Hunter/Jumper Stewarding: What A Mess!

Jan 15, 2018 - 10:45 AM

What do stewards do, and why doesn’t the USEF (rather than show managers) hire them? Our columnist digs deeper into this frequently suggested idea.

Asking about the role of a U.S. Equestrian Federation steward at a hunter/jumper horse show is a little like asking what constitutes good footing. If you ask 10 people, you will get 11 different responses. Everyone seems to “know” what a steward is supposed to do, yet few people are satisfied with the performance of stewards, and even fewer can agree on what the role of the job should be.

In order to answer the question of who should hire stewards, we need to step back a few paces and ask the initial question: Why do we have stewards? Once we answer that, we can address what stewards should be doing. Only then can we discuss how stewards get hired and by whom.

I found language in the 1950 Federation Rule Book that states what a steward is supposed to do. “A Steward is hired by management … and is responsible for operations in and around the competition ring(s) with particular reference to the enforcement of A.H.S.A. rules.” Over the decades that little statement has expanded to pages and pages, and most of the steward’s duties have nothing to do with the enforcement of Federation rules. In fact, the current rules specifically state, “A Steward should clearly understand that he has no authority in connection with the management or the judging of a competition.”

How is that supposed to work?

If you’re getting the idea our sport is confused or conflicted about the role stewards are supposed to play, you are part of a large group. Although people want the steward to do a variety of things, ultimately it comes down to needing stewards to help with understanding, interpreting and enforcing USEF rules.

Show management wants help with having USEF rules interpreted and otherwise wants the stewards to leave management alone.

Competitors want stewards to answer questions about rules and to help when they think someone is breaking a rule and getting an unfair advantage, and otherwise they want to be left alone.

Officials want a steward available when a rule needs interpreting or when a competitor wants to address a judging decision and otherwise want the stewards to leave them alone.

Trainers want stewards to explain rules and help them when they think management is treating them unfairly and otherwise want the stewards to leave them alone.

The Federation needs stewards to understand and explain its rules out in the competition field and do many of its clerical reporting duties and otherwise wants the stewards to leave the Federation alone.

We all want to show our horses on an even playing field (stop the cheaters) and ensure the welfare of riders (especially children and amateurs) and, most particularly, the horses. We all look to stewards to help accomplish this.

I’m sure readers can list many other things they want a steward to do, but the core idea and function of a steward is to have the training, knowledge and experience to understand and effectively interpret the USEF rules.

Many of the other tasks the Federation assigns to stewards can be performed by others and arguably better. The vast majority of jobs required of stewards are administrative and should be given to other staff at the horse show. Why does the steward need to verify that sharps containers are in the barn area? Why does the steward have to collect courses with the heights and widths on them? Why does the steward have to measure horses and ponies? What do any of those tasks have to do with understanding and explaining the Federation’s rules?

As a competition organizer and retired USEF steward I try to hire as competent a person as possible to fill every position I have at a show. I’ve been frustrated by the caliber of stewards I have both hired and worked with, some of whom are completely lost in a jumper schooling ring; cannot measure horses or ponies accurately; are unable to bend down to check a horse’s boots, let alone be able to get out of the way of a horse that moves quickly; do not really understand what a level measuring surface is.

Recently, a steward asked me, “What does 20,000 square feet mean, and how do I figure it out?” Another steward asked, “How do I know if jumper boots are the correct type and weight? I don’t carry a scale around with me.” Or how about, “What do I do when a rider in the warm-up ring changes boots? I can’t go out there and inspect the boots every single time.” And it goes on and on from there.

The New Compliance Department

So the most important questions are: Do we need stewards, and if so why? Exactly what is their function and role at a horse show? Once we answer these fundamental questions, there are a host of other questions and issues that follow:

Who do stewards answer to?

What experience do people need in order to start on the steward licensing track?

What training and education does a steward need?

Who provides the training and education?

What authority does a steward have?

What and how much autonomy should stewards have?

Who monitors their work, and if needed who disciplines them?

Because of these unanswered questions, many people are dissatisfied with stewarding at horse shows, including stewards themselves. How do we begin to solve what seems to be a Gordian Knot?

