Our Hunter/Jumper Sport Is Changing, And Fast

Dec 14, 2015 - 11:52 AM

Our columnist believes that resistance is futile—so become part of the process.

Throughout my life as a hunter/jumper person—as a junior, during college, as a young trainer, then equestrian center director, and finally as a competition manager—our sport was pretty stable (pun intended). There were A, B, C and local shows; there were schooling shows, and then there were the handful of major shows one had to qualify for, mainly in the Northeast. The point system was fairly straightforward, and it seemed that if you paid attention, you got to know the main players and how to deal with them, for they were the ones who ran the sport.

Looking back, it really was a simpler time.

I remember being a young attendee during a U.S. Equestrian Federation annual meeting when the executive director proudly reported that there were 8,000 members (mostly hunter/jumper). A few years later after the federation required membership in order to participate in shows, I remember hearing the new number declared proudly as 13,000.

Certainly those days are long gone. The USEF now has upward of 80,000 members, provides services to 19 breed and seven discipline organizations, and licenses about 2,400 shows. Our hunter/jumper discipline representative, USHJA, has 44,000 members and more than 1,100 shows.

Hunter/jumper life certainly isn’t simple anymore, and longing for those more simple days is futile.

I’m not suggesting there have been no changes over the decades, but the recent changes are numerous and significant. The ratings of our hunter/jumper shows have changed; the prize money has changed; the number of classes in a section or division has changed; when and how a class or a section splits has changed; there are more sections and many new names. Phrases like “young hunters” and “young jumpers” are appearing where they didn’t before; the word “developing” has suddenly appeared along with “pipeline,” and the traditional “classic” seems to be giving way to the word “derby.” Heck, even the word “green” seems to have 50 shades these days.

You practically need a dictionary to help you keep all the new labels and terms straight, but this is our new language, so learn it.

Changes to the mileage rule, an oft-discussed rule that dictates the mileage between shows, have resulted in more shows held in a given region. There are now shows called “special events” allowed to be held at the same time as existing shows in the same geographic area. In many areas the once familiar B and C shows have all but disappeared, and now hunter and jumper classes with five- and even six-figure prize money seem almost commonplace. In some areas of the country the $25,000 grand prix is relegated to warm-up or welcome status. We are even seeing shows with jumper-only ratings or shows with a high jumper rating and a low hunter rating.

The world as we knew it has changed right before our eyes, and we are assimilating.

Where once the one-ring show was de rigueur, it now seems quaint and old-fashioned. Today we have facilities with show rings numbering in the double digits. In the “old days,” facilities simply could not handle too many competitors, and there were very few places that were solely hunter/jumper show facilities. Today there are facilities that easily handle hundreds and even thousands of entries, and they have weeks of shows one after the other. In the “old days” some of the more popular shows limited entries through a qualifying process since they could not handle all who wanted to show. The new “mega-shows” and multiple week circuits can accommodate all who want to show, so qualifying has diminished.

You can pine for the “good old days,” but a new reality is unfolding right in front of us.

Another disappearing idea is “head-to-head” competition, where the top horses and riders come together in one location to compete against each other to determine who the best really is. The high cost of travel and competing often results in championships and finals filled predominately with competitors from the general area where the event is held. If the Pessoa/U.S. Hunter Seat Medal Finals were held in southern California instead of eastern Pennsylvania, I venture that the competitor base would look very different even though the qualifying base would look essentially the same.

You can throw your hands in the air and blame “them,” or you can be part of the change.

I wrote an article in the Aug. 17 issue of this magazine titled, “Who Runs Our Hunter/Jumper Sport, And Why Should I Care?,” and the conclusion was: “We do.” If we, the participants, don’t get involved in the changes, it will most assuredly run out of control. We cannot and should not abdicate our responsibility to a small minority and then mindlessly assimilate into whatever changes are proposed. Believe it or not, your input is desired. The leaders of the USHJA are not the Borg, the feared societal assimilators of the universe in Star Trek, but people like you and me who have rolled up their sleeves and are trying to guide our discipline through an increasingly complex and competitive environment.

What can you do? Pay attention to proposed rules, participate in meetings and gatherings when input is requested, respond to emails asking for ideas, and attend town hall meetings when they come to your area. Feel free to disagree, but be constructive. Work toward solutions; don’t simply blame and castigate. Beyond input and showing up for meetings and gatherings, take action.

Volunteer. From your local horse show organization to the many USHJA committees, stand up and be counted. Contribute your voice to the process. Attend the USHJA Annual Meeting, especially when it comes to your region of the country.

