Leadership vs. Dictatorship in the USHJA

Scott Stewart and Playbook competing in the 2017 Platinum Performance/USHJA Green Hunter Incentive Championship.
Scott Stewart and Playbook competing in the 2017 Platinum Performance/USHJA Green Hunter Incentive Championship.

I attended the United States Hunter Jumper Association (USHJA) convention in December and I came away with one major question: is our membership under a strong leadership or is our membership under a strong dictatorship?

I have volunteered for this organization for more years than I can count — when it was the AHSA, USEF and now the affiliate, USHJA. I feel that we have lost our strength in the hunter community when we lost our committees. As we move forward, we have to continuously look at our history. We used to have standing committees full of respected and knowledgeable people who gave so much time to our sport. If the Equitation Committee came up with an idea, we all respected their knowledge and expertise — the same with the Junior Hunter Committee and Pony and Jumper Committees. However, when changes were made to the bylaws, a lot of these committees were taken away.

Now, when committees vote on things or put rule changes forward, it goes to either the Hunter or Jumper Working Groups where it gets voted on and then sent to the board of directors. Whereas before, any proposals made by a committee would automatically move forward as a rule change.

The communication was so much stronger before we had the Hunter and Jumper Working Groups. Those of us regularly showing, training or working out in the field have lost our confidence in the leadership of our organizations.

Getting people together and trying to come up with healthy ideas that mean something are long gone. The norm now is if you disagree with the leadership, you are removed from a committee. In the past, many of the committees I served on were full of healthy disagreements, discussions and respect for our fellow committee members. In the end, we seemed to always come up with the right solution and do what was best for our riders, owners and horses.

Our committees need people who have been leaders for a long time as well as those who are new to committee life and want to learn the way. Yet, committee members have resigned because they go to the convention, vote on changes and find out that those rules did not get through the layers of “yes” votes. The layers are the Hunter and Jumper Working Groups, the board of directors and the president. People are walking away from these committees and not going to the convention anymore because they’re so discouraged, and we’re losing really, really good people.

In 2013, I was head of the Hunter Committee, which was filled with top hunter professionals, and Joey Darby brought me an idea for a concept where professionals could show, win money and compete in a national championship. This concept became the Pre-Green Incentive Program (now the Green Hunter Incentive Program). We invested in this program as a committee with our time and financial backing. Colleen McQuay, who had experience implementing a similar concept in the reining world and was successful in starting four $1 million programs, was chosen to help lead our group. We would not have been able to start this program without her expertise.

After putting this great program in place, the USHJA powers to be came up with another program called the Pre-Green Stake that directly conflicted with the incentive program. The Pre-Green Stake was voted down by each committee as well as the Hunter Working Group and low and behold it was passed at the board level. That is not listening to the people and to the members.

Colleen has fought tooth and nail to keep the Pre-Green Incentive Program moving forward and I for one would like to thank her for her hard work and dedication. Currently in 2018, with the installment of the 3’6” and 3’9” incentive, enrollment is up and over the total number of horses enrolled in 2017. It is clear that it is a program that owners want.

Scott Stewart rode to a three-peat victory in the 2017 Platinum Performance/USHJA Green Hunter Incentive Championship.
Scott Stewart rode to a three-peat victory in the 2017 Platinum Performance/USHJA Green Hunter Incentive Championship.

Another recent example was a proposed secured stabling concept for the USHJA International Hunter Derby Championship. The concept was expensive and unnecessary, and was opposed by all of the committees and the Hunter Working Group, but, yet again, it was passed. If we, the committee members, who are out in the trenches week after week actively participating at the top of the sport, say we don’t want something and it’s turned down by every committee, including the Hunter Working Group, how does it then go to the board and get approved?

These are only two examples that come to mind of rule change proposals conceived by committees that were ultimately voted down through our organization’s many layers. However, they are only a small percentage of many reasons why people have decided to walk away from both organizations (USHJA and USEF) in recent years.

I believe the USHJA needs to bring back the committees and abolish the Hunter and Jumper Working Groups. They’re just another layer. Then, if I’m the head of the Hunter Committee, I’ll state my proposal to the board, explain why we’re doing it and the reason and then they’ll get to ask questions before making a decision. We just need to simplify the process, it’s gotten way too complicated. It’s layer after layer after layer.

The International Hunter Derby and Green Hunter Incentive Committee, under the leadership of Ron Danta, is one of the hardest working committees I have ever been on but it has been an uphill battle. The concepts that Colleen and Ron have put forward were never fully explained to the board or Hunter Working Group, thus their ideas were halted, changed or ignored. The board must ask questions and represent the members by understanding the concepts.

Apathy has won. People are walking away and shaking their heads because their voice is not heard. We are supposed to be a team that is led by people who have the knowledge and experience to know what works and what does not work. Board members should take on their jobs because they want to help steer the ship in the best interest of our equines and membership. They must listen to the membership and work together, not stay on the board because they like the position and are going to constantly say yes to the president no matter what they are told. Presidents are supposed to listen to the people who agree with them AND the people who disagree with them. We need to get back on track and we need to work together to make our sport stronger.

From the show ring to the Buffalo Therapeutic Riding Center (BTRC), Susie Schoellkopf has committed her life to serving the equestrian community. Schoellkopf has served as the executive director of the BTRC since 1990 in addition to being a dedicated US Equestrian (USEF) and USHJA board and committee member. Owner of SBS Farms, Inc. alongside head trainer Jennifer Alfano, based in Buffalo, New York, Schoellkopf is a sought-after “R” rated judge and has presided over some of the most prestigious horse shows in the country. She’s trained multiple horses to national championships and is best known as the owner of Jersey Boy, the three-time US Equestrian Horse of the Year (2009–2011) and winner of the 2012 USHJA International Hunter Derby Championship. In 2014, Schoellkopf was inducted into the National Show Hunter Hall of Fame.

*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not
necessarily reflect the beliefs or opinions of Phelps Media Group, Phelps Sports, its affiliates, owners, directors, officials or staff.

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