8 Things I Don’t Understand about USEF

Photo © Heather N. Photography

BY PIPER KLEMM, PH.D

I don’t hate USEF, but I don’t understand it either. This week, I’ve been looking at the organization through the lens of game theory when it comes to cancelling the Devon horse show and how they’ve handled WEC Ocala

Though I’m not afraid to be vocally critical of USEF’s shortcomings, there are things the organization does well. I appreciate the article on governance in the current issue of USEF magazine. I like that I can get my education verified on USEF’s website in my athlete portal. Even as a non-eventer, I think it’s great they got the Landrover Kentucky Three-Day Event to go this year. That was a boon for riders, athletes, and their businesses. I believe that there was no reason for Kentucky to run without spectators and it was good they were able to get it to go.*

On the other hand, there’s a lot I just don’t understand. It’s possible that there are perfectly reasonable explanations to the list I’ve compiled below—I certainly hope so. Keeping with this week’s narrative of examining USEF through game theory, it seems like it would be constructive to address these eight concerns. 

1. Why are licensed officials not held to standards of conduct “off the clock”?

You can’t say you support inclusivity and diversity initiatives in the sport and allow judges, stewards, or course designers to make racist remarks in their spare time. When hatred is spouted on social media, it has a nasty ripple effect creating division and perpetuating stereotypes. Such behaviors during a USEF event is certainly considered against a moral code of conduct so are we allowing individuals to let loose in their “spare time” and publicly share viewpoints that are inconsistent with the Federation’s messaging. Take in point this Facebook post, shared publicly, from a USEF judge, steward, and horse show manager: 

Okay, here is what is on my mind, specifically for my friends who are USEF members. I am fighting as hard as I can and…

Posted by Peggy Fackrell on Sunday, April 25, 2021

It is my belief that people in power and licensed by our National Governing Body should be held to a sort of higher standard. I’m not talking about what the rulebook may or may not say, but in actual practice. 

2. Why do minors own their own animals? 

Why does USEF allow children to “own” animals in their registry? Contracts with minors as signatories are not legally binding. As such, most contracts include a parent or guardian as a party. I’d venture that 99% of the “owned and ridden by” announcement does not actually reflect who is buying or leasing their own animals. If we know these deals are done by parents, guardians, sponsors, and business entities, why do we permit registration that reflects otherwise? Not only is it inconsistent with legally binding contracts, but it causes confusion when each animal’s show record is closely scrutinized when the horse or pony changes hands. 

In addition to consistency in contracts, there are moral and economic advantages to prohibiting minors from owning their animals in USEF’s database. If the parents are listed as owners, the parents will have to become members. Morally, requiring parents to be members of the Federation would require them to follow USEF code of conduct and guidelines, including SafeSport training and regulating their own behavior at horse shows (e.g. storming the judges’ box). Economically, requiring parents to be members would grow and enhance the member base to increase sponsorship and reputability of our sport, not to mention more income. A wider base of people already committed to our sport would allow them to charge each individual participant fewer fees for the same experience. 

3. Why can’t USEF double list shows with NSBA without a fight? 

This seems like a trick question, because they seemed to do it successfully at the Saratoga Horse Shows. So maybe refusing to double list WEC shows with NSBA and USEF is specifically punitive to the NSBA, who just may be the biggest investor in our sport’s history. 

Press release from Saratoga Horse Shows.

If you look at it rationally, USEF lists shows with hundreds of organizations every year from regional HJA to Equine Canada to FEI to PHA and many, many more. How is a double listed show with NSBA really any different than a KHJA / USEF show? 

4. Why do horse abuse fines/sanctions/bans seem to skip some riders and not others?

Why did Andy Kocher get banned from the sport for ten years for using electric shock devices, and yet Marilyn Little is still competing despite multiple photos showing bloody mouths on her horses and improper tack fitting/usage over the past several years. As recently as this past weekend at the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event, she is being lauded in press releases at the top of her sport. I’m all for being punitive, but if we’re being punitive, the punishments should apply equally and consistently to all riders. 

5. How come we can’t figure out how to fairly measure ponies?

This one is really mind-boggling. It’s 2021, we have robotic vacuums, phones that can find our friends, self-driving cars, yet ask the average competitor and they’re likely to have a horror story about the subjective hand-drawn markings for a pony measurement. We have all heard at least one story of blatant cheating regarding pony measurements and permanent measurement cards. At the very least, technology can assist in documentation and accuracy of such measurements. How hard is it to take photos of a measurement stick and reduce the margin of error that is evident in many stewards’ hand-drawn markings? Is the issue in USEF’s education and training of stewards? Is it a lack of accountability of the stewards to USEF and the members at large? Is it because horse shows still fire stewards who give them bad reviews? Or is this just a symptom of a larger question of why USEF isn’t doing more to ensure fair play by hiring and implementing judges and stewards at all licensed competitions?    

6. The amateur rules… what?! 

There is so much gray area when it comes to amateur status, and the members seem to be punished in the most arbitrary ways. The rules are so confusing. Whether you’re an amateur married to a professional or a hard-working amateur trying to manage their board or training bill. Amateurs are the backbone of the sport and by ruling with a stick and not a carrot, USEF is pricing many amateurs out of the sport. The rising costs of competitions and membership dues while also prohibiting amateurs from tactics professionals utilize every day to make the sport more affordable, hurts the sport as a whole. There is no reason amateur rules can’t be revised in the current context of the sport  (social media, sponsorships, horse related businesses, trading) to be clear and organized and easy to understand.

Unfortunately, this sport will never be completely “fair.” It is not fair that I was not graced with natural talent. It is not fair that many capable riders cannot afford a suitable horse.But, I can and do follow all rules in front of me. I want to focus my time and my energy on horses, not the intricacies of what does or doesn’t make an amateur. 

7. Why do they even bother to record the owner of any horse if it has nothing to do with actual legal ownership? 

Is it just to charge money when the horse is transferred? To create paperwork for owners, trainers, and themselves? Why bother having that as part of the listing if USEF is not a registry?

When you sign a horse recording form, this is the language: “By signing above, I acknowledge that the Federation is not a registry, does not verify legal horse ownership, and does not decide or become involved in ownership disputes. By recording the horse with the Federation I attest that I am the owner or I have requisite authority to submit this horse recording/transfer.” 

So, my question is—if you’re not taking responsibility for ownership, why is USEF recording membership at all?

8. What is the deal with IEA and USEF?

Are IEA members USEF members? If they’re not, why are we spending all this money live streaming IEA finals and promoting their competition on USEF and USHJA social media? If they’re fan members, what is the retention rate to becoming full members? If they are, why aren’t USEF and USHJA member numbers larger? The numbers don’t make sense to me and the larger play seems confusing at best. I understand that IEA is an affiliate of USEF, but I don’t understand what that means or how that would impact so much member money invested in an external organization.

I don’t think I’m the only one who doesn’t understand some of these issues. And I’d bet even more that there are more points that are just as confusing. Plus, what education do the people in leadership positions actually have? When someone is making over $300,000 per year at the organization, members should be able to read a resume or curriculum vitae. Shouldn’t information about credentials, board training, where they’re licensed to practice law be easily accessible to all members?

It’s time for a collective reckoning that the current rules, enforcement, and policies serve very few people. They do not serve any of our horses.


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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