Stewarding: Can It—And Should It—Be Saved?

May 11, 2015 - 11:44 AM

Our columnist believes the USEF needs to more actively define the role of stewards, as well as better train and support them.

The title of this article alone might lead the reader to believe that I am “anti-steward,” that I believe U.S. Equestrian Federation-licensed stewards are unnecessary in our present day hunter/jumper world. I’ve been a USEF-licensed official, both a judge and a steward, for about 50 years and have garnered a certain amount of experience and perspective during that time.

In my opinion our hunter/jumper steward system is broken. Many trainers and competitors, as well as other licensed officials and many competition managers and organizers, would agree with this evaluation.

Currently, the USEF requires all sanctioned hunter/jumper events to have a minimum of one USEF-licensed steward for the duration of the competition, and the larger, multi-ring events are required to have two and sometimes three stewards officiating. Given these requirements, one would think that the federation is seriously committed to ensuring that every sanctioned show follows every pertinent USEF rule, that a “level playing field” exists for all competitors, that fairness abounds throughout all events, and that the “welfare of the horse” is one of the highest priorities at every show.

Additionally, to guarantee rule compliance, the federation requires submission of a Steward’s Report within 10 days following each show. There is even a program where the USEF can send an additional steward to certain shows to verify competition compliance and to make sure the designated stewards are doing their jobs.

As a result, we can all rest assured that every rule is followed to the letter, there is a level playing field for all, and the welfare of the horses is strictly adhered to. Every horse is entered correctly, every course meets requirements, every official is performing his work at the highest level of competency, and the federation is on top of all the happenings at the 800-plus hunter/jumper shows across the country. Is this the reality at most hunter/jumper shows? Not even close.

Jack Of All Trades

When, how and why did stewarding start? What was the motivating factor? Where did the need come from? I’m not sure that anyone alive today can answer these questions definitively, but I do know that when I was growing up in the Northeast, there was a steward at every show I attended. It seemed to me then, and even now looking back, that stewards really did very little. Stewards tended to be older, and some said that stewarding was a method to give extra income to retired horsemen.

Of course, things have changed significantly since then, and many stewards complain that they have too many responsibilities and not enough time to do them all—nor sufficient training and resources. Stewards frequently say that there are too many things to check on, too many forms to collect, too many papers to fill out, too many rules to interpret, too many courses to check, too many warm-up areas to supervise, too many problems to handle, too many horses and ponies to measure, too many accidents to report on, all the while making themselves available to management, officials and competitors who have questions concerning rules, procedures and eligibility.

Does the phrase “jack of all trades and master of none” come to mind? And don’t forget that stewards are expected to play an important role in monitoring that a “level playing field” exists, the welfare of the horse is respected by all, required competition standards and safety measures are in place, and that the competition is in compliance with all USEF and U.S. Hunter Jumper Association rules, specifications and requirements.

The many tasks and duties the USEF assigns to stewards grows each year, as does the technical knowledge necessary for them to perform these duties at a competent level. When a problem arises, one of the first questions people ask is, “Where was the steward?”

There is simply no way for the stewards to cover every aspect of a show. This carries over to the stewards’ reports to the USEF. The USEF and USHJA have provisions for an exhibitor to make an inquiry after a show, write a letter, or submit an evaluation. Many times the incident or topic isn’t on the steward’s report. However, a steward often isn’t notified of a problem while it’s happening or has happened at the show and therefore doesn’t include it in his report. Is this a failing of the steward, or perhaps is it a failure of the system?

Where’s The Respect?

Why do we have stewards at our USEF hunter/jumper shows? There is an old saying in our sport that if you ask five people for their evaluation of the footing in a given ring, you will get six different opinions. If you ask five people why we have stewards and what their responsibilities and authorities are, I maintain you would get more than five different answers. If you ask another five people about stewards, they could also easily answer with, “I have no idea what the steward does at a show.”

Let me tell you a story. A few years ago during a USEF Annual Meeting, a USEF senior staff member asked me, “Larry, why do we need stewards? Can’t the federation do without them?”

At first I just smiled, because I didn’t think the question was a serious one, and I was waiting for a punch line. Then, when I realized the staff member was indeed serious, I removed my smile and said the following, “We don’t need them, but I think that you, the federation, does need them.”

Based on my personal experiences, I do not think the USEF holds stewards in very high esteem. I could write an entire article on that topic alone. Additionally, many organizers and managers don’t regard stewards very highly. As a result stewards are often the lowest paid of the licensed officials and are often hired based on their proximity to the show and less on their skills and abilities. Other licensed officials, such as judges and course designers, get much higher compensation and generally are held in higher esteem. These officials are hired more for their experience and skills, with little to no consideration given as to how far they have to travel to get to the show.

Some non-licensed horse show staff, such as starters and announcers, get the same or higher pay than stewards. However, while compensation is a factor, it’s far from the core issue. If this was just about compensation then I wouldn’t be writing this article, people wouldn’t have conflicting opinions about the role and functions of stewards, and stewards themselves wouldn’t be describing numerous frustrations with their role and duties at shows.

Even the federation is conflicted when it comes to stewards. Although it licenses them, trains them, provides continuing education for them, and monitors their reports, the USEF Rule Book states that a steward has “no authority in connection with the management or the judging of a competition.” One would think that the federation would go on to explain exactly what it means by that, but it is silent. Further, and amazing to me, is the fact that the federation does not automatically back up a steward when a problem occurs at a competition. If a steward officially charges an offender with a USEF rule violation, in many cases the steward must pay his own expenses to attend the hearing in Kentucky and answer questions pertaining to the matter.