Be Patient, Persistent And Realistic

One day, while I was sauntering around the vendor area at the Devon Horse Show (Pa.), I came upon a sign that stopped me in my tracks. It said, “There they go…I must hasten to overtake them, for I am their leader.” That sign sits on the wall behind my office desk to remind me that if I do not stay involved in my sport, I should not complain about what others do to it.

Participating is definitely not easy. I often hear people say they do not have the time to get involved, and I also hear people say they don’t have enough experience or know enough. Beyond the personal concerns people have, there are those who think that our sport is too big, too diverse, and is moving too fast to be able to get our arms around it. “Out of control” is the phrase I often hear. I firmly believe that everyone has something to contribute to our sport at some level. If you have opinions and ideas, then you can find some time, and you do have enough experience at some level. However, getting involved can seem daunting and even off-putting.

In my travels I meet people who decided to get involved, and then their next step was to get on the board of the USHJA. Let me remind you, there are 44,000 USHJA members and only 22 board members. I am always amazed when someone tells me they tried to get involved and then got rejected by the “insiders,” but their first attempt at getting involved was the highest level of our sport, what I refer to as the macro level.

Set yourself up for success and start local, or what I call the micro level. Our country is peppered with local and state organizations, and they need volunteers. Again, don’t be dissuaded if you don’t get to be a board member right away. Volunteer to be on a committee or help with a specific association activity. I don’t think there is an organization out there that doesn’t have room for a dedicated volunteer.

You aren’t going to effect changes in one day. Be patient, but be persistent. Get involved, learn, ask questions, and then start to offer opinions. Keep in mind that you are operating at a local level where the numbers are relatively small, the problems are generally few in number, and the diversity of possible solutions to these problems is fairly narrow in number and scope. One major aspect of the local level is that the geographic area is limited to a county or state, and one doesn’t have to be involved with sport decisions at the national level. You need to get your feet wet, and the only way to do that is to wade right into the water. My plea to you is: Don’t give up.

When you get an opportunity to voice opinions, do not take offense or give up if your ideas and thoughts aren’t immediately embraced. If you are participating in our sport you have as much right to state your opinion as the next person.

You will need to learn, but all of us had to start somewhere. Beezie Madden did not start out as a grand prix rider; she jumped a lot of cross rails. Will there be a learning curve? Yes! Will it take a while to get up to speed? Yes! Is your opinion important? Yes!

Once you get your bearings, you will find that many topics keep re-appearing. While you may have some specific topics you want to address, be aware that there are some activities almost every hunter/jumper association deals with. Rules are a big topic, and you will be expected to be involved in local rules, and your organization may also involve itself with the rule change proposals the USHJA considers every year. Awards are the other mainstay of local associations.

In addition to all the activities local organizations handle, I’m confident there is going to be increasing dialogue between the USHJA and the affiliate hunter/jumper organizations around the country. In 2014 the USHJA Board of Directors approved a five-year strategic plan, which you can read about along with the supporting documents on the USHJA website. Significant areas of USHJA growth include initiatives for an Education Department, Education Committee, and a Competitions Committee. These are significant changes that will result in even more need and opportunities for getting involved. Furthermore, a Sport Growth Committee is looking at our sport now and in the future, as well as committees and task forces looking at various USHJA championships regionally and nationally. Local needs are also being addressed, and some of the first changes will be modifications to the USHJA Stirrup Cup and Outreach programs.

You can be one of those leaders.

There is a lot of change happening around us at all levels, both macro and micro. More than ever our sport needs people to get involved. Yes, you may find some of the same old thing, but you will find many opportunities and new challenges. Lest you think it is really the same small group of people making all the decisions—the proverbial “old guard”—I can assure you that at all levels of our sport thoughtful, dedicated, passionate people are needed. The “old guard” often laments the lack of participation of members and their seeming apathy.

So where is it all going? We come full circle to the title of this article. Remember how I said resistance is futile? It is because new things are poised to happen, and your input is needed. With so much on the horizon, your ideas, your experiences, and your passion are not only needed but wanted.

Get involved, and I hope to meet many new faces along the way.

Larry Langer, of Burbank, Calif., 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. Highlights of his career include serving as competition manager of the 1984 FEI Jumping World Cup Finals and 1996 Olympic Games. Larry was a long-time U.S. Equestrian Federation and Fédération Equestre Internationale-licensed official, is currently the secretary of the USHJA, and serves on a variety of USEF and USHJA committees. He also owns LEGISequine.com, 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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