Who Runs Our Hunter/Jumper Sport, And Why Should I Care?

Aug 17, 2015 - 11:48 AM

Our columnist explains how disgruntled competitors might find answers to their problems.

“Last weekend I watched my trainer show my horse in the performance hunters. I watched all the rounds, and my horse was really good, even my trainer said so, but the judge gave my horse fifth. Then I watched one of my trainer’s junior riders compete in her flat equitation class. Another rider picked up the wrong lead and placed ahead of most of the other riders in the class, including the junior in my trainer’s barn. Who picks the judges anyway? And how do people become judges? My trainer has won at some of the biggest shows in the country, and she isn’t a judge, but she rides and trains better than a lot of those judges. I’m not sure some of the judges even ride or train anymore, if they ever did. Who runs our hunter/jumper sport anyway?”

“I was so excited when I read about the USHJA Children’s and Adult Amateur Jumper Championships. I show in adult amateur jumpers, and I win my fair share. Some of my friends and I thought it would be really fun to put a team together and ride in the championship, but then I found out how far away they are. There are some really big shows only a few hours from where my friends and I live and keep our horses, but the championship is 10 hours away. I can’t take that much time off work, and I can’t afford those kinds of expenses. Supposedly these are regional championships, but they don’t feel very accessible to me. Who runs our hunter/jumper sport anyway?”

“My daughter really wants to go to Pony Finals. We told her that this year our family will make going to Pony Finals our focus. We primarily show within about an hour or two of where we live because of our budget, work and school commitments and because of the other kids in our family. My daughter has done really well the past two years; she won some year-end awards, and our trainer said that our daughter is ready for Pony Finals. I just found out that my daughter has to show at A and AA shows to qualify. Most of the shows we go to are B shows. Often she is champion or reserve champion at those. In fact, there have been plenty of times when there have been 10 or 12 ponies in my daughter’s classes, and her friend, who goes mostly to AA shows, often rides against only three or four ponies. My daughter’s friend is off to Pony Finals, and my daughter is so disappointed she can’t go because she isn’t allowed to qualify at B shows, often against more ponies. Who makes those decisions, and why did they decide that B show results aren’t worthy? Who runs our hunter/jumper sport anyway?”

“I’m a middle-aged adult rider, and I ride in the low child/adult jumpers. I work to keep in shape, but I am not as svelte as I once was. I like jumpers because my horse is not a competitive hunter, but we can have steady clear rounds in jumper classes and often get ribbons. Anyhow, because of my figure, I like to wear my long-sleeved riding shirt without tucking it in my breeches. It helps hide my stomach, and believe me I am not about to show any extra skin! It’s hot in summer where I show, so I appreciate not having to wear a jacket. I am all about neat and clean.

“At last week’s show at the end of my round the announcer said, ‘No score.’ When I came out of the ring the USEF steward came up to my trainer and me and said the judge eliminated me for not having my shirt tucked in. I was so embarrassed and told the steward I looked like a sack of potatoes with my shirt tucked in. With all those girls riding around with skin tight tops and other revealing clothes, who cares whether my shirt is tucked in or not? Who runs our hunter/jumper sport anyway?”

“My trainer said that my horse has really come along better than we both expected and that she would like to show him in an upcoming USHJA International Hunter Derby. Imagine my delight when my horse finished third, and it was his first time showing in a derby. I asked my trainer about the USHJA International Hunter Derby Championships, and she said we weren’t eligible unless I had ‘enrolled’ my horse prior to the class. I went online to the USHJA website to learn more and found out that the only way my horse could go to the finals was if I paid a ‘premium entry fee’ of around $3,000.

“I have long felt that if you aren’t in the ‘in crowd,’ you are a ‘nobody,’ and this experience sure made me feel that way. I told my trainer there would be no more hunter derbies for my horse. Who runs our hunter/jumper sport anyway?”

I could go on and on with these scenarios, and I’m sure at least one resonates with you. However, the point is, “Who runs our hunter/jumper sport anyway?”

The answer is: You run our hunter/jumper sport. You might be tempted to say, “No I don’t! What do you mean I run the hunter/jumper sport?” Let me explain. The answer may be simple, but it’s not necessarily easy.

