U.S. Equestrian Federation President David O’Connor moderated an open forum held on March 14 at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center in Wellington, Fla., home to the FTI Consulting Winter Equestrian Festival. The forum continued an ongoing discussion about the state of show jumping in the United States.
Topics such as governance, horse show consistency, stewards and a pipeline for developing riders were the main focus of the discussion. O’Connor stated that he wanted to focus on the strategic process of improving the sport and the tactical side of accomplishing these goals.
The turnout at the meeting was surprisingly light, with about 30 people in attendance, but the participants included USEF officials, riders, owners, trainers, course designers, judges and stewards. This was the third open forum hosted to discuss the state of show jumping in America, the first being held in Lexington, Ky., in November after the Alltech National Horse Show and the second at the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association Annual Meeting in New Orleans in December. A fourth is planned for Thermal, Calif.
Important Decisions For The Future
O’Connor started the conversation by saying that while he considers himself “independent,” he also “fully understands what it takes to win in international competition and produce teams from coaching and the riders’ point of view and planning.” He pointed out the “law of unintended consequences” and what it has done to the level of show jumping in the United States.
He continued, “It is really important, and I’ve said this quite strongly, that the thought process has to be very extensive. This is a time for the sport of show jumping to really look at itself and where it’s been, where it is, and where it’s going. Decisions made in the next year will have long-term ramifications. If not, it will be the same thing on a yearly basis, getting nowhere.”
The question of governance and working within the USHJA was brought up by O’Connor, and the discussion turned to abandoning the idea of having a separate federation for jumpers. Representatives from the USHJA—Board of Directors member Geoff Teall and Vice President Chrystine Tauber—spoke about changing the structure of the USHJA to include more jumper representation and that quite a bit of work has been done since December.
Tauber explained, “We are working to make the Board [of Directors] smaller, with task forces under the working groups. It is now being presented for review and will go to vote in front of the Board this spring. We are still tweaking and taking input from the executive committee and the boards. I think we’re on the right track. This will really balance it out. It will give everybody an equal voice and a chance to work together.”
Teall added, “It will have more order to it. The intention is to let the jumper side do what they wish. It’s there to be done. They will have various task forces similar to hunters. They can design them.”
The topic of consistency at horse shows across the country initiated a longer and more involved conversation, with O’Connor wanting to know why a 1.40-meter class at the WEF may not be at the same level as a 1.40-meter class in other parts of the country.
John Madden, chair of the Jumping committee for the Fédération Equestre Internationale, said that consistency in fence height is just part of the picture of show standards. “I think you have to look at the whole event: prize money, entry fees, fans, media, horses, to be determining a standard of horse shows. All good horse shows follow height standards. Bad ones don’t because they don’t have good enough customers.”
Ronnie Beard, a member of the High Performance Show Jumping Committee and the High Performance Show Jumping Young Rider Task Force, started a discussion on the subject of horse show stewards. He noted that stewards are hired by horse show management, and he called for the assignment of overall delegates from the USEF that would canvass shows nationwide and make sure the horse show standards and rules are followed.
O’Connor replied that the topic of horse show stewards was a “big pet peeve” of his, and he noted that the USEF is working towards having horse show stewards be employees of the USEF and assigned to horse shows rather than hired by show managers. “This will happen in the next 18 months to two years,” he said. “The Licensed Official Committee will decide that. It’s coming.”
Shaping The Future
Beard also spoke of European Young Rider tours, which kicked off conversation about the topic of a “pipeline” for creating riders ready to represent the United States in international competition. This was a major focus of the November open forum in Kentucky, as well. Talk again turned to how the hunters and equitation are no longer providing a solid training ground for show jumpers, then turned off-topic to that of horse shows, the mileage rule and the schedule of WEF.
O’Connor started by asking, “Are you preparing your riders and horses up the ladder that leads them to international competition? Is it strong enough? There are programs on the educational side and those on the experience side, like the USHJA Emerging Athletes. The [major equitation finals such as the ASPCA Maclay and USEF Medal Finals] used to be a bedrock for jumpers coming through. Is it valid anymore?”
“What people tend to forget is that the base of our riding has always been and will be the hunter seat equitation division,” responded current U.S. Show Jumping Chef d’Equipe George H. Morris. “That [division] is absolutely not headed in the right direction for strong preparation for real riding. The hunter division has gotten very artificial and very weak and very soft. The hunter division and hunter seat equitation, although not as much, is in direct opposition to the progress of good riding in America.”
As the talk turned to horse shows and how to improve them, Madden pointed out an interesting element. “There is a cognitive bias for the horse enthusiast,” he said. “We run the sport, and it’s easy for us to forget about the media, the fan, the sponsor. We’ve got to have people in the stands. We have to get enough eyeballs to make it interesting and not make people feel like idiots for sponsoring. The horse is 100 percent [the priority], but then [fans, media and sponsors] should also be 25 percent at the highest level [of the sport]. It’s the same formula for the National Football League. Without [fans, media, and sponsors], the NFL is not successful. We have to be careful that our bias toward our everyday problems doesn’t interfere with the ability to deliver to the other three constituencies.”
O’Connor wrapped up the meeting with words for those who are shaping the sport of show jumping. “We can’t promise instant answers. These are big subjects to talk about, and [it takes] your participation in the process and committees and board members to get the message through. That is a big part. Participation is a huge issue. I keep encouraging athletes especially not to take the job [of a committee member] unless you’re 100 percent. This is a time where participation is paramount.”