Sunday, Mar. 3, 2024

Calls For Improved Welfare Headline USHJA Annual Meeting

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Concord, N.C.—Dec. 8

The participants at the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association Annual Meeting, held Dec. 4-7, were chatting and jovial while filing in for Tuesday’s Town Hall meeting, led by USHJA President Mary Knowlton. The chatter dimmed but didn’t disappear as Knowlton started to speak, talking about her “little birds”—individuals in the equestrian community who trust her enough to voice concerns, knowing she’ll maintain their anonymity. But when Knowlton related a horrifying story from one of her “little birds” about an incident at a large indoor horse show, the room fell silent.

“A horse collapsed in the stabling area,” she said. “The horse was down, and the people were kicking it and beating it and throwing water on it after it had an adverse reaction to some drug that was given to the horse to make it—one assumes—quiet.

“And people saw this,” she continued, “and they didn’t report it. Just think about that for a second. Just go back in your mind for one minute to the first time you ever got on a horse. Mine was a pony at a pony ride. Did you ever think that was part of what you’d be part of? And your silence, does that make you part of this? That’s the question I really want to get answered today.”

Knowlton invited discussion and solutions for cleaning up hunter/jumper sport in the interest of horse welfare and the buzz phrase of the year: social license to operate. That’s the concept that the public must accept and approve of what we do with horses in order for the sport to continue. Conversations about sportsmanship also came to the forefront, as many pointed out that bad behavior at the in-gate, spurred by disagreeing with judging, seems to have increased.

USHJA President Mary Knowlton led conversations all week that touched on a variety of topics. Mollie Bailey photo

“I’m disturbed by that,” said Zone 4’s Andrea Welles of incidents of bad sportsmanship and behavior contrary to horse welfare. “We probably need to have a better ‘see something, say something’ campaign going on. We need culpability. What is the punishment? A $1,500 fine for acting like a buffoon in the in-gate isn’t enough, obviously. It’s not stopping the behavior.

“These horses are suffering,” she continued. “These [bad actors] need to be gone for life or a long time, or something that affects their livelihood, before something gets stopped. You shouldn’t have to get a secret phone call. Why is there not more outrage about that bad sportsmanship and behavior outside the ring? Nothing makes the behavior stop unless you affect their livelihood or has some impact.”

USHJA board member John Bahret pointed out that licensed officials are bound by an obligation to report bad sportsmanship or abuse, even if they aren’t functioning as a licensed official at the time.

“You are obligated to do so,” he said. “Obviously what to do depends on the circumstances—maybe it means reporting to the steward. Collectively we have a moral and ethical obligation to do something.”

At the end of Tuesday’s Town Hall, Knowlton announced the formation of a Blue Ribbon Commission to deal with issues related to social license to operate and welfare. She said she was seeking a group of “exceptional thinkers that aren’t connected politically” to serve on the group. She said the commission would report back to the board at the USHJA midyear meeting.

“Without us making a decision, someone will push us,” she said. “Not the USEF but outside forces.”

Combatting Abuse At Home

A rule change proposal from U.S. Equestrian Federation CEO Bill Moroney seeking to give USEF jurisdiction over abuse or cruelty perpetrated by members outside of licensed competitions proved controversial and generated plenty of discussion all week, including at the final board meeting. Many thought the proposal was an overreach, and that it would be difficult to impossible to police what’s going on at individual barns. Some feared retaliation for reporting abuse in private settings.

“Members are under the misimpression that we have jurisdiction [outside of horse shows],” said USEF general counsel and chief operating officer Sonja Keating, noting the federation is inundated with complaints about abuse happening away from horse shows. “We don’t have subpoena power, and we can’t get a warrant to go onto someone’s property. If it doesn’t happen in connection with USEF competition, we don’t [have the ability to sanction our members for abuse outside shows], unless we reciprocate [what the legal authorities do], for example, a vet gets set down, or criminal authorities are involved.

“This is intended in light of the social license, to ensure that the public continues to accept what we do, and we think it’s important that we do have jurisdiction outside of USEF competition.”

