After U.S. Equestrian Federation officials granted just a fraction of the show date licenses requested by the World Equestrian Center in Ocala, Florida, due to a mileage rule conflict with HITS Ocala, and then followed that up by withdrawing all sanctioned horse show dates for the 12-week WEC winter circuit when a non-USEF affiliated governing body, the National Snaffle Bit Association, stepped in to license the other dates, a social media storm erupted. Competitors everywhere asked: Why does the mileage rule still exist? What use is the USEF to most members anyway?
USEF responded with a virtual town hall on Dec. 8, where USEF President-Elect Tom O’Mara, who officially starts his term in January, and USEF CEO Bill Moroney answered questions and spoke about the competition calendar process.
The Q&A session started off with some general information:
– Calendar management and all the rules in the “USEF Rule Book’s” Chapter 3: Competition Licensing exist to “create a competition environment that is in the best interest of equestrian sport, provides sufficient opportunities for our members and their horses to develop and hone their skills, and also provides for viable competitions to meet the needs of the sport at all levels within a geographic area,” said Moroney.
– The USEF has sole jurisdiction over USEF competitions. “We work to coordinate our calendar of competitions to provide for varying degrees of regional and national competitions, across multiple breeds and disciplines, to increase the breadth of competition and the depth of sport throughout the country,” said Moroney. “We try to enhance the level of national competitions in all disciplines, create and enforce compliance with standards, and we also ensure that for international athletes, that we have an FEI level of competitive opportunities available domestically as well.”
– The mileage rule defines distances between competitions depending on zone, the level of competition and the time of the year. The number of miles differs based on these factors, and there is a process to file for an exemption. “The applicant competition would submit the request, and then any competitions on the calendar within that mileage can object or consent to their application,” explained O’Mara. “The affiliate provides recommendations on the application as well. Then there’s a panel at the USEF with staff who are experts in the licensing process—they do know the data, and they can evaluate a lot of different things—and they evaluate all of the feedback along with the competition data. Some of the things that are reviewed, which are in the rules, are competition standards, competition and calendar factors, sport growth and visibility, competition costs, concentration and migration of competitors, and the experience and expertise of management. There are many criteria. It’s not just the distance between two points.”
– The mileage rule first appeared in the “Rule Book” in 1975 and has changed frequently since then. An exemption has always been a possibility, but in 2011 the process was clearly outlined. The rules have continued to evolve, and exemptions may now be continuously renewed.
– About 10 percent of all hunter/jumper competitions each year apply for a mileage exemption. In the last five years, about 80 percent of those exemption requests have been approved.
– USEF officials are in the process of re-populating a Competition Task Force that will review and analyze member survey results and other competition calendar feedback as well as talk to different constituencies to generate new ideas on how to create more opportunities in the competition calendar. They will also address and review the metrics and the processes used to manage the competition calendar system and the licensing process. People should send feedback and ideas to email@example.com.
– Two additional virtual conversations are scheduled: Opportunities for All Levels, on Jan. 11 at 3 p.m. EST and Cost and Expectations, on Jan. 25, at 3 p.m. EST. All conversations will be archived on the USEF’s website.
Moroney and O’Mara also answered a variety of questions from participants.
Was there a course of action that WEC could’ve taken to create their facility in Ocala and get the show dates with USEF? Were they aware the mileage rule was going to be a problem with its venue?
O’Mara: I can’t make an assumption about what the WEC team does or doesn’t know. They have secured many licenses at their facility in Ohio through the process over the years as well as their existing USEF licenses that have been granted in other disciplines at their new Ocala facility. I don’t think the mileage rule was a surprise to anybody.
Has the USEF recommended to the Fédération Equestre Internationale that WEC’s shows should be categorized as unsanctioned?
[Article 113.4 of the FEI general rules states that a horse or rider who participates in a competition not sanctioned by their national governing body may not be eligible to compete in FEI events for six months. Athletes must be notified via a published list of the events that are considered unsanctioned no later than seven days before the event, and athletes can appeal the decision if they are penalized.]
