USHJA President Mary Babick Addresses A Groundswell Of Discontent

Dec 16, 2020 - 8:01 AM

Everyone’s talking about horse sport governance lately, and the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association is among the organizations that have come under fire. We spoke with USHJA President Mary Babick, who runs Knightsbridge Farm in Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey, about the criticism.

There seems to be a wave of discontent about governance and the USHJA. To what do you attribute this?

I think people don’t understand sports governance. I don’t think they understand the difference between [the U.S. Equestrian Federation] and the USHJA, so they attribute things to us that we have nothing to do with, and I’m sure it’s vice versa. There’s a lot of unhappiness about people’s questions not being answered, but I have yet to see a list of questions or problems that we have control over that haven’t been answered. If the answers are not satisfactory, I would guarantee you, the USHJA board is open to working on things.

One expression I really dislike is “the powers that be.” When you look at the USHJA, the powers that be are people who are active in the sport in one way or another. They’ve given a lot of their time to improve the sport. But there’s no secret man behind the curtain. I’m trying to understand from the amateurs’ point of view what they’re thinking about the amateur rule. I hear, “How could you guys do this?” [about the USHJA Amateur Task Force proposed rule—which has since been withdrawn—prohibiting amateurs from acting as influencers on social media]. Interestingly, the amateur social influencer rule was proposed by volunteers who are amateurs. That fascinates me how big the disconnect is between people.

USEF asked us, “What should we do with this?” because they’ve had a fair amount of complaints [about amateurs acting as influencers]. The Amateur Task Force looked at it and said, “[Disallowing influencers] seems like the right thing to do.” Then they hear, “This isn’t the right thing to do.” So let’s work on it. That whole logical progression is lost in the screaming.

Why do you think people believe there isn’t enough transparency in USHJA governance?

That one flummoxes me. In preparing for the USHJA State of the Association speech, I read the presentations from 2018 and 2019. I noted that we have made a lot of progress. We’re not there yet. In the 2020 speech, I said it’s a conscious decision to do this and an ongoing process. I’ve been highly involved with governance for at least eight years. Every couple weeks I find some situation that I didn’t even know about. There’s nothing nefarious there, but there are a lot of little threads that go out, and unless you follow each thread to its conclusion you don’t know what happened. Sometimes it’s a situation where something happens that’s not the best. We work on this on an ongoing basis. There’s a huge difference between “You’re not transparent,” and “I don’t like the decision that you made.”

How do you ensure a diversity of viewpoints in USHJA governance and decision-making and make all quarters feel like they are heard and represented?

That’s a complicated question. Over the past couple of years, we changed our governance structure for how you came to the board so there would be more diversity of thought. Our board has changed more than people think. I believe in a lot of open dialogue about everything. That in itself changed how we do things. [Former USHJA president and current USEF CEO Bill Moroney’s leadership style] was guided discovery, where the decision had already almost been reached. Mine is, “Here’s one side, and here’s the other side, and by the way, what did I miss?” Thought diversity has come a long way.

If you’re talking about diversity in terms of BIPOC representation—I met a lovely woman last year in Las Vegas. She was the only person who came to a USHJA Town Hall meeting, named Leea Bridgeman. She comes in and says, “I’m the only one here. What would you like to do?” I said, “Well, you’re here. Let’s have a Town Hall.” She is BIPOC, and she is also an amazing human being. We had the greatest talk for an hour. I said, “I hope you will get on a committee. I hope you will get nominated for our board. Know it will take you a little time to get on.” I was really pleased when she sent me an email a couple months ago.

She’s a Harvard [Massachusetts] educated MBA and has horse sports governance experience, just not with the USHJA. I said this is an amazing opportunity, let’s put her on our Planning Committee.

What people will see is whether it’s David Loman or Leea Bridgemen, or members of David’s diversity group, our arms are open to [BIPOC equestrians]. We’re excited to have them join us.

People have said, “You guys only think as competition managers or as high-end horse show people,” but I think what you heard on Friday night [at the USHJA board meeting], that’s a typical board discussion. Did we sound like a close-minded group of people or people who were only thinking with one brain? To us, it doesn’t feel like it’s as closed off as people think we are.

Can you explain to members why they need the USHJA?

I think we have to start with the basics of what USEF is. USEF is a regulatory body in charge of fielding teams, drugs and medications, licensing of competitions, licensing of officials, and more. USHJA is everything else. It’s creation of the rules; it’s the creation of the programs, advocacy for the members, awards, education—all of those things. Newer people need to talk to people who remember what it was like for hunter/jumper when they were part of [the American Horse Shows Association]. There was no voice for the hunter/jumper community.