Keating also assured members that this wasn’t intended to become a witch hunt, and that the federation was keenly aware of the possibility of retaliatory accusations, as they already see those happen through U.S. Center for SafeSport complaints.

“I don’t see a high number of these to take action on for these reasons,” she said. “The same is said with allegations of SafeSport violations. We have to sift through a lot of personal conflicts that relate to a violation of the rules. We’ve had situations, and there’s a lot of frustration from members saying, ‘Why can’t you take action?! Look at what’s happening!’ Some accusations are serious, and we have to sit and wait. Going through [the legal system] can take a long time. I don’t see that we’ll be developing a new unit at USEF [to investigate off-show grounds violations].”

In the end the rule, which seeks to bolster the USEF’s ability to sanction equine cruelty or abuse by its members, was passed. This, like all rules voted on at the USHJA Annual Meeting, will go forward to the USEF board of directors, who will have the final say. If approved, the rule will go into effect Dec. 1, 2024.

“I think we have to say the word Helgstrand,” said board member Sissy Wickes, referring to the TV exposé that revealed abuses at a major Danish dressage training facility in late November. “Look at ‘60 Minutes’; look at documentaries. This is coming. The train is coming down the track faster and faster. The prompt response of everyone to Helgstrand is commendable. Imagine us voting against horse welfare, against being able to be responsive to something like that that comes out.” [Editor’s note: Helgstrand Dressage is owned by Global Equestrian Group, which also owns The Chronicle of the Horse.]

Streett Moore accepted Linda Andrisani’s Lifetime Achievement Award from Mary Knowlton. Mollie Bailey Photo

How Much Is Too Much?

A rule change proposal limiting the number of over fences classes a horse may show in to nine per day did just what its proponent, the USHJA board of directors, was hoping for: generate lots of conversation. This has been a topic of conversation during various USHJA Town Hall meetings throughout the year, and in Concord most agreed that there was a big problem with a small minority of competitors showing their horses in too many classes. But questions kept popping up: Should this rule apply to crossrail classes and to 3’6” classes equally? Would it be better to legislate how many classes a horse may jump at a horse show rather than in one day? Don’t stewards already have the ability to stop a tired horse from competing?

“I wonder if there’s an easy way to get data at most egregious instances [of overshowing],” said Zone 3’s Shirley Murphy. “Are you seeing this more at 3’6” and up? Lower levels?”

Shanette Cohen, who manages the Hampton Classic (New York), pointed out the rule will be hard to enforce when exhibitors can add classes at the gate. Betsy Checchia, who lives in Arizona in Zone 8, argued that the appropriate number of classes may fluctuate with weather conditions, like extreme heat.

Mary Knowlton, left, presented Robin Rost Brown with the Volunteer of the Year award. Terisé Cole/USHJA photo

“This is a starting point,” Equitation Task Force chair and ‘R’ judge Robin Rost Brown said. “Having come from an environment of one-day shows, we see this a lot there. Judges know how many times they’ve seen that horse come into the ring. The Equitation Task Force suggested [in its comments on the rule] to limit it to six classes of 2’ and higher. Those ponies are used to doing numerous ground pole classes.”

Jody Moraski, who runs Greystone Stables in New Hampton, New York, said that there are a lot of 2’6” options for competitors at one-day shows, and that those competitors would have a harder time getting points in their divisions with this rule, compared to competitors who attend multi-day shows.

It’s hard to legislate empathy, Zone 1’s Sheila Murphy added.

“[Our association used to have] a prize for highest number of points of the day,” she said. “When we got rid of it, I thought they would chase us with pitchforks. We looked at it as an association and saw that ponies were going in 10-15 classes. As a steward in my first year, I had multiple people coming up to me saying, ‘That horse has done eight jumping classes.’ So I keep an eye on him, but I see he’s doing no warm-up jumps, and after the class I see them get off the horse, stand in the shade, and give their horse water. If you count number of [total] jumps, the horse looked fine. I think we need this conversation. I’m thankful this came up and we can talk about it.”

