The latest U.S. Hunter Jumper Association virtual town hall focused on the buzz phrase of the moment, “social license to operate,” and drew 200 attendees eager to discuss how to make sure the general public approves of the use of horses in sport into the future. Those attendees included U.S. Equestrian Federation Chief of Sport David O’Connor, former U.S. Dressage Federation President Lisa Gorretta and several members of USHJA President Mary Knowlton’s Blue Ribbon Commission, a group appointed by Knowlton to make suggestions as to how the sport can go forward and try to do a better job.
“This is a really polarizing topic for people, because we are used to doing things the way we are used to doing things,” said Knowlton, who served as the emcee for the event. “We are fiercely [individualistic]. We don’t like anyone to tell us that their way is better. Just go up to somebody and tell them that their girth is too tight or their noseband is too tight, and you’re not going to get a good reaction from that other person because they’re absolutely sure that they’re right and you’re wrong, and that’s the end of the conversation.
“David O’Connor has said you have to be so comfortable with your behavior you will do it in Central Park,” she continued. “If it was on the front page of the New York Times, the public would read it and be OK with it.”
“I’m concerned about people writing off non-horse peoples’ opinions as, ‘They just don’t know,’ ” said USHJA board member Terri Young. “It doesn’t matter if they don’t know; ‘they’ are vocal and have the ear of legislators. Our behavior with horse management and training has to be above reproach, even for people who don’t understand our sport.”
Knowlton pointed to three examples of how public’s acceptance of the use of animals changed, ranging from the easiest for horsemen to understand to the most confounding.
First, she talked about orcas at SeaWorld. When the 2013 documentary film “Blackfish” debuted, showing the consequences of keeping orcas in captivity, the public decried keeping orcas at aquatic parks. In response to that public disapproval, declining ticket sales and legislation in several states banning keeping orcas in captivity, SeaWorld began phasing killer whales out of their parks.
Next, Knowlton pointed to the near-extinction of greyhound racing in the U.S. (There are only two operational tracks left in the country, both in West Virginia, and the sport has been banned in 42 states.)
“People thought that animals were being abused when they were being raced,” she said. “They thought they were being over-medicated, and then when they were done racing, they were euthanized. And people got very upset about that.”
Finally, in the toughest example for horsemen to understand, she talked about the disappearance of pony rides from Griffith Park in Los Angeles. For 75 years they were a huge attraction, then at the end of 2022 the L.A. Department of Recreation and Parks decided not to renew the contract. Knowlton said that animal rights activists targeted the fact the ride operator had several old ponies that had died, and the provider had not reported those deaths in a timely fashion, though they hadn’t missed any deadlines.
“[Animal rights activists] wedged their little crowbar into that crack and convinced the world that pony rides were awful, at least in Griffith Park, and suddenly pony rides were gone,” she said. “Horse people did mobilize, but they were super slow to mobilize, and they told the story they wanted to hear, which was not as compelling as the animal rights activists’. ”
Knowlton pointed to animal rights activists who have put forth to a proposed ordinance in Berkley, California, that would make it illegal to keep a horse stalled for more than 10 hours a day, and would require each horse access to a minimum of 1,000 square feet of pasture turnout 14 hours a day.
“Whether you agree with what the animal rights people are saying themselves, it’s really important that we seize control of this topic ourselves and look for great solutions,” Knowlton said.
Social license to operate was a concept first introduced to the sport horse world by the Fédération Equestre Internationale and was quickly picked up by the U.S. Equestrian Federation, which has asked each breed and discipline it oversees to look critically at their sport for practices that could use improvement. At the last USEF Annual Meeting, Knowlton said, leaders made it clear that they were looking to the USHJA to come up with solutions for its own challenges.
And when USEF Annual Meeting attendees wrote down the biggest problem they saw with social license to operate and horse welfare, the No. 1 answer was unsafe or improper longeing.
Massachusetts-based amateur rider Wendy Wood asked why shows don’t measure their longeing spaces and limit how many horses may work in the area at once, to which USHJA board member and C1 steward Cricket Stone responded that this does happen at some shows, but not all.
Concerns over longeing are hardly new, but making change is proving difficult.
“The [Horse and Rider Advocate] committee has tried to address some of these issues in the past few years ([longeing], too many classes, pulling shoes for under classes, etc.) but what we put forward is always pared down. Rules are difficult to write, enforce etc.,” USHJA Horse and Rider Advocates Committee chair Sue Lyman said. “I just wish people would be better horsemen.”
Georgia-based amateur Donna Orban pointed out that longeing tends to occur in the early morning when stewards and management aren’t yet at the horse show.
“Should we have to put stewards there at that time?” asked Knowlton. “What’s that look like for the exhibitors in terms of expense? Horse showing is super expensive right now, and that is definitely going to make it more expensive, but at the same time people are not able necessarily to police themselves.”
West Palms Event Management founder Dale Harvey, who produces shows throughout California, brought up a related concern, namely that if hunters weren’t expected to be unnaturally quiet, many of the concerns about preparing them through longeing and medicating would disappear.
