Postcard: USA Equestrian Convention

Lexington, KY, January 19, 2003 — Unless you’ve latched on to a juicy tidbit while gossiping in the halls, there’s usually not much in the way of bombshells at USA Equestrian’s annual convention. But this year there was no snoozing at the first board meeting after USA Eq President Alan Balch put forward a plan for his resignation, to be succeeded in office by eventing Olympic gold medalist David O’Connor.

Okay, are you paying attention now?

This is part of an attempt to solve the conflict between USA Eq and the U.S. Equestrian Team over which should be horse sports’ National Governing Body in this country. You’ve heard about that, right? (Just kidding.) I know you’ve all heard far more than you want to. Ditto for me.

I’ll just give you a few details of what Alan called “a new and final scenario for solution.” Alan — who has been at odds with the USET leadership — would bow out, provided that the USET agrees by February 1 to the principles of a plan to reformat the organizations and give birth to a new NGB. The USET also would have to withdraw a formal complaint it has filed with the U.S. Olympic Committee, requesting it to declare an NGB vacancy. (Last week, the USET withdrew its original challenge that started open hostilities two years ago, but the way things have moved along, that’s not really significant.)

Another condition is that a search has to be completed to hire a paid chief executive officer. Alan is the unpaid president and CEO, devoting his full attention to USA Eq. If David takes over, he won’t be able to spend the same amount of hours to the job, since he’s an active competitor, so the CEO title would be split off. There was also a feeling that regardless of David’s situation, it is time for an organization as big as USA Eq to have a salaried CEO.

If the above scenario works out, Alan said he would not be a candidate for the CEO job. Ever. USA Eq leaders are hoping that goes a long way toward convincing the USET to join them, since Alan’s presence has been a big stumbling block to rapprochement.

While the USET had wanted him to depart immediately, and stay out of governance for six years, the plan brought forward would make him eligible for a director’s spot again in 2005. USET President Armand Leone Jr. is okay with this counter-offer, since he feels this proposal points the way to settlement of a stand-off that has cost millions of dollars in legal fees, staff work, antacids and aspirin. The question will be whether Armand, who helped develop this plan in private discussions with David, USET Trustee Allen Shore and a mediator, can convince everyone on the USET board who needs to be convinced that this is the way to go.

The first plotline I told you about is the carrot. Here’s the stick: If the USET doesn’t buy into this proposal, Alan will stay on until the end of his term in 2005, and could be a candidate for CEO or any other paid position if he chose to. He also vows to keep going until USA Eq is confirmed by the USOC as NGB (it currently holds the title) and operates without any help from the USET.

Thus, things are proceeding on parallel tracks, waiting for word from the USET. I would say the mood here over this development was very cautious optimism. Everyone remembered the great hope for settlement at the convention a year ago, after both USA Eq and the USET approved the broad outline of a consolidation (similar in many ways to this one), only to have it all fall apart a few months thereafter. So we’ll have to see. But the Feb. 1 deadline means we’ll know the outcome very soon.

David’s intervention provides a whole new spark, though, and he sees much of his mission as “healing” a rift that is raw and sore. There is enthusiasm for putting an athlete with his charisma at the head of his sport’s organization.

“The work of David O’Connor has opened the door and appears to be giving the USET almost everything they asked for in the beginning,” said Howard Simpson. The executive director of the North American Young Riders’ Championship, Howard serves on the USET board and as a USA Eq committee member and has strong ties to both groups.

“I can only hope these two organizations get together, because if either goes on alone . . . you lose so much history and wisdom,” Howard pointed out. The way the plan is set up, he noted, “instead of a winner-take-all attitude” each organization can do what it does best.

Very briefly, the USET would continue with its own board and morph into the USET Foundation which is responsible for maintenance of its Gladstone, N.J., facility and paying for fund-raising personnel. Its international high performance employees would go on the payroll of the NGB and continue working in Gladstone. Its major role working with the NGB would involve making up for any shortfall in international high performance funding (read that as sending teams to the Olympics and the like) which isn’t covered by USOC funding and other sources.

On USA Eq’s part, a trust would be established that is responsible for its building and could be used to pursue a variety of projects, such as funding research.