Let us revisit the 1950 Rule Book. Back then, when the competitions were simpler and fewer, it was the Federation, then the AHSA, that wanted and needed a representative at each competition. How else were they going to find out what was happening at shows in regard to enforcement of their rules? However, even in a simpler time, it would have been extremely difficult for the Federation to select, educate, test, pay, evaluate and schedule someone to attend each competition. Now, it is virtually impossible.

Yet it seems that whenever exhibitors, trainers and managers gather, stewarding gets bashed, and the call is for the USEF to do something about stewarding. One of the “solutions” is for the Federation to schedule, pay and send the stewards to shows. If that would solve the problems, I would lead the charge to implement this solution. I haven’t led the charge because I do not see this as a solution and not because I own and operate a company that produces about 30 shows a year.

To solve a problem, it helps to look around and see what solutions and conditions exist. In this case, we don’t have to look far. There is a relatively new word that has come into our sport lately, and that word is a piece of the puzzle: compliance.

Did you know that there is a new department in the Federation called the Compliance Department? Although it is closely associated with the long-standing Regulation Department, the Compliance Department operates very differently. The Regulation Department is primarily reactionary, as it gets its information from shows after the fact, via reports, such as the steward’s report. The Compliance Department is proactive. It sends Federation staff to spot check competitions and create reports of its own.

The USEF takes this new department very seriously. The head of the Compliance Department is one of the USEF senior staff and is an attorney and a rider. When the Chief Compliance Officer goes to shows, he is not paid by the show since he is a Federation staff member.

What a concept!

This may not be exactly what our hunter/jumper sport has been asking for. The Compliance Department is not a substitute for the present stewarding system. However, it represents the beginning of a system that could eventually expand in a similar fashion as the USEF drug testing system. That system has proven success in ensuring compliance with the drug and medication rules. Initially, the head of the Drugs and Medications Department went to shows himself. Gradually he built a staff, systems and procedures, and we have a robust program that, while not perfect, is highly effective.

The Compliance Department needs to follow a similar path. The USEF needs to carefully build out this department and its functions to ensure compliance at Federation-licensed shows. Compliance would not only address show management but Federation-licensed officials, including stewards. Therefore, compliance staff cannot be active stewards.

Additionally, the Compliance Department should not be solely punitive. Staff should identify and analyze deficiencies noted in the field, look to see why the deficiencies occur, and what steps, rule clarifications or education would be needed to address the issues. Punitive measures should exist, but they should not necessarily be the first or only courses of action. Like many new ideas in our sport, the devil is in the details, but I am confident we are up to the task.

Looking The Other Way

Another little known and recent rule that begs to speak to our analysis is GR1031. This rule presents the concept of “Federation Assigned Stewards” and is meant to solve the problem of those competition organizers who sidestep the rules and system by continually hiring stewards who “look the other way.” Again, there are many details that need to be defined and discussed, but I think this is another positive step to addressing how our USEF-licensed horse shows operate.

And while we’re discussing improving stewarding for hunter/jumper shows, we cannot ignore the role and obligation of the USHJA, which is the discipline affiliate for the approximately 1,200 hunter/jumper shows we’re addressing. The USHJA needs to enter into this stewarding dialogue in a big way, especially as it pertains to the standards for identifying steward candidates, training them, setting the parameters for their officiating, evaluating their work and disciplining them if they falter.

In a short article like this, there is not enough room to deeply explore these ideas further. But the seeds of the solution to this age-old problem are right in front of us, if only we have the courage and the will to seriously address them, and also address the fundamental questions of why we want stewards at shows, what their primary responsibility is, who selects them, who schedules them, who pays them, who evaluates them and who educates them.

Larry Langer, of Burbank, California, was an active trainer for 20 years and has spent another 30 years as a competition manager at the helm of Langer Equestrian Group Inc. as its president and CEO. In 2017, Larry returned to his roots with the purchase of Hansen Dam Horse Park, a 38-acre equestrian center in the greater Los Angeles area, where he is serving as managing director. Highlights of his career include serving as competition manager of the 1992 FEI World Cup Jumping Finals and 1996 Olympic Games. Larry was also a long-time U.S. Equestrian Federation and Fédération Equestre Internationale-licensed official, is currently the secretary of the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association, and serves on a variety of USEF and USHJA committees. He also owns, an insurance agency specializing in the equine market. He and his wife Marnye own and compete several jumpers. Larry has a college-aged stepson, a dog and three cats.


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