The U.S. Equestrian Federation is working on how to deal with the new World Equestrian Center’s surprising announcement that 10 of its 12 winter 2021 shows will be held under the auspices of an organization unfamiliar to most in the high-end hunter/jumper world.

While two January shows are listed by the Roberts family’s WEC in Ocala, Florida, as having USEF licensing pending, the others are being recognized by the National Snaffle Bit Association. At this point, NSBA has been known primarily for dealing with pleasure horses, including color breeds and Quarter Horses, but the inability for WEC to secure dates through the USEF offers an opportunity to lure a new community to the organization.

The WEC’s NSBA shows include one offering a $250,000 grand prix that runs in the same March time frame as the $1 million grand prix slated for the HITS showgrounds eight miles away.

The USEF has a mileage rule designed to give protection to its existing licensed shows from other competitions nearby, though there can be exceptions. The FEI has approved having WEC host the USA’s only qualifier for the Nations Cup Final, though it cannot go forward March 16-21 without approval from USEF, which has not been received at this time.

Will Riders and Officials at WEC be Suspended by USEF?

The opening of the lavish WEC facility, with its impressive stadium, multiple climate-controlled indoor arenas, a 5-star hotel and shops, has been eagerly awaited. So it was a shock to find that most of its winter hunter/jumper shows will not be USEF licensed.

WEC has international spring dressage shows scheduled for April, October and December, and an eventing competition in October approved by USEF, but lack of USEF licensing for its “Winter Spectacular” offerings raises numerous questions, particularly since the USEF show calendar for Florida is especially crowded.

For riders and officials, the concern about involvement in WEC shows not licensed by USEF is whether they would be suspended, should the USEF invoke a provision in the FEI rules that would enable it to do so. That is just one of many issues the WEC shows’ involvement with NSBA has raised. What will happen to the Nations’ Cup is another, but USEF has no answers as yet, with much discussion going on behind the scenes.

Will Connell, the USEF’s director of sport, said, “We are aware of the recently published WEC guide (to their shows) and we’re in the process of analyzing it. Until that process is complete we can’t comment.”

HITS impresario Tom Struzzieri, who said he had never heard of the Snaffle Bit Association, commented about WEC, “I’ll be curious to see what happens when the family decides that show jumping is not something they want to do anymore and those who make a commitment to that facility will be hung out to dry. We’ve seen it happen in our sport many times.”

He added, “We just keep marching on, doing our thing. I think the federation (USEF) drank a bit of the Kool Aid and gave them a couple of dates and I think they’re realizing now what a huge mistake that was.”

One of the pending USEF dates at WEC conflicts with a January show at HITS. Tom added, “I think like everything else, this will find its own level soon enough. Our entries look strong.”

The Roberts family also owns a facility in Ohio which has 32 USEF shows annually. No indoor shows are being held at the Ohio venue this winter because of Covid concerns. USEF did not approve transferring those licenses to Florida for 2021. A spokesperson for WEC said Roby Roberts who heads up the team at WEC, has asked that his interview with about the USEF situation not be printed at this time because “the story is developing.”

For riders and officials, the concern about involvement in WEC shows not licensed by USEF is if they would be suspended should the USEF invoke a provision in the FEI rules that would enable it to do so should they take part.

Asked whether he would compete at WEC, Devin Ryan, a member of the U.S. gold medal show jumping team at the 2018 World Equestrian Games said, “If the FEI comes out and says, `Yes, they are sanctioned, the Snaffle Bit (shows), I would show up for some of the national shows there. They have a lot of good prize money. If the hunter people want to get hunter points (for Horse of the Year or to qualify for other shows), they are going to have to go to Tom’s (HITS). If they (WEC) have hunter derbies, people are going to go there for the prize money.”

Devin, who is hoping to be part of the Olympic team next year, said, “Non-FEI riders, for sure they’re going to show up and show there, but until they (say) we (FEI riders) can show there, I’m not going to be able to, unless it’s an FEI event.”

Meanwhile, the WEC situation is opening new doors for NSBA. A recent entry on its website states it “is proud to welcome the Hunter Jumper community to the family of horse shows sanctioned by NSBA.”

As WEC is about to open, NSBA rules for the hunter/jumper division are being finalized and will be available online in December. In the meantime, the NSBA Official Handbook is available online. According to Jon Garner, the former sport director of Equestrian Canada who worked with a group to write the hunter/jumper rules, “It’s nothing too ground-breaking. It’s really straightforward.”

Stephanie Lynn, the NSBA’s executive director, said the organization has always had classes for hunters and jumpers. Two years ago, NSBA opened up its registration to horses that were not registered with one of the NSBA breed alliance partners opening the doors for horses of all breeds to compete in NSBA events.

“NSBA has a long history with the Roberts family,” she commented. “Some of the biggest pleasure horse shows in the country are held at the World Equestrian Center in Wilmington, Ohio and have been for decades. They have been instrumental in the pleasure horse industry providing a venue for horsemen to showcase their horses.”

“I know the Roberts had many things to consider when they were looking for an organization to sanction their horse shows. We are very grateful and appreciative of the relationship we’ve had with them.

“We currently sanction over 500 shows a year, so it was an easy blend for us to look at sanctioning hunter jumper shows. The governance is in place to provide standardized rules for hunter jumper show managers to use to sanction their horse shows. NSBA’s mission is to grow the show horse community, to be an association of inclusion. Sanctioning hunter jumper shows helps NSBA achieve its mission and broadens the experience for exhibitors.”

She noted that in showing, there can be a disparity between the lower and upper levels without having “an in-between step. So I think we’ve identified that as someplace we can help the industry.” Stephanie added the purpose has always been “to promote better training methods and kinder training methods for the horse.”

A Level Playing Field

NSBA has its equine drug testing done by the University of Kentucky laboratory that also handles the USEF’s testing. Like USEF, the organization has its own disciplinary procedure for cheaters.

Having a sanctioning organization for a show series means those who violate rules of sportsmanship or humane treatment of animals can be disciplined, and insures a level playing field for those who compete.
Word that NSBA will be involved with WEC already has piqued interest in those who are hearing about it. NSBA lifetime registration costs $35 per horse. Membership is $65 annually.

Could development of the new NSBA hunter/jumper rulebook open the door to more shows unable to get a USEF license looking into joining up with NSBA instead?

There have been a number of show managers over the years who felt innovation was stifled by the USEF’s 45-year-old mileage rule that has been amended periodically. With Covid having cancelled so many shows and changed everything in 2020, it may be possible to take another look at the status-quo and talk about the way dates are allocated.
In 2015, the USEF began issuing competition licenses for one year, rather than three years, and offering more flexibility on show dates, including special competition status for such events as Olympic trials and national championships.

The USEF is the National Governing Body (NGB) for equestrian, appointed in 2004 by the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee under the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act passed by Congress. The act mandates that an NGB must regulate a calendar of events while protecting “the opportunity of any amateur athlete, coach, trainer, manager, administrator, or official to participate in amateur athletic competition.”

All those who aspire to take part in the Olympics, Paralympics, Pan American Games and other such competitions must belong to the NGB for their sport and abide by its rules.

Although some might wonder why those seeking more USEF dates over the years haven’t raised an anti-trust question, USEF has been successful in defending against such lawsuits.

In the 2006 case of JES Properties vs USEF, for instance, which involved the plaintiff’s contention that they lost business because they could not schedule competitions, the 11th Circuit ruled that “when properly exercised, the ‘monolithic control’ an NGB has over its particular sport may excuse actions that would otherwise violate antitrust laws.”