There will be separation of national and international efforts in the new NGB. It doesn’t have a name at this point, but we do know it would be run by a 52-member board. Cash flow from memberships and competition fees would go to fund joint concerns, including drug testing and licensing of officials. I could go on and on, but details aren’t etched in stone as there’s a lot of discussion yet to come on “deal points” (the phrase of the weekend.) Everyone is hoping this arrangement will answer USET concerns that athletes going to the Olympics and other championships will have enough resources to support them and, at the same time, soothe national groups’ anxiety about getting overshadowed by the international side.

When I asked what he would do after leaving USA Eq, Alan said he would spend more time on the National Horse Show, which he serves as president, as well as attending to his personal investments and properties that have been getting short shrift recently. And who knows, he might even take some time off. At 57, he said, “I feel my age.”

Alan encouraged David to come on board as an officer a few years ago (the Olympian went from being assistant secretary to vice president last week) and wants to see him try his wings.

“I think there needs to be succession and fresh ideas and outlook,” Alan explained.

But enough of the NGB. Let’s talk about the rest of the convention, held in a hotel a few miles from USA Eq’s headquarters at the Kentucky Horse Park. Actually, I don’t think I’m going to do much more writing because my eyes are blurry after taking notes in the final board of directors meeting for nearly six hours, as rule changes were dissected and voted on.

We didn’t have any blockbusters this time around. The most interesting rule change was withdrawn for further discussion. It would have allowed eventers at the national level to wear short- or long-sleeved shirts instead of jackets for the dressage and stadium jumping phases. The idea is to enable riders to look more like the folks who are watching them on TV or in the grandstand, while making it unnecessary to spend hundreds of dollars on a tailored jacket. The rule needs stronger guidelines before being enacted, though, because there are fears some Britney Spears wannabes might show too much while doing a sitting trot or clearing a gate.

Over the last couple of days, I remembered a time when the convention was more than the committee meetings, rule changes and other governance matters that have been its mainstay over the last few years. You’d see old friends, and make new ones. Very few ordinary exhibitors bother to attend anymore, and trainers were missing, too. There was little more than a handful of international-level athletes involved here, with Karen and David O’Connor and dressage rider Michelle Gibson the only ones present at all board sessions. Attendance was just 360, a frighteningly minute figure when compared to a membership of 80,000 or so. So I was happy to hear about an effort to liven up future conventions, courtesy of a new subcommittee headed by Winter Equestrian Festival organizer and National Horse Show Chairman Gene Mische.

“There has to be more to bring people to a convention than rule changes and awards,” said Gene, who envisions offering seminars from leading riders and other events of broad interest, as well as trade fairs where space permits. The effort will start in Los Angeles next year, with plans calling for it to escalate at future conventions.

The bright spot of this convention was the social side, with the highlight being the Friday evening Pegasus dinner, where special awards are handed out. David O’Connor was center stage as the only person to be named Equestrian of the Year twice. The veteran whose wisdom helped the eventing squad earn a gold medal at the 2002 World Equestrian Games was appropriately humble in his acceptance speech, and he had the crowd with him as he got emotional while talking about the horses who have put him in the spotlight.

Ned and Nina Bonnie shared the silver cowboy hat that is the Jimmy Williams trophy for the Lifetime Achievement award. Ned is the Kentucky lawyer who became involved with what was then the American Horse Shows Association when he successfully lobbied for a strong drug rule more than 30 years ago. Nina, a former co-chair of the USA Eq hunter committee and a top hunter exhibitor herself, set up the Kentucky Horse Park Foundation that raised $7 million, which went to help make the facility the wonderful place it is today.

The next night there was an awesome display of silver at the Horse of the Year dinner. That’s where historic trophies are handed out (and then immediately taken back by the USA Eq staffers guarding them) to those who have worked all year to win high score awards. Naturally, winners can’t bring the silver home; it’s far too valuable.

Diane Parisi of New Jersey won the side-saddle award twice in the past, but never got a chance to come to the convention when it was presented. Although she didn’t win this year, she flew to Kentucky to be with her sister, Linda Kulley, breeder of the 2002 grand champion hunter breeding horse, Ground Zero Hero. Diane’s mount, Senator Mickey, is semi-retired now, but coming along on this trip enabled her to salute him and achieve a long-held ambition: She finally had her photo taken beside the imposing urn that goes with the side-saddle title, before it was handed off to the 2002 victor.

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