The Lay Of The Land

We have 44,000 members of the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association. We can’t run a sport of this size and complexity in a purely democratic sense where every person gets an equal say, nor do we want to run our sport under a dictatorship where one person decides how things work. We need input from many without a free-for-all, and we need some structure to this governance stuff. And because we do not have a pure democracy or a dictatorship, we need a hierarchy.

In this kind of system that allows input and discussion, it takes time to develop consensus, get the word out, and understand the differences that levels of knowledge, talent and disparity of geography bring to our discipline. In this age of social media, texting and instant gratification, people want “their” sport changes to go into effect “right now.” Little regard is given to unintended consequences, process and sometimes even fairness.

So how does our sport work? Let’s start with you. If you’re reading this article, you or someone close to you probably participates in the hunter/jumper discipline in some capacity. The vast majority of you are amateur riders or parents of junior riders, and a relatively smaller segment of you are hunter/jumper professionals. Because the primary focus of the large group of amateurs and juniors is usually on your career (or school), this vast majority of hunter/jumper members do not participate in our sport’s governance. I’m not mocking you, just stating a fact.

If you and I owned boats we kept at a nearby lake and had family outings and picnics on our boats many weekends and holidays during the year, I don’t think we’d be very interested in belonging to the national lake users association, going to their monthly meetings, serving on their committees, and going to their annual business meeting. Sure, we are boat owners and lake users, and we know that very important items are discussed and decided by this group. However, we have limited time to spend at our weekend family gatherings and need to focus on our livelihoods during the week so we can afford our boats and outings.

Similarly in our hunter/jumper sport and in the national lake user’s association, governance falls on relatively few people. In the case of the USHJA, we might ask, “How few?” Not only might the answer surprise you, you may be additionally surprised to discover that our sport needs governance representatives with a wide variety of skills and interests.

How about some context? The hunter/jumper discipline is governed by the USHJA, which is the official hunter/jumper affiliate of the U.S. Equestrian Federation. The USHJA is tasked with organizing, administering, and operating the hunter/jumper discipline within the United States, much in the same way that the Arabian Horse Association, the Morgan Horse Association, and the U.S. Dressage Federation run their respective breeds and disciplines as official affiliates of USEF.

One might ask how the USEF gets to be the one in charge, or from whom they receive their authority. The short answer is that the USEF is designated as the sole equestrian sport representative and National Governing Body in the United States by both the U.S. Olympic Committee and the international equestrian federation, FEI. Somewhere in the mix is the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act, which brings us under the authority of the U.S. Congress.

Your eyes might be glazing over at this point, so I’m going to move on, but it’s necessary to have some idea of how the various organizations relate.

To better understand this governance puzzle, I have identified two groups I call “Group 400” and “Group 1500.” The constituents within these two groups are often interrelated and not entirely distinct from each other. That is, a member of Group 400 may also be a member of Group 1500.

Who is Group 400? The USHJA officers, Executive Committee, directors, administrative committees, program committees, constituent committees, task forces, working groups and geographic (zone) committees. This doesn’t add to 400 exactly, as some members serve on more than one of these groups, and some are subsets of a larger group, such as officers who are also board members and additionally serve on the Executive Committee.

Are you beginning to get the picture? The members of Group 400 are all volunteers. Any one of them could be you, and that is why the word “you” was the answer to the original question posed at the beginning of this article.   Additionally, given the variety of the groups represented in Group 400, there is a need for volunteers with a variety of skills and experience. You may well be able to make valuable contributions by getting involved.

Now I hear you saying, “It cannot be that simple. I don’t know enough as a volunteer member to run a sport organization with 44,000 members. Do I have help? Who supports me?” Because Group 400 are volunteers, and most have jobs, some within the hunter/jumper industry and some outside the horse world, the USHJA has a dedicated and skilled staff to support and assist the many committees, task forces and groups.

Group 1500 is the next tier involved in our sport. Unlike Group 400, this group is making part of or all of their living in the hunter/jumper industry. Besides the USHJA staff, I count competition management. These people are producing the approximately 1,000 USEF hunter/jumper shows. Each show has a minimum of one competition manager plus one competition secretary, both of which have a wealth of expertise in our discipline. The last set to make up Group 1500 is the hunter/jumper licensed officials, consisting of our judges, stewards and course designers. Often, some members of Group 400 also fit within Group 1500. Many of us wear multiple hats in our sport. As an example, over the years I have been a professional horseman, licensed official, competition management, horse show manager, rider and owner.

