The end of the year is always a good time to reflect back on what’s happened over the previous 12 months. It’s a good time to examine the good and the bad, to learn from our past in order to make a better future.
And 2004 was a year of incredible highs with our Olympic teams proving themselves against the world’s best competitors. But 2004 also proved to be a year of increased awareness in equestrian sports, with the welfare of our horses being given top consideration, as it should be.
The equestrian community has drawn together to discuss our problems and to work toward realistic and successful solutions, which we hope will benefit both our horses and us, the horsemen. Whether it’s their care and training, schooling situations, medications, or governance issues, equestrians and the committees representing them have started to implement changes, and they’re changes that we’ve needed to make for a while.
The USEF Equitation Committee has answered the call of its constituents in providing a set of guidelines for the treatment of horses at the USEF Medal Finals, held at the Pennsylvania National Horse Show in Harrisburg in October. Their requirements for stabling, coupled with the schooling requirements set by judges Mary Chapot and Sue Ashe, made for a level playing field for all the participants in the class. Many trainers considered the schooling rules to be a positive change; they would just like to know beforehand what rules or policies will be in effect at each final.
This gives the Equitation Committee its next task–working with competition organizers around the country to examine the regulations of the specific equitation finals and to determine, based on the restrictions of each venue and the direction of the sport, what schooling rules are best for each competition. Then, they have to make sure those rules are published in each show’s prize list.
By setting ground rules for the schooling area, we’re ensuring that each participant has the same advantages (and disadvantages) as everyone else in the warm-up area. After all, that’s what this area is–a place to get your horse and yourself ready for the competition ring, not a place to do training that should have been done at home before you entered the class. We need to get back to being horsemen; we need to make sure we’ve done our preparation and built our riders’ foundations for the event–before we get there.
Ask The Hard Questions
As horsemen, we have a responsibility to the horses–they must come first. We need to look at the whole picture of equestrian sports and determine if our sport is going in the right direction. We need to continually ask ourselves the hard questions.
Are we bringing along horsemen for the future, or are we just in this industry for the moment and taking what we can without giving back? There will always be people who enjoy horse sports but don’t have the time to make the commitment to being a true horseman. For many participants, horses are a recreational activity. There is nothing wrong with this approach, but when we happen upon someone who really wants to be involved in every aspect of the sport, we need to make sure they’re nurtured and mentored to give them the opportunities they need to achieve their dream of being a true horsemen, not just a rider.
The Trainers, Riders and Youth Council committees of the new U.S. Hunter Jumper Association are all working on developing the concept of a mentoring program. If a young trainer wishes to spend a winter season working for an established professional, or a dedicated young rider needs to spend a few weeks with a top trainer, we must do what it takes to make it possible. These interested and devoted people need our help. This doesn’t mean we coddle them and give them everything they wish, but we have to give them the opportunity to work with us and take advantage of the knowledge we have to offer.
We’re not offering a free ride or a luxury trip; we’re offering a trade-off. It’s a chance to gain experience and knowledge in return for working–really working–in our barns. These people are the trainers of the future, and we owe it to them and to our sport to make sure they receive the correct foundation.
Definable And Measurable
We also have before us–right now–the chance to determine new classifications for our horse shows. Through the USHJA, the hunter and jumper community has been asked by USEF officials to give them our recommendation as to what standards we would require for each particular rating of show. We’re talking about a new system of classification, and we’ve never before had a chance like this.
These standards must be definable, measurable and contractual so that they can be part of a show’s licensing agreement. They need to meet these standards so they can be evaluated to determine whether the shows in which we compete have met them or not. And if they haven’t, they could be penalized by not having their license renewed.
This opportunity gives us the chance to really look at the system we have now and to determine what changes, if any, we need to implement. We constantly hear about the lack of entries in the professional hunter divisions. Well, here’s an opportunity, through developing standards or programs, to address problems like this. Perhaps hunter prize money needs to be changed to pay more to the horses who jump the highest? Or maybe we need to develop a new system for classifying horses so that an owner can continue to keep a 3’6″ horse for a professional to ride after his first year, if he’s a great horse at that height but struggles at higher fences. Now is the time for people to get together and really put ideas down on paper and play a part in shaping the future of our industry.
As we look to the future, we must also try to raise our standards. It’s easy to keep going with the same system–change is hard. That’s why most of us don’t do well with change. But not much in this world hasn’t changed, often by many, many degrees.
The fact is that our show hunters are still competing for the same money as 20 years ago. We’ve never raised the prize-money bar. A few shows offer more prize money for the hunters, but not nearly enough. We have to raise the bar on incentives for all our hunter riders.
And it doesn’t have to be just cash. Our national finals must start to get sponsorship and start to give away amazing prizes, things like horse trailers, cars, saddles, bridles, and more. The Quarter Horse shows are way ahead of us on this. Even the beautiful old trophies are few and far between, except for shows like Devon (Pa.), the National (N.Y.), Washington (D.C.) and a few others.
And, sadly, those few trophies are one of the few ways we preserve our history at all.
More Trace Levels?
Our sport is huge, all around the country, and our top shows are healthy. And now we need to look at our drugs and medications rules. The USEF has become a leader throughout the world on drug testing. But have we reached a point where we’ve developed tests that are just too sensitive?
After seeing the positive drug tests that dominated much of 2004 (here and abroad), we need to ask our USEF Drugs and Medications Committee members if it’s time to establish trace levels for medications, even more than we already have. If certain salves and ointments are being detected in miniscule amounts–well, let’s look at trace levels. If there are drugs that are staying in our horses’ systems for three months, we must come up with a better formula. The Federation Equestre Internationale has just convened a panel to study these same questions, and it’s time we re-examine our rules too.
The mentality that people are “cheaters” must stop. Instead, we need to start thinking along the lines that people can and do make mistakes. The vast majority of people really do care about their horses’ health and welfare. We need to provide education that will allow us to care for them, legally. We need to teach people how to medicate their horses safely instead of accusing people, with positive drug tests, of trying to get an edge.
Let’s teach people to treat their horses safely and with knowledge. We cannot just print pamphlets and hope the average owner or trainer can determine milligrams, withdrawal periods and metabolism.
Education is the best way to ensure the continued growth and development of our sport in a positive direction. The forecast for the future of our sport is bright, and we have an opportunity to create a new and better path into the future.
We both wish everyone a happy 2005. And we hope that your new year’s resolution will be that you’re willing to join forces and make our sport stronger.