Moroney: Yes. We want WEC to be successful and part of our environment for many, many years to come. We want all organizers to be successful and our participants to enjoy the kind of competitions that USEF is known for licensing. But given the amount of prize money and the other incentives that WEC is offering during these 12 weeks, we have concerns about the integrity of the sport. Whenever the stakes are high, there is an increased potential for fairness, safety and welfare to be compromised.
Will FEI riders, FEI licensed officials and FEI owners be sanctioned if they participate this winter at WEC?
Moroney: Under the FEI rule, potentially they could be. I believe it says they may be ineligible to participate in FEI competitions for up to six months. We don’t know exactly what the outcome will be. Once the FEI decides if they’re going to impose that unsanctioned event rule, we’ll have more information. As soon as we do, we’ll convey it to our members. It’s not a retroactive rule.
Why would the WEC venue be unsafe or unfair operating under NSBA licenses? They run other shows at the facility with USEF licenses with no issue. Why is this different at the venue in Florida?
Moroney: USEF has never taken the position that the venue itself is unsafe. The difference between the events operating in Ocala and the events operating in Ohio is that those in Ohio were run under USEF rules that have been developed over time by experts in the sport. The shows are officiated by individuals who are licensed by the federation and have been trained and are experienced at interpreting and enforcing USEF rules. Judges are experienced in scoring and understand the scoring systems. To the extent that we can see, none of that framework exists for these non-USEF competitions that are to be held at the Ocala facility this year, so that’s our foremost concern.
Why are competitions allowed to buy and sell competition dates?
Moroney: They actually cannot sell the license. A competition organizer can sell their competition, their event, their grounds, their equipment, all of that stuff. But they can’t sell the USEF license. That is the property of USEF, and it is licensed to an organizer on an annual basis. If an organizer sells their competition to someone else, that individual can apply for the issuance of a new license for those particular dates for that competition.
Should those competitions go on the open market? That’s a very good question that the Competition Task Force will look into.
If the mileage rule disappeared tomorrow, would there be a significant change at all other than in Florida in the winter? Wouldn’t it make sense for USEF to pare down the rule considerably, at least for hunters and jumpers?
Moroney: Yes, there would likely be some changes resulting from the disappearance of the mileage rule throughout the country. They might be positive; they might be negative; they might be neutral. We don’t know exactly what they are.
What will be the mechanism then to make sure a competition maintains the appropriate level of standards and that we don’t lose quality of events? That we don’t lose viability of events, because more is not always better.
Would we lose quality? Would we lose standards? Would larger shows and larger organizers cannibalize smaller shows? Would we end up seeing a small number of organizers having a large number of events, and that would be the only product in town? What’s the concern about the one-, two- and three-week shows disappearing?
[You can have different rules for hunter/jumper and other disciplines, and many breeds and disciplines use a 100-mile radius instead. Density has changed in various parts of the country, which has led to differing mileage requirements.]
What is the right balance? What is the right size of the calendar to make sure there are events that serve the needs of members, that they stay viable and can meet a certain set of standards? There’s always an opportunity for change, but one of the most important parts of looking at opportunity for change is also investigating what are the potential unintended consequences of making those changes.
Is there any evidence to the mileage rule chasing newer potential organizers and investment away from the sport? Are there any examples where the mileage rule has prevented, or, vice versa, helped grow the sport?
O’Mara: There’s no evidence that we’ve seen. There’s been some investment in our sport over the last number of years from facilities. Maybe not your facility, and maybe you’re upset with it, which we need to hear. But it’s definitely happened. Even in Wellington [Florida] they’ve expanded. Traverse City [Michigan] didn’t exist in its current iteration. Saratoga [New York], Thermal [California]—look at what’s being done out there. Lexington, Kentucky, there are new entrants with some of the Split Rock series. Tryon [North Carolina], that’s pretty significant and a wonderful place.
Building a big facility, if you want to make an investment in something, it takes time. The timing for licensing, if you want to build over two years, you can’t apply for a license two years ahead of time. Maybe that’s something to be looked at, maybe for certain types of megacenters.
But I can tell you that the evidence is that many new competitions have entered the calendar since the exemption processes were implemented. The exemption stuff is part of the rules, which makes it more flexible for people to come into the environment.
