The Only Thing We Need to Fear

Photo © The Plaid Horse


I have written at least 30 versions of this article in the last 72 hours. I have read the entire USEF rulebook twice and certain passages dozens of times. I have talked to hundreds of riders, trainers, judges, spectators, and publicists, and I have emailed USEF many times. Some of these unpublished articles have been fact-based, some emotion-based, some behavior-based, some judging-based, some children-based, some rage-based, some biased-based. Some are about misogyny, some are about fat shaming, some are about cheating, some are about simply being a bad horse show participant. 

After all of that, I still do not know what to actually publish. Our great sport this weekend was tarnished by bad behavior. This is not an article about one person. It is about a series of events that I witnessed over the last few weeks. It is about the sport that we all find ourselves in—a community divided and vocally tearing each other down. It is about how our collective greed has given so much power to so few people, and how miserable that has made each and every one of us. How our competition has become so successful and so important that we are failing to value our friends, our families, our crews, our staff, and our horses. 

Here is what I do know…

Our sport is a crossroads of fear. Trainers are afraid of their clients. Horse shows are afraid of their sponsors. Course designers are afraid of complaints. Judges are afraid of being vilified. Everyone fears lawsuits and threats, from which the governing body doesn’t exactly protect any horse shows or officials. Our divisions are bigger than ever, our riders are riding better than ever, our horses are more competitive than ever. The importance of every single competition is at an all time high, and yet we sit here worrying about our future. We have built so much up together and yet somehow we all feel alone and scared. 

We worry no one will want to judge ever again. We worry that we can’t pay our bills and that our clients will leave and that we won’t win enough. We worry that we will screw up in the ring or someone will say something even more attractive to our clients. We worry that our horses are showing too much and somehow also not prepared enough and that they will go lame. 

Can we hold it all together? Our kids aren’t really learning anything about our sport when it’s much easier to just do for our clients than it is to teach them. And then can we take care of ourselves and eat vegetables and save for retirement and wake up tomorrow and do it all again. 

There were no good ol’ days in this sport. It might be easy to look back on the days before livestreams and accountability, but our sport has always had issues galore and been full of shame, ostracization, outright theft, bad decisions, and various sins to numb responsibility—as we were all just reminded of with a recent Netflix special. Greed has always been the achilles heel of our sport, and there was never any shortage of it. 

We are afraid. We have completely overcorrected. We went from a sport of brave, cavalier, and reckless old timers who felt no consequences with neither Internet nor cancel culture to worry about. Today, there is accountability to every action, every moment, every step, and we all feel the consequences of that scrutiny. 

People are getting correctly called out through investigations and channels. People are being reported and USEF is investigating and handling down penalties that do not deter them enough. People are afraid to report others, concerned for their own ability to retain clients, make horse sales, and be considered for upward mobility in this sport. 

We have a functionality to report to our governing body, but since we do not trust them and any given horse show can easily feel entirely lawless, we rely on our old traditional “good ol’ days” responses of vicious gossip, rallying parts of the whole against others, shame, and making children cry. We consistently bash people who choose the most vulnerable positions while leaving a lack of clarity in our rulebook and enforcement as “too scary” to demand change upon. The comments I heard adults, trainers, and judges say about children and officials at the in-gate were hurtful and counterproductive. A trainer led a group of snickering and laughing when a child made a mistake. While we had an elite group of young riders riding literally better than ever, the behavior I saw to divide and enrage us both worked and made no part of our sport or our future better. 

Here is what I believe: 

We need to do everything we can to ensure fair play and then we need to give our judges, our human judges, the trust and credit they deserve. We get so lost in what is or isn’t fair play because we cannot trust our governing body. And why would we when we had alleged pedophiles in our midst whom our governing body assigned to lead teams, judge national finals, and splashed them across covers of magazines. 

We cannot trust them to not exercise conscious or unconscious misogyny at any turn. We cannot trust them to protect the exhibitor from conflicts of interest. We cannot trust them to hold their own judges to the highest conduct standard when they are competitors. We cannot trust the stewards to be anywhere useful when rulebook violations continue. 