Sally Ike, who has a long history working with the USEF across disciplines and currently works in compliance, brought forward an out-of-the-box idea: to check out the rules for vaulting, where horses are commonly shared. Those rules have specific language about how many times a horse may be used, and the number depends on how hard the horse is working. For example, a team class, which is around 6 minutes long, counts as six units, while an individual class, around 1 minute long, counts as one unit, and a horse is allowed to do 24 units in a day.

In the end the board voted to withdraw the rule but consider discussing the concept.

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“There has been great conversation about this rule all week,” said Knowlton.

Colleen McQuay, right, received a William J. Moroney Visionary Award from Mary Knowlton. Terisé Cole/USHJA photo

Safety First

Two nearly identical rule change proposals that garnered plenty of conversation concerned safety in the ring. The proposals sought to prohibit speed classes in classes restricted to ponies, juniors and amateurs competing at 0.95-meters or below. They also prohibited combinations in those classes. Jump-off classes are still permitted.

Jim Hagman, who serves as the chair of Zone 10, which put forward one of the rules, said that the proposal came out of a “screaming need for safety.”

Marty Bauman received a William J. Moroney Visionary Award from Mary Knowlton. Mollie Bailey photo

“Two of the first 10 [at a show at the Great Lakes Equestrian Festival (Michigan)] in a 1.0-meter class were in the dirt,” he said. “We all know things can go wrong. When they’re going wrong because they’re being done poorly and every week there’s horrific falls, there’s a problem.”

Hagman said he would’ve preferred to see the rule change address a higher maximum fence height to incorporate more of the lower levels, but felt the 0.95-meters was a good compromise and place to start.

“[U.S. Show Jumping Chef d’Equipe] Robert Ridland said as long as there’s a speed component for it, he’s all for it. We just don’t want them flooring it,” Hagman said. “It doesn’t control open classes; ponies can go in there if they’re good.”

Heather Vaught, the secretary/treasurer of the Indiana Hunter Jumper Association, said her group instituted all optimum time classes for future jumpers after folks in that association got tired of watching inexperienced pairs zip around. But Zone 2’s Kathy Pinera didn’t think that was a solution.

“This has been going on for 10-15 years,” she said. “No one understands an optimum time class. We told them. We explained it. Nobody understood it. All they did was run.”

Checchia, who competes in the amateur jumper ring, thought that 0.95 was too high a bar. She pointed out that 0.90 meters is 3’.

“If you’re riding 3’, you ought to be able to ride,” she said. “If you’re riding and the trainer’s yelling, ‘Gallop! Gallop! Gallop!’ that trainer is wrong.”

Her point was well taken, and Fédération Equestre Internationale steward and jumper working group member David Distler suggested changing the rule to below 0.90-meter classes restricted to ponies, juniors and amateurs. That version of the rule ultimately passed.

Kevin Price, left, and Marianne Kutner, right, presented Angela Millon with an Amateur Sportsmanship Award. Mollie Bailey photo

Attendees also discussed a safety initiative from the eventing world: the concept of minimum eligibility requirements, or MERs. Ike explained that, at the national level, MERs provide a competency framework by which riders earn the ability to advance to a higher level by achieving a number certain results at their current level.

“Should riders and horses have to demonstrate a competitive competency before advancing?” board member Bahret asked. “Years ago, you’d go to your trainer, and you would have to work your way through the equitation and the hunters before they’d let you step into the ring to do the jumpers. That has completely reversed itself over the years. My theory is that it all changed with the prices of horses. You stopped having students; you now have clients. Those clients are coming to you and telling you what height they want to jump and what shows they want to go to. The danger is unless you’re a really well-established trainer, if you don’t produce that and let them to go that show, they’ll walk down the street. It may be that we should consider down the road is doing something like what the eventing people are doing.”

Springboarding off the MER conversation, board member and trainer Terri Young suggested instituting a mandatory retirement rule in jumper classes after a certain amount of faults. (That concept—called compulsory retirement—is used in the eventing world, too.)

Kevin Price, left, and Marianne Kutner, right, presented Elaine Fresch with an Amateur Sportsmanship Award. Mollie Bailey photo

Increasing Interest

This year’s restructured annual meeting saw fewer committee meetings and more open forums for discussion. While several of the major meetings, including the opening rule change forum and the state of the association presentation, were live streamed, relatively few people joined in online to watch—only 23 watched the rule change forum and, at its peak, 35 members were online for the state of the association meeting. Attendees discussed ideas to increase attendance, such as attaching clinics to the meeting or moving it to a really desirable location.

