Is the new World Equestrian in Ocala, Florida, going to be a game-changer?

It sets quite a standard, with more rings than any other equestrian facility in the U.S., a stadium and four climate-controlled indoor arenas, as well as spacious stalls. There are a host of amenities, including restaurants, a full-service campground and a horse show luxury–conveniently located sparkling bathrooms. Exhibitors and visitors have been dazzled by the venue, which in April also will include a 5-star hotel, the perfect place to hold a reception after a wedding in the on-site chapel.

“All I heard was, ‘Isn’t this place amazing?’” reported Cheryl Olsten after her first visit to the venue this month.

The owner of hunter derby superstar Lafitte de Muze, who competes not only at WEC but also at HITS Ocala and the Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington, Cheryl said, “I would liken WEC to the Epcot Center (at Disney World). It’s an equestrian marvel to behold, they didn’t miss a beat.”

It might seem as if the 378-acre WEC complex, set in the midst of nearly 4,000 acres, is raising the bar for other shows. But while U.S. Equestrian Federation CEO Bill Moroney observed, “Not every show can be that show,” he added, “I think it’s great there are facilities like that. The reality is, you’re going to have facilities like that or facilities like WEF [Winter Equestrian Festival in Florida] or Traverse City [in Michigan], I hear they’re doing great things up there. You’ve got seven or eight big facilities happening around the country. Some of them are doing some pretty amazing things. I think there’s room for all different types of facilities and you need those in order to deliver all different types of products.”

NSBA Membership Surge

During its 12-week hunter/jumper show debut, which ended last weekend, WEC introduced a host of people to the 38-year-old National Snaffle Bit Association, the governing body for its Winter Spectacular series. The 15,000-member NSBA gained more than 3,500 new members due to WEC and has received queries from other hunter/jumper shows about becoming their governing body, according to NSBA Executive Director Stephanie Lynn.

“It’s a game changer for the industry and the organization,” maintains Amy Hassinger, former chairman of the NSBA Foundation.

Known as an organization catering to a variety of breeds, NSBA quickly put together its own specialized hunter/jumper rulebook when Roby Roberts, who oversees WEC in Florida and Ohio for his family, last year turned to NSBA after losing USEF recognition for his winter series.

NSBA’s involvement with the hunter/jumper industry was not planned. “It’s a happy accident that this occurred,” said Amy.

As NSBA was “being asked to stretch beyond their borders,” the sentiment was, “Can we do this right? We’re going to do it right or we’re not going to do it at all.

“They finally said, `This is a leap of faith, we know we can do it.’ ”

NSBA, she says, “almost reminds me of a co-op, in that it’s an organization of everyone–owners, parents, juniors, amateurs, professionals at all levels. It sanctions shows all over the world.” With a board that includes all of the above, as well as other interests, such as tack shop owners and veterinarians, NSBA has a finger on the pulse of the industry, she observed.

“The way NSBA conducts their business…is so member-forward; members drive the organization.”

NSBA isn’t a competitor to USEF in the view of Bill Moroney.

“I don’t think it’s a rival; I think it’s a different product,” he said.

Show Squabble

Last autumn, things weren’t so cordial when USEF rescinded several show licenses it had awarded to WEC because the Ocala facility was going to run the bulk of the Spectacular shows under the NSBA umbrella.

At that time, Bill stated in a letter to USEF members that having shows governed by two organizations in the same 12-week series was “confusing” and “jeopardizes horse and human safety and welfare.”

That dispute scuttled plans for an FEI (international equestrian federation) Nations Cup at WEC that would have been the only US qualifier for the Finals in Barcelona this fall.

USEF is constrained in awarding licenses by its mileage rule, designed to avoid conflicts between licensed shows in the same area, such as the HITS Ocala shows less than 10 miles from WEC. WEC had applied for recognition under the mileage exemption rule, but that couldn’t cover the whole series.

A key decision by the FEI not to impose sanctions on any elite jumper athletes, horses or officials participating at WEC under NSBA opened the door for the venue’s success at the highest levels. It seems there are plenty of competitors to go around.

Case in point: A total of 148 horses last weekend competed for $1.7 million in grands prix purses at WEC, HITS Ocala and the Winter Equestrian Festival, 239 road miles from Ocala.

Several people rode in more than one of last weekend’s classes; McLain Ward, for instance, finished fourth at both WEF and HITS. Aaron Vale, who won WEC’s Lugano Diamonds $200,000 grand prix last Saturday, also has been a big winner at HITS, where he competed last Sunday in the Great American Million.

“Having two venues gives us some options because you can’t ride eight in one grand prix,” said Aaron about the Ocala opportunities.

“Coming from Australia, where we’re lucky if we get four $10,000 grands prix a year, this is pretty bloody good,” commented two-time Australian show jumping champion David Cameron.

SafeSport Enforcement

USEF is equestrian sport’s National Governing Body under the aegis of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee as well as the FEI. NSBA, which has alliances with a number of breed and discipline organizations, uses the same Kentucky lab as USEF for equine drug testing and recognizes suspensions of participants issued by its affiliates and USEF. It does the same for SafeSport suspensions, but NSBA cannot report SafeSport issues to the agency because it is not the NGB.

“All participants within the auspices of SafeSport come through their affiliation with an NGB or the USOPC,” explained SafeSport spokesman Dan Hill.

“There wouldn’t be a team, club or person who falls under SafeSport if they don’t fall under an NGB or the USOPC. One practical reason for this is enforcement. The sanctions issued by the Center must be enforced by an entity within its jurisdiction.”

As a result, NSBA does not require competitors to undergo the SafeSport training that USEF competitors must take on line.

By the Numbers

Being a member of NSBA is less expensive than joining USEF for hunter/jumper/equitation riders. A USEF life membership is $2,500 ($1,500 for NSBA), while a one-year active membership in USEF is $80 ($65 for NSBA). USEF also has a fan (non-competing membership) for $25. Horse recordings are $95 annually ($35 for life for NSBA, although there is a transfer fee for change of ownership.)

USEF hunter/jumper/equitation riders must also join the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association for $85 to compete, with an option of $35 for those who don’t compete. In addition to the NSBA $35 youth/junior fee, it has a scholarship program for an additional $25 that pays out based on points accumulated when the riders turn 18. Its other payback programs include the Breeders Championship/Stallion Fund, in which points earn money.

For those who own competition horses worth six and seven figures, all that might be peanuts, but it can matter to riders on a budget or those looking for a financial incentive.
Meanwhile, USEF more than held its own in memberships over the last year despite the pandemic.

On March 26, it had 134,832 members, with 65,719 in the competing category and 69,113 in the fan category. The total was less a year earlier as the pandemic got under way, with 123,393 belonging, while there were a few more competing members (66,092) in 2020 than in 2021, but less fan members (57,301).

Roby guaranteed instant acceptance from potential WEC exhibitors by offering free stalls to everyone showing in the Spectacular. That helped boost the popularity of his shows, while making the series more affordable than competing at other venues during the winter, though there will not be free stalls going forward.

However, he said, “if we’re charged a little less from NSBA, we’re going to charge less. There will be some shows that will be equal, some shows more affordable.” FEI shows are more expensive “because we have to have different barns and more stewards,” he explained.

As Roby noted, “I think there’s room for everything, there’s room for all of us to grow. This has been an amazing experiment with NSBA, not knowing what to expect, but we’ve been sold out for the most part after the first few weeks.”

Sharing the Calendar

Even as WEC came on the scene, USEF had been considering new ways to handle its calendar, the mileage rule and the licensing of shows.

“It’s less about NSBA and WEC and more about feedback from our members and what they want and what opportunities they would like out there at all different levels,” said Bill Moroney of the effort.

He added, “The WEC/USEF winter situation made more members talk to us. It got more members to give feedback.

“The timing was coming anyway for USEF to look at its rules. People want horse shows closer to home because they’re more economical. How do we provide horse shows closer to home? These are questions that come up every few years. When managing the horse show calendar, put a note on the wall that constantly says `Look at it again.’ The world evolves and the migration patterns of competitions evolve and the need of competitors evolve. We need to always be looking at data that tell us, `What are the trends happening out there?’ ”

He spoke of the big picture issue that USEF deals with daily. “How do we make the sport more accessible? I don’t think there’s any particular catalyst for that, other than that you want to do the best for your membership all the time.”

WEC is hosting FEI dressage shows in April and October, but the multi-purpose venue has a wide variety of equestrian and non-horse events planned as well.

It seems like the perfect location, should the FEI decide to revive its World Equestrian Games, although Roby said he hasn’t been approached on that subject.

It’s early days still, but if a WEG does come to WEC, you can be sure it would be different than its predecessors. Remember, the NSBA-governed Spectacular was billed as, “A new way to go.”
After all, as Jon Garner, the Spectacular’s sport manager put it, “The Roberts are outside-of-the-box thinkers.”