July has been a very difficult month for the powers that be in Show Jumping in the United States. First, there was the fallout from the unprecedented lengthy suspension of renowned trainer Larry Glefke and superstar hunter rider Kelley Farmer. The second hit was legendary American rider and trainer Katie Prudent ripping the current state of Show Jumping in the U.S. in a bombshell podcast.
Then, last week, social media exploded with the news that 11 high profile members of the USHJA Foundation had suddenly resigned. In a normal year, these would be THE big stories in the horse world, so for it all to happen in a matter of a few days is shocking.
I spoke with USHJA President Mary Babick, who was very generous with her time in granting this interview.
Jay Duke: What is your background in Show Jumping?
Mary Babick: I have been riding since 1968 and turned professional in 1978. In the mid 80’s, I switched my discipline to show jumping. I have had the good fortune to work with many wonderful students who have attained excellent results and gone on to wonderful careers. My students have had top success at Pony Finals, Medal Finals, and Young Riders Championships. I am very proud of their achievements in the show ring and in the people they have become.
JD: Why did you run for the position of President with the USHJA?
MB: I have always been very interested in the USHJA, strongly interested. I love to problem solve, I have a good knowledge of our industry, history on Wall Street, and good people skills. When I ran for the position the first time, I was not elected, which turned out to be a very good thing. It gave me the opportunity to really learn the position.
JD: As the leader of the show jumping community in the United States, what do you see as the biggest issue facing the sport?
MB: That is a difficult question to answer without angering a lot of people. Our industry lacks integrity and transparency. I am not accusing everyone of being cheaters, the bulk of the people are great. I think the best way to put it is, there are unwritten rules to the sport. Not everyone abides by these rules, that is the issue we are facing.
Note: I have never heard anyone explain the matter in this way, with the unwritten rule analogy. When Mary said this it clarified many things for me, many issues that I struggle with in the horse world. There are unwritten rules in every sport, actually in almost all walks of life. The people that willingly break these rules put a cloud over the ones who do not. I think she nailed this answer perfectly.
JD: On July 13th eleven members of the USHJA Foundation board suddenly and unexpectedly announced their official resignation; Jim Anderson, Lynn Jayne, Charlie Moorcroft, Cindi Perez, Jennifer Smith, Geoff Teall, Carl Weeden, Louise Serio, Bill Woodson, Jennifer Burger, and William Craig Dobbs. The news hit the media on July 14th and created reactions of shock, confusion, and anger. People want to know what happened? What the issues are? Why did eleven respected board members suddenly resign?
MB: I am unable to discuss certain questions due to legal reasons, but I can share quite a bit. We were going through the business of getting the Foundation back under the control of the Association. The crux of the issue was the by-laws which were created when the Foundation was founded in 2008. They were created as a Type 1 group. Under IRS law, that means that they must be either; controlled, operated, or supervised. It was the wish of the USHJA to choose the control option. At some point, the Foundation changed their by-laws so that they were not controlled by the Association. I don’t think they actually meant to do that, I think they were trying to make their board more effective at fundraising. They wanted to choose their own board members.
If this was unintentional, no big deal. If it was an intentional hijacking then the USHJA would fight to get their Foundation back. I said, “If you change the bylaws back I will work with you to find the directors you want to work with.” I was confident that they would accept the reinstitution of the by-laws and drew up a transition plan. I am sad to say I was unable to use my transition plan.
JD: Association members were very surprised to read of the mass resignation. Why was it announced in the manner it was?
MB: I don’t know why the Foundation announced the resignation in the media. We had spent a lot of time getting ready to discuss this. At no point do I want to make this a ‘someone was right, someone was wrong matter’.
JD: There is no mention of this on the USHJA website. This dispute with the Foundation has been going on for 8 months. People want to know why they were not informed of the situation? Does the fact that they pay a membership fee mean they are owed information of what your organization is doing?
MB: Yes for sure, I think that is appropriate. This was a business matter. We were blocked by legal counsel. In regards to the site, honestly we have not had time.
JD: There is a disconnect between the national/international level competitors of the sport and the grassroots riders. Katie Prudent recently had some harsh comments about the current state of the sport in the United States. “The sport makes me sick nowadays. And in America, what’s very sad is that we’re not producing a ton of great riders. We have all the Irish boys coming over here and riding all the horses and getting all the owners. Because we’re just producing a bunch of weak amateurs.” What are your thoughts on this?
MB: I am a rider and person developer. I know that what Katie said is somewhat true but I think her comment is way too general. There are more people that work hard than she realizes. The thirst that these kids have for knowledge is just fantastic. I see my students put in hours of hard work to overcome their obstacles. The effort they put into their lessons, their horses, the grooming, the barn work, etc. It is wonderful to be a part of their passion. A good trainer finds ways even with people that are financially less fortunate to find a life lesson.
Note: I am one of those people that have been very critical of the ‘American system’, where kids do not spend time with their horses, they only ride them. In speaking with Mary I was reminded that these kids are the minority. Most juniors are just like my daughter, in the barn 14 hours a day doing everything they can to spend every moment with the horses, working until they collapse in bed late at night. And, loving every precious moment of their day.
About Jay Duke
Jake Duke is a show jumping rider, course designer, clinician, and Canadian Equestrian Team member, who has represented Canada in Washington, New York, and Toronto. A four-time Canadian Junior Champion and Leading Rider at the Spruce Meadows North American Championships, Jay has an extensive background with horses of