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March 13, 2009

Does The U.S. Equestrian Federation Horse Of The Year System Work?

Discussing the pros and cons with Archie Cox, Patricia Griffith, Walter “Jimmy” Lee and Geoff Teall.

For decades, there’s been a deep divide in the land of hunters at the end of the year.

The USEF Horse of the Year awards, the national champions, are decided based on a complicated cumulative points system. The number of points earned with each ribbon varies depending on the rating of the show, increment rating or prize money offered at the show, and the number of horses competing in the class.

Opinions vary on the legitimacy of the awards. For decades, changes have been proposed and considered, but the system has remained relatively consistent—the horse with the most points at the end of the year wins.

This year, a rule change proposal supported awarding more points for ribbons earned at the Devon (Pa.), Pennsylvania National, and Washington International (D.C.) shows. The rule change proposal did not pass at the USEF Annual Meeting, but the Mission Statement of the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association Hunter Restructure Committee includes the phrase “evaluate and redefine our qualifying and awards systems.”

We invited four professionals to weigh in on whether the system works.

Archie Cox
HOTY Awards Are A Viable Goal


I believe the current USEF Horse of the Year program works well. It’s an award that’s available to everyone throughout the country; it’s an attainable goal.

I don’t think it’s a good idea to place more limitations on the Horse of the Year program. Many people feel that the best horses are not necessarily Horse of the Year, but for the majority of the time, I would disagree. If you look at the 2008 USEF national champions, many of those horses have been champion or reserve at either the Devon Horse Show or the [fall East Coast] indoor shows. So, to say that a bad horse, or an average horse, is winning the national awards just because they show more, I don’t think is true.

If the HOTY program were to change, people from less populated areas might not have the option or the ability to become a national champion. They don’t have the numbers in their classes to earn the points. If you never have more than 15 horses in your division, you have to show more to get enough points to be Horse of the Year. To discriminate that way is wrong. If someone wants to show their horse, let them. I don’t have a problem with that.

It’s also important to recognize that pony divisions can go in one day. So, a pony who is in the USEF records as going to 35 horse shows may only be showing 50 days. Whereas a horse who goes to 25 horse shows, shows just as many days. And in the hunter breeding divisions, when a class is double-judged, that class counts as two horse shows. I don’t think people realize that sometimes.

One of the good aspects of the HOTY program is that it’s available to everyone. You don’t have to go to Devon or indoors to win. There are very good horses throughout the country who don’t show at indoors, and there are very good riders who choose not to show at Devon. You can’t legislate to the entire country that if you don’t show at those big, East Coast horse shows, there’s no opportunity to be Horse of the Year.

You have to leave the HOTY awards open to someone in the Midwest or the Northwest, who doesn’t choose to come East but could easily be a big winner at the big shows.

Tracy Sully is one of the best amateur riders in the country, hands down, in my opinion. She chooses not to travel to Devon or indoors. But she won Horse of the Year in 2007 and was third in 2008. That’s an example of where the system is working. It’s possible for her to win a big national award without coming East. If you take that away from her and people like her, I think that would reflect poorly on the USEF.

If you look at each of the national champions of 2008 individually, the majority of those horses were winners at some of the biggest horse shows in the country. If the occasional horse who just goes to more horse shows is the winner, I don’t have a problem with that; for the majority of the time, the best horses are winning.

Just look at the junior hunter divisions—three out of the four national champions in 2008 were also champion or reserve at the indoors shows or Devon. I don’t think that the system is flawed.

Archie Cox, Lake View Terrace, Calif. has trained and ridden multiple USEF National champions and champions at Devon, Capital Challenge (Md.), the Washington International, Pennsylvania National and the National Horse Show (Fla. & N.Y.).

Patricia Griffith
There Are Better Goals


In my opinion, a lot of people from our area—the Northeast—feel that the USEF awards frequently go not to the best horse, but to the soundest horse, or the horse that goes to the most shows.

I think it’s a real issue mostly in the pony divisions, but the juniors are catching up. Some people are very competitive and showing like crazy to collect points. I love that the USEF website now shows how many shows a horse did to get their points.

It’s way too much showing to do. I feel like all we do is show anyway, and we only go to about 20 horse shows in a year. It’s too much to expect a horse to show at 40 shows a year.

Real horsemen don’t even try to be Horse of the Year. They approach it with the attitude that if it happens, great, but they don’t set it as a goal. I think the Horse of the Year award is nice if it happens as a byproduct of a good, well-planned show season, but I don’t think it should be your primary goal so that you show, show, show to get there.

I don’t think anyone who really values their horse tries to keep up with the people who are running around chasing points.

