Where Do We Go Now?

Nov 24, 2020 - 8:04 AM

So we’ve all said our piece on social media, we’ve written the articles, done the podcasts. What now? If we want to see the actual meaningful change in the way our sport functions that so many of us clearly want and feel so strongly about, what’s next?

In the conversations following the announcement that the U.S. Equestrian Federation pulled dates from the World Equestrian Center in Ocala, Florida, a lot of people reached out to me with questions and comments: What’s happening with WEC is great, but won’t it still be pretty expensive even if it’s not USEF recognized? If you run a show that’s not USEF recognized, won’t that just save you $30 or so on your entry? That’s not going to make a $1,000 show bill any more affordable.

What should USEF do, in real tangible actions, to make our sport more affordable? The short answer is nothing.

I first started really thinking about this problem back in July when Karl Cook posted his first video on the subject. I was happy to see so many people watching and engaging with the topic, but my next thought was: What are we actually going to do to make this sport change and become more affordable? Talking is a good first step, but it can’t be all we do.

I started thinking about all the things you hear people repeat over and over: “Why is it cheaper to event?” “Why is it cheaper to show in Europe?” “There used to be a pipeline in this sport for people to work their way up affordably. Where did that go?” “What could USEF do about this?” “USEF is such a fantastically competent organization that does so much for so many; I don’t know what you’re talking about!”*

*Kidding, I have never seen that comment. But you get the idea.

Then one day I thought, “This is dumb. I should just start calling people and asking these questions.” Not in the abstract but in real dollars and cents: What discipline do you ride in? How much does it cost? What organizer can I call to ask how they put on an event at that price? I pulled out my cellphone and started calling anyone and everyone I could think of—friends who show in Europe, in American Quarter Horse Association shows, American Paint Horse Association shows, reiners, Pony Clubbers. Heck, I talked to someone who ran Icelandic breed shows; I didn’t even know that was a thing! I started calling facilities and asking about what it cost to rent them, how the fees worked, what they included. I called EMT companies and got quotes; I called jump rental companies and got quotes on hunter and jumper courses.

I talked to friends who ran FEI three-day events and grand prixs and people who ran local hunter/jumper shows, A-show organizers in California and Florida and Virginia. I called Karl Cook and picked his brain on funding the top of the sport. I called Sharn Wordley and asked him about the training days he ran in Lexington, Kentucky. I talked poor Kama Godek’s ear off with all kinds of very elementary questions regarding how showing in Europe works at a logistical level. I asked friends to send me screenshots of horse show bills from checking out of the office. I talked to a friend who works in the horse show office at every major show in this country. I talked to photographers, fellow amateurs in all different disciplines. I talked to anyone and everyone who would talk to me on the subject.

Here’s what I learned.

If we want to find out why A shows are so expensive, I fully expected to discover that the answer is horse show owners and managers are greedy; they make huge profits; and their horse show fees and our USEF membership dollars we pay to show at those shows keep USEF in business, so USEF and these managers are in cahoots. I was wrong (mostly).

One of the most interesting and helpful conversations I had when I was calling all these people was with Erin Woodall, a past board member of the MidSouth Eventing and Dressage Association and current activities and events director for the U.S. Pony Clubs. I called Erin because in 2017 when I was living in Lexington and first started competing my 4-year-old gelding, I didn’t take him to horse shows despite my long-term plan to do him in the adult jumpers. I spent a year eventing him because it was so much more affordable to get him miles at events than at horse shows.

“Every time you want to jump your horse over a well-built course on good footing, you should not have to drop hundreds or thousands of dollars at an A show,” writes amateur rider Ann Glavan. Erin Gilmore Photo

When I went to check out of the office at my first event, I was floored to sign a check for $325, to jump on the same Kentucky Horse Park footing, over the same jumps as when I came for a horse show and couldn’t get out of the office for less than $700, and that’s $700 if I hauled in. With a stall, you’re not getting out of that office for less than $1,000.

So this past July I thought I should call whoever organized that horse trials I rode in—that was Erin. I asked Erin point blank: How the heck do you make these recognized events so affordable? And she said if she ran her events like we run A horse shows, they would absolutely cost exactly what we’re being charged at A shows.

We want to move into facilities the Sunday or Monday before the show starts. When you rent a facility you pay for stalls and arenas per day. You can’t move into events until the Wednesday or Thursday before the weekend, and that saves thousands in fees. At events you don’t get to have your trainer show your horse in an entire division before you arrive. There are no warm-up classes; there are no add this class, scratch that one. Erin knows exactly how many horses will in the ring (and at what time! Hello ride times!), and it enables her to efficiently use judges and officials, not to mention allow competitors to make a weekend schedule for their other responsibilities (also a huge plus for anyone coming to watch you!).

On the subject of judges and officials, events run on the model that you pay the positions you have to pay, and volunteers fill the rest. So you pay the judges, the technical delegates; you maybe pay an organizer at the very top, but the jump crew is all volunteers. The ladies in the office are mothers of competitors. The dressage scribes and cross-country jump judges are volunteers.

When you get to the end of the event, the person at the top (this organizer) is a member of the eventing community. The organization putting on the event is the MidSouth Pony Club Region, not “Kentucky Horse Shows LLC.” So when Pony Club region officials set prices for this event, sure they’re trying to raise money for the region, but they also have an incentive to not wring their community dry: These are their people.

