It’s a simple truth across all equestrian disciplines: the costs of competition continue to rise with no sign of slowing down. Riders who are eager to showcase their skills in a competitive environment are frequently priced out of doing so, solidifying equestrian sports’ reputation as an exclusive, affluent activity.
So, when Roby Roberts opened his World Equestrian Center facility in Wilmington, Ohio, members of the equestrian community rejoiced. Here was someone committed to providing world-class facilities - without the billionaire’s price tag on a week of showing. Now, an ongoing conflict between the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) and the new World Equestrian Center (WEC) location in Ocala, Florida, slated to open in January, has many USEF members questioning a number of USEF’s policies and actions and their affects on making the sport affordable for anyone without deep pockets.
Initially, the World Equestrian Center applied for competition licenses from the USEF and the FEI over 12 weeks of competition this winter. The WEC was initially granted a mileage exemption - a necessity given the close proximity of the Horse Shows In the Sun (HITS) circuit in Ocala - for four weeks of competition. However, after the WEC revealed its schedule, which included offerings sanctioned by the National Snaffle Bit Association (NSBA), the USEF rescinded its previous approval, citing confusion and welfare concerns as its reasoning.
The World Equestrian Center countered by offering free stabling to its competitors, putting its bottom line on making the shows more appealing - and affordable - for a broader scope of competitors. In an effort to offset the initial investment costs, the World Equestrian Center team secured founding sponsorships, including one from Coca-Cola, rather than solely relying on entry fees to fund the venture.
What the WEC is offering is what the majority of USEF’s membership wants: an affordable show at a nice facility. Now that USEF has rescinded its sanctioning of the show and WEC has gained sanctioning elsewhere through the lesser-known but well-established National Snaffle Bit Association, the questions must be asked: Is there room for more horse show venues in equestrian sport to compete with one another for exhibitors? Could this be a way to move the needle on lowering the accessibility costs for the vast majority of riders?
How does the mileage rule drive up the cost of competing?
To understand how this conflict affects the exorbitant pricing of horse showing, we must first look at the controversial “mileage rule”, or GR314 in the USEF’s General Rulebook. The mileage rule has come under heavy criticism since its original appearance in 1975, though few modifications have been made. The sport calendaring requirement came about as a way to satisfy requirements of the Ted Stevens Act, also known as the Amateur Sports Act of 1978, which, among other provisions, “sets forth the duties and powers of a national governing body and the requirements which an amateur sports organization must meet to hold an athletic competition sanctioned by a national governing body."
Generally speaking, the mileage rule prevents competitions from running concurrently within a specified mileage radius. This radius varies by discipline and competition level, but for hunter/jumper competitions this radius can be up to 250 miles. There are provisions for exemptions written into the rule, but in this case between the USEF and the World Equestrian Center, the original exemption has been rescinded. The USEF has stated that the mileage exemption did not play a factor in the decision to rescind the approval. Originally, the intent of the mileage rule was to prevent fragmentation of competition as well as to promote the spread of equestrian competition in more diverse areas. However, a major drawback of the rule has emerged as the sport has modernized and grown.
Competition allows the market to determine the success or failure of a venture. In the case of the mileage rule, some circuits are essentially given monopolies over certain dates and regions. And while venue owners have undoubtedly invested millions of dollars in their properties, the fact remains that a lack of competition offers little protection against price increases and facility upgrades that would otherwise be necessitated by a competing venue offering more bang for an exhibitor’s buck.
Show jumper Kama Godek, whose business relies heavily on showing for marketing purposes, says the financial strain and limited options have forced her to get creative when it comes to finances.
“My bill from competing at Tryon for a month with three FEI horses and two national horses was $24,000, which doesn’t include things like hotels and transportation,” she says. “And I’m not doing it for world rankings, I’m doing it to market myself and my horses so that they can be sold. I pay my bills by having my horses perform well and getting them sold. So if someone is going to offer me a facility with lower fees, great footing, and the best stabling, I will want to go there because my horses will be happier and will perform better.”