Otis “Brownie” Brown raised the issue of the aging population that did attend the annual meeting, estimating that the average age of the meeting attendee was 40 (after the crowd erupted in laughter, he wryly raised that estimate to 45).

“We are really in a very bad situation,” he said. “We have to figure out innovative ways to bring the younger generation into this realm if we want to continue doing what we’re doing. I have a couple ideas. One would be [to] have a zone award banquet at that meeting. For example, we’d have Zone 3 awards banquet here. We, the association, would put on the banquet and do it nice—have great awards, so kids that come and do this thing would get the awards here. That would get parents here, younger people here—a new vitality of people.”

Others bemoaned the lack of the younger generation getting involved in production of horse shows, from stewarding to secretaries to managers. Several attendees pointed out the importance of mentoring in the sport, and possibly engaging the USHJA to help new show managers get their competitions off the ground.

“We do have a generational problem of getting new people into the sport,” said Jay Sims, who co-owns Cheryl & Co., which puts on shows in Georgia, and serves as the president of the Georgia Hunter Jumper Association.

Here I am, ambitious and ready to take this on, and the organization provides me with more challenges than opportunities.”

-Jay Sims

“I’m 35, and I run 20-plus shows a year,” he continued. “They’re successful in Georgia. The USHJA came to me and said, ‘You should really do outreach, or you should do this thing, you should do Channel II [shows].’ I do those things, and they’re generally less profitable. I hear, ‘Well let’s give these opportunities for young ones coming up,’ but what support do we give to those individuals? I want to be the next generation of show managers for this sport, but how much support are we really giving? As we get ingrained in the sport, more focused on those upper levels, we forget when we first even learned about the organization, what kind of opportunity exists for us to support those shows. I love this organization and what it does for regulation, but there are times I sit here and wonder. Here I am, ambitious and ready to take this on, and the organization provides me with more challenges than opportunities.”

Mary Knowlton presented Liam Gaspar with the Youth Leadership Award. Mollie Bailey Photo

While there’s been growth in the number of competitors at outreach shows—shows or portions of shows not recognized by USEF but recognized by USHJA—Bahret said the USHJA hasn’t grown significantly since at least 2008. That year there were 36,159 active competing members, and as of Oct. 31, the number of active competing membership 36,900 members. Those numbers don’t include Intercollegiate Horse Show Association or Interscholastic Equestrian Association members, who have a separate category of membership.  

“We are virtually static,” he said. “Our membership doesn’t vary much more than 1.5% in any way, in any year. We can talk about increasing programs, but what else can we do? One of the most important conversations we can have is, how do we bring people into the sport?”

Mary Knowlton presented Vivienne Zakrzewski with the USHJA Nominee for the USEF National Youth Sportsman’s Award. Mollie Bailey Photo

Amy Center of Zone 4 pointed out not just the lack of growth within the USHJA, but within the whole horse world.

“I’ve had conversations with people here about the lack of promotion of the horse world to the whole world,” she said. “The USHJA, USEF, IEA and IHSA do a good job educating within, and there’s educational stuff on the website, but we’re not chipping away at the person completely off the street. How do they know to look for a credentialed instructor or what is abuse to the sport? What is SafeSport, and what does it mean? I think governing bodies are in a great position. How do we lobby governments to recognize equestrian sport? How do we lobby governments to afford to have the space and buildings for horses for years to come? We have to figure out how to get more and more people involved, either they’re in horse rescue or riding in a therapy program or going to the Olympics. How do we get more people at the annual meeting and make it a value-added meeting? I think it’s important to talk about ideas.”

Mary Knowlton, right, presented President’s Distinguished Service Awards to (from second right) Liz Soroka, Bev Bedard and Cricket Bedford, as well as (not pictured) Jim Hagman, Peter Wylde and Connie Tramm Hunt. Terisé Cole/USHJA photo

An Amateur Championship

For years the USHJA Amateur Committee has been honing the idea of an all-amateur hunter championship, similar to USEF Junior Hunter Championships, and this year the committee announced that the finals will debut in 2025.

