Thursday, Sep. 21, 2023

She’s Trying To Make Sure Horse Shows Are Exhibitor Friendly

Clean, functional washrooms. That's all it takes to make competitors happy sometimes, said Alice Knox, an entrepreneur who is combining her passion for horse shows with her knowledge of customer service to reveal which U.S. horse shows are "exhibitor friendly."

Knox, of La Jolla, Calif., started her business, Exhibitor Friendly Show Services, in February 2003 after seeing people shell out piles of money at horse shows and leave frustrated by poor show management and lackluster facilities.


Clean, functional washrooms. That’s all it takes to make competitors happy sometimes, said Alice Knox, an entrepreneur who is combining her passion for horse shows with her knowledge of customer service to reveal which U.S. horse shows are “exhibitor friendly.”

Knox, of La Jolla, Calif., started her business, Exhibitor Friendly Show Services, in February 2003 after seeing people shell out piles of money at horse shows and leave frustrated by poor show management and lackluster facilities.

“They would spend their money and show the horse, but not really have a good time,” said Knox. “I watched my friends do this for years.”

And it had happened to her too. “I had a terrible experience at a very large horse show years ago. I remember thinking if I’d known in advance that the management of that horse show was like that, I wouldn’t have gone.”

“I thought, ‘There’s got be a way to let people know, so they can know in advance which show they want to go to,’ ” added Knox, who has been riding and showing, in Western and dressage, since the 1970s.

The Survey Says

With that goal in mind, Knox, 46, created Exhibitor Friendly and started surveying competitors at shows in California.

Knox gets a minimum sample of 30 surveys per show and then uses the results to compile a bi-monthly newsletter for her 100 or so subscribers from around the country. She normally rates four to six shows per issue, and by August she’d interviewed 935 exhibitors at these shows.

She also uses the results to decide which shows are worthy of a Best In Shows Award?, something she hands out annually to quality competitions.

Once on the grounds, she first goes to the horse show office and explains what she’s doing. “I do that as a courtesy, just so they know that I’m on the property,” she said.

Then she hoofs it around the grounds, coaxing randomly selected exhibitors, trainers and riders to fill out a survey asking basic questions about everything from the quality of the facility and show management to the tolerability of concession food.

As part of her quest to serve exhibitors and management, Knox also offers a more detailed report based on the surveys that show managers can purchase. But her experience so far with the 50-plus shows that she’s surveyed–in a variety of disciplines–is that show managers are not as thrilled with the idea as she is.

“I can’t sugar coat it. For the most part they don’t seem interested,” she noted. “But what I’ve noticed is it’s the managers that tend to put on the better horse shows that are interested.”

She said a show manager once told her that only people with complaints were going to fill out the survey.

“That’s not true at all. Most of the people who fill it out are happy or they offer suggestions,” said Knox. “For the most part people are not complaining, unless something is really bad.”


“I’ve had people who were ecstatic to be at the show and couldn’t wait until next year, and I’ve had the opposite [at the same show] where they say, ‘This is a rip-off,’ ” she added.

The lukewarm response from some managers surprises Knox, who has a background in hotel and cruise line management.

“Both of those industries are very dependent on customer satisfaction in order for them to stay successful. They live and die by that feedback,” she said, adding that horse shows could also stand to take this principle into consideration.

“There’s no horse show without exhibitors. The exhibitors are the well. That’s where the money comes from,” explained Knox. “At some point you’re going to have to take care of your customers. The money they bring into the horse shows, it’s discretionary income. They don’t have to spend it on a horse show.”

“We’re lucky they’re choosing to put it into the horse show industry,” she added. “We need to take care of those people and make sure they are coming back.”

To help ensure that her exhibitors return next year, California dressage show manager Kim Keenan purchased one of Knox’s reports on her Dressage Affaire show held last April in Del Mar.

“I thought it would be a good way to get feedback from the competitors and see how we did,” she explained. “We have tried in the past to have a comment box, but that requires people to come in the office and take the initiative themselves, knowing they’re putting it in the box for us personally to see, as opposed to having someone go around independently.”

Because Exhibitor Friendly isn’t affiliated with the show or an association, Knox believes it helps competitors feel comfortable voicing their opinions.