Now we actually have a voice. And sometimes to the USEF’s dismay, sometimes to their pleasure, we use our voice. If you were going to ask for education and programming, that money needs to come from someplace. If you don’t care about that, should you have an organization like USHJA? Maybe not.

mary headshot 5x7
“Speaking as a person who often in her life has been an upstander, being an upstander is hard to do,” says USHJA President Mary Babick. Photo Courtesy Of Mary Babick

What do you say to someone who says, “What’s in it for me as a USHJA member?”

Let me use my customers as an example. [I have] customers who utilize the programs and education, and all of them get access to the advocacy that the USHJA provides. If they don’t care about programs and education they are getting less.

Yesterday I sent [Knightsbridge Farm assistant trainer] Julia [Hogan] out to an unrecognized show, and she came home and wanted to tear her hair out. It was not like a recognized show; there was no organization. I don’t want to paint with too broad a brush here—there are many unrecognized shows that are fantastic—but on the other hand there are ones like the one she ran into yesterday. Without an organization pressing on people to do better work, it quite often doesn’t happen.

What about those who feel that the USHJA is an “old boys’ club” and allege cronyism?

I struggle with that [perception]. From the point of appointing committees, I have no idea who [candidates] are except for who they are on paper. As far as the board is concerned, you have to show yourself to be someone who’s going to be of value to the board. In my mind they’re not going to accept a person because that person is going to be able to do something for them. I think some people on our board don’t even get along. Old boys’ club? Slowly that changes. The more new young blood we get the better off we are. We have to find that balance between not losing institutional knowledge and getting new people in.

How is it that someone who is an amateur by the letter of the law but is in practice a show manager—Glenn Petty—rather than an active competing amateur—Penelope Ayers—earned the amateur-designated spot on the USHJA board in the recent election?

Speaking from the Governance Committee perspective, we never thought we needed to define “amateur.” We didn’t actually think of the various types of amateurs that there are. In my mind, I had this vision of a person like Penelope, but I never voiced that to anyone. No one ever voiced to me that a person like Glenn Petty was what they had in mind. It was hiding in plain sight, and we didn’t have that conversation.

Let’s take the show manager part of it for a second. Glenn Petty doesn’t ride, but he has horses that show under his business, Triangle Farm. Even if he didn’t have those horses, he’s still an amateur. Planning and Governance Committee is meeting, and we will take our first journey down the river of: What is an amateur supposed to be? We need to think about it all the way through to make sure we’re not having an unintended consequence.

We have at this moment six amateurs on our board. Two are considered active competing amateurs, Betty Oare and Cheryl Rubenstein. I believe right now Cheryl has a horse being competed, but she’s not doing it herself. Then we have four amateurs who fit “amateur” under the rule, and all four of them are show managers: Glenn Petty, Rick Cram, John Bahret and Oliver Kennedy. It starts with a conversation that we didn’t have, which results in the second question: What is an amateur to the Governance Committee and consequently the Nominating Committee? Also, why do people see show managers as “evil” or “against amateurs”?

Penelope and I have had a lot of conversations about this since the election. I said to her early last week, “Why are you so dead set against show managers?” She said, “Well, they’re just taking our money.”

Surely some are just in it to get rich, but when you sit and look at how much shows cost, a lot of it is because we’ve made them cost a lot of money. Our standards are much higher. We used to ride and show in a field with no footing. One of the things we have to figure out is how we explain to someone how much things actually cost. The outrage isn’t so much that a competing amateur wasn’t elected, as the fact that a competition manager was.

I can’t speak to the Nominating Committee because their work is private, as it should be. I think when you don’t define terms you get into problems. The Governance Committee does need to define things for the Nominating Committee; it’s one of their jobs. The board needs to think who’s the best fit for the board itself. I think that statement will make people mad.

Do you understand how the optics of this look really bad for active amateur USHJA members?

I understand that. I hear it. What do people want me to do, go to Glenn and ask him to resign? He offered to resign, and I didn’t accept that. He’s done nothing wrong. I understand the optics. People have been yelling. As a teacher I find that tough to take. [People need to give] an organization a chance to think through something. Continuously yelling does not help.

[Members] want us to be open and transparent, and I’m all about that. They want us to follow our own rules and processes, and I’m all about that. If I ask Glenn to resign, then we have 90 days to have a whole new process happen. The Nominating Committee has to do their work and come back with two candidates, and the board has an election. We can’t, by our bylaws, redefine what an amateur is. You could instruct the Nominating Committee to do one thing or another, but their job is to find the best candidate for the board, the widest thinker. Changing our process at this moment would be against our bylaws. Do I think it should be examined? Absolutely. There’s a timeline to do that in the bylaws, which are right there for anyone to see.

The USHJA has seen numerous longtime volunteers quit their roles, including the majority of the USHJA International Hunter Derby And Incentive Task Force, or become vocally discontent on social media in the last few months. To what do you attribute that?

I can’t answer that and be fair to [everyone involved]. As far as term limits [for committee chairs] are concerned, that is a part that I myself could have handled more smoothly. Both the entire board and I have learned that lesson.