USEF can fix this, and we can mend this trust. USEF as opposed to the horse shows can hire stewards at least to start, and put a plan into place for USEF to hire judges. They can give judges breaks in working hours and fewer days in a row to ensure their freshness and commitment to detail. Would paying judges more get better judges? I don’t know, but it’s one of many ideas to consider. 

USEF can edit the rulebook on a most basic level to have “they/them” pronouns and not strictly “he/him,” which exposes themselves to a substantiation of a Title XII lawsuit showing a pattern of their blatantly discriminatory behavior. (If you’re wondering where the money to fight lawsuits comes from, you guessed it, so an ounce a prevention could go a long way here).  They can give judges scribes so that they don’t miss things by looking down at their cards. They can start to give judges vision tests regularly and give us faith in their sobriety. 

Our sport is public. The public is here to stay. Livestreams and social media and public accountability are here to stay. We need to band together for the future. and we have to stand at the in-gate and hold up the integrity of the judges to every naysayer. We can’t be made to look like idiots when we try to calm people down and say, “I’m sure it’s fair,” and then go digging on the Internet and feel like a fool. We have to uphold the standard that while our feelings might even be valid, they do not justify bad behavior at the in-gate. Ever. We simply have to mend this pathway of trust and faith in our governing body. 

The world is watching. 

And as the world watched this weekend, we could see trainers comforting crying riders after what was expressed so cruelly and loudly at the in-gate. I saw trainers walk over to riders who were not their own and congratulate them and say kind and validating words. I saw people who could have made many decisions in the moment and put the children and all their hard work ahead of their own feelings or spirit. There was so much humanity in the ribbon ceremony of the Medal Finals. There was an outpouring of humanity in the press conference as the judges poured out of how they informed the class, the riders shared how they felt every moment of the day, and we shared in another top finish of this historic class. 

I am an empath. That is why I could not write this article for so many days and tore up so many versions. I cannot stand being unfair to anyone and there are so many moving parts in what I watched this weekend. I empathize with the competitors who have prepared for this competition for months. I empathize with the judges. I empathize with the investment parents are making. I empathize with how hard it is to train, to judge, to perform, to commentate, to run a horse show, to deal with the lack of sleep, to deal with the pressure, and to deal with the strangely tolerated behavior of USEF R judges and horse show board members at the in-gate. 

But the facts are these. I spent one hour at the horse show yesterday looking for an experienced, current, diligent, powerhouse, attentive, decisive, female titan of industry who was interested in judging USEF Medal Finals, even if it meant keeping their own clients at home that year. I found three. They exist and they were not chosen. Instead, those who were chosen included a person whose conflicts defy any meaningful logic. 

The fact is that I saw two instances of fat shaming in our sport this weekend—one of which made me walk away and cry a bit and the other that made me tear up. Two places where our sport was wholly and fully unwelcoming and hurtful and triggering to people who love their horses more than anything else in this world. 

After all of this, today, I met a horse who made me smile. His rider, who is without a groom competing in the 3’6” Amateur Owner Hunters at Harrisburg, braided the horse herself. A kid who recently changed a horse trailer tire for a professional was 4th in the USEF Medal Finals. A teary-eyed trainer told me how grateful she was for every single person who has ever given her a child a catch ride as she told me about the biggest win of her career. The WCHR Amateur Owner National Champion who clapped for every single person for decades until it was her time. I saw a friend get bad news and everyone rallied around to comfort her until she could get on a flight to be with family. When I look around the horse show, I see and hear story after heartwarming of what we all are—folks who love horses. Folks who love each other. Folks who have chosen this life together. 

That is all to say: We are doing all the important things right. We do love each other. Our support for each other is incredible. We need occasional reminders, but we can be so generous and so kind. 

We can demand better of USEF, while also not diminishing the incredible effort every judge makes in the box to be fair and call it as they see it from where they are sitting. We can all show up and clap when it is not our time and be respectful and contained in our demands and pursue better globally while supporting our people locally. It is the only way this sport is going to work. 

This weekend was a lot. We have a lot of work to do to make our sport the place we would like to live in. But first we must all come together to congratulate 2021 USEF Medal Finals Champion Grace Debney, and all those who achieve their own personal victories, day in and day out, at the horse show. 

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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