A new system that will divide horse shows into two tiers, or “channels,” for the awarding of the Horse of the Year points was approved by the U.S. Equestrian Federation last month with the goal of giving riders more shows and price points to choose from and making it easier for those competing at regional shows to earn year-end awards. Despite the intentions behind it, the channel system received a lukewarm, at best, reception from some zone council chairs during this week’s U.S. Hunter Jumper Association Annual Meeting.
The USEF held a webinar explaining the process before it passed, then the system was passed on an extraordinary basis, meaning that its approval bypassed the normal rule-change process.
“We’re trying to open up the calendar, provide options and opportunities,” said Sissy Wickes, who helped design the channel system that will go into effect in 2023. “When I was a kid we did smaller shows around home. COVID showed us that people do like to show close to home. I think it’s an opportunity.”
But representatives from Zone 6 (Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin) and Zone 8 (Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah), which are less densely populated and have fewer USEF shows, expressed trepidation about how the new system would affect the middle of the country in Sunday’s USHJA Zone Council meeting.
The system creates two channels of competition, each with its own national and zone HOTY awards—Channel I for premier- and national-rated hunter competitions or standalone jumper shows at level 4-6, and Channel II for regional shows and standalone jumper shows at level 1-3. The mileage restriction is reduced to 50 miles between two Channel II events, with no restrictions between Channel I and II shows being held simultaneously. Mileage restrictions for most areas of the country for one Channel I show to another remains at 250 miles.
“The immediate concerns that pop into my head as an organizer in my region of the country in the Midwest is our demographics are spread thin,” said USHJA Zone Council chair and Zone 6 representative Dan Urban, Omaha, Nebraska. “Opening up a situation where we can have competing competitions, we’re going to spread things even more thin. We’re already struggling to have horse shows survive. It’s hard to fill classes, to fill medals and fill [Maclay classes]. This could create a situation where that makes it a little harder.”
Britt McCormick, who helped design the channel system and presented it with Wickes, said it is intended to reshape the competition landscape in a way that will create opportunities for show managers to create new shows, as regional shows and national/premier shows will no longer block each other. Still, he acknowledged Urban’s concerns.
“Change is messy,” he said. “I don’t think anyone is saying there won’t be messy components. We’ve run heat maps [of USEF hunter/jumper shows] that you can see week-by-week and see where people are showing and where the concentration of exhibitors is. There’s a big blank area that doesn’t show anything. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t people riding hunters and jumpers or showing hunters and jumpers; they’re just not showing with us. Part of the goal through the outreach program and the channel system is to fill the map in and get more people at our shows.”
Zone 6 committee chair Mark Aplin, Watertown, Wisconsin, pointed out that regional shows already face competition from unrecognized schooling shows, which are able to run at a lower price point due to lower fixed costs. He also worried that show managers who don’t cooperate with each other could create too many options for exhibitors, causing low numbers at nearby shows.
“If you’re preying on each other, you’re not going to be successful,” Wickes said. “I think we have to see if there is collaboration so everyone can thrive.”
Betsy Checchia, Tucson, Arizona, pointed out that shows in her Zone 8 already struggle with low numbers, and she worried the new system might have the unintended consequence of making that worse. It’s common for exhibitors in her region to drive very far for shows that have divisions that may not fill, and she recounted her own experience of driving hundreds of miles to New Mexico to show in the low junior/amateur jumpers when neither that division nor the high adult amateur jumpers filled.
“I drove to Santa Fe [New Mexico] to run around the ring with a bunch of professionals,” she said. “If you’re in Arizona you may as well go to California [in the winter] where the classes fill versus the shows in Arizona where nothing fills. I’m afraid this change will make our small [national] shows turn into small [regional] shows except in Colorado which has a very successful circuit.”
Zone chairs from the Midwest were not the only ones concerned about the new system. Kat Mulkey, a Georgia resident and vice chair of the USHJA Zone Council, said regional shows can be a tough sell in her Zone 4, which has a strong premier circuit but few regional shows.
“I reached out to a show manager today who mentioned they’ve been trying to get dates,” she said. “They have a strong local show circuit and want to run rated shows, but there are no dates available. I reached out to him to let him know about this Channel II option. He wants to know more, but did express reluctance because regional shows have not been successful in the past. Big thing for a zone like our zone is for us to understand you guys to let us know what are the big benefits for show managers holding regional shows.”
Wickes responded that the obvious answer was that now this show manager will be able to get dates for his regional shows. Also, thanks to another piece of the channel system that will change hunter prize money within the channels, that show manager would be able to offer no money or up to $24,999 for a Channel II show, and he could run level 1-3 jumpers, whatever the manager feels will best suit his customers. Under the new system, national competitions will offer between $5,000 to $74,999, and premier competitions must pay out at least $75,000 in rated hunter sections and classes.
“If you’re in an area, like Zone 7 [Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas], with only national and premier shows, this is an opportunity to build out the regional side,” said McCormick, who also urged people to focus less on what is and more on what could be.
“Every zone will require a different kind of build out,” he continued. “If you have a strong regional system, you might need more national/premier shows. What I’ve been telling people who have asked me, I don’t think [the zones] should all do it the same.”
The changes are intended to open up the competition calendar with opportunities for more shows to appear on the calendar, distribute more awards that don’t necessarily focus on the top of the sport, and create more opportunities for people to compete at different price points, he and Wickes said.
The intent is not for shows to cannibalize each other, they said, noting that USEF takes many facets into consideration when licensing shows, not just mileage. They urged patience as the channel system rolls out so that everyone can see what happens, and the USEF can consider adjustments to the system.
But Aplin feared by then it may be too late.
“I’m very worried this will not make the problem better,” he said. “I’m worried this could see the destruction of shows we already have.”
The USHJA Annual Meeting, which is being held virtually this year, continues through Dec. 10. You can register to watch the event here.