Finding Solutions

“So where do I go from here?” you ask. “I understand a group of about 400 volunteers govern the hunter/jumper discipline, with support from the USHJA staff. But that information doesn’t dispel my frustration expressed by the five scenarios that you began with in this article. If you really believe that I have a say in the running of the hunter/jumper discipline, show me how!”

The first scenario involves licensed judges. First, get yourself up to speed on what it takes to become a judge. Read Chapter 10 of the USEF Rule Book. Then you might look on the USEF website for the requirements for the continuing education of licensed judges. Next, find the departments and staff in the USEF and USHJA responsible to support the volunteer committees that deal with judges. And finally, after you get the names of the volunteers on these committees, you might find that either you already know one or more of them, live in the same town or area as some of them, or maybe you want to bite the bullet and call to express your frustration or simply ask questions.

The second scenario may be easier in some ways, since the volunteer committee that picks the location of the USHJA Children’s and Adult Amateur Jumper Championship in your region receives input from your Zone Committee, and these people are not only closer in distance to you, but you probably run into some of them at shows. Voicing your opinion shouldn’t be hard. Plus, contact information for all USHJA committee members is on the USHJA website.

The third scenario isn’t very difficult either, since the specifications and qualifying conditions for the U.S. Pony Finals are published each year well in advance of the start of qualifying, and they must be discussed and approved by a number of volunteer committees and task forces, all of which are listed on the websites already mentioned. As you do some research, you might discover that only a certain number of ponies and riders can be accommodated at U.S. Pony Finals, and some limiting factors had to be added. Consider going to the event to see it in action, and then I’m sure you can find the correct people with whom to discuss your views face to face. You may even come to realize there are factors you had no idea existed.

Whether your shirt can be tucked in or not, as Scenario 4 describes, involves rules, and rules are a vital part of our sport’s governance. A well-written letter to either the USEF National Jumper Committee or the USHJA Jumper Working Group can get your idea started on a rule change track. A phone call helps also, at least to let you know if you are up against formidable resistance or not. If you get blown off, then I suggest getting a little help from other competitors who feel the same way and might be willing to sign your letter.

Scenario 5 is similar. There is a final, and the players are all there. You can easily reach committee members. Remember they are all volunteers just like you. Also just like you, they are trying their best to help the sport be the best it can be, and I know they are receptive to suggestions that can further that goal.

Finally, there is nothing like getting informed and attending the USHJA Annual Meeting. There are many opportunities to present your points and ask your questions in large forums and small meetings. Talking and listening in person can make a lot of difference. My point is that you can make a difference, and in that respect, you can be involved in our sport’s governance.

In 1929 Frigyes Karinthy postulated that everything and everyone is separated by six degrees, and there are no more than six steps linking you to another person or topic in the whole world. Given that our USHJA hunter/jumper sport comprises 44,000 of us, I maintain that we are separated by no more than two degrees. Within two steps each of us can find a contact or information on a topic or issue that interests us. Once you start looking at the various USHJA committee members, staff and others comprising Groups 400 and 1500, I think you will be surprised by how many you know or how many you may know through someone else.

Ours is not a sport that runs by an officious group of highly paid people, inaccessible to the average competitor who enjoys going to horse shows. Our sport is run by people just like you and me, people who care deeply about our sport, and people who want to help in any way they can. We are in charge of our hunter/jumper sport!

Larry Langer, of Burbank, Calif., was an active trainer for 20 years and has spent another 30 years as a competition manager at the helm of Langer Equestrian Group Inc. as its president and CEO. Highlights of his career include serving as competition manager of the 1984 FEI Jumping World Cup Finals and 1996 Olympic Games. Larry was also a long-time U.S. Equestrian Federation and Fédération Equestre Internationale-licensed official, is currently the secretary of the USHJA, and serves on a variety of USEF and USHJA committees. He also owns LEGISequine.com, an insurance agency specializing in the equine market. He and his wife Marnye own and compete several jumpers. Larry has a college-aged stepson, a dog and three cats.


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