We think it’s much more prestigious to be champion at Devon, indoors, or Pony Finals, than it is to be Horse of the Year. We use those [competitions] as goals. It’s harder to peak at those specific moments than it is to show at a bunch of shows and accumulate points. I think the riders and horses who can put the winning performances together at those big shows says a lot more about them than the number of points they collect.

I train ponies who won every single major event and weren’t national champions. Why not? How are they not the best? If you can be champion at Devon, the Pennsylvania National, Capital Challenge, and Pony Finals all in the same year, why are you not the best in the country?

I think a revamp of the HOTY system would be great and is something that is going to happen. Now that hunters are starting to change for the better, with the derbies, handy classes and high-performance influence, I think now more than ever, the HOTY awards should be about the best horse.

We tried this year to get them to double the point value at Devon, the Pennsylvania National, and the Washington International Horse Show. Those are the best shows, and you have to qualify to get there, so if you win there you should be rewarded accordingly. It seems like we should have a better way of rewarding the horses that win the big events.

There are a lot of kinks to work out. We need to figure out how to weight the system so it’s fair to everyone. The concept of basing the awards on the money-won category has some flaws too, because you have different prize money amounts at different derbies. The derby at the Winter Equestrian Festival (Fla.) is $50,000, but that’s the only one in the year that’s that rich. So, the horse that wins that one would be well ahead in the standings just from that one class. That’s another concern.

Maybe we need to go to a system like what some people have talked about, with a kind of batting system average. I don’t know that there’s a perfect solution out there, but there has to be something better and we need to figure it out. A lot of good horsemen are in favor of fewer shows, but it’s a touchy subject for sure.

Patricia Griffith, White Plains, N.Y., has trained pony riders to championships at every major horse show, including the USEF Pony Finals.

Jimmy Lee
It’s Your Decision To Make It A Goal


As someone who over the years has won a lot of high-point awards—I think between the Virginia Horse Shows Association and the USEF, I’ve won more than 100 titles—I’m not against the point system.

From the first time I ever won a year-end award, I’ve known that some people have been critical of the system, saying that it’s the trainer with the fastest trailer that wins rather than the best horse. And sometimes, that does happen—but not always. I do think the Horse of the Year awards give people an opportunity to win something.

That said, there are a lot of other things out there to win. The Show Hunter Hall of Fame offers a Trainer’s Choice Award, where trainers vote on the best horse of the year.

There are the new USHJA Hunter Derbies. There are championships at major shows, like Devon and indoors, and at the Oaks (Calif.) and Florida. There are lots of ways to recognize a good horse, not just the HOTY awards.

The HOTY program, based on points earned, is just another opportunity for someone to win an award. I think the system is OK the way it is, because there are those other opportunities and awards available. Some of the year-end awards I won came quite easily, and some we really had to work for, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. It’s the American way.

It’s something that an owner, rider and trainer can decide—how important it is for you and how hard you want to work for it. Everyone understands the high-point system as it is, and if it’s something you don’t care for, don’t compete for it. Make your goals something else. I think it’s a pretty good system.

Walter “Jimmy” Lee, Keswick, Va., is a USEF R-rated judge and veteran hunter rider and trainer.


Geoff Teall

The Best Horses Need To Compete Head-To-Head


I think that the Horse of the Year system is broken for a large group of people. Some think it’s not—they want to go to a lot of horse shows and win more classes than anyone else. But personally, I think that in this day and age, we should show less often but compete more—have those competitions mean more.

My fear is that people like the current HOTY point system because it makes a profit for them, taking clients to lots of shows. I want to decide to show based on many things, but my pocketbook isn’t one of them.

Here’s where I think we’re headed with the USHJA Hunter Restructuring Committee. I think we need to stop, start over and create a national champion that at some point has weathered some face-to-face competition in the same venue at the same time.

Larry Langer is the vice-chairman of that committee, and he has some really good ideas. What he has put out there, which I think is correct, is that we need to start with state level competition or qualifying, leading to some sort of regional competition or qualifying, which then leads to a national competition.

The problem is that any time you try to skip all of that and just create a national champion, it doesn’t work. Things are just too different in different areas of the country. There are different horses and different types of competition, so trying to put some system that will work in all those places can’t really happen.

If you could create some type of national event at the end of the year that would allow the majority of competitors to compete and meet head-to-head for the national championship, in my mind, that’s the only way it would work. Let’s put out something that’s credible. We don’t have to get rid of HOTY high-point awards or indoor championships, just make something different.

Geoff Teall, Wellington, Fla., is a noted trainer and USEF R-rated judge.