Our columnist sees some very encouraging signs in the hunter/jumper sport, but there are also some areas that could use improvement.
I attended the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association Annual Meeting in December, and I have to say, I continue to be impressed with the development of this organization. Bill Moroney has built a good team of people, and they are actively tackling the issues of the day as well as strategically planning for the future.
One of the most passionate debates at the convention revolved around the need for the USHJA to be broadly influential and supportive across all levels of competitions. On this topic it was Vic Russell who stole the show! Vic was very charismatic and delivered many speeches that were both passionate and humorous. He spoke in a way that got people’s attention, and he hit home with many of his points on the “state of the industry.”
Many convention participants agreed that the USHJA is struggling to maintain its relevance with entry-level exhibitors and shows. Because U.S. Equestrian Federation-rated shows are expensive to run, many shows catering to entry-level exhibitors are choosing to run outside of the federation’s jurisdiction, and their participants often prefer not to be members of the USEF or USHJA.
From a financial perspective, the federation is losing out on potential income from the “grassroots” of the sport. But more importantly, the federation is missing the chance to demonstrate to new participants that correct competitions are run with fair and safe rules, and with the utmost respect for the welfare of the horse.
We need to create a category of federation-regulated “entry level” shows. There must be a way to work within the current mileage protection rule to create shows that are low cost for the exhibitor and management while at the same time ensuring that horse and rider welfare are protected. We need to better explain the protections and benefits that come from being a USEF member—both as a show and as an exhibitor. There should be an “Exhibitor Bill of Rights” that defines the protections exhibitors have when they attend a sanctioned event.
I believe that the federation is the guardian of correct, fair and quality competitions, of safety for exhibitors, and of the welfare of our horses.
National Vs. International
In the last two years we have seen a major increase in the number of Fédération Equestre Internationale events held in the United States. We now have several five-star FEI events, and more American riders than ever are getting experience showing under FEI regulations.
With the growth in prize money at elite competitions, professional riders have more incentive than ever to climb the Longines FEI World Ranking list, and U.S. riders no longer have to travel abroad to start working their way up the rankings. This was one of our biggest goals at the North American Riders Group, and I believe this has really strengthened the pipeline for our international teams.
However, there was an important discussion at the convention about maintaining our national division of grand prix classes as well. The quality and competitiveness of national level grand prix classes in the United States has always been a strength of our American show system. Some of our fastest riders like Todd Minikus and Margie Engle learned their trade battling it out in these classes.
National divisions give riders the chance to step into the professional level of competition and to develop younger horses in a more cost-effective way. I am a proponent of increasing the number of FEI competitions in our country, but this discussion reminded me that its important not to let the successful system we have in place die out.
Clarify The Process
Another heated topic at the convention was the procedure for hearings for violations, both drug-related and other infractions. It is clear USEF members want a more transparent process.
Drugs and medications rules are continuously evolving, and the USEF works hard to keep them current. But the discussion at the convention revolved mostly around what transpires after a potential violation is identified.
Many people who shared their experiences with the hearing process described being treated like violators before being proven guilty of any violation. Being charged with a USEF violation can be devastating to an amateur’s reputation and to a professional’s livelihood.
I think there needs to be a crystal clear process in place so that USEF members are confident that every case will be handled fairly. There was a consensus at the convention that the process needs to be overhauled and more explicitly described by the Rule Book.
We Need Horse ID
One of the most discussed topics at the meeting was horse identification. I agree with the speakers who described accurate record keeping and identification of horses as crucial to our sport.
One simple reason it’s important is that it contributes to honest and fair practices in the buying, selling and showing of horses. Accuracy with regards to a horse’s age, results and history all depend on being able to identify it. Eligibility is a function of these characteristics too, so fair sport depends on reliable identification of horses in competition.
The second reason I believe it is important is that accurate record keeping is vital to increasing the quality of horses bred in the United States. Breeding of horses for the hunter and jumper disciplines continues to expand across our country. While we may have a ways to go to catch up to countries with a longer history of breeding sport horses, we have such potential and increasing enthusiasm for horses bred in America.
We need accurate horse identification to track the bloodlines and results of the horses being bred here. New technologies like cloning and embryo transplants increase breeding opportunities, but they also create more difficult recordkeeping challenges. In order to improve the quality of American-bred horses, we need to know which sires and dam lines’ progeny are the most successful, and we can only do this if we have a successful and universal horse identification program in place.
Every year I’ve attended the convention I’ve found value in the strategic planning and rule change discussions that take place. It takes a few days out of your schedule, but it’s so important to take the time to participate and begin to understand how the federation’s process works. If you decide you want to become further involved, it can open the door to joining committees and to becoming more influential on various topics that are “in the works.” Our sport can’t evolve if we don’t make the effort to adapt our governance.
I think the older generations who are serving on these committees want to see the sport continuing on in the way they’ve enjoyed it, the way I’ve enjoyed it. But it’s a sport of the future, and the young generation needs to make the effort to learn what’s going on and consider if they want to become part of the governmental process. Instead of complaining, we need people to become part of the solution.
Chris Kappler runs a training and sales business in Pittstown, N.J., and Wellington, Fla. A successful grand prix rider with wins in the United States and internationally to his credit, Kappler earned team gold and individual silver at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games aboard Royal Kaliber. In recent years, he’s focused primarily on teaching students. He also serves as the president of the North American Riders Group and serves on the USEF board of directors.