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Committee members pointed out that 44% of USHJA members are amateurs, and 58% of those are hunter designated, underscoring the need for a championship.

There will be four divisions: 2’6” and 3’ for adult amateurs, and 3’3” and 3’6” for amateur-owner riders. Riders will qualify by finishing as champion or reserve in their respective division at either a Channel I or Channel II show, or by finishing in the top 10 of the Channel I or Channel II zone Horse of the Year standings.

The three-phase championship will include an under saddle worth 20%, an over fences round worth 40% as well as a classic, for adult amateur competitors, or a handy for amateur-owner competitors, worth 40% of the total score.

The committee will consider either one championship or one on each coast, depending on the host applications received, which open April 1, 2024. Each competitor may show one 2’6”, 3’, 3’3” and 3’6” entry on each coast (if the championship is ultimately bicoastal).

Other Rule Changes Updates

• A rule allowing mules to show in hunter and equitation classes passed.

• A rule change prohibiting the use of draw reins and German martingales in jumper classes restricted to juniors, ponies or amateurs passed.

• A rule change requiring each horse on the competition grounds to have its temperature taken twice a day passed, with the USHJA adding the comment that the rule would be better if it specified that the temperatures had to be taken a certain time apart from one another.

• A rule change requiring any equine with a temperature over 101.5 degrees to be reported to competition management or the official competition veterinarian was tabled for further discussion. Some pointed out that horses can naturally run hot or cold, and that horses’ standard temperatures in the summer in warm climates may be naturally hotter.

• A rule change allowing appropriately sized adults to show a pony at the same show where a junior is showing the pony earned support but was ultimately tabled to be sure the related hunter and equitation rules match.

• A rule change allowing ponies to have a second green year passed. They may only compete in the green pony division at USEF Pony Finals (Kentucky) one time.

• A rule change dictating how many obstacles are in the second round of a hunter classic—eight for most classes, 10 for standalone classics—was amended to remove language requiring the final obstacle to be an oxer and passed.

• A rule change stating that only official video may be used by judges to make field of play decisions was tabled for further discussion to ensure the rule can doesn’t conflict with a jumper rule that already outlines how video replay is to be used.

• A rule change intended to allow unmeasured horses and ponies to compete in classes that usually require a measurement card while at USEF competition lite shows did not pass.

• A rule change clarifying language about the isolation plans shows must have in place passed.

• A rule change requiring exhibitors to abide by biosecurity measures put in place by the USEF, competition management, and state, local, and federation animal health officials passed.

• A rule change requiring competition management to ensure competitions are conducted in accordance with applicable federation, local, state and federal biosecurity requirements passed.

• A rule change setting out how many weeks in a row a judge may officiate in the same area and what classes they may judge each week was tabled for further discussion.

• A rule change outlining the conditions by which an exhibitor may, through a steward, approach a judge passed.

• A rule change requiring exhibitors in USHJA National Hunter Derbies to warm up in a designated area passed.

• A rule change limiting the number of refusals at the Platinum Performance/USHJA International Hunter Derby Championships to two passed.

• A rule change requiring a veterinary certificate for the use of hooded blinkers, sunglasses, fly masks and goggles while showing passed.

• A rule change intended clear up inconsistent nomenclature in Chapter 3 of the USEF Rule Book was tabled for further discussion as there was concern that one of the changes was outside the scope of the rule intent.

• A rule allowing all hunter judges, not just ‘R’ judges, to officiate Welsh pony hunter and Welsh pleasure classes without a guest card passed.

• A rule change requiring paperwork for horse recordings, passports and so on be submitted to the USEF online passed.

• A rule requiring that all drugs and medication paperwork must be submitted online before a horse competes passed.

• A rule change dismantling the amateur rule in an effort to restructure it based on horse and rider ability and show record did not pass.

• A rule change seeking to get rid of competition ratings did not pass.

• A rule change abolishing Horse of the Year awards did not pass.

• A rule change seeking to abolish the mileage rule did not pass.

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