I want horse shows that are less expensive. I want horse shows that are held at stellar facilities. I want more prize money. I want a level playing field, fair competition, safe and clean sport, excellent management practices.
I want, I want. We all want these things. But, how do we check all of these boxes without oversight and rules?
I want no taxes, free college, low crime, a strong judicial system and clean public water. How do we check all of these boxes without funding, oversight and rules?
The answer is that we don’t. We do not reap the benefits of governance, regulation and organization without paying a price. Sometimes, we literally pay the price, and sometimes we pay the price in operating within an imperfect bureaucracy.
It is indisputable that the calendaring system (the mileage rule) is flawed and antiquated. Like most things in the 21st century, the climate has changed. Our sport has outgrown the literal drawing of circles on a map to determine our competition calendar. The U.S. Equestrian Federation needs to study population migration of our competing members, geographic density, the coexistence of differently rated shows, facility standards, and many other factors. The U.S. Hunter Jumper Association has assembled a committee with this very purpose: improved calendaring practices. The system that was developed to provide a fair competitive calendar as mandated by the Ted Stevens Act needs reworking. It needs to be updated to a new operating system like our computers.
Like many working parts of the world, our sport is grinding its gears as it lurches toward change. But, we cannot simply turn off the machine, abandon the structure, and go toward the bright lights of the new big city. The World Equestrian Center in Ocala, Florida, is Shangri-La—a promised land for the few who are lucky enough to show in Florida in the winter. The percentage of the USHJA/USEF membership that travels in the stratosphere of showing in Florida in the winter is very small. Ask the people who are bundled up in their indoors or trotting on the hard roads all winter.
I would argue that 95% of horse show competitors will never see WEC, Wellington, Tryon or any of the big, glamorous facilities. But 95% of our population does count on the “USEF Rulebook” to guarantee that stewards make sure no one jumps an offset in the schooling areas and drug testers to make sure horses aren’t overmedicated.
This specific issue at WEC Ocala is a problem for a relatively small sector of the hunter/jumper world. Yet, there is a larger underlying issue in that all national hunter/jumper participants are being unduly mandated by an international force. So often, USEF rules are updated to fall into line with the Fédération Equestre Internationale. The FEI should not be able to determine the professional lives of officials, drug rules that are not in the general best interest of hunters and national jumpers, and the future of U.S. equestrian sport. They do not represent most of us. I worry that all roads lead to FEI in the minds of USEF powerbrokers.
Rules apply to everyone and are made to protect all parts of the sport, not just the higher levels. For better or worse, show managers at all levels create a business plan based on the rules of the national governing body. While I believe the rules need amending, I also believe that we can’t abandon the old ones while we wait for the development of new ones.
In awarding dates to WEC in the first place, USEF stepped on top of their firewall of mileage rules, cracking the mortar. Seizing opportunity, WEC blew right through the wall and offered an unprecedented menu of classes and prize money. After all, they have worked for the last five-plus years building a city for horse shows. What did everyone think was going to happen? Was there no opportunity to sit down at a negotiating table and figure out a solution long before the ribbon-cutting ceremony?
The National Snaffle Bit Association is a pawn in this complex game. I welcome them and their members. A new affiliate is a great thing for all. This group has been placed in the middle of a maelstrom of broken rules, abandoned agreements, factionalizing comments and vitriol. They are a symptom of a broken system.
No one is to blame; no one is blameless. We need to see the position of both the principles at WEC and the officials at USEF. WEC brings a treasure trove to our competitors in Florida. USEF is responsible for a fair and equitable competition calendar. Cannibalizing each other hurts our sport. Competitions, industry leaders and governing bodies will be wounded.
Is WEC Ocala the promised land for the top 5% or is it a rich man’s folly? Do we raze our governing body over 12 weeks in Ocala? I hope that USEF hears the crowd at the palace gates and does not respond with, “Let them eat cake.” I hope that WEC will realize their potential as a collaborative factor instead of a derisive one.
Sissy Wickes is a Princeton University (New Jersey) graduate, a lifelong rider and trainer, a U.S. Equestrian Federation R-rated judge, a freelance journalist and an autism advocate. Her resume includes extensive show hunter and jumper experience. She sits on the USHJA board of directors and the USEF National Breeds and Disciplines Council. Sissy lives with her family in Unionville, Pennsylvania, and Wellington, Florida.