Kentucky Horse Shows LLC does not have that motive. They are a business trying to pay their employees a fair wage and pay themselves a fair salary. Of course, they aren’t going to just cut you a deal for the sake of doing it or “promoting the sport,” nor should they. If you want an A-show product and don’t want to lift a finger to make it happen, then you’re going to pay for that A-show product.

If we were willing to adopt a different model more similar to eventing and start putting on some A shows where a hybrid team of professionals and volunteers runs the show, shows that start on a Thursday, by the community for the community, I think we could see a similar price drop. There will always be a place in the market for the fancy A show put on by a show company; the Hampton Classic on Long Island, New York, will always be what it is. Devon in Pennsylvania; Upperville, Virginia; probably the Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington, Florida; that’s fine. Every A show you go to during the year shouldn’t be like that, and I would say should be more like the eventing model described.

And to be clear, this conversation is much, much bigger than how do we make A shows more affordable. That’s where the conversation about the pipeline and the European show model comes in. Every time you want to jump your horse over a well-built course on good footing, you should not have to drop hundreds or thousands of dollars at an A show. The people I talked to who have shown in Europe explained how there are all different levels of options. There are “training days” where facilities are rented, a course is set up with timers, and you can jump around, but there are no ribbons, no judges; it’s not a show. It looks exactly like a show, and you can use it to practice; you can get some miles on a horse; you can make a sales video, for 25 euro. We need opportunities like this all across this country.

In Virginia, there’s an extensive network of shows, some of which are USEF-rated and some of which are recognized through the Virginia Horse Shows Association associate program. The Central Virginia Show Jumping Association puts on unrated jumper shows, and the Virginia Beach Horse Show Association is just hunters.

We need more of what George D’Ambrosio and Nona Garson are doing in Florida with The Ridge show series: an incredibly high quality USEF-recognized show experience that’s affordable and manageable when it’s held as a one- or two-day show.

What Pat Boyle is doing in Illinois is amazing—his unrecognized circuit at Ledges is well attended, and you can turn around the next week and show at the same facility over the same jumps in an A show, and that A show’s schedule is also set up in a way that’s friendly to working adults and kids in school. What Roby Roberts is doing in Ohio and Ocala is awesome. All of these people are looking at what the particular segment of the market they serve in their particular area of the country wants, and they’re providing it.

I could go on and on. My point is the answer to “Where do we go now?” does not involve reinventing the wheel, and it doesn’t really start or end with USEF. There are so many people out there already trying to make this sport more affordable and more accessible. The best thing we can do as riders is support their efforts, and frankly probably the best thing USEF could do is stay out of their way, or at the very least not threaten to penalize people who compete in shows outside USEF’s reach.

The degree to which USEF is missing the point if management there thinks the frustration being expressed right now is solely regarding the specifics of what happened in Ocala with WEC is baffling to me. WEC was the straw that broke our backs; it is by no means the principal reason so many of us are so frustrated and fed up with this organization.

Roberts is a businessman; his shows in Ohio are extremely affordable relative to other A shows because that is how he as a businessman decided to capture that portion of the market. He is making showing more affordable incidentally; USEF is a nonprofit whose sole stated purpose is promoting horse sport, specifically “access” and “participation.” It’s USEF’s full-time job to find solutions to these problems. So I’m not interested in hearing from USEF in a press release about why negotiations broke down or how they think Roberts went about this in the wrong way. It’s not his job to make this sport affordable. It’s yours, and clearly your membership thinks you’re doing a terrible job at accomplishing that goal.

Why is a full-time law student who doesn’t have the time or money to horse show right now more invested in solving this problem than an organization with millions of dollars and 100+ employees? Why am I calling 20 people in my spare time to get their take on the issue to try to find a real solution while y’all are whining about how Roberts wasn’t nice to you?

If USEF officials would like to play a role in solving the dilemma they stood by and watched our sport get into, they are more than welcome. USEF could start committees for each region that find local, affordable shows and team up with them. Maybe take some of those millions of dollars we give you and turn to a local organization and say, “Hey, we love what you’re doing to make sport affordable. We want to support that. Let us pay the facility rental fee for your show. Let us pay the EMT fee. Let us pay the jump rental fee.” Send show banners to hang around the rings and the grounds proudly proclaiming that the jumps are provided by USEF; the EMT is provided by USEF, that USEF supports the local level because that would be y’all actually putting your money and actions where up until this point only your mouth has been.

But I’d like to be very clear: USEF stood by and allowed our industry to get into this dilemma, but they are not the answer as to how we get out of it. They can have a seat at the table and help us if they want. Otherwise, the best thing they could do is get the hell out of the way. There are thousands of resourceful, creative and passionate horsemen and women all across this country who are ready, willing and able to solve this problem. There are people who are already doing incredible things to solve this problem and make sure our sport is not pricing people out of the thing that gets them up in the morning, the thing to which so many of us dedicate so much of our lives and time and money.

So when I think about what meaningful change in this sport would look like, I’m not asking the governing body who has spent decades profiting from the problem we’re all trying to fix. I’m picking up the phone and calling horsemen and women.

Originally from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Ann Glavan grew up competing at A circuit shows in the hunter and equitation divisions. She’s currently an amateur rider in her second year at the University of Wisconsin Law School. She owns a Friesian-Thoroughbred gelding named Moji, and she’s a former staff writer for The Chronicle of the Horse.


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