The U.S. Equestrian Federation this week released a draft of a California hunter/jumper competition calendar that it has spent the past four months revamping to create what it calls “a more balanced, equitable, and sustainable competition environment for competitors and organizers alike.”
Riders and trainers are cheering the changes in store for 2023; show managers dealing with the logistics of losing and gaining calendar spots are more guarded about what overhauling the long-established calendar will accomplish.
The draft calendar, released May 23, was created to address 12 key focus areas raised by organizers, trainers, riders and other stakeholders, chief among them increasing venue diversity and regional-level competition offerings, and creating breaks in multi-week show circuits.
The 2023 calendar contains 20 premier, 60 national and 26 regional competitions for a total of 106 rated competitions and includes 28 weeks of Fédération Équestre Internationale competitions. It also divides the massive state into three sections—Northern, Central and Southern California—with various levels of competition happening in different regions within a single weekend.
Rewriting the calendar involved temporarily suspending USEF’s mileage rule, which long has been criticized for protecting established venues from competition, giving them little incentive to improve. With new show dates assigned, USEF said it will hold organizers accountable to their Facility Performance Improvement Plans, which they submitted during the application process.
Reviving Regional Shows
James Hagman, founder of Elvenstar Farm in Moorpark, California, and a member of the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association Zone 10 committee, is hopeful the promotion of regional level shows will alter the show climate of California in a positive way. Hagman’s Elvenstar Farm will host three regional shows on the new calendar.
“I might feel differently if I ran a management company, but I really think it’s important to let the marketplace work,” he said. “I think with the regional being able to compete against any other show, I think that’s a very interesting concept. I hope they’re successful because we desperately need weekend shows—not five-day, four-day, $400-plus stalls at the [Los Angeles] Equestrian Center and other public facilities—but two-day shows where horses can go in on Friday; they can do warm-up classes; and the riders can come on Saturday and Sunday and compete and get done by five o’clock on the Sunday and go home.”
The new emphasis on those show will give the average rider more opportunities to compete in ways that are more palatable, he said.
“We probably are looking at 80% of the people getting into the sport are going to do a dozen shows a year, at most,” he said. “And then the remaining 20% are going to go to a lot more, down to that 3% who will do anything. And if you’re only thinking of that 20% down to that 3%, you’re really missing the business in opportunities and what needs served.”
However, Dale Harvey, CEO of West Palms Event Management, worries the success of such a change hinges on undoing the way competitors and show managers have thought about big competitions over decades. That concern was broader than the calendar overhaul itself, also involving USEF’s recent implementation of a channel system for year-end Horse of the Year points.
“Unfortunately, what’s going make that very challenging is that we’ve spent 22 years consolidating Channel I [premier and national level, or AA and A] and Channel II [regional, or B and C] to where an A show has everything, so it encompasses both levels,” he said. “I think that the hope that USEF has is that we will restart the B level. And I commend that goal, but I think it’s a lofty one, and it’s going to take a long time to do that.”
The Impact Of Choice
In addition, the calendar is geared toward preventing “venue fatigue” by limiting most shows to two or three consecutive weeks, with at least a one-week break in between. It also limits the total number of events at one venue to bring more diversity to the calendar while reducing the overlap of like-rated competitions in geographic proximity.
“It looks like a lot more options for people to go to, which is nice,” said professional Nick Haness, who runs Hunterbrook Farms in Temecula, California. “It’s not just going to be sort of a circuit of one venue on repeat, time and time again.
“It’s nice for the horses to be able to go to new facilities and … have different arenas to show and compete in,” he added. “[It allows for riders to] have a really well-versed backbone on these young horses that you’re going to be producing and going up the ranks. So, it definitely is really good for promoting well-rounded horses as well.”
Both Hagman and Haness see the new calendar as an opportunity for a free marketplace to operate within the horse show world.
“I’m hoping that the option to have another game in town, if you want to call it that, will raise the bar,” Haness said. “It will just really come down to the best management, and whoever can have the best feeling [and] atmosphere at their horse show I think is going to win the vote for everybody. That’s a really good thing for California and a really good eye-opener for some of the improvements that need to happen at some of the horse shows that have been going on here for many, many years.”
“We don’t want to show in the same places over and over and over again,” Hagman said. “And if you count the places, we have more places than we realize in Southern California and in Northern California. But by providing opportunities for perhaps other management groups, especially the public facilities, I’m hopeful that they become more available to other management groups to be entrepreneurial. Because there’s a fresh way that things need to be done.
“Change is in the wind. It’s the way the world works, and we have to adapt,” he added, noting he deals with similar pressures in his training business. “Nobody says, ‘Well, you get all the riding school students, and you get all these steady-A [show] students.’ No, we have to compete—from my facility to the way we go about our business. That’s the way of the world. If we’re having to do that, I think the management groups need to be doing that.”
Show Managers Cautious
Show organizers are more measured in their reactions to the new calendar.
“Going through the brand new process of reworking the California horse show calendar has been challenging,” said Stephanie Lightner, Blenheim EquiSports vice president of operations. “It feels like we’ve all been holding our breath throughout. We will not know how successful the process has been until we actually live through the results of 2023.
“We did have to make some adjustments to our expectations based on the decisions of the federation,” she added.
Harvey said his company lost and gained some dates with the revamping. However, in some cases he has events on top of one another on the same weekend, which raises a lot of logistical questions.
“We’re still digesting it,” he said. “Lots of discussions that we’ve been having, and we’ll continue to have and try to figure it all out. But it’s definitely a big change for us that’s for sure.
“We have to wait and see what happens,” he added. “It’s a complete upheaval of the calendar, and I think it could change things in ways that we’re not anticipating, and that could be for the good or the bad—just the law of unintended consequences. We’re just going to have to see. The one thing I would say is I wish that it had been done a little more methodically with the representatives coming out during the shows, not coming out and visiting all the venues when they’re down—because no venue shows well and really presents itself in what it is in relation to running a horse show.”
Work In Progress
Harvey is cautiously positive about the calendar process, but he anticipates it will need some work. And while Haness agrees it will require a lot of feedback throughout the next year and “lessons to be learned,” he thinks this is a step in the right direction with USEF.
“I think it’s going to be sort of a trial and error for the system,” Haness said, “but I think it’s going to be a good start to generate that ability to encourage managements to have the best horse shows they can do.”
And to Hagman, a change was necessary.
“Sometimes the most important decisions are very unpopular in the beginning, and sometimes most popular decisions are the worst ones proven over time,” he said. “But unless you do something to change it, it’s not going to get better.”