Horse show woes? There’s a fix for that

By Nancy Jaffer
July 24, 2016

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Footing at shows will be a key issue for the USEF’s new compliance department.

What bothers you most at a horse show? Bad footing, overcrowded grounds, poor stabling?

Generations of exhibitors have voiced complaints about those issues and others, too often without getting satisfaction. Sometimes, their only options have been to sigh and continue competing at a place that is substandard, or just stay home if they can’t find an alternative.

Finally, the U.S. Equestrian Federation is starting a program that has the muscle to work with shows on improving conditions or, failing that, taking measures against fixtures that don’t solve their problems.

The new compliance program was announced last week, utilizing compliance officers trained to evaluate shows. Slated to start this fall, the program is a key part of a strategic plan–most of which has yet to be revealed–that is charting the future of the federation and will be an engine for change.

“The goal is to have better competitions that do meet the standards, happier exhibitors; in the end happier organizers, healthier sport, happier horses, said Bill Moroney, the USEF’s CEO.

When it comes to dissatisfaction with shows, “Footing is the number one issue,” according to Bill, who noted each breed and discipline has its own standards for the surfaces on which its horses compete.

The first order of business?

“Is the level of footing appropriate for the level of competition that is going to take place in the ring,” he said.

Since the condition of footing can be a judgment call, the compliance officer needs to know the standards in the rulebook, but also must check with exhibitors as part of the evaluation process to see what they think. In the case of the jumpers, for instance, if it’s acceptable for the highest level of class being offered during the week, “you’re pretty assured it’s okay for children’s jumpers,” noted Bill, the former president of the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association.

The USHJA was working on its own compliance program last year and devised a learning module for evaluators, while drafting and field-testing an evaluation form.

“That was very helpful in getting this launched,” said Bill, noting the USHJA is no longer running its own program because USEF stepped in.

The type of person who can be a compliance officer was discussed at both the USHJA and USEF conventions. The officers will be USEF employees, communicators who can work with both exhibitors and management to set the stage for improvement, and have no conflicts of interest.

“What we’re focusing on this first year is doing the evaluation and working with organizers so they understand what the non-compliance issues might be. Then there will be a period of curing that issue, of going in and fixing the problem,” Bill said.

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USEF CEO Bill Moroney. (Photo by Nancy Jaffer)

A defined plan with a timeline will enable a show that only runs once a year to have remedied the problem by the following season.

Shows that can’t improve their footing to the degree required for the top level of competition they offer might “have to readjust their offerings,” Bill said.

If there’s a problem in the middle of a circuit running six or eight weeks, however, “they need to make an adjustment at that point, whether they move certain classes to different rings or adjust their schedule,” he pointed out.

“Part of being responsible is understanding that people should be granted the opportunity to cure the deficiency. If we get into a situation of multiple week events and we’ve got a serious issue, we’ve got to work with that organizer in how to remedy that situation…on a case-by-case basis,” Bill commented.

Should the situation be one that jeopardizes safety and the welfare of the horse, however, “we could say to you right then, `This is something that is completely unsuitable.’ I don’t think we’re going to find that very often; I think we’re going to be able to solve most of the issues as we go along.”

The 160-page strategic plan is the pet project of Murray Kessler, who will take over as USEF president next January.

The compliance program “addresses member concerns related to organizer non-adherence to competition standards in a mileage protection environment,” Murray commented.

I expect a step forward in the fairness, safety and enjoyment of the competition experience in the United States, while at the same time preserving the mileage rule for its original good purposes.”

The number of shows that will be examined depends on the number of compliance officers hired.

Certainly we can’t hit 2,500 horse shows a year, but I think the program will grow each year. In the first year, we’ll get somewhere between 30 and 50 horse shows,” Bill said. In five years, it could be as many as 500 shows across all levels, breeds and disciplines.

I think our members want this, and I think good organizers will welcome an evaluation and inspection, because if they get a good mark and a passing grade, they’ll be able to say, `Look, we’ve been inspected.’ It will be a little bit of a Good Housekeeping seal.”

Enforcement for non-compliance will not begin until January 2018, unless the issues jeopardize welfare and safety. Remedying problems can be effective quickly because most shows now are licensed for one year, rather than three years as they were previously, allowing for movement in the marketplace.

If the footing isn’t repaired, for instance, the show may find it is not licensed above a certain level. Showgrounds that aren’t up to standards may find some shows that lease their property threatening to go elsewhere, to a facility that is in compliance.

Sometimes, that’s just the kick in the hind end that some of these facilities need to be able to retain the people who are renting the facility,” Bill contended.

Shows that are overcrowded–with too many horses on too small a showgrounds with too little area to school, exercise and longe–could learn that opens the door to allowing a competitor in their vicinity to take up the slack through granting of a mileage exemption to hold their own show nearby. Shows with a large turnout also may need to implement measures such as monitors to supervise the schooling areas during high-traffic periods.

Safe paths to and from the competition and riding areas also are a concern. More and more horse shows are separating horse paths from motor vehicle paths, but where they cross during busy times, Bill said a crossing guard is needed to control the flow.

Many people may remember the discontinued “fed rep” program that made a stab at improving conditions at shows, but it “had no teeth in it,” as Bill explained, which rendered it ineffective. Using show stewards for the evaluations doesn’t work because they’re too busy with other things, and since they’re paid by the shows, they may be reluctant to criticize.

“Where I believe this initiative is somewhat different than previous attempts…is in its more holistic approach,” stated Matt Fine, the USEF’s senior director of competition operations, who was named as chief compliance officer.

“Rather than taking just (a) look at enforcement, the focus of the compliance department spans competition evaluations and standards compliance, investigating incidents at licensed competitions, and overseeing compliance with USEF internal policies and procedures,” he said.

“As we look outward to competitions and officials for compliance with our competition standards, we are also looking inward toward our (USEF’s) own policies and procedures,” noted Matt, an eventer who was involved with Pony Club. He has worked as a criminal defense attorney and is an officer in the Army Reserve’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps.

USEF President Chrystine Tauber called the creation of Matt’s position and the compliance department, “a significant change and a major step forward in the USEF’s governance process.”

When incidents occur at licensed competitions, Matt pointed out, “the compliance department will have the opportunity in the future to work collaboratively with other USEF departments, competition management, licensed officials and members to help develop our institutional knowledge and ‘lessons learned.’”

Although it will take a while to see how this works out, it has real promise to give members more for their USEF membership dues.

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