About a month ago I had a very unpleasant conversation with Bill Moroney. I didn’t think he treated me in the way I would expect another pro to treat me. He really made me angry. I was so angry that for 12 hours I considered resigning from all my USEF work. At the end of 12 hours I thought, “This is ridiculous. Why would you do this? How will you make things different if you just take your toys and go home?” I think there are moments when many of us have a knee-jerk reaction. My dad told me if you have something nasty to say to someone, write it down and set it aside and look at it again in the morning. We don’t always do that these days. Sometimes we just shoot from the hip.

Is the USHJA presidency a volunteer position? Do you get compensation?

Yes. This is completely open to anyone who wants to look it up. The president gets a stipend of $750 day when they travel, plus they get travel expenses paid. For that part of what you do, you could be considered a paid employee. For the rest of the time, you’re doing it for free. So the bulk of the time I spend is as a volunteer.

The board was very kind to me. They understand how hard I’ve been working, and all of my travel is no longer possible, and they have transferred some of my stipend to me.

I think people have to decide what do they want in the president of an organization like this. I joke saying I have two full-time jobs. My easiest week is 70-80 hours. I have my barn, then this. Every morning I get up at 4:30 a.m. or 4:45. The first thing I do is governance until I go to work, then I have a block of time every day in the middle of the day I spend on governance, and a block at the end of the day I spend on governance. Julia knows, there are some times I have to wave my hand and say, “Take over for me.”

My customers are wonderful, and I don’t know why they put up with me. If you want someone who will be a working horse professional as president, which I think is ideal to be honest, they’re going to need to get some kind of something out of it. When they’re traveling or spending crazy time [on governance work], unless they’re independently wealthy, the money has to come from somewhere. The Governance Committee did discuss in detail having a paid president. I told them, “I completely disagree with you, even though it would benefit me more than anyone else.” They gave in.

What can the average member do if they feel discontented about how things are happening at the USHJA?

They can let us know what they’re unhappy about. I cannot push back on anyone for posting on social media. You can do that all day long. But if you want to get [your message] to us, to the board, it needs to come in an email. I struggle with finding things on social media. I read social media and will continue to read social media, but I don’t find it a good way for people to express their qualms or dissatisfactions. They could write a letter or email to any one of us, then they could post the response on social media.

What are your plans going forward? How are you going to address the concerns being raised?

I get complaints all the time. A person reached out to me who was very, very unhappy because they didn’t know that a particular championship had happened. I went back and got the communications department to pull all the communications to this person. The team can tell whether [the emails] were opened or not. All of [the communications about the championship] had gone to that person; [they] had all been opened. I wrote back very pleasantly and said, “Here’s what happened. Here are the dates on which you were notified with a lot of detail,” and I heard nothing. I wrote back one other time, maybe twice. I got a really nasty email back saying what a dreadful organization we are.

That is a person who is bashing away on social media. The person missed something that made them upset. That said, we’re constantly looking for how to communicate better.

For the amateur rule, I met with Kelsey Shanley from the federation and asked her from the USEF point of view if we could have a much larger look at the rule and consider doing a complete re-write. I want to see if we can do [a rule that’s just for hunters and jumpers].

The Governance Committee will talk about the amateur seat [on the board] and all of the seats to make sure there is enough structure [in the seat definitions] without tying the hands of anyone on the Nominating Committee. We will look at the Nominating Committee process and see how that goes.

[The World Equestrian Center show date situation]  is a funny subject. We did what we were supposed to do [when the USHJA was asked for their recommendation during the USEF mileage exemption process] by the rules that are in the “Rule Book.” We recommended disapproval. It doesn’t mean we don’t like WEC, or we don’t want WEC. We did what we were supposed to, and we’re getting a beating for that. I think it’s because people don’t understand Chapter 3 [of the USEF “Rule Book”]. My calendaring group is discussing application of standards to licensing and had some very uncomfortable conversations with the USEF. We’re going to continue to press for change.

Those are things we can work on. I think the undefined outrage—that’s the part we need help with. Put [your complaints] in writing. The people who attended our annual meeting noticed they could comment anonymously. For whatever reason, if you don’t want to be named, you can stay behind a wall of anonymity. People will come to me and say, “I want to talk about a situation, but I don’t want my name mentioned.” So I take out identifying information and send [the complaint] on to USEF and say, “This is a credible situation; let’s work on it.” They can do the same thing. Find a reliable person and let them cut off all the identifiers and send it in. None of us are in the punishing business. I can’t see a reason to punish anyone for giving information.

Being an upstander is a very good thing. Speaking as a person who often in her life has been an upstander, being an upstander is hard to do. I’m not happy with the personal attacks that I have received. I’m not going to disrespect you, so don’t disrespect me.

Category: Horse Shows

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