Moroney: The USEF is committed to promoting the sport and growing the sport and providing opportunities that meet the needs of our members across all different breeds and disciplines and across all different levels. Part of that process is doing exactly what we’re doing today and will continue doing: gaining feedback from our members. What’s working? What’s not working? What do you want to see? What are your expectations?
One of the most important things you can do as members is actually look at those rules and say to yourself, “I’m at a national level hunter show.” “I’m at a regular Arabian competition. Based on the rules I see in the ‘Rule Book,’ I think they need to offer something better.” What is it that you want that would be better? Look at the rules. Provide us feedback through the Competitions Task Force. Email and interact with us. What is it you would like to see? What’s your idea for a solution? We know the process will never be perfect. The goal is to keep an open mind, think outside the box and to think about how would we grow the sport. How do we promote it better? How do we make sure that we have the kinds of competitions people want? What kinds of rules, regulations and policies need to be in place to ensure that? How do we make sure that’s ensured through our compliance efforts?
Why as an amateur should I care about the USEF standards?
Moroney: They create organized sport and a consistent framework of rules and regulations that ensure your safety and welfare of you and your horse, create a fair and level playing field, and also outline a robust regulatory function so that when you have a protest or a charge or something happens, it has a proper and fair and equitable process to go through. All of those things help make the competition you go to be a nice experience.
If you didn’t have this framework of rules and regulations, without it you’d be going to competitions where the rules might change every single event that you go to. You wouldn’t have the protections offered by a consistent framework of rules and a regulatory process. You may not have anybody to raise an issue to or a charge or a protest. There is a considerable benefit to having organizations such as USEF that provide this framework that is consistent throughout every USEF competition that you go to.
Since there’s no distance requirement for the lower level jumper shows, it seems like the mileage rule doesn’t actually affect all of the people who are saying they just want a nice place to put show miles on their green horses, correct?
O’Mara: Correct. There is no distance requirement or mileage exemption needed for lower level jumpers shows. Organizers can operate Level 1 or Level 2 competitions under a normal competition license without going through a mileage exemption process. I’ve heard a lot from people who say they just want to put mileage on a horse. The answer really is you can. In Europe there are all these great places to go, schooling shows and training shows. Those can be held in the United States anywhere.
The mileage rule seems to allow horse shows to become complacent, knowing they do not necessarily have to upgrade anything to keep their place on the calendar due to lack of competition locally. Do you think the mileage rule allows horse shows to become complacent, and what can USEF do to ensure this doesn’t happen?
O’Mara: Some people are always going to build to the minimum standards. Some are going to exceed that constantly. Consumers will make their choice, if they have that choice to go to one or two different shows, and there are plenty of them, they can go to the ones that they think meet the standards. In any case, if they’re not happy and they’ve looked up the standards, they should let us know that someone is short of that.
There are 2,400 licensed sanctioned events in the United States every year by the USEF. We have a compliance team that goes out to not even 50 of them. They go to the large ones; they go to important ones; they go to the ones that we have feedback on to check. Really, we need you. We need our members.
Moroney: There’s always this concern that you won’t keep our name confidential if we send something to you. You’ll turn our names over to an organizer, and they’ll stable us across the street from the horse show grounds. The reality is that we won’t divulge your name unless you’ve been contacted by us and you agree to do it. Putting your name on something helps us to get back in touch with you to find out more information, to determine if there’s a deficiency or a potential violation of a rule.
People focus on mileage all the time as a singular thing. If that was gone, it would cure everything. There isn’t any one perfect cure to everything. People need to concentrate on several different factors. Mileage is an objective tool to manage the calendar. There need to be standards.
Go to the standards and look at them. Provide us some feedback. Maybe the standard at the level of horse show you’re participating at needs to be higher. But also, how do we get reinvestment from people back into their business? How do we keep organizers reinvesting? It’s making sure the base standard at each level is significant enough to cause somebody to keep up.
If you don’t have to reinvest to meet the basic level, it says right away that maybe your basic level isn’t high enough. We have to recognize that in different areas of the country, some types of shows may not be able to exist if the basic level is at a certain height. You have to look at everything all together.