"The cost of competing in equestrian sport in the United States is high, particularly when you factor in the cost of horse care, training, transportation, travel, housing, entry fees, equipment, veterinary care and more. USEF member and horse recording fees are a relatively small percentage of the overall cost of competing at $80 and $95 per year, respectively," a USEF representative told NoelleFloyd.com. "The same is true of USEF drug and medication fees at $23 per horse per show. It is a common misconception that USEF member fees underwrite High Performance teams and programs."
Kama also cites the difficulties compounded by distance and the mileage rule. When operating out of her northern base in Leesburg, Virginia during the summer months, HITS Culpeper is her closest option for competition. “During the summer, there are six weeks out of the time I’m there that if I wanted to show somewhere else, I would have to go 250 miles away,” she explains. “So I’m stuck, as a rider. I moved to the U.S. full-time to spend more time with my family, but the reality is that I spend more time on the road than I ever did in Europe. It’s unrealistic to think you can be competitive in this industry and not be on the road all the time.”
The big picture
The reality is that horse showing is expensive no matter which way the dice are thrown. However, encouraging competition among venues - thereby increasing the quality of the competition while driving down costs - is a way to offer up a solution for a sport that, let’s face it, already languishes from decades of pricing riders (and potential riders) out. It’s a sport that desperately needs more options for riders, not fewer.
Of course, providing access to equestrian sport goes beyond modernizing one rule. The USEF’s mission statement is “to provide access to and increase participation in equestrian sports at all levels by ensuring fairness, safety, and enjoyment”. Encouraging healthy competition among venues (one successful example is the appearance of The Ridge circuit created by Nona Garson and George D’Ambrosio that provides more affordable showing options in the Wellington, Florida community), is one step USEF could take to regain some of the loyalty it has lost as a result of its continual catering to those with the deepest pockets.
Perhaps the World Equestrian Center, with its willingness to pull an Elon Musk and simply go around slow-moving bureaucracy, and the National Snaffle Bit Association, with its own rulebook and idea of membership, present a formidable challenge to the USEF in terms of adaptation to the current challenges in our sport. Perhaps this is an opportunity for the USEF to reexamine its own fee structure in an effort to do what most competitive environments encourage: evolve.
More options, more opportunities
The bottom line for the riders who are most adversely affected by these rules - the working professionals and the amateur riders - is that there should be options. While an original intention for the mileage rule was to encourage a higher quality of competition among top riders by not giving them the option to fragment into multiple classes, this is no longer an issue, particularly in the heavily concentrated Florida circuits. If anything, as prominent hunter rider and coach Jimmy Torano observed in a recent interview with Horse Network, the shows have reached an unsafe level of crowding and would do well with more options. More options for competition would also encourage a larger number of riders to enter.
A complementary approach - an acknowledgement that the strength of many is better than the strength of one - would open more doors for members to participate in competition without the stiff financial barriers so often associated with the sport. “We look forward to complimenting (sic) the existing organizations and encouraging hunter jumper participation at all levels,” NSBA executive director Stephanie Lynn said. “Our goal is to provide alternate opportunities and to grow the show horse sport.”
“USEF is open to working with other organizations to promote the best interests of horse sport now, and in the future, but it must remain clear that USEF is the appointed national governing body for equestrian sport in the U.S., as designated by the Ted Stevens Olympic & Amateur Sports Act, which gives US Equestrian responsibility and oversight of regulation, sanctioning, and governance of the sport,” a USEF representative told NoelleFloyd.com.
Equestrian sport is, at its foundation, made up of thousands of amateur riders. While regulations such as the USEF’s mileage rule are intended to facilitate a higher caliber of competition among top riders and encourage diversification of sport by creating venue opportunities in different locations, the reality is that this rule and the inflation it passes down to the majority of participants has the potential to create more problems than it solves - and organizations such as the World Equestrian Center and the NSBA may just have a solution.
Read this next: I Changed My Career To Afford My Riding Habit