will be hosted and goes down a checklist printed in its rulebook. Do you have a 20,000-square foot indoor arena? Do you have hot food vendors? Grandstand seating? A certain amount of shaded seating? A PA announcement system?
If you meet these (and many other) benchmarks, you’re an AA (premier) horse show. This means riders competing at your show will receive more than twice as many points toward year-end awards and qualifying for indoors as riders at a B-rated show who are jumping the same height at the same division specs.
A national governing body should care about only two things when evaluating a facility: Is it safe, and are the courses set to the regulations and specs for the division?
If so, you get the stamp of approval, and you run as a USEF-recognized horse show, and the points will be the same as any other facility that is determined to be safe and up to the division specs. No A, B or C grading, no “premier” title—a system that’s as confusing as it is unfair. You’re either safe to run as a USEF horse show or you’re not, and we’re not going to waste time and resources reviewing whether or not you had a hot food vendor, and award more points to riders if you did.
2. End the year-end awards points-chasing craze in favor of a national championship competition.
Anyone who’s competed in or watched an equitation final can attest to the competitive tension that fills those arenas. Riders have worked all year to qualify for this moment, and it could all be over with one misstep: Favorites can choke; underdogs can step up and snatch a top ribbon with a brilliant ride.
Imagine if instead of watching the ASPCA Maclay Final, you logged on to a computer, scrolled down a list of names and saw which rider had the highest point total that year. Not so exciting anymore, is it? It robs the occasion of all the magic and lore that has sustained the equitation championships for generations, and it is exactly how U.S. Equestrian’s year-end award system works.
The USEF Horse of the Year awards don’t reward great riding and horse management throughout the year, and they don’t crown a winner of an exciting national competition. They reward the wealthiest riders who can manage to keep a horse sound while crisscrossing the country showing most every week of the year and chasing points at the most expensive competitions. Where is the horsemanship in that? Where is the sport?
Instead of setting up a year-end awards system—in which it’s impossible for a competitor of average means to win anything—that showers the rich with coolers and big ribbons at a banquet in some hotel ballroom, why not flip it around? Why not set up a championship system that is an exciting, head-to-head format like the equitation championships? You could qualify for it at fancier venues or on a budget at bare-bones facilities, so you’d have the money to go to the big championship show at the end of the year.
Luckily this dream of a head-to-head championship format already exists—it’s essentially the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association National Championships, which are set to run this year in Las Vegas, Nov. 15-21. I’d like to see this become a championship whose structure incentivizes people to be good horsemen and have their horse in the best competing shape possible for a championship event.
I’m not suggesting USEF or USHJA shouldn’t give any ribbons or awards to people who don’t go compete at the national championships. I envision the development of state and regional championships to funnel in to the USHJA National Championship. Wouldn’t it be cool if first you were a state or regional champion, and then all those champions went head-to-head at the national championship? And if you’re a state champion your local equestrian community is going to rally around you. They’re going to go, “Come on, you’ve got to go represent us; you’re representing the state!” You’re going to say, “Oh hell yeah, my state is counting on me,” and you’re going to get fired up.
You’d still be giving out ribbons and recognizing people’s efforts along the way to the national championship, but you wouldn’t be doing what the year-end awards do right now, which is spend a lot of money on a program that prices out the majority of USEF members and isn’t good for horse welfare.
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