Judging Conflict-Of-Interest Proposal Being Revised Amid Social Media Outcry               

Dec 6, 2022 - 7:28 AM

U.S. Equestrian Federation officials are reassuring riders and officials alike that a rule change proposal that caused a social media outcry over the weekend is still in the revision process and should, when complete, prevent conflicts of interest by prohibiting trainers to judge their students without preventing the two from ever working together again.

The proposed change to rule GR1304.1, first drafted in August by the U.S. Equestrian Federation’s Licensed Officials Committee to go into effect Dec. 1, 2023, if approved, was written to standardize conflict-of-interest policies across breeds and disciplines related to who may compete in front of a judge in competition. However, a number of well-respected judges and athletes shared concerns over the weekend that the proposal, as written, would prevent them from teaching or giving clinics and force them and others to choose between teaching and judging. Doing this, they noted, could potentially reduce the number of licensed judges in the country.

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Many judges and USEF members are concerned that a draft rule change proposal meant to avoid conflicts of interest between judges and riders could have unintended consequences. Kimberly Loushin Photo

The current rule prohibits students, clients, family, coaches and others with similar relationships to a judge from riding in a class officiated by that person unless the relationship has been terminated 30 days before the show. The 500-word rewrite of the rule incorporates much of the same language, but with the addition of one word—“permanently”—that caused consternation.

After listing the various relationships that could cause potential conflicts of interest, the proposal states, “The above relationships are permitted if the relationship has been permanently terminated at least 30 days prior to the start date of the competition.” That provision was the sticking point for judges who shared it over the weekend and encouraged USEF members to comment on it.

“The 30-day rule is the same. So if I give you a private lesson, I cannot judge you for 30 days. BUT—now it states that I can never teach you again after I judge you. ‘Permanently’ is the added word,” USEF S-rated and FEI Level 4 dressage judge Janet Foy wrote, in a comment that was shared and echoed by judges and other officials in their own social media posts. “USEF will lose all their top judges if we don’t make our living judging. Imagine no Lilo [Fore], Gary [Rockwell], Hilda [Gurney], Natalie [Lamping]. Managers would have a headache trying to enforce this. No more shows with a clinic after as that means that judge could never judge you again.”

The intent of the proposal was to close a loophole that has seen some licensed officials and their clients skirt conflict-of-interest rules by temporarily ending their relationships for the 30-day pre-show window and resuming them immediately after a show, USEF officials said.

“The intention of this rule change is to clarify that client relationships between competitors and licensed officials that either are scheduled to begin in the future or are temporarily terminated for the purposes of competing before the licensed officials, are currently considered to be violations of the conflict of interest rules,” USEF representatives Vicki Lowell and Alina Brazzil said in email.

“If you ride with a trainer/judge once a month, consistently and ongoing, you meet the definition of a ‘client.’ Clients are not permitted to compete in front of the trainer/judge. This is not a change to the rules,” they wrote. “Someone that participates in a clinic [group or 1:1 sessions] with a trainer/judge once a year would not be considered a ‘client’ since there isn’t an ongoing relationship.”

However, the proposal’s apparent potential to remove a main income source for judges encouraged officials from a variety of disciplines—ranging from S-rated and FEI-level dressage and para-dressage to similarly credentialed eventing and hunter judges—to share the rule and encourage public comment.

Janine Malone, longtime head of USEF’s dressage rules working group, said Monday that revisions to the proposal were already underway even before USEF received a flurry of comments over the weekend. Malone, who was attending the U.S. Dressage Federation’s annual convention at the time to make her annual rules presentation, had a chance to speak there with Brazzil, USEF’s director of licensed officials, who was listed as USEF’s point of contact for comments on the rule and received numerous—including some rude—emails on the topic.

“She and I discussed several sections of the GR1304.1 proposal that were problematic, and I explained how they would affect dressage,” Malone wrote in an email. “She was very interested in making changes to the proposal, and we discussed several possible ways to minimize the negative impacts for dressage and still address the conflict of interest concerns that the proposal was trying to address.

“[Brazzil] was nothing but positive and very willing to make needed changes to the rule proposal,” Malone added. “We agreed to continue to work together to reach a solution.”

Malone said she reached out to colleagues via text and email asking them to “stop fanning the flames and spreading wrong information,” and since then, many social media posts on the topic have been taken down.

“Unfortunately, it appears that individuals are interpreting the rule change differently than what is intended,” Lowell and Brazzil wrote. “The federation fully understands the important knowledge and expertise trainers, coaches and judges provide to each breed and discipline and that these individuals wear many hats, including acting as licensed officials.

“The intent of the rule change proposal is to help mitigate conflicts that may develop when individuals provide consistent and ongoing training or coaching with an individual,” they added, noting, “Clinics are excellent educational opportunities for riders to gain knowledge from an individual that is not their consistent trainer or coach, and we want judges to continue to be able to provide clinics.”

Foy, who had voiced her concern about the proposal on social media, echoed Malone’s sentiments: “[Brazzil] had been and is working for a solution,” Foy wrote. “We need wording that does not hurt the clinician, where a judge teaches a clinic after a show or perhaps two clinics in one area per year.

“Yes, the many hundred [people] to comment show the process works,” she added. “Sadly many comments were not helpful and were rather nasty.”

USEF officials are evaluating the numerous comments received and will come out with a new draft of the rule, they said, noting the next draft will also be open for public comment.

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