Tuesday, Apr. 23, 2024

Social License To Operate Dominates USHJA Town Hall

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This year there was one topic that dominated discussion at the annual Fédération Equestre Internationale and U.S. Equestrian Federation meetings: social license to operate. This week, it was the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association’s turn to tackle SLO—that is, the concept that equestrian sports—and the use of horses within them—need the approval of the greater community to continue to happen. This in turn means that is that individual equestrian sports, like hunter/jumper, need to self-police unsavory practices so outside forces don’t regulate the sport for participants.

USHJA President Mary Knowlton introduced the concept to the USHJA community in a town hall meeting held May 22 via Zoom that drew nearly 100 participants. As an example of a problematic horse welfare issue, she specifically pointed to longeing, namely that horses were being longed in an unsafe and/or inappropriate manner sometimes for too long. Hunter/jumper training practices should hold up to public scrutiny, she and others said.

“If PETA walked through our horse shows and saw on the board ‘LTD’ next to a horse’s name and asked what that meant, and the person innocently said ‘longe till dead,’ I don’t think it will go over really well,” Knowlton said. “We don’t want to see a PETA truck with big video screen and coming up to a longeing ring and making a scene.”

Several proposed rule changes are intended to encourage responsible longeing. Mollie Bailey Photo

There are several relevant rule changes under consideration.

One proposal going through the rule change process would require all horses being schooled or longed to have a number either attached to them or to the person riding or longeing. This would, among other things, make it easier for stewards to police improper longeing practices. Another series of rule change proposals would explicitly prohibit longeing a visibly exhausted horse, chasing a horse with a whip, using whips with appendages or attachments such as bags and flags; and excessive or disruptive cracking of the whip. (You can see full rule change proposals for both on this page under HJ106.2, tracking 247-22, and EQ104.1 tracking 249.22). The USEF board of directors will vote on these rules at its upcoming mid-year meeting.

In a similar vein USEF is working on an extraordinary rule change that would add raw or bleeding spur marks under the heading “cruelty to and abuse of a horse.” (You can see the full text of the proposed rule change here by scrolling down to GR838.4, tracking 120-22. Note that while the effective date says May 1, 2023, the rule is still being tweaked and not yet in effect.) GR838.1 states that “The Show Committee, or Competition Management in the absence of a Show Committee must bar violators from further participation for the remainder of the competition. It is the duty of the competition officials to report to the Federation anymperson who indulges in this practice for such further action as may be deemed appropriate.” The FEI already has a so-called “blood rule” in place that penalizes bloody spur marks with elimination.

“Whether you are a trainer, owner, steward, junior or judge, I think we can do better,” Knowlton said. “Yes, it’s really hard to stand up and say, ‘It’s OK to send that horse to the ring a little frisky.’ If you are training and need to make your horse really quiet because your customer doesn’t ride that well, maybe you should teach them and make sure they understand and that they’re well prepared. I understand that hits right at your bottom line, and it isn’t comfortable for anyone.”

“Whether you are a trainer, owner, steward, junior or judge, I think we can do better. Yes, it’s really hard to stand up and say, ‘It’s OK to send that horse to the ring a little frisky.’

Mary Knowlton, USHJA President

Longeing areas are notoriously difficult to police, but the longeing rules would give stewards some concrete parameters with which to work. Steward Sheila Murphy shared a story about being told anonymously about an unsafe longeing situation after the fact. So Murphy arrived early the next morning and parked herself at the longeing area, ready to step in if anything looked amiss.

“That person didn’t longe the remainder of the show,” she said. “The person who reported it said something to the trainer, which I thought was great. But I think my presence helped too.

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“I appreciated that someone saw something and said something to the trainer and asked me to be there for a teachable moment,” she added.  

Steward Cricket Stone pointed out that video and photographic evidence go far when evaluating unsafe situations, such as improper longeing, and enable the reporter to stay anonymous if they wish.

Amateur Rachel Howell said that horses are being over-longed in large part because judges reward quiet horses. Judges like Knowlton and Barbara Filippelli countered that judges can only judge what’s in front of them and noted that suitability for the job mattered. For example, more playfulness could be tolerated from an open hunter versus a low adult hunter.

“I’ve judged a lot of classes where the horse plays, like [Barbara Kearney’s Devon (Pennsylvania) first year green champion] GG Valentine used to do,” judge Lucie McKinney said. “She’d jump an oxer, give it her all then shake her head and wring her tail a bit, which would make me smile. We don’t see that. We can’t judge that if that’s not what’s walking into the ring.”

While the concept of social license may be a new one, participants related their own stories of misbehavior at shows that would look especially bad to laymen.

Judge Megan MacCallum related a story about eliminating a rider who was using her stick too much in a pony jumper class. When she ran into the rider in office later she explained why.

“Even though he was being naughty, what would happen if the local TV station came out and pointed a camera at you right at that minute?” she told the rider. “Even if it was the only time you did it, that’s what would be on the news. It’s bad for you, bad for the show and bad for the sport.”

Outreach Shows And Invigorating Channel 2

Knowlton also raised other topics, including asking how the USHJA community can strengthen Channel 2 shows (also known as Regional 1 and Regional 2 shows or B- and C-rated shows). She noted that Zone 2, traditionally a hotbed for these entry-level recognized shows, is losing them, while California, for example, is hosting more.

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Amateur Elizabeth Kieffer pointed out that it’s easier to run an unrecognized or outreach show than a Channel 2 show, as in the second case shows still have to deal with the federation. Channel 2 shows must have USEF-licensed officials and competitors must have completed SafeSport training, for example.

“Outreach is growing hugely, but regional shows are stagnant,” Knowlton said. “Outreach is on overlay on an unrecognized show. It’s more of a, ‘Hello, come meet the USHJA, see that we’re not scary, get introduced to what we do. Come to an outreach festival, compete and have fun.’

“Last year’s outreach festival at Zone 2 was at Princeton [New Jersey]. I looked over and there was Anne Kursinski signing back numbers,” she continued. “Hopefully that will help people want to move up and want to join the federation as regular competing members.”

More Voices Against Amateur Hunter Division

Knowlton also revisited the debate about whether to create an amateur hunter division with jumps at 3’3” and 3’6” without an ownership requirement. That topic dominated conversation at the last USHJA Town Hall, with the overwhelming majority of participants against the idea. But Knowlton said she’s since heard from many who wanted to consider an amateur division without an ownership after the last town hall, so she brought up the topic again.

One anonymous attendee asked if this meant that a good-riding amateur could ride a sales horse in such an amateur rider division, rendering it a “professional amateur” division. Knowlton said, yes, that could and probably would happen—and that it’s already happening at the 2’6” and 3’ level without a problem.

Another anonymous attendee posited that perhaps adding an amateur division without an ownership requirement would not, in fact, make the sport more accessible—as some proponents argue—but would just drive up the cost of leasing.

Amateur Danielle Flavin suggested expanding the adult amateur division to run at 3’ and 3’3” in a combined division, and amateur Nancy Jones said she believed more amateurs would be in favor of a division without an ownership requirement if it could not be combined with the amateur-owner division. But no staunch supporters of a new 3’3” and 3’6” amateur division spoke up.

Knowlton will be hosting two more USHJA town hall meetings: June 12 and July 24, both at 7 p.m. Eastern Time.

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