The first time I went to the American Horse Shows Association’s convention in 1980, I found it to be a very staid affair (except for the parties.) It was held at the elegant but stuffy Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York City, where the podium was dominated by senior men (and a few older women.) Change definitely was not in the air; the object seemed to be to keep the status quo.

I wonder what those at the helm of the old AHSA would have thought had they attended last weekend’s annual meeting of the U.S. Equestrian Federation, a successor to their organization. The arduous business of rulemaking, which once occupied much time at the convention, has been deferred to another occasion, allowing for big-picture planning.

The energy level at the Naples, Fla., gathering was through the roof, with new programs and ideas buzzing around everywhere. Lively videos were featured during the meetings, showing off both what the organization had accomplished and hopes to do. Such slick promotion is designed as one element in reaching USEF President Tom O’Mara’s goal of a million members over the next few years.

USEF CEO Bill Moroney. (Photo © 2022 by Nancy Jaffer)

Noting that 27 million people sit on a horse every year, Tom mentioned the possibilities that presents, pointing out, “We’re totally about touching base with fans of horses. That’s our job.” CEO Bill Moroney emphasized, “We are fully committed to growth.”

The benefits of joining USEF were highlighted, from an array of insurance offerings to member perks of discounts at dozens of merchants, in addition to maintaining the core values of horse welfare, safety and fair play through judicious enforcement.

The current total of 200,000 who have joined USEF includes 85,000 competing members and 115,000 who opted for fan memberships, obtained either free or for a $25 fee. That seems to be just the beginning of expansion, however. What’s going on is a different way of thinking, beyond memberships and show licensing fees, to expand possibilities and horizons, along with revenue streams from new and repackaged products as horse sport strives for a wider base and insulation from market disruption.

“The innovation that we are pushing out as a board and what we want the sports to do is really important,” explained Joe Mattingly, a member of the USEF board and chairman of the International Disciplines Council.

“Our conversations moving forward are going to be more about the strategic initiatives of USEF and how all the sports can collaborate to meet those initiatives. Growing membership, growing product; how can we learn from each other to help meet that need, that’s the conversation we need to be having.”

He sees the importance of “a strategic focus of what we need to do next in order not to get left behind.”

As he pointed out, “We’re seeing the evolution of sport and we’re moving into that. So many new things are coming at us. How do we play in the sports arena … you’re going to have more and more things coming forward, similar to fantasy football and sports betting. All of that is going to have influence on equestrian sport.”

Joe Mattingley, chairman of the USEF’s International Disciplines Council. (Photo © 2022 by Nancy Jaffer)

Much was made of the fact that the USEF’s social media efforts had paid off in equestrian, ranking number one as the most engaged platform on Instagram for the Tokyo Olympics ahead of gymnastics, and offering more value for sponsors. Steffen Peters’ ride, Suppenkasper, went viral as “the rave horse” (as in dance party) after someone watching his dressage freestyle on the livestream had dubbed him that.

Attendance at the Florida meeting was less than it would have been in the old days, when the horse show schedule took a break after the fall indoor circuit and some people attended the convention just for a chance to socialize and see their friends. Of course, they didn’t have to cope with the Winter Equestrian Festival’s first week of competition or Covid, as concern about that (and weather-cancelled flights) kept a few regular attendees at home this time. But there was a sufficient number of people engaged, either in person or on the phone, for the serious business of governance, which has gotten so much more complicated than it was even a decade ago.

Scheduling of shows is always a prime topic. The mileage rule that kept licensed competitions from conflicting with each other has taken on a new dimension, as an arrangement to deal with the traffic jam of Florida shows during the year’s first trimester was deemed a success. California soon will be getting the same treatment with an eye toward affording more opportunities for exhibitors and easing the limits imposed by the peculiarities of that state’s geography.

The World Equestrian Center and Sonoma, Calif., Horse Park have gone from running under USEF licenses to using the National Snaffle Bit Association as their governing body, though an organizer from Sonoma was on a call about reorganizing the USEF calendar in the state next year.

There had been rumors about a new rule that could sanction or penalize FEI-level riders and officials who participate in non-USEF shows by barring them from USEF-licensed competitions for a period of time. However, Bill Moroney said there currently is nothing like that in the pipeline.

Meanwhile, Bill noted, he is happy to discuss USEF licensing and its benefits with any organizer who wants that conversation.

In other business:

  • There will be more athlete influence on the direction of the USEF, as athletes now will fill 33.3 percent of the seats on the board of directors, which has been expanded.
  • “Discover the joy of horse sports,” a slogan that debuted during the term of Tom’s predecessor, Murray Kessler, has been joined by a new motto, “Ride united. Grow together.”
  • As the USEF seeks a wider embrace of its world, it announced the USEF Opportunity Fund. That is designed to reach another level of participants by supporting organizations enabling people outside the federation’s traditional clientele to experience the benefits of interacting with horses. It will offer grants to 17 grassroots organizations that deal with under-represented communities, including veterans, low-income persons and those with disabilities.
  • The board heard a report about the Virginia Tech Helmet and Safety Initiative, to which USEF gave $450,000 in funding. By this fall. it should be able to offer star ratings that can guide consumers toward the headgear with the highest safety rating, instead of using guesswork to make their purchases.
  • An Eventing Elite Program Task Force that includes riders and horse owners was named last week to sort out a plan for the discipline after it was left in turmoil last month when performance director Erik Duvander’s contract was not renewed, and the discipline’s managing director was let go. Those on the panel include Olympic cross-country course designer Derek di Grazia and Aachen winner Will Coleman.
  • A five-point program to reinvigorate USEF’s endurance program is well under way, with the goal of having a structure for a USEF endurance affiliate by Dec.1. Art Priesz, the former chef d’equipe for endurance, has signed on to focus on fixing the sport. It is the second-biggest equestrian discipline, behind show jumping, but U.S. participation has lagged.
  • USA Reining has suspended its operations in the wake of the FEI dropping reining from its line-up of sports after failing to reach agreement with the National Reining Horse Association on how the discipline should be run. Both Joe and USEF Director of Sport Will Connell expressed regrets about no longer having the discipline as part of the USEF roster.