Too Cheap To Compete?

Dec 28, 2020 - 8:00 AM

In the recent Chronicle piece “Want To Do An International Hunter Derby? Get Ready To Pay An Enrollment Fee,” yet another controversial issue potentially impacting riders like me was discussed. The change, proposed for 2021, would require owners of all horses competing in a USHJA International Hunter Derby to pay an enrollment fee, even if they do not plan on attending annual championships or competing for year-end points. For those of us with dreams of riding in a derby for fun or for when the stars align, and our self-made horses are finally ready for a bigger test, this rule change is a major blow.

Previously, you could show in an international derby class and not enroll in the program. Frankly, this was one of the few U.S. Equestrian Federation/U.S. Hunter Jumper Association rules that made sense. It allowed riders of more modest means the ability to show in a derby class for the experience or to achieve a personal goal without an added expense associated with benefits they would not receive (points tracking or attending finals).

In the Chronicle article, USHJA International Derby Task Force member Bob Brawley, who supported this change, is quoted as saying, “Nobody does just one grand prix to do it for fun, [and if they do], they’re not a serious contender. This is a serious game when it comes to the hunter derby. I think [allowing people not to enroll] cheapens it a little bit. I think it’s unfair to the people who do pay.”

Friends, I had to read that twice to be sure I had read it correctly, and each time my jaw dropped. “Cheapens” the class? Excuse me? I, as a competent and experienced rider, who would enter the class for fun, would cheapen it? Wow.

To begin with, I believe it’s far easier for a horse and rider to reasonably compete in a derby compared with a grand prix. While today’s derbies are the pinnacle of “hunterdom,” they are 3’6″ (with higher option jumps), a height shown over by many amateur riders and horses each week. Should the height or course complexity be the primary excluder, it’s important to remember that not all of our country’s derby classes are built to maximum finals-level specifications. There are smaller rated shows with friendlier courses. While I do not mean to diminish or disrespect the derbies in any way, Mr. Brawley equating the course complexity, scope or skill required in a derby to that of a 5’-5’3″ grand prix is laughable.

“The riders who have limited showing opportunities and make an annual goal of riding in a single derby are not just serious, they are making every second count,” says Jennifer Baas. Photos Courtesy Of Jennifer Baas

I would also like to point out that riders who have one or two chances at competing in a derby may still be quite serious about our sport. Indeed, the riders who have limited showing opportunities and make an annual goal of riding in a single derby are not just serious, they are making every second count. In their world, there is no second or third horse to compete or next week or the week after beyond that single entry. These riders may not be “serious contenders” according to Mr. Brawley, but I can guarantee that while their pocketbooks may not be significant, they are quite serious and committed riders, sacrificing for every minute in the saddle. Putting more roadblocks in the way of their participation in order to keep the derbies a “serious game” is offensive and exclusionary.

It was the word “cheapens” that stood out the most to me. Mr. Brawley, what exactly does our presence cheapen? Has the sport tipped so far into the world of elitism that the overwhelming majority of USEF members should be excluded due to being “too cheap to compete” by your standards? Do you believe your sport should be so unattainable to us common folk that the marquee classes should remain behind a glass ceiling?

Mr. Brawley’s statement smacks of a special kind of snobbery that enjoys creating pretension by excluding people. I’m not sure what he’s so concerned about. Does he think that if we can’t afford an extra $700 (or, more likely, choose not to pay because it’s an egregious money grab) that we’ll come into the ring unprepared, in grubby clothes, riding hacks who can’t make the height?

Frankly, I think the only thing that cheapens the sport are statements and perspectives like Mr. Brawley’s. Furthermore, his statement represents the issue my fellow amateurs and I—the member majority—have been rallying against for years.

I would maintain that our primary problem is not with the USEF or USHJA per se but with the attitude exhibited by those who believe as Mr. Brawley does. This pervasive, elitist attitude has infected every single area of our sport, including governance.

As competitors, we need governance, we need representation, we need rules, we need oversight. I think we can all agree that sport is better because of those things. However, if we also wish our sport to grow and gain popularity, we need an inclusive, supportive attitude that respects every member of the equestrian community. We need governance that creates ways for riders of all financial backgrounds to succeed. We need committees and task forces that are populated with some “common folk” instead of just those who represent the elite levels of the sport.

The attitude we should see is: “How do we get more people reaching higher? How do we get more people involved in programs like the international derbies even if they are not year-end contenders? How do we get more people participating and reaching for new goals?” (Let me give a little hint: It is not by asking people to pay an additional $350-$700 in addition to regular entry fees to participate!)

The funny thing is that if you listen to what the leadership of USHJA or USEF say, you’ll hear a message to the effect that they’re listening, that they want growth, that they “see” us. Yet for all their bluster and promises, their actions fall short, showing us whether they are truly listening.

I had a very similar message in my last article that detailed the abandonment of the USEF Grassroots Task Force. I did hear from President Murray Kessler—he reached out almost immediately —wanting to give his perspective on the USEF/World Equestrian Center debacle and to discuss the task force.

While I appreciated Mr. Kessler’s communication efforts, we’re still in the same boat. Mr. Kessler admitted that his attention had been pulled in other directions and that he had assumed the Grassroots Task Force was still operating when it had, in fact, expired. While he promised to do some follow-up in the remaining weeks of his term, and he was hopeful new President Tom O’Mara would engage with the issues, herein lies the problem: Maintaining interest in these initiatives should not depend on one person, even when that person is the president himself. A captain of a ship cannot change its course if its crew prefers to continue toward the destination it has always sailed toward.

To maintain traction, interests must be a shared goal of the organization as a whole. Committees should be representative of the organization’s overall membership—or targeted membership. In other words, if the USEF’s mission holds true, committees should also be populated by riders like you and me instead of just representing riders who participate at the top of the sport. The member rider of everyday means should be a part of the organization’s culture and concern, commanding effort and attention no matter who holds the presidency.

I have heard the presidents of both the USEF and USHJA say that governance’s reach and effect are bound by its bylaws, that there are rules and procedures that must be followed. They say that to an extent, their hands are tied and that it is up to elected committees to make changes. To that same extent, I understand. Yet I cannot help but feel that it’s also an excuse they hide behind.

“The member rider of everyday means should be a part of the organization’s culture and concern,” says Jennifer Baas.

If effective leadership comes from setting a tone and precedent that becomes non-negotiable in an organization’s culture and values, and that tone then trickles down to committee members and the attitudes they hold and the change they in turn create, then it would appear that change must be a top-down mandate. Are these organizations willing to address elitist attitudes within their committees and create a more inclusive environment for their membership? Are they willing to do what it takes to create a growth culture within the sport with the necessary opportunities that meet varying needs? Are they willing to lead in a way that makes breaking down barriers and elitism organization-wide goals?

I feel certain that if the USEF and USHJA truly want to see a cohesive sport with everyone falling underneath their auspices, they had better start listening to their entire membership and commit to actionable change. Because otherwise, if there is no room for riders like you and me in their inn, so to speak, we will be left to find another option. And this time, we’ll make sure it is one that celebrates and embraces us rather than telling us we’re too cheap to compete.

Jennifer Baas is a lifetime hunter/jumper rider and former professional-turned-amateur residing in Colorado with her husband, son, horses and dogs. Jennifer is a fierce advocate for her fellow horsewomen and men and founded the Riders Coalition, an organization dedicated to being a voice for riders who struggle to find a visible presence within the modern horse show industry. She began blogging for the Chronicle in 2018.


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