Derby Enrollment Fees: Supporting A Popular Program Or Increasing Elitism In The Sport?

Jun 29, 2021 - 3:00 PM

One main question has divided hunter derby stakeholders this year: Should U.S. Hunter Jumper Association International Hunter Derby competitors continue to pay a mandatory enrollment fee to the program to participate in a single class? In a USHJA Town Hall Meeting held via Zoom on June 28, stakeholders debated that and other questions relating to the future of the wildly successful derby program.

In the past, competitors who wanted to attend the Platinum Performance USHJA International Hunter Derby Championship had to pay an enrollment fee, which started at $350 and increased to $750, depending how late in the season they enrolled. The money went toward supporting the USHJA International Hunter Derby program, which, unlike the USHJA Green Hunter Incentive program, is not a self-sustaining program. For the 2021 season, an enrollment fee became mandatory for anyone who wants to compete in even a single derby class. Fees collected help support the newly created regional derby championships.

In the 2019 season, when enrollment was only required to compete in the championships, the program enrolled 260 horses. In 2021, as of June 28, with enrollment mandatory, the USHJA enrolled 447 horses.

“This program has started off every year with an ask of over $130,000 of the general fund of USHJA,” said Britt McCormick, chair of the USHJA International Hunter Derby and Incentive Task Force. “A lot of that money could be spent for education programs or supporting the wider membership. For this task force, one goal was to get to a point where we could be self-sufficient so we didn’t have that huge amount of money for the ask. Mandatory enrollment has helped that. Like [the Green Hunter Incentive program], it can be self-sustaining. It’s an uncomfortable transition, and that’s what we’re going through right now.”

The Argument Against

The anti-mandatory enrollment fee camp pointed out that many competitors—particularly juniors, amateurs and professionals with a developing derby horse—may want to try out a class before they buy in at such a steep rate.

In response to such criticism, USHJA officials decided after the start of the season to set the enrollment fee at $350 all year for anyone who wanted to compete in any classes in the USHJA International Hunter Derby series.

“When the board rolled back the fee to $350, some celebrated, and some cursed; they were mad,” said Mary Knowlton, president of the USHJA. “That money went out of the prize money pool and back into people’s pockets. There’s always consequences to everything we do.”

Some constituents consider the mandatory enrollment fee to be elitist as it implies that only the best of the best should be competing in the program. Knowlton read a letter from one amateur member who believed enrollment fees made the program unnecessarily exclusive.

“This elitist attitude seems to be endemic in the USHJA,” Knowlton read from the letter. “If a rider can successfully negotiate a 3’6” class, why can’t they do a derby? They don’t have to do the high options. How about trying to be more inclusive, perhaps set of ribbons for pros and one for juniors and amateurs.”

Due to the difficulties in bookkeeping, it’s hard for show secretaries to make sure that all horses who compete in derbies are actually enrolled. When USHJA staff checked earlier this spring, they found that eight horses who weren’t enrolled still competed in derbies, against the program rules.

McCormick pointed out that when the international hunter derby program started, the High Performance Hunter Committee (the predecessor to the USHJA International Hunter Derby and Incentive Task Force) limited derbies to 40 a year and voted on which classes to certify. Now, show managers apply to hold classes and, as a result, there are many more derbies located nationwide.

When the mandatory enrollment fee went into effect this year, some show managers saw entry numbers plummet.

“The unintended consequence for the managers is that the numbers of horses per class went down by two-thirds in majority of the country,” McCormick said. “The strong horse shows you go to, the numbers are still strong, but the further you go toward center of the country, we’ve gone from 30 or 40 to eight or 12 in the [derby]. Managers felt the hurt by putting the classes on to help their clientele and to support the USHJA.”

McCormick also pointed out that some areas, like California, have lots of derbies, but others have very few, making the enrollment fee even less attractive in those places where there are fewer opportunities to compete.

The Argument For Enrollment

The main argument for enrollment is that it would help the program become self-sufficient rather than one that constantly dips into the association’s coffers. Also, some point out that the international hunter derby program is supposed to be the pinnacle of the sport—it often is referred to as the grand prix of the hunter world—and should be structured as such, not watered down so that anyone who can clear a 3’6” fence can enter.

The fee, proponents argue, is in line with the program’s goal of encouraging a pool of top-flight competitors to campaign across a circuit of international derbies.

Colleen McQuay co-founded the international derby program alongside Ron Danta and served as the task force’s vice chair until late last year. She no longer serves on the task force.

“If we don’t believe in the original mission statement of the international hunter derby we should change it or retire the program,” she said. “But I feel like a lot of the same people [who] want to try the derby aren’t supporting the high-performance divisions, which also have a handy. They’re not supporting divisions that could help answer the questions of whether they are ready or not. People just want to say, ‘Well I competed in a grand prix,’ or ‘I competed in a derby.’

“I don’t know how to pay for our programs if we don’t pay to play,” she continued. “If someone says, ‘We want to do the derbies, but we don’t want to pay the enrollment,’ then how do we keep the program solvent? I only know how to do it is by the recommendations of the committee in the last 10 years or more. How do you make the wheel turn without contributing and keeping the spokes oiled?”

Other Ideas

One idea, which McCormick was quick to point out hadn’t been vetted through the committee process, suggested taking the program back to its roots, allowing for a set number of derbies per year—30, for example—spread throughout the country and voted on by the task force. Derby competitors would have to pay a mandatory enrollment fee, and there would still be a series of regional championships. Then next step would be creating a higher level of USHJA National Hunter Derbies run at 3’6” to 4’, like their international cousins, but having no enrollment fee or championship.

Rick Cram, who sits on the USHJA International Hunter Derby Task Force and runs shows through his Progressive Show Jumping, described a two-level national hunter derby as an “interesting concept,” but he wasn’t convinced it was the right answer.

“My hesitance with that is [the USHJA National Hunter Derby program] is a very successful program,” he said. “It seems to be working. We’ve had no changes to the national [program], and the national [program] has stayed strong. We’ve had lots of changes to international, and my entries fluctuate. I hesitate to change national to help international get on track.”

Another suggestion that was discussed was allowing competitors to show in one or two USHJA International Hunter Derbies before having to pay an enrollment fee. This isn’t a new idea; it was proposed at the 2020 USHJA Annual Meeting where it failed to gain traction as it was proposed after the derby season had already started, and some competitors had already ridden in derbies. Still, many liked the idea.

“Allowing one or two classes ‘for free’ to try it out is a good idea,” said steward Bev Bedard. “I hear it all the time. And, it will bring those successful at their first or second try right into the international hunter derby enrollment, in my opinion.”

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