“The judging criteria in the hunter divisions needs to be looked at,” he said, “adjusting penalties for normal horses so they don’t have to be longed excessively.”
Montana-based amateur Gayl Russell asked why stewards, managers and judges can’t request a drug test when there “obviously reasonable suspicion” of the horse being drugged.
Knowlton responded that the USEF has its reasons for not allowing this type of targeted drug testing, but that may change in the future.
Can The USEF Do Better?
Some town hall participants said stewards struggle to enforce the rules because management or the USEF doesn’t “have their back.” But USHJA Stewards Committee member Cindy Reid disagreed and was supported by C1 steward Jil Edwards and head of the Stewards Committee, Bev Bedard.
“Call out USEF if indeed you, as a steward, are not supported,” Reid said. “Many of those comments are second-hand and from years back. If not anecdotal but actual, any lack of support for licensed officials needs to be identified and corrected. If it’s from years back and happened to someone else, stop continuing the rumor.”
One anonymous attendee asked why stewards aren’t hired by the federation and assigned to shows (as it stands today they are hired by show management) so they feel more comfortable “doing the right thing” and don’t fear not being invited back. Knowlton responded by asking the Stewards Committee to “once again” take up this perennial topic.
Others called out the USEF for failing to act strongly on cases involving poor sportsmanship, another issue for the sport. Janet Fall, an FEI level 2 jumping steward and USEF C1 steward pointed out that in the last issue of the federation’s Equestrian magazine two individuals from the hunter/jumper world were fined for unsportsmanlike conduct—just the latest in a string of incidents—one was fined $1,000 and the other $2,500.
“Really, is this enough?” she asked.
Another participant asked about an exhibitor who displayed unsportsmanslike conduct toward the judges at the 2023 Platinum Performance USHJA International Hunter Derby Championship (Kentucky), concerned that the person got away with egregious behavior, and Knowlton responded that the specific incident was going through the hearing process and she couldn’t comment.
A frequent refrain about social license to operate is that the sport is just one cell phone video away from a major problem. That hit home recently when a professional video of a USEF-sponsored clinic became problematic, when a 2.5-minute video of soundbites from a January USEF Horsemastership Training Series gymanstics session taught by U.S. show jumping team veteran Katie Prudent went viral. The polarizing compilation video highlighted what some saw as inappropriate language and imagery from Prudent in the clinic, including saying horse “need a good licking sometimes” and calling students “birdbrains.”
“There’s a lot of people who feel really strongly that Katie’s right, in [that] how she treated the students was correct and the imagery that she used was correct, and there’s an equal number of people who feel that Katie was wrong and that’s not acceptable,” Knowlton said. “I think that what we all have to understand is that we need to start moving away from that very negative base of teaching and negative view of how we treat our horses and start moving in a positive direction, and that’s going to be really, really hard for us because the bulk of us came up through a system that embraced that type of military training, and it’s really hard to acknowledge that maybe we need to say things differently.”
Ironically the clinic went on as the USEF hosted its annual meeting, which focused on social license to operate.
“I know we have to be very aware as clinicians on how we deliver our instruction,” said U.S. Equestrian Team veteran and Emerging Athletes Program clinician Candice King.
Learning how to teach has been coming to the forefront of conversations about hunter/jumper sport. Georgia-based professional Carolyn Duncan expressed discontent that she put forth the time and money to go through the now-defunct USHJA Trainer Certification Program, and it did nothing for her business. The USHJA has trotted out an instructor credential instead.
“There were so many things that were great about the old TCP program, but my mother, who is not a horse person, doesn’t even like horses, but she’s a good reader, she could have passed TCP as long as she could convince someone to write testimonials for her teaching,” said Knowlton. “The new program is much more expanded.”
Knowlton sang the praises of the U.S. Center For Coaching Excellence’s coaching program, which is a general, multi-sport course on the science of how people learn and how people learn to teach. O’Connor is spearheading an effort to put sport leaders through the program with an eye to expanding it in the future.
“There’s a thought process on how we teach and express ourselves,” said O’Connor about the USCCE program. “I do believe that has an effect on what we teach people to deal with in the horse environment, and not just a place where horses are so separate from baseball, football, all that kind of stuff. There is another animal [involved] as we all know, but that’s our internal technical knowledge which they found fascinating because we have to do non-verbal communication and empathy.
“I think it will help us for not just our coaching point of view, our teaching point of view, but also explaining to the non-horse world what our horse world brings to us,” he added. “As I said at the convention, I do believe that horses are good for humans as long as humans are good for horses. And if we can get that message across, it will have a huge impact, whatever the games are that we play. …There is science. There is a scientific side to how people learn, so why would we not use it? Why would we not pay attention to it if all of the other sports are?”
The USHJA released the dates for nine additional monthly town halls to be run by Knowlton. The Feb. 19 meeting will also be focused on social license to operate.
The meetings will on the following dates. Tap a date to register for that Zoom session: