Sonoma Horse Park will not host a series of planned U.S. Equestrian Federation-rated shows in 2022, CEO Howard Herman announced this week, blaming the federation’s mileage rules for making it financially untenable to hold such competitions.
The Petaluma, California, venue hosted five AA- and four A-rated shows during the 2021 season, including the Adequan/USEF Junior National Hunter Championships—West and one week of USHJA World Championship Hunter Rider competition, and had hoped to get USEF approval for six such dates in 2022.
However, after a dispute in which the horse park and former show manager Sally Hudson parted ways, Hudson, who was the licensee for Sonoma’s 2021 dates, requested to USEF that those dates be moved to Murieta Equestrian Center in 2022. Shows cannot be held at both venues—which are approximately 100 miles apart from each other in Northern California—on the same dates unless USEF grants exemptions to its mileage rule. The mileage rule prohibits shows from being held within a 250-mile radius of each for premier (AA) and national (A) rated shows in USHJA Zones 3 through 10.
“Sonoma Horse Park feels that limiting the number of ‘A’ Horse Shows per week to only (1) in Northern California is an unjustified restriction on its basic right to do business in a competitive environment,” Herman said in a statement. “Sonoma Horse Park cannot financially compete if it loses the right to have an ‘A’ Horse Show on the same dates Sally Hudson has an ‘A’ Horse Show. Therefore, Sonoma Horse Park will no longer have rated horse shows until the USEF changes the Mileage Rule exclusion to (50) miles.”
The news that Sonoma would be canceling all its rated shows for 2022 came as a surprise to USEF officials, who said they have “been working expeditiously and in good faith” on the horse park’s mileage-exemption requests.
According to USEF, Sonoma already had one 2022 show date approved without a mileage conflict, one date approved under a mileage-exemption request, and they were in the process of evaluating two more. USEF officials said they still were waiting for Sonoma Horse Park to submit exemption requests for two additional dates.
“We were disappointed to see the statement issued by Sonoma Horse Park today,” USEF said in a statement on Nov. 10. “As recently as Thursday, November 4, USEF CEO Bill Moroney and representatives of the Competitions Department met with Howard Herman, Sonoma Horse Park facility owner and Sarah Appel, the Sonoma Horse Park USEF license holder, to review the Sonoma Horse Park mileage exemptions requests and opportunities available for Sonoma Horse Park to host USEF Licensed Hunter/Jumper Competitions. In 2021, the USEF Mileage Exemption process was revised to allow for direct dialogue with organizers and expedited resolutions to mileage conflicts. We were waiting for a response and expected applications for additional mileage exemptions.
“The USEF Mileage Exemption process is in place to allow for analysis of the competition environment and approval of exceptions to the mileage rule,” the statement continued. “After extensive analysis by the Competition Task Force, the process was revised to allow for more flexibility and an expedited approval process, which was approved by the USEF Board of Directors. The USEF Competition Task Force continues to look for proactive approaches to resolving mileage issues in key geographies that have numerous conflicts and opportunities to improve the competition environment for members.”
However, despite the changes in the process, Herman doesn’t believe it is fast enough. A show is only allowed to apply for mileage exemption for the following year after the competition has concluded for the current year. Herman said Sonoma Horse Park applied for a mileage exemption for their May 2022 competition as soon as the May 2021 show concluded and followed suit with each of its other shows.
“It’s been going on for months,” he said. “Financially, I can’t be subject to going through this each year.
“The question I keep on asking is: Why we can’t have two shows in Northern California at the same time?” Herman said.
He equates the mileage rule to forcing the approximately 13 million people living in Northern California to all use the same gas station.
“There are only four states in total population that have more people than we have in Northern California,” he said. “Think about it: only New York, California, Florida and Texas. And we’re only allowed one show per week.”
Herman said the mileage rule creates two critical problems for his facility. First, being forced to reapply for mileage exemptions each year means the horse park won’t be able to put on important events like the North American Youth Championships’ Young Rider trial and Junior Hunter Finals and will lose eligibility to host any of California’s medal finals because, he said, “our ‘A’ rating will be unconfirmed by the application deadlines.”
Second, he said the uncertainty of the process prohibits him from making long-term investments into his facility.
“We can’t afford to make financial investments not knowing whether we’re going to be able to have an A show next year and the following year,” said Herman. “The reality is, you got to get that [investment] cost back. Even if they told you this year, ‘You’re going to get the show for next year,’ I don’t know the following years. I can’t put that type of money into a one-year commitment.
“Our sponsors say, ‘We need to know what you’re doing,’ ” he added. “Our sponsor’s budgets are due right now. We’re losing potential sponsors just waiting for the USEF to decide. We can’t commit the money to further development knowing that next year may be the last year that we’re going to have an A show there.”
Because of these reasons, Herman said his facility will no longer hosts USEF-rated competitions—excepting a lease agreement already set up with Split Rock for an FEI-rated competition in September 2022—until the organization reduces its mileage exemption from 250 miles to 50 miles.
There would be precedent for adjusting the mileage to meet a location’s needs. In the first trimester of the year in Florida, for example, the mileage protection for AA-rated shows and jumper shows at level 5 and 6 applies to shows 225 miles away from one another. In Zones 1 and 2, the Northeast, AA-rated shows have a year-round mileage-protection radius of 125 miles.
USEF officials said they currently have applications in process from both Sonoma Horse Park and Hudson, who was not immediately available for comment. USEF officials also said they have not received official word from Herman about his decision not to host rated shows in 2022.
“As late as last Thursday, we were working with Sonoma Horse Park on their license requests and were waiting for further applications,” USEF spokeswoman Vicki Lowell wrote in an email. “We’ve not received an official request to withdraw applications or any new applications from Sonoma Horse Park.”
Sonoma Horse Park is hosting an informational Zoom meeting at 10 a.m. Pacific time Nov. 15 to answer questions. Already, Herman said, people have asked about joining the National Snaffle Bit Association, and this Zoom meeting will address that topic and open it up to discussion.
“We’re going to individually contact all the major barns in our area and see where they are because they’re even more greatly affected,” Herman said. “And then after we talk to all these people, we’ll kind of see what we should do in terms of the future. Right now, I don’t know.”