Saturday, May. 18, 2024

We’ll All Be Better Off For The Experience

Our columnist sees a light at the end of the economic tunnel that may just leave our sport stronger.

We’re all in a time of uncertainty, and no one can predict how long it will last or even when we’ll start to get back on track. Every day our media outlets bring us more grim news, and the resulting effect is a continuation of caution and fear of the unknown. It was only a matter of time before the effects of our economy and that of the global economy would permeate the equestrian world.

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Our columnist sees a light at the end of the economic tunnel that may just leave our sport stronger.

We’re all in a time of uncertainty, and no one can predict how long it will last or even when we’ll start to get back on track. Every day our media outlets bring us more grim news, and the resulting effect is a continuation of caution and fear of the unknown. It was only a matter of time before the effects of our economy and that of the global economy would permeate the equestrian world.

After reviewing the numbers of competitors at the winter equestrian circuits compared to 2008, there’s no doubt that our world is experiencing the same problems as the big picture.

Early numbers show reductions ranging from 12 to 42 percent, depending on the venue and week. Some of this can be attributed to competitors waiting to start their winter showing later this year, but even with this philosophy, the numbers are staggering. There’s no doubt that our sport is changing along with the rest of the world.

We know from feedback we’ve received from exhibitors that equestrians are making choices that best fit their lifestyles and economics. As winter competitions are completed and post-competition reports find their way to the Federation, we’re looking for trends in the marketplace, including migration patterns of equestrians.

One trend we expect to see will be that northern competitions may have better attendance than in past years due to the increased number of exhibitors staying closer to home. Another trend that we expect to see is the confirmation that exhibitors are still attending the winter circuits but are staying for shorter periods of time, and finally that our premise holds true that others are picking and choosing which weeks to compete over the entire circuit.

You may wonder how we can figure these things out, but this is one of the true advantages of full reporting by the competitions. The Federation now has record of every horse, rider, trainer and owner competing at every Federation-licensed competition. This data gives us the ability to track the movement of exhibitors and trends in the equestrian competition world.

Competitions are feeling the effects of reduced participation in a big way. Many of you will think that 12 to 42 percent isn’t so bad, but take a minute and think about your own assets and income falling by 12 to 42 percent. One day you’re making $100,000 per year and the next you’re making $58,000 per year. A big change like this would cause some major changes in your life. This will be the case for a great number of competitions.

The winter circuit competitions, Winter Equestrian Festival (Fla.), Ocala (Fla.), Thermal (Calif.), Gulfport (Miss.), Jacksonville (Fla.) and Arizona are fewer than 5 percent of the total number of hunter/jumper competitions in our country. Once the winter season ends and the concentration of horses dissipate, the competitions trying to survive over the rest of the year may be in for a rough ride.

Presidential Modifications

To mitigate the problems our world is experiencing we’ve been developing a plan that helps competitions while providing our equestrians with venues at which to compete and divisions in which to show their horses. If there are no competitions, there is no business and vice versa. We all need each other, and now is the time to get together to solve the problems and map the future.

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We started looking ahead back in the fall, predicting what might happen to our world if the economy continued to tank and what we needed to be ready to do to help our community survive.

Show manager and USHJA and USEF Board of Directors member Bob Bell has been working in concert with other USHJA and USEF leaders on an economic stimulus package for the AA-level of hunter competitions since early December. As supported by the early competition numbers, we need this package to stave off the potential for catastrophe the remainder of this year.

To help the situation, we proposed three Presidential Modifications to USEF rules dealing with competitions. I spoke with USEF President David O’Connor and senior staff at the Federation, explaining our goals and reasoning. I’m happy to report that David signed off on all three proposals, and effective March 15, our AA-rated competitions will still be required to offer the $18,001 in A-rated hunter prize money, but for the balance of the 2009 competition year, if they have a decrease of 10 percent or more in the number of entries compared to 2008, they will not be required to redistribute prize money that was not awarded due to sections being cancelled or to insufficient entries to award all prize money (GR 1129.4).

