2011 USEF Convention Impressions - A "First Timer" To The Annual Meeting

Our newest reporter Holly Jacobson joined me at the USEF Annual Meeting in Lexington, Kentucky. We were brought together through the Para Program, and are now implementing Holly's writing skills with our Who's Who clients. This article brings an insight into the importance of this meeting and the people in our sport we honor and why we are very excited to have Holly on board. MPH

Check out Holly's recent profile in Subaru's the Owner in the Spotlight.
Between meetings, the intersection and lively interchange of horse folks from across the country was enlightening as we all shared tidbits of our horse backgrounds, journeys and connections. Where else would you find yourself in casual conversation with a multi-Olympic medalist rider, world class judges or FEI veterinarians and stewards who’ve traveled the horse worlds, literally? They all offer great wisdom to share and have tales to tell.

As a first-timer, I had ho-hum expectations attending the 2011 USEF convention held in Lexington, KY. I’m not a fan of climate-controlled hotel living for days on end. Just scanning the lengthy roster of meetings made me glaze over. The number of “Closed Meetings” made it sound Oz-like. The back to back scheduled award dinners and lunches looked excessive. After straggling in a day late from snow storms, I was pleasantly surprised that my friendly encounter with a USEF participant on the airport shuttle carried over to everyone I met over the next three days in the elevators, at breakfast or the computer room, at random lunch tables and (not surprisingly) the bar. Everyone I bumped into just walking around the hotel had an enthusiastic attitude.

“We’re our own affiliate!” a Connemara fan told me with pride as the former joint Welsh-Connemara group this year formed their own herd committees.

Behind the Scenes
Sitting in on meetings, I gained a more appreciative view from the inside out. How rules, events and policies from the intricate, nagging details of show management are decided, the bigger issues of safety and fairness up to the grander vision of what does USEF mean to it’s members and the non-horse public. “What I don't think people realize, is that all the committee members and directors work very hard and give up lots of time and effort for the good of our sport, and pay to do this out of their own pockets!! These are a very dedicated, genuine group of people who care about our horses and the governance of the sport!” said respected R judge, Julie Winkel, who has served on numerous committees over the years.
“The biggest notable difference in this convention was the relatively small number of hunter/jumper people in attendance, compared to past years. I feel this is due to the USHJA having accomplished it's goal by holding their convention a month earlier, hearing the voices and wishes of their members and then coming to the annual meeting of USEF knowing how to vote on the rule changes,” observed Winkel.

I had the privilege of witnessing the formation of the new para-dressage technical committee. Topics outlined included: choosing members, how to bridge grass root programs and riders to high performance opportunities. clarifying FEI rule translations, linking USEF rules to Dressage rules for Para-equestrian, getting equivalency tests to Dressage committees and judges, choosing dates/venues/prizes for national para-championships.

More mind-boggling is that with 90,000 members, USEF’s regulates and legislates nine national disciplines, eight international disciplines, 11 breed affiliates and 120 associated affiliates. Internet use has certainly improved access as USEF’s website is blessedly easier to navigate now than in the past but the convention provides a chance to see and meet the faces behind the more anonymous working of a complex administration.

Selling the Sport
The Marketing Committee’s concern focused on how to make horse sport relevant to a wider audience. An interesting point mentioned is that horse events stir “sporadic” interest. The loss of glamour and media centrality of holding the National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden in New York City was raised. But today, many more big events compete for attention and the competitive horse world has grown far beyond the Northeast corridor.
“What is our message?” asked David O’Conner. “What products or services are we offering to members, sponsors, media and general public?”

To emulate the European sponsor’s support is a more daunting challenge in our larger geography together with the sheer diversity of horse pursuits. The Alltech/WEG being one exception, Rolex being another loyal sponsor, media is a key component.

A bright spot is the recent launch of the USEFnetwork.com that uses streaming technology to broadcast live events. Full WEG coverage boosted visibility of vaulting, reining, endurance and para-dressage to much larger audience. Member enjoy front row view without commercials!

To attract the marketing success of tennis or NASCAR, there is no other sport like ours that encompasses such variety. With our many subcultures of breeds and disciplines, promoting everything equestrian was deemed too broad a message.
Suggestions included defining a strategy with written goals, creative and pro-active PR for crossover appeal and mainstream coverage. Why aren’t horse sports regularly covered in Sports Illustrated or ESPN? Focus on showcasing the elite athletes, combined with narrative appeal of the horse and rider stories needs to be cultivated.

Though USEF operates primarily as a regulartory body, it must grow and promote interest in the sport, especially the next generation.

Diversity is Strength
Seeing so many well known horse people struck me that this gathering concentrated an enormous wealth of knowledge and activity from so many factions of horse world brought so many talents and resources to the table.
In a few hours, I had conversed with pony breeders, event riders, Friesian aficionados, an FEI veterinarian, equine journalists, carriage drivers and Shetland lovers. There are so many avenues to horses. One horsewoman described the six-hitch mule team she and her husband use to bring hay out to feed elk in Idaho.

I met a show manager from California, Laurie Daniel-Smith owner of eqentries.com whose barn’s dressage trainer is married to a cowboy. “All our dressage horses have to get used to the mechanical bull that zings back and forth, live cows and sliding stops in the ring timed to intersect the open side of our 20-meter circles,” said Laurie matter-of-factly.

I spoke with Lynn Coakley, president of The Equus Foundation, who sponsored the Humanitarian Award bestowed on Robert Cacchione, who single-handedly launched the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association (IHSA) program that has grown from five colleges with a few riders in 1966 to 370 colleges and universities with 8,700-plus riders today. It’s astonishing to look back and see what one individual’s efforts can accomplish!

The trophy sponsor proved a perfect fit. The Equus Foundation, formed a scant five years ago, runs events like Equestrian Idol in Wellington, which taps rider’s stage talents and enlists high-profile riders for a popular pony game contest to raise money to fund programs such as City-to-Saddle, a non-profit in my home state Massachusetts. City to Saddle gives inner city or disadvantaged children the chance to experience horses and riding. A director of mental health services for children told me her kids have been “forever changed” by their exposure to the horses.

Meaning of Awards
Sequin jackets and several tasteful gowns stood out in the otherwise modestly clad crowd drinking and chatting before the Pegasus Awards dinner. My fears of a stuffy evening soon evaporated. Although, I think over-emphasis on points and awards can lead people to push their horses too hard in competition, the USEF banquets highlighted the best attributes of our sport.

From a young boy beaming in his first tuxedo, picking up a trophy for “Rocker,” his Welsh small pony pleasure champion and the 12-year old pilot of CH Sprinkles, a flashy pinto five-gaited Horse of the Year nominee, to Don Harris accepting the requisite silver cowboy hat for Lifetime Achievement to the many posthumous awards, it illustrated the vast age span and bridge of knowledge in our sport.

Enhanced by video clips, speeches ranged from funny to touching. Using USEF archival notes, the son of a three-time Olympic event rider pieced together his father’s history and sketched the vivid scene of the rider waiting endlessly for a bus in Rome, sweltering in “full regalia,” tall boots, red wool coat, velvet cap who ends up procuring a bicycle for a mad “Tour de France” dash to the stadium just in time to mount his horse and get on course.

Articulate teenager, Kelsey Kimbler, who completed five 100-mile endurance races in one year, including the rugged Tevis Cup, won both the USEF Junior Equestrian of the Year and the USEF Youth Sportsman's Award, sponsored by Breyer Animal Creations. She credited her horses for every step in a very poised and thoughtful speech.

As did Sarah Willeman, a former equitation champion, whose crossover to reining opened a new path to enjoy horses and competition after injury. Her champion, Gunners Special Nite, named Horse of the Year for his flawless gold-medal wins at the WEG, had in turn reversed the fortunes of his humble trainer, Tom McCutcheon, recognized as a consummate horseman with Horseman of the Year award the following night.

So the table lined with shining silver trophies and heartfelt speeches, however long or brief, won me over. Having the different disciplines honored on the one stage unite all horsemen and women. Awards acknowledge a high standard but winning is like period at the end of a sentence. The captivating parts of the night were the personalities, the revealing stories, the examples of lifetime journeys.

“Being called a legend is better than the alternative,” said one famous rider.

USEF preserves the collective history, the legacy from past to present. It keeps some traditions intact within a modern culture. It honors accomplishments, moments in time, and memorable characters, both people and horses.

A Sport Like No Other
This USEF meeting impressed me with the breadth of experience and sharing spirit.
Whether you ride, drive, jump, spin, gait, vault on and off a horse, breed, train, write, photograph, coach, scribe,the view from the inside can alter your perception of how and why things are done. It’s also an up close reminder of the diversity of horse sport. And it’s fun, everyone was approachable.

Sitting at home, leafing through magazines, I sometimes feel far away from the glitz of big shows or events, the fancy horses, the top gun trainers but we all share the same religion. We are all connected by the magnetic pull of horses. I encourage anyone to attend any of the annual conventions, as a refreshing eye opener and a way to actively participate.

Check out Holly's recent profile in Subaru's the Owner in the Spotlight.


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