Sunday, Apr. 21, 2024

USHJA March Town Hall: Welfare Talks Continue

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Social license to operate—the idea that the public must approve of what people are doing with their horses in order for equestrian sports to continue—remains a key topic in conversations across the show world. And much of the March 25 U.S. Hunter Jumper Association Town Hall webinar, led by USHJA President Mary Knowlton, continued in that theme.

While Knowlton suggested that attendees consider how the hunter/jumper community could better address education within the sports, enforcement of medication rules and trainer credentialing, some suggested a different tactic.

“Instead of creating more rules to govern how we train horses, should we educate the public on how horses and other animals are trained?” asked Florida-based amateur Troy Linback.

The interplay between social license to operate and horse welfare remains a hot topic at USHJA Town Hall webinars. Mollie Bailey Photo

Knowlton agreed that the hunter/jumper world has to “tell the story of what we do” in a compelling way to show the outside world that most horses in the industry have nice lives and the bad actors are in the minority. Then she turned attention back to education within the industry.

“The amount of misuse and close to abuse I see as a steward is not doing the sport any good,” said C1 steward Cricket Stone, who also sits on the USHJA board of directors and serves on Knowlton’s Hunter Jumper Commission On Equine Welfare (formerly known as the Blue Ribbon Commission).

When Knowlton asked Stone if these bad actors are ignorant of good horsemanship or willfully doing abusive things, Stone responded that in her role as a steward she sees bad behavior by all different kinds of members, those new to the sport, and those in it for many years.

“The fact we have medication boxes up at each horse show for used needles and syringes, and at many shows when you watch throughout the week, they are filled up throughout the week—that’s not a good look for the sport,” said Stone. “The fact that trainers don’t teach grooms how to correctly longe horses isn’t a good look to our sport. One circuit this year had five horses break bones in the longe pit itself, which is not a good look.

“These are people that are at the top of the sport … who are showing in international derbies and five-star grand prix [classes],” she continued. “It’s throughout the sport. Those of us who are boots on the ground are trying extremely hard. We are met with resistance. If we meet that much resistance within our own sport, what is going to happen when the outside public gets ahold of our sport will destroy us completely. If we don’t do it from inside, and if we don’t educate people in our sport that this is for our benefit, we will be shut down.”

Controversy Over Proposed Expanded Welfare Rule

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On Feb. 12 the U.S. Equestrian Federation proposed an extraordinary rule change that would give the federation the power to sanction horse abusers even if the abuse doesn’t happen on show grounds. That proposal, which also clarifies what constitutes abuse in the sport and mandates the reporting of horse abuse, was introduced to strengthen the federation’s ability to weed out bad apples, but it hasn’t been without detractors.

Maryland amateur rider Tamara Doloff voiced multiple concerns about the proposed rule, including its statute of limitations, its possible effect on junior riders, and possible retaliation from other horsepeople or even neighbors with an axe to grind.

“USEF will be giving power to [People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals], as this will encourage them to comb through video,” she said. “This could overwhelm USEF with complaints, which don’t have to be legitimate.” 

But Debbie Bass, a former USEF and USHJA board member and a current member of the USEF Hearing Committee and the USHJA Owners Task Force, called the proposal the most empowering rule change for owners as well as riders and, to a lesser extent, spectators, that she’s seen. She thought the mandatory reporting of abuse was especially important.

With this rule change, I’d be empowered to say something because, oh my gosh, I have to say something.

Debbie Bass, Member of USHJA Owners Task force and USEF Hearing Committee

“As far as I’m concerned this extraordinary rule change empowers owners and riders, not only empowers them but obligates them, to speak up if they see horse abuse,” she said. “This particular caveat of being obligated to report, much as [with] SafeSport, takes onus off the owner who sees something that’s unusual or abusive and maybe historically wouldn’t have responded, [saying,] ‘Oh my God, it’s too hard, and it’s my trainer, and this that and the other.’ But if you are in fact obligated to report, that puts it in a whole different power dynamic. It gives cover to, and this is cynical to say, the witness of ‘an injustice to the horse.’

“I’d love everyone to take a look at that extraordinary [rule change proposal] and really understand … what it does for the horse,” she continued. “It gives them more eyes on the problem; it gives them more advocates. It does include things like overshowing a horse, which we all have witnessed. I’ve witnessed things back at the barn I’ve said nothing about. With this rule change, I’d be empowered to say something because, oh my gosh, I have to say something. I’m not proud of that, but it is cover to come out from behind the curtain and address the power struggle.”

The USEF board of directors will vote on the rule at their June meeting.

Zone Points For Contiguous States

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But all conversation at the town hall didn’t center around issues of horse welfare and social license to operate. Betsy Checchia, the vice chair of the Zone 8 Committee, brought up a different topic that has been a major point of contention for her zone, which consists of Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado: whether points earned at horse shows in contiguous states should continue to count toward zone awards.

Checchia pointed out that in her zone—which is small in terms of population but large in terms of land mass—only Arizona and Colorado host rated shows, and that many Zone 8 equestrians earn a majority, or even all, their points in nearby Texas and California. She said that attendance at the rated shows in her zone is “dwindling away.”

“Our shows are suffering,” said Checchia. “The zone committee has been talking about how to improve attendance to our shows. One idea that came up: let’s get rid of points earned in contiguous states and only award points at shows in the zones.”

Fellow Zone 8 competitor Kathy Johnson chimed in with additional insight as to why continuing to count contiguous states could be problematic.

“Rules in other states such as eligibility for classes is different, so [Zone 8 competitors] may be able to show in classes they couldn’t show in in Zone 8 and get Zone 8 points, or they’re not allowed to show in classes [they could show in in Zone 8],”  she said. “It makes it confusing dealing with different zone points. The other problem is the travel for young horses, who shouldn’t be traveling 15 hours at a stretch. It’s just not good for horse welfare.”

Zone 6 (North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Minnesota) faces a similar problem. Wisconsin no longer hosts any rated shows, and competitors often travel to nearby Zone 5—namely Illinois—to pick up points.  

But on the East Coast, where the states are smaller, many competitors like allowing contiguous points to count. Several equestrians from Zone 3 (Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, District of Columbia) pointed out that they liked having contiguous states count as the drive can be shorter to go to an out-of-zone state show than an in-zone state, even with more showing options than in, say, Zone 8.

Checchia suggested two solutions her council is considering: 1. Define a minimum number of shows competitors to attend in Zone 8 to win a Zone 8 award, and 2. Award double points for in-zone competitions while allowing points from contiguous zones to count.

Knowlton also acknowledged that Zone 8, and any other zone that wanted to, could come up with its own rule on the topic that would be specific to that zone.

The next monthly USHJA Town Hall webinar will be Monday, April 22, at 7 p.m. EDT.

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