The hunter/jumper, eventing and dressage associations have met, the holidays are over, the winter show circuits are beginning, and there's one last big piece of business to accomplish before 2017 can officially get under way in the horse world: The U.S. Equestrian Federation Annual Meeting.
Traditionally this meeting is strictly business, with committees meeting in person, budgets being set, and rule change proposals either inciting riots or receiving the rubber stamp. Unless you were receiving an award, there wasn't much to interest the average equestrian competitor.
But this year incoming president Murray Kessler, along with new CEO Bill Moroney and new Chief Marketing Officer Vicki Lowell, hope to kick off a strategic plan at the annual meeting that will change the face of the federation forever.
So here's your need-to-know information:
Where: Hyatt Regency Lexington in Lexington, Ky.
When: Jan. 11-14
Important stops on the schedule:
- Wednesday, Jan. 11, 12:30 - 2:00 p.m. ET: Welfare Town Hall
- Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2:00 - 2:45 p.m. ET: Concussions Town Hall
- Wednesday, Jan. 11, 3 - 5 p.m. ET: Strategic Plan Review and Q&A Session with Murray Kessler
- Friday, Jan. 13, 9:00 - 11:30 a.m. ET: Strategic Plan Implementation and Year In Review with Bill Moroney and other USEF senior staff
- Friday, Jan. 13, 7:30 p.m. ET: Pegasus Awards Dinner
- Saturday, Jan. 14, 7 p.m. ET: Horse of the Year Awards Dinner
Where to follow along if you can't attend: USEFNetwork.com and coth.com. USEFNetwork will live stream Kessler's review of his strategic plan. You can also download a USEF Annual Meeting app, sponsored by The Chronicle of the Horse, from the app store by searching for "US Equestrian."
Why you should care:
"Unless you were winning an award at the Horse of the Year awards or the Pegasus awards, or you were on a committee, there was nothing for you," said President-Elect Murray Kessler of the U.S. Equestrian Federation Annual Meeting.
But this year he intends to change that, starting with his presentation of his strategic plan for the USEF's future on Jan. 11. Two days later, CEO Bill Moroney and other USEF senior staff members will explain how each department will execute their portion of the plan.
"If you're interested in where your organization is going, you'll get to see those things first hand and ask questions," said Kessler. "There will be a couple of town halls, and that's a good start to how we hope to evolve the meeting."
Why does the USEF Annual Meeting need to evolve? It's all part of Kessler's idea to transition the national federation from an organization you have to join to one you want to join.
Interesting fact: The USEF loses almost 25 percent of its approximately 82,000 members each year. These members who don't renew are replaced by others, so the total membership remains stable, but that's a lot of turnover.
Kessler wants to provide value to members through increased education and other benefits.
So what can you expect to learn at this year's annual meeting?
"I'm going to tear apart the sport," said Kessler. "It's not going to be educational in teaching you what to do with a colic, although there will be a concussion panel and a D&M panel and things like that. But you're going to see me tear apart the sport: What's growing? What's not growing? Why? What are members saying? What are the results of value perception studies by our members, benchmarking against other federations around the world? Is the growth of FEI [competition] in America a good thing or a bad thing? Is the consolidation of shows into big organizers a good thing or a bad thing for the sport? Are we doing enough on catching cheaters? If we want to bring education, how are we going to pay for it? In what areas are we doing well? In what areas are we not doing well? How do we keep winning at the highest levels but also start to balance grassroots?
"It covers a lot of hard-core topics," he continued. "You're going to get a lot of education in this meeting for sure."
And then there's the unveiling of a number of marketing and education initiatives including a new USEF logo, website, advertising campaign and learning center with educational videos from equestrian sport's biggest stars like McLain Ward, Phillip Dutton, and Boyd Martin.
As Kessler and Moroney have previewed the new initiatives at the various association meetings in December, a few concerns have come up: Namely, if the USEF becomes a "consumer-facing organization" focused on "bringing the joy of horse sports to as many people as possible," and away from being "strictly viewed as an enforcement agency," who will stop the cheaters?
"You can't have joy if there are a bunch of cheaters, and people get upset and frustrated and leave the sport because they feel it's hopeless," responded Kessler. "What's the point if we go out and become a consumer-facing organization if we can't provide a culture of fairness, safety and enjoyment? The enjoyment goes hand in hand with fairness and safety. That's the product we offer for the USEF. We level the playing field. We make sure it's safe for people. Leveling the playing field covers a lot of ground."
He's envisioning a culture shift for horse sport in general in the United States.
"Everybody who asked me to run said we needed to change," said Kessler. "But when I go back to the committees and say, 'You need to change,' they say, 'I wasn't talking about us. I was talking about them.' There's a lot of entrenchment. I'm not going to be popular in certain areas where we have to push some areas where there is heavy entrenchment."
From making horse showing more affordable at the grassroots level to fixing broken processes to catching cheaters through tougher penalties and culture change to leveraging success at the international levels to inspire the next generation, Kessler knows there's a lot of work to be done.
"There have been a lot of promises made and not a lot of necessarily meaningful actions," he said. "We're coming with all guns blazing in January [at the annual meeting]."