Is USEF Playing Games With Our Horse Shows?

Photo © Irene Elise Powlick

BY PIPER KLEMM, PH.D.

I’ve been thinking a lot about horse shows lately, specifically “The Devon Horse Show that wasn’t,” 2021 edition. These thoughts, shared in this article, are entirely conjecture based on my evaluation of the situation while sitting at home. When it comes to USEF and USHJA, I’m just a member. But I’m a member who asks a lot of questions. I’m a member that’s in constant contact with them for clarification and accountability. 

I have no knowledge of the inner workings of the organization. When it comes to Devon in particular, I’m an occasional competitor in classes that don’t require qualifying. But here is what I know:

  • I read every email from USEF
  • I know as much about how the organization function as any regular member can.
  • I understand game theory.

When I think about the cancellation of Devon 2021 through the lens of game theory, the actions of the governing body (referred to as “USEF” for the remainder of this article) and the horse show management (referred to as “Devon” for the remainder of this article) begin to make sense—and open the door for future solutions. Let me explain.

USEF and Devon are effectively the players in a game. Each is attempting to achieve the best outcome for themselves. In game theory, a Nash Equilibrium (yes that John Nash) exists when neither player can improve their outcome by changing their strategy. The players will continue to change their strategies to improve their outcomes until they can make no more improvements—even if the place both players wind up in is one they’d rather not be.

Prior to the pandemic, we were at equilibrium, meaning that both sides wanted the same thing. USEF wanted Devon to be a sanctioned horse show to make money. On the other side, Devon wanted to be a sanctioned horse show to make money. Running rated shows is a cooperative game between organizations and show holders. 

The Stag Hunt in game theory is a great analogy for what happens frequently in negotiation. If two hunters go out together, they can successfully hunt larger game (a stag) than by hunting separately (when they could only catch a hare on their own.) Sure, they each only get half of the stag, but half of a stag is much greater than a couple of rabbits. The hunters are incentivized to work together unless something occurs to change the game and upset that equilibrium.

The pandemic has disrupted equilibria for all businesses and industries. Both Devon and USEF have been disturbed. The disruption caused Devon 2020 to be cancelled, a decision that, while regrettable, both organizations believed to be the best course of action. 

A year later for Devon 2021, the equilibrium has still not been reestablished. Both parties came to the table hoping that Devon will run in 2021. USEF hoped to generate revenue from the fees collected when the show runs, plus an increase in memberships, livestream sponsorships and commercials. Devon was motivated to run to prevent a two year gap in their audience and calendar, as well as to run a profitable horse show and country fair for the benefit of Bryn Mawr Hospital. 

But in spite of both parties being incentivized to make Devon happen, Devon has been cancelled for 2021. What does this have to do with game theory? Looking at it through that lens, we can understand what might have happened and how USEF can better approach similar situations in the future and bring home a big “stag” for all parties involved.

In our real-world example, the “game” is the horse show. The initial choice was to run Devon or not. Based on 2020, Devon could improve their outcome by choosing to run in 2021. The other “hunter,” USEF, could improve their outcome by supporting the show running in 2021. 

If USEF wanted to improve their own outcome (same profit, lower risk), they could allow Devon to run without spectators. Running without spectators would allow USEF to take all of the money they usually do from Devon while greatly limiting their risk or responsibility. 

But running the show without spectators would not improve Devon’s outcome. For them, it would mean running the show at a loss—a worse outcome than cancelling in 2020. Their logical move was to request a spectator allowance. Requesting this allowance in advance gave time to implement rules and physical construction on the grounds. USEF was given a date by which action was needed on their part. 

The hunt was on, but the hunters weren’t in sync. Devon needed the allowance to run the event in 2021, but USEF did not grant it. In a game, players don’t generally change strategy unless it improves their outcome. It would seem USEF had nothing to gain by making allowances to Devon. From where I watched, an ordinary member who asks a lot of questions, USEF failed to make any compromises. Devon’s hand was forced. The stag got away.

When Devon cancelled, they made a decision that worsened USEF’s outcome as well. Instead of bringing down a stag together, the parties were left with nothing. USEF and Devon appear to now be stuck in Nash equilibrium, to the detriment of both parties and their constituents. The only way out would be for both sides to change the game and strategies at the same time—possible only with communication and cooperation.

Should Devon happen this year? I don’t know. It’s not my call. Plus, the decision is done. It’s not happening.

But the decision-making process reveals structural issues that I believe stem from USEF’s highly-paid leaders being unable to play collaborative games. 

They missed the boat on Devon, where both parties came in with the same goal. They missed the boat multiple times on incentivizing the World Equestrian Center, where both parties came in with the same goal. It feels like my membership offers me not much more than an organization that routinely and consistently failed to make people feel included enough to spend their hard-earned money in our sport. 

We need to demand more from our leadership.

Further reading and education: 

  • Listen to Jennifer Burger discuss The Devon Horse Show on the #Plaidcast here

About the Author: Piper began her tenure as the Publisher of The Plaid Horse Magazine in 2014. She received her B.S. with Honors in Chemistry from Trinity College [Hartford, CT] in 2009 and her Ph.D. in Chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley in 2012. She is an active member of the hunter/jumper community, owning a fleet of lease ponies and showing in adult hunter divisions.
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