A desire to avoid “complications” in running shows at their Ohio and Florida World Equestrian Center facilities is the reason the Roberts family switched its hunter/jumper governance to the National Snaffle Bit Association from the U.S. Equestrian Federation for the rest of the year.

The word last week via press release that the 2021 USEF shows were being dropped at the two sites startled the industry.

“Disappointed” by the switch, USEF CEO Bill Moroney stated, “We understand this surprising decision also disappoints USEF members who made plans to participate in the announced and promoted USEF competitions this spring/summer/fall, but now must adjust plans.”

“We will be taking the dates off the USEF calendar in accordance with their (WEC’s) press release. These dates will then become available to other organizers. USEF has acted in good faith, in accordance with our mutual agreement with WEC, and consistent with USEF rules for all organizers.”

Half of WEC Ocala’s series of 10 summer shows were going to be USEF licensed, the other half, NSBA. Under that concept, however, said Roby Roberts, “it’s hard to have circuit champions.

“For 2021, we’re keeping it simple. USEF is like a giant ship; it takes forever to turn around. We maneuver a lot quicker than they do.”

The announcement came on the heels of USEF going through its calendaring process before deciding whether WEC could run a “Devon concept” competition in Ohio on the Devon Horse Show dates for those who had qualified for the cancelled Pennsylvania show. A much faster decision was needed in order to make it happen, in Roby’s view, but he said being unable to pursue that plan was not the reason for the change to NSBA.

“For 2021, we’re keeping it simple,” he explained. “USEF is like a giant ship; it takes forever to turn around. We maneuver a lot quicker than they do.”

The fact that Covid remains an issue and shows such as Devon are still being cancelled in North America means his organization must be nimble in making changes as necessary when conditions change quickly due to pandemic restrictions, he believes.

“It’s a crazy year. So we want to be able to have horse shows this year and not have any roadblocks. There is, I think, confusion within the USEF; it’s hard to get things done,” Roby contended. “With NSBA, it’s been very easy to get things done.”

The decision to go exclusively with NSBA is only for 2021, he noted. However, answering a question from HorseSport.com about whether WEC could be granted USEF licenses for next year, Bill’s response was, “The removal of the WEC dates from the calendar is for 2021. It has not yet been determined how their actions will affect future requests for USEF dates.”

Asked about the status of WEC’s remaining dressage shows for the year including Longines FEI World Cup qualifiers, Bill said, “The USEF dressage dates currently on the calendar will remain there.”

USEF and WEC have traveled a bumpy road since last November, when WEC wanted to run a Winter Spectacular Series that would have both NSBA and USEF shows. WEC came up with that arrangement after the national governing body didn’t give the organizer licenses for the number of shows it wanted during the 2021 opening season of its lavish new facility that has a four-star hotel, restaurants, permanent bathrooms, more rings than any other equestrian facility in the U.S., a stadium and four climate-controlled indoor arenas.

When WEC brought NSBA into the series, USEF withdrew the licenses it had awarded. In a letter sent to USEF members at the time, Bill stated that combining USEF and NSBA shows in the same 12-week series “is confusing to participants…”

FEI classes can only be held at USEF shows, and a question arising before the Winter Spectacular was whether FEI riders, officials, horses and owners could be kept from competing at FEI fixtures as a result of participating in the NSBA shows. The FEI did not impose that punishment during the Spectacular.

USEF did note that if an outside organizer rents the WEC facility, that manager can apply for USEF and FEI recognition.

Asked if it could be invoked at the NSBA shows this year, Bill replied that he has not had an opportunity to discuss WEC’s decision with the FEI.

Roby noted, however, that for so many trainers struggling to make ends meet, “they need every venue they can [have]. To take a facility like ours away, a place they can come and ride and make a living for themselves, I think it would be a shame for them and hard to justify.”

USEF did note that if an outside organizer rents the WEC facility, that manager can apply for USEF and FEI recognition.

Discussing the decision to go with NSBA, Roby cited “the ease our customers want with just having one option for the 2021 season. We have our indoor series in October. With USEF, there’s a question what can happen this October. With NSBA, there’s a slight question, because you never know what’s going to happen, but it’s going to be lot more of a `yes’ than a `no.’ We’re going with the way we know it’s the least likely to be cancelled and the least amount of gridlock.”

He added that exhibitor preference weighed in on making the change.

“I think above 90 percent of our customers all wanted NSBA,” he said, citing evidence on social media, calls and letters. NSBA gained 3,500 new members during the Spectacular. It’s making headway with other shows, too. The Saratoga, NY, series, for instance, is running under USEF rules, but offering NSBA points for that group’s championships, though under this arrangement, NSBA is not the licensing/sanctioning body of the event.

While continuing to discuss why he switched to NSBA for this year, Roby said, “I don’t agree with a lot of USEF decisions, but it didn’t have to do with this move. It’s more to do with where we’re at in the world and where we’re at in the horse show world and what’s best for our customers at this point.”

When Devon was cancelled, WEC was willing to spend $500,000 to put on a replacement Devon concept show in Ohio, complete with a carnival and country fair in the style of Devon, so kids in their last year of showing ponies or riding as a junior would have a chance to compete at something modeled after the USEF Heritage show.

But the time frame for necessary USEF approval didn’t work for WEC.

“Basically, we were told at first there was a possibility of getting licensing through the presidential modification process. Then we were told that they couldn’t do a `pres mod,’ we’d have to go through the mileage exemption (process) and when you go through all that, it takes you up to 15 days before the horse show,” said Roby.

“That is when we would possibly get a yes or a no, and you can’t plan a Devon-type invitational horse show in 15 or 20 days or whatever it was.”

WEC went back to requesting a pres mod so there would be enough time to plan. USEF rejection of that initiative led to cancellation of the concept.

Roby said it couldn’t be run under NSBA because it involved USEF points for qualifying. “If they don’t want that for their members, then I can’t force that upon them. I think they missed the opportunity with Devon,” he commented.

Devon’s CEO said earlier this month before cancelling his show that it needed to run with a certain number of spectators to make it cost-effective, and USEF didn’t specify whether spectators could attend, or how many; only that it was “optimistic” that in mid-May it could lift its Covid protocol barring fans to allow a limited number at the show. The time frame didn’t work for Devon.

“If I ran my business that way I don’t think I’d be in the trucking business,” said WEC owner Roby Roberts. (Nancy Jaffer photo)

USEF reported that after receiving WEC’s application for a Special Competition license on the Devon dates, the federation found it did not meet the criteria under USEF rules. USEF told the WEC team they could file a modification to their existing competition license and request the higher ratings and levels necessary for the Devon Concept Show, but doing so would result in the need for a mileage exemption due to the existence of other competitions in the surrounding area that would be impacted.

“The mileage exemption process can take up to 10-14 days, but possibly less, because it is designed, in all fairness, to provide sufficient opportunities for potentially affected parties to respond to the request,” Bill stated, noting the process was recently streamlined and had the chance of being expedited.

“However,” he added, “it is simply not possible to achieve an instant approval” from the USEF board or CEO as the…request must go through the streamlined review process.”

Said Roby, “We just walked away from it. We’ve always said USEF is our friend; [we] sponsored meetings, some flagship shows. We’re pro-USEF; we’re not pro the gridlock in the decisions…and how long it takes to do things. It makes no sense to me.

“If I ran my business that way I don’t think…I’d be in the trucking business. That doesn’t mean we won’t be there to help them. It doesn’t mean we won’t have USEF shows in the future. It’s not us against them. It’s not NSBA them against them. I think there has to be room for multiple organizations and shows.”