The first national equestrian federation annual meeting that I attended was in 1980. Held at New York City’s historic Waldorf Astoria hotel, it projected a sense of entitlement in quite a different era.

The organization was called the American Horse Shows Association then, the key players were horse show managers and the aura was old money, prestige and privilege.

Cecile Dunn, 84, goes back even further, An Arabian and Friesian committee member who was on hand at the USEF convention in West Palm Beach last week, she went to her first AHSA convention in the late 1950s (she isn’t quite sure of the year) at the posh Breakers hotel in Palm Beach.

“I thought I was in fairyland,” she said, recalling how her eyes lit up when seeing the jewels and sparkling floor-length gowns worn at the social events that once were such a key part of the convention.

Those were the days when it was “100 percent” about who you knew, she recalled. For instance: After a saddlebred trainer for whom she worked wanted her to judge a horse show, he simply called a friend at the AHSA office and asked that Cecile be given a judge’s card–even though she had no training in that area.

The only question asked was whether she was 21. When her age was confirmed, Cecile got her card.

Those days, happily, are long gone, and the sport is the better for it, of course. USEF, which took over in 2003 from the AHSA and its brief successor, USA Equestrian, is run like a corporation. Leadership is professional; so is staff, as the organization makes its way in a sophisticated world of equestrian sport that could never have been dreamed of by the AHSA’s long-ago leaders.

While USEF has developed and grown since its inception, Murray Kessler, a corporate CEO, was a game-changer when he came aboard as president in 2017. He turned the lights on, big time, as he continuously repeated his catch phrase about “bringing the joy of horse sport to as many people as possible” and the organization made it happen with a dramatic increase in membership.

The convention, which once was largely sleepytime as the endless rule changes droned on, now has a glossy patina. Most rule changes were discussed by affiliate organizations at their meetings last year and final action on all but a few will wait until the June mid-year meeting under a new approval process that should eliminate the mistakes that happened when rules were rushed through.

The presentation of the annual meeting’s general session “Focus on the Future” was pure show biz–rock music, lots of videos highlighting achievements of the year past and goals for the future, punctuated by Murray’s dynamic delivery as he addressed his audience. You couldn’t miss his message about how the sport is “resurging.”

“We started with stagnant, slightly declining membership,” said Murray, citing the way that number had hovered around 80,000 for years.

“We were being criticized, and it was viewed that USEF was just a place to get a license to be able to compete and serve no other purpose and had no other benefits. We took on the role saying we were going to change all of that.” Over the last three-and-a-half years, the federation grew to 187,000 members, with 45,387 joining in 2019 alone.

True, many are “fan members,” an innovation that opened the doors to get more people involved, even if they didn’t ride in USEF shows, with 77 percent being classified as grassroots. Some got the fan membership for free, others for a discount on what competing members would pay. But as Murray pointed out, numbers are power with sponsors. That helps with the sport end of things, especially this year, when involvement in the Tokyo Olympics is projected to be very expensive. As Murray noted, watching U.S. riders do well is inspirational and should attract even more members. The participation numbers already are impressive. In 2019, 81,967 horses competed at 2,300 USEF events.

Real achievements were highlighted, from a stronger balance sheet to moving the drug testing program to the University of Kentucky, eliminating the conflict of interest perception that came from having the USEF do the testing as well as doling out penalties for violations. Then there’s a new USEF headquarters at the Kentucky Horse Park, touted as saving $200,000 a year over the organization’s outdated original building.

A major benefit is availability of a new health insurance program that will be available Feb. 1. It will make a huge difference for equestrian operations that previously couldn’t offer benefits, and should move many employees from part-time to full-time status for those taking advantage of it.

The moribund Safety Committee has been scrapped in favor of a new panel on human and equine welfare, headed by USEF Secretary/Treasurer Tom O’Mara, a dynamo who could well be heading the organization at some point–especially if Murray doesn’t run again after his term expires this year. Asked if he’ll continue in his role, Murray still isn’t commenting.

A continuing project is the work of the Competition Task Force, which is examining the hunter increment system in an effort to insure that the most points go to the riders who win against the highest level of competition, rather than in classes offering the most money.

It also is examining calendar management (which shows run when), the concentration of competition licenses under the same management and rules involving competition licensing and evaluation. There has been much discussion about how many shows rated “Premier” really aren’t worthy of that designation.

USEF has owned up to the fact that rollout of its SafeSport program, designed to address sexual abuse, was done in haste and “caused a lot of anxiety, it happened so fast,” said CEO Bill Moroney. So a consulting firm was hired to develop a communications plan designed to dispel myths about the Congressionally mandated initiative. All competing members and officials are among those required to pass an online SafeSport test.

Unable to reach agreements with affiliates in endurance and driving, USEF is building programs of its own in those disciplines. And get ready for trainer certification. USEF Director of Sport Will Connell believes it’s inevitable, and thinks the day may come when states and insurance companies demand that, so it’s time to get ahead of it, he warned.

As always, recognition of excellence played a big role in the annual meeting. Western dressage advocate Ellen di Bella was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award, while West Coast hunter rider Nick Haness took the National Equestrian of the Year Honors and hunter El Primero was National Horse of the Year. Five-time International Equestrian of the Year Beezie Madden not only won that title again, but also collected the International Horse of the Year trophy for the Dutch Warmblood stallion Darry Lou, on whom she won the world’s richest grand prix, the $3 million CP International, last September.

~ Nancy Jaffer