No wonder stewards are reluctant to charge wrongdoers with misconduct. Even worse, there are stewards who have been named in legal matters in their role representing the federation at the competitions interpreting or enforcing USEF rules, and the USEF has given those stewards little to no help. They are often on their own for hiring an attorney, attending a USEF hearing, and maybe even going to court to defend themselves in their role as a steward for the USEF. Not surprisingly, the application line for licensing stewards is very short.

While the federation should automatically back up a steward, in essence the USEF’s agent at a horse show, stewards may make mistakes or judgement errors. Stewards aren’t automatically correct in issuing a charge, and the validity and correctness of a charge should be investigated by the USEF. If the USEF moves forward with a hearing, then the USEF should also provide support to the involved steward. The federation should not abdicate its responsibility to investigate a matter and should use its full weight to support its stewards, except in rare instances and extenuating circumstances.

Defining Authority And Credentials

Going back to my point about the authority of a steward, if stewards have no authority in connection with the management or the judging of a competition, exactly what authority does a steward have at a given competition? Once again the USEF is essentially silent on this.

No one from the federation clearly and explicitly says, “This is what we expect from you. This is what we expect you to know and be proficient in. This is the authority we will give you. This is how we will honor and support you in your efforts.”

Furthermore, the continuing education both mandated and provided by the USEF is weak, and stewards go through the motions of attending clinics. The fact is the USEF does not put much effort or support toward the steward function that it requires. The USEF lets the stewards lead the training and education of their peers. There is no USEF curriculum, and stewards giving the clinics get to pretty much tell the other stewards how they steward and therefore how the stewards taking that particular clinic should do their jobs.

Essentially, we have silence from those in charge, the USEF. Exhibitors and trainers are dissatisfied with stewards; competition management is dissatisfied or apathetic toward stewards, and stewards themselves are frustrated and dissatisfied. The number of applications to be a USEF judge is large, and the number of applications to be a USEF steward is small.

The steward issue gets compounded even more by those who think this is a single item issue, and the singular solution is to have the federation hire the stewards and send them to the competitions, thus taking the managers out of the equation. As with the compensation issue, if the fact that horse show organizers hire stewards was the primary problem, I would not be writing this article. While there are those who would like the federation to hire stewards, may I remind everyone that this is the same entity that has done such a poor job to this point.

The federation needs to acknowledge that it, and it alone, is responsible for the deteriorating quality of stewarding and lack of compliance issues plaguing horse showing in the United States.

Can stewarding be fixed? Should we have stewards? Yes and yes, but only if the USEF is willing to step up, identify the problems, acknowledge the current state of affairs, and sincerely work with the USHJA to fix stewarding. We have good people trapped in a broken system.

Stewarding needs a major overhaul. There is not enough space in this article to go into great detail about my suggested fixes, but I can hit the highlights:

  1. Do not let stewards fix the stewarding problem. That is a little like asking foxes to recommend reconstructing the hen house. For many years the USEF has looked to stewards to assist with the standards and conditions for obtaining a license, promotion and continuing education. There have been steward committees in existence at the federation and for the last few years at the USHJA, and they have failed any chance they might have had at identifying and fixing issues.
  2. Someone in authority within the federation needs to decide to care deeply about the USEF having a representative at some or all of the competitions and to define exactly what this representative needs to be doing and exactly who this person is working for and reporting to. Of course, the level and complexity of the competition should determine the level of representative needed and the authority that this representative should possess.
  3. Before we can talk about the specifics of continuing education and training this representative should have, we must define the necessary background and level attained in our sport to even be considered for the representative track. We wouldn’t think of allowing a person with no hunter/jumper background or experience to become a hunter judge, but we are much less stringent with regard to the background necessary to become a hunter/jumper steward. We need to tighten up the requirements in this area. In short, demand more from the stewards in the way of background and experience, pay them more for their officiating service, back them up in the field, and train them better.
  4. Create a stewarding commission headed by a commissioner to review the current system and make the necessary changes for its improvement. Do not put currently working stewards on this commission; we do not need more foxes in the hen house.
  5. Give the commission some real authority to revise the system from bottom to top, along with the authority to discipline stewards who are not doing their jobs.
  6. Create more levels of representatives to coincide with the different levels of competitions. The steward at a one-day C or regional show should not have to possess the same credentials and authority as the steward at a Level 6 jumper and premier hunter show.

In short, although I am not calling for burning down the entire stewarding house and starting again from scratch, I am asking that it be stripped to its bare floors and framing, and a much-improved house be built on its bare structure.


Larry Langer, of Burbank, Calif., has been a professional in the horse industry, including as a U.S. Equestrian Federation and Fédération Equestre Internationale-licensed official, for more than 50 years. He is president and CEO of Langer Equestrian Group, with more than 40 years of experience in competition management, including the 1984 FEI World Cup Finals and the 1996 Olympic Games. He’s secretary of the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association and chairman of the USHJA’s Ad-Hoc Education Committee. He also owns LEGISequine.com, an insurance agency specializing in the equine market, and he owns between four and six show jumpers at a time, which his wife, Marnye, competes. He has a college-aged stepson, a dog and two cats.

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