What to Do When: You Want to File a USEF Protest or Charge

Horse Atmosphere

You are competing at a USEF show and see that a competition is not being run properly. One of the judges is not scoring the class correctly, and your horse is improperly penalized. A competitor or exhibitor at a USEF show must know what to do when the rules of competition are broken in a class or at a show by an official or show management. When that happens, a Protest should be filed against the official or show management as soon as possible. A Protest is just one way violations are brought before the USEF Hearing Committee for adjudication. Charges and Grievances are other ways in which violations of the rules of fair competition are charged and remedied. Here is information to help you understand the way these rule violation remedies work.

Protests, Charges & Grievances
There are three ways violations are brought to the attention of the USEF Hearing Committee for adjudication, by filing a Protest, Charge or Grievance. Protests are filed by members against officials, judges and show management who violate the rules. Charges are filed by officials against members who violate the rules. Grievances are filed by athletes denied opportunities to compete in the Olympics and other Protected Competitions under the USOC Bylaws and Regulations against the USEF.

A Protest can be filed by a competitor, owner, trainer, agent, parent or any USEF member present who believes that a violation of a Federation rule(s) has occurred. If a judge makes a mistake about the way a class is to be run, a competitor can file a Protest against the judge, steward and/or show management depending on the specifics of the situation.

“A Protest can be filed by a competitor, owner, trainer, agent, parent or any USEF member present who believes that a violation of a Federation rule(s) has occurred.”

For example, a water jump must have a white lathe made of wood or plasticine on the landing side if the tape is to be scored. A vinyl water jump that has a white stripe painted on the back edge ignores the rules for a water jump where the landing is scored.  Your jumper was assessed 4 faults for stepping on the white painted vinyl but otherwise jumped clear. You are not allowed in the jump off. You could protest the class based on a violation of the JP127. Immediately upon noticing the improper jump and, if not before, upon being negatively affected, get the steward and protest the class. Do this, because under the rules, the steward should get the judge and show management together and discuss the alleged infraction with the protesting competitor in an attempt to resolve the dispute without the need to file the protest. Show management should have an opportunity to correct the alleged error. If management is still not sure of the correct answer, management could provisionally allow you to jump off pending further investigation. However, if the judge and/or management ultimately refuse to correct the score, a Protest is the proper remedy.

The actual filed Protest must be made in writing, signed by the Protester, addressed to the Show Committee, accompanied by a $200 payment ($300 for non-member and refundable if successful) and given to the Steward, Technical Delegate of Show Committee within 48 hours of the violation or to the Hearing Committee within a reasonable amount of time. The Protest must contain a complete written statement of the facts supporting the alleged violation. Testimony of the Protester may be required before the Hearing Committee to support the claims.

A Charge is brought against a competitor or exhibitor by a steward or other official for a violation of the rules. It can lead to immediate disqualification at the show or, in the case of drug violations, disqualification later after a doping violation has been found. Charges must be filed with the Show Committee within 48 hours or with the Hearing Committee within a reasonable time. The Hearing Committee will then decide the matter, unless it is a drug and medication violation handled administratively. As a practical matter, a Protest should be raised at the first possible moment.

Grievances are filed by an athlete denied an opportunity to compete for the Olympic, World Equestrian Games, Pan-American Games or other USOC Protected Competition or to participate in selection trials. Grievances are also governed by the USOC By-Laws and Rules. Athletes may always proceed to arbitration of any USOC related matter before the American Arbitration Association, so proceeding with a Grievance Hearing is voluntary. The decision which remedy to pursue requires a balancing of the many factors unique to each situation.

The Hearing Process
The Hearing Committee is a panel of impartial volunteer Federation members selected to hear the evidence and determine whether the rule(s) was violated based on the evidence presented to them. The Hearing Committee members are dedicated volunteer USEF members with long standing expertise in one of more equestrian disciplines who graciously give their time to be the final arbiters for alleged rule violations. Except for medication charges handled administratively, the Hearing Committee determines the penalty for any violation it finds.

“The Hearing Committee typically meets in Lexington once a month and hears a group of cases.”

A Hearing Date is scheduled, and the Protester presents his/her evidence and witnesses before the Hearing Committee. The Hearing Process is coordinated through the USEF Legal Department, Regulation Representative, who notifies the parties of the charges. A schedule is set for the submission of documents and evidence and, unless there is an administrative resolution, a Hearing date is set.

The Hearing Committee typically meets in Lexington once a month and hears a group of cases. The committee receives the materials on the day of the proceeding before the hearing is held. The Hearing is held as a quasi- judicial proceeding, and an attorney advises the Hearing Committee during the hearing and deliberations. The rules of evidence are not strictly applied, and the Hearing Committee has considerable leeway in the materials it receives. Parties may attend with or without an attorney. Given the potential seriousness of the penalties, legal representation is advisable.

In the water jump protest example, you would be expected to be present at the hearing to  testify about the events of the class. You might have other witnesses testify on your behalf, both on the condition of the jump and the standard for constructing water jumps. Photographs of the water jump and exhibits would be presented. After you present your case, the judge and show officials, if they attend the hearing, would testify. Both you and the respondents would be subject to cross-examination and questioning by the Hearing Committee. Once all the testimony and evidence has been introduced, the case is closed and goes to the committee for deliberation and decision. After 60 days, the Hearing Committee issues a written decision.

The Hearing Committee penalizes individual members, officials and show managements by censuring, fining, suspending, or expulsion from the federation. Unlike the FEI enforcement framework, the Hearing Committee has no set penalties for infractions, nor any strict time period for suspensions or when the suspension period starts. The Hearing Committee tries to be consistent in the penalties it levies, but there is considerable discretion.

Going back to the earlier example of the improper water jump, if the Hearing Committee found that the water jump violated the rules and the horse should have been scored clear, the penalties will be assessed against the judge and show management officials who made the error. The Hearing Committee does not penalize the other competitors by re-arranging the placings of the class: they committed no error and had no responsibility for the incorrect way the class was run. However, the judge and show officials may be censured, fined or suspended. The show may be required to refund the entry fee if the conditions of the class were noncompliant. If the judge or show management fails to pay the fine or complete the suspension period, the judge will not have an active license and the show may be denied future competition dates.

While no one wants to become involved in a Protest, Charge of Grievance, it is important for the integrity of the sport that violations of the rules be brought to the federations’ attention.

-By Armand Leone
Armand Leone of Leone Equestrian Law LLC is a business professional with expertise in health care, equestrian sports, and law with strengths in strategic analysis, business development, and operations. An equestrian athlete dedicated to fair play, safe sport, and clean competition, Leone served as a Director on the Board of USEF and was USEF Vice President of International High Performance Programs for many years. He served on USEF and USHJA special task forces on governance, safety, drugs and medications, trainer certification, and coach selection. Leone is co-owner at his family’s Ri-Arm Farm in Oakland, NJ, where he still rides and trains. As a professional and international competitor, he has an impressive list of international riding accomplishments, including FEI World Cup Finals appearances and Nations Cup victories. Leone is a graduate of the Columbia Business School in New York and the Columbia University School of Law. He received his M.D. from New York Medical College and his BA from the University of Virginia.

Leone Equestrian Law, LLC provides legal services and consultation for equestrian professionals ranging from riders and trainers to owners and show managers in the FEI disciplines on a wide variety of issues. With a wealth of experience in the equestrian industry through founder Armand Leone and partner Jessica Choper, Leone Equestrian Law, LLC gives their clients personalized care with the utmost respect for confidentiality. For more information, please visit www.equestriancounsel.com and follow them on Facebook at www.facebook.com/leoneequestrianlaw.com.