“I think [exhibitors] have always been concerned with show quality but didn’t feel comfortable expressing that, either to management or associations [like the U.S. Equestrian Federation],” she said. “Once they find out I’m an independent service they just start talking and writing.”

Knox also maintains that she’s not trying to tell exhibitors which shows they should put on their calendar.

“I’m just trying to give people a choice. I’m not trying to steer them away from a show,” she explained. “I’m just putting the cards out on the table and saying, ‘Here, you pick how you spend your money.’ They can make up their mind where they want to go.”

Part Of A Trend

Knox isn’t alone in her drive to improve horse show quality. The USEF has made several moves in recent years to evaluate and improve competitions in all disciplines.

One area receiving particular attention is the mileage rule, which stipulates that USEF-recognized competitions of the same rating cannot take place on the
same dates within a certain radius. How large that radius is, differs by state and zone.

“In this day and age, we can’t just use mileage as the determinant of where the shows should go and where they should be on the calendar,” said John Long, the USEF chief executive officer and member of the five-person task force formed in March to wrestle with the current mileage rule and look at the show date approval process (see Dec. 31, p. 8, to learn more about the task force’s recommendations).


The mileage rule was created decades ago to stop horse shows from competing against each other for exhibitors, but some now argue that all it does is allows shoddily run shows to survive by reducing their competition. The ability for shows to secure dates with the USEF year after year–regardless of quality–is also a concern.

“Since the [show] dates are essentially awarded in perpetuity, there’s no incentive sometimes for show managers to improve the service or upgrade facilities,” said Long.

While revisiting the mileage rule has received much attention, Long said horse show quality in general–and how best to improve it–are at the forefront of the group’s discussions.

“A lot of the feedback that we got had to do with, not so much the mileage rule and whether it works or not, but rather that the task force should come up with a way to look at the shows in the way they’re currently run,” said Long. About surveying exhibitors in much the same way that Knox does, he added: “It’s been discussed at some considerable length.”

Experienced show manager Glenn Petty, also chairman of the USEF Competition Management Committee, said that as long as the survey process is fair, managers should be happy to receive feedback on their shows–be it from the USEF or a service like Exhibitor Friendly.

“I don’t think that any manager or show that has any self-confidence, and doesn’t have anything to worry about, would worry about being evaluated,” he said.”

At his annual North Carolina State Fair show, a large all-breeds competition in October, Petty actually does his own style of surveying to make sure he’s fulfilling his exhibitors’ expectations. He encloses a comment card with the prize money check and provides a fax number where it can be returned.

Petty also suggests the scope of the USEF, combined with the power of the Internet, could garner feedback on show quality through an online survey.

Although the task force is still in its in-fancy, Long said it’s a huge leap forward that the USEF has pushed the issue of horse show quality to the forefront.
“I think that we have the opportunity to take this whole section of the rule book to do with shows, when they occur, how they’re run, the quality of the shows, and really take it to a place where we have never been before,” said Long. “I am really excited about the direction we are going.”

Horse Show Standards–Not That Simple

The U.S. Equestrian Federation Competition Management Committee is now investigating whether a set of official show standards could help to evaluate shows and improve quality, since the current rating system–based almost solely on prize money–does little to quantify what type of experience a show provides.

But solving the mystery of how to create a set of show standards is proving difficult, said Glenn Petty, committee chairman, and horse show manager for a variety of disciplines. “It works really well on paper, but when you start applying it, it is not a simple as it looks,” he said.

Even within each discipline, shows differ, said Petty. For example some large shows–often deemed important–are reminiscent of a factory conveyer belt, while some small local shows offer excellent incentives, such as parties and prizes, for exhibitors. “How do you compare all that?” he asked. “On the surface it looks wonderful. How to quantify what standards are is something else.”

For example, from his own show management experience, Petty knows that details such as requiring shows to have a veterinarian on the grounds at all times may seem like a reasonably simple standard to put in place, but is really much more complicated.

“Of course it’s better if you have a vet that is on the grounds instead of off the grounds,” said Petty. But he also wonders whether a show at a facility like the Virginia Horse Center, which has a veterinary clinic right next door, should have to abide by such a standard?

“I do think there’s room for shows to be evaluated based on standards,” said Petty. “Exactly how to do it, I’m not exactly sure yet.”




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