In a letter to competition management, Bob has cautioned them not to misuse the modification of this rule.

The second modification moves the effective date of GR 904, which was passed at the USHJA and USEF annual meetings, to April 1 from Dec. 1. This will allow competitions to add unrecognized classes to their schedules after the prize list has been printed, thereby giving competitions some additional flexibility to fill the needs of their constituents.

The third modification moves the effective date of HU112.5, which was passed at the USHJA and USEF annual meetings, to April 1 from Dec. 1. This rule allows for the combining of the regular working and green working hunter divisions at AA competitions, thereby providing those regular working and green working horses whose divisions do not fill, to still compete in a combined division. We believe that these modifications are the right step to help the AA shows survive in our economy.

Not to short change our other levels of competitions, we are now reviewing costs for A-, B- and C-level competitions. We’re looking at USEF competition dues, requirements for officials and prize money as well as other considerations.

Just over a year ago, we worked to get approval of several extraordinary rule changes that gave these competitions additional flexibility in their scheduling and the menu of divisions they choose to hold in order to maintain their competition rating. Several have taken advantage of these new mechanisms and are now in compliance.

Even with all of the work, ideas and implementation of economic stimulus packages for our competitions, the reality is that some may go under, just like we’re seeing businesses go under every day. This is a fact. And while we might not like it, it will happen.

We are all hopeful that the number of exhibitors at competitions following the winter circuits will be closer to those of past years. If this happens, we should all get through this time, and our community will get back on track as the economy brightens.

As Bob recently said to me, “Competition managers are going to have to use their imaginations and look at ways to do things differently to help keep costs down, going to hotels, facilities and vendors to renegotiate contracts and looking to more volunteers to help with day-to-day issues.”

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I agree with Bob. Those who want to make it work have been given the opportunity. Now it’s up to them to use their resources to keep their shows going.

Difficult Decisions

While our competitions have been taking a hit, so have all of the people involved in our community. Our owners have seen their portfolios decrease, which means less disposable income and less participation. A decrease in participation affects the balance of the community, including professional riders and trainers, grooms, blacksmiths, veterinarians, vendors, braiders and our governing organizations.

Like the housing market, the horse market is suffering as well, resulting in a decrease in sales, especially the big-ticket horses, and an overabundance of horses on the market. The one upside is that if you are buying in Europe, the exchange rate is much better than last year.

This is the time when we need to pull together as a community, to make sure we all get through this crisis and come out on the upside of the equation. If you’re only thinking of yourself, in the end you won’t survive. Just like competition management, professionals need to reassess their business practices and be flexible and open to new ideas and imaginative solutions to keep their businesses going.

For our governing organizations, it means cutbacks as well. Whether in personnel or in programs, the many organizations in our sport are going through the same processes. Hiring, salary freezes and consolidation of work forces are happening in equestrian organizations throughout our sport.

We are all taking a hard look at the bottom line and making the hard decisions about where we can save money and continue to provide our constituents with the best service possible. We are all working to identify that tipping point, where the line is drawn between cutbacks on personnel and faltering service. This is where the going gets tough; but it’s our responsibility to the membership to be fiscally responsible.

The next several months will continue to require all of us to adhere to fiscal responsibility. Perhaps the best lesson to come out of the economic crisis—and hopefully one that will prevent a future crisis—is that we have to live within our means.

The global economy is causing a shift in the focus of everyone the world over, including our equestrian community. I’m confident that we can all meet the challenges of our current situation and will be better served for going through this experience. 

Bill Moroney


Bill Moroney is president of the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association, a member of the U.S. Equestrian Federation Board of Directors and a USEF R-rated judge. In between officiating, he’s head trainer at Salamander Farm in Middleburg, Va. He started writing Between Rounds columns in 2004.

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