Op Ed On USEF Annual meeting

By Sissy Wickes

An open stage with blue velvet backdrop, flashing strobe lights, and “Uptown Funk” blasting through the speakers. I did not know if I was at the USEF Annual Meeting or if LeBron James might trot out.

No, not LeBron, but President Murray Kessler appeared onstage to present the newly minted US Equestrian. For two hours, Kessler presented a revamped five year Strategic Plan for the one hundred year old U.S. National Governing Body of Equestrian Sport. Cohesive, comprehensive, collaborative, the plan outlines a multi-point strategy aimed toward membership growth, communication and technology improvement, streamlining of committee structure within the Federation, and an improved relationship with its constituency.

“I have to belong becomes I want to belong,” encompasses the basic tenet of the plan. USEF plans to increase the value proposition of membership. For the same annual membership fee of $55, Kessler plans to give USEF members more bang for their buck. A glance at the new usef.org website is the first glimpse of change. New logo and marketing tools, increased ease of consumer use, quality educational content. It looks different, it works better, it lets me virtually walk a course with McLain Ward or learn how to ride a better shoulder-in with Laura Graves. I can register my horse, track points, and watch the entirety of Pony Finals. Too expensive?

USEF is the mandated National Governing Body of Olympic Sport. The Federation is required to follow the rules of the International Olympic Committee and the FEI in fielding teams for the Olympic Games, World Equestrian Games, World Cup Finals, Pan American Games, etc. In 2016, the USEF processed 6000 FEI applications and presided over 148 FEI events in the U.S. In the Rio Olympic Games, the U.S. was one of two countries to medal in all three Olympic equestrian disciplines. Still too expensive?

There are 2500 USEF recognized competitions in the U.S. every year. 2500 shows to register, track results, evaluate compliance. Since quality standard rules were put in effect, there have been zero violations. Zero. Are all of the shows in compliance? No. Has it been beyond the reach of USEF to pursue violators? Yes. To address this shortcoming, USEF established a Compliance Department. As Chief Compliance Officer, Matt Fine is smart, energetic, and ready to oversee compliance to competition standards, investigate reports of violations, and monitor internal policy and procedure protocol. Expensive?

The new US Equestrian logo eliminated the shield, the symbol of belligerence or defense.  The USEF no longer wants to be just an enforcer, the cop who pulls you over when you have done nothing wrong. Make no mistake, the current administration is very serious about clean sport. Medication violations will be vigorously prosecuted (as we have seen in the last few weeks). There will be more testing at USEF events; there will be improved lab technology; there will be targeted testing. But, on the flip side of the coin  (and don’t smirk) USEF Drugs and Medications wants to improve the experience of the exhibitor. They will still collect an average of 18,000 testing samples per year, but they would like to improve the quality of interactions with members. The collectors will be better trained and the process streamlined. If you get one of the dreaded letters in the mail informing you of a drug positive, you have options. Members may ask to test the “B” (or other half) of the sample to ensure no lab error. If again positive, the member will undergo a more individualized, improved hearing process. Rules will be enforced and penalties imposed, but the Hearing Committee will assess intent and prior infractions in its adjudication process. The system is imperfect, but evolving in a better direction. Medication violations are expensive for the accuser and the accused.

My affection for USEF has always wavered somewhere between the DMV and the IRS.  I am not a groupie or a sycophant. I am skeptical by nature. I have endured the embarrassment and personal cost of a cocaine positive in a horse. But, I departed Lexington- the power points, speeches, and trendy music- believing in the fact that the new regime at USEF is trying to promote equestrian sport and to improve governance. “Joy” is their new catch word; “transparency” and “integrity” are bantered about. As a community, we should support their efforts. As a sport, we need their promotion. As an industry, our success depends on it. Spend the emotional capital and join their efforts.

About the Author: Sissy is a Princeton University graduate, a lifelong rider and trainer, a USEF R rated judge, a freelance journalist and an autism advocate. Her illustrious resume includes extensive show hunter and jumper experience. She lives with her family in Unionville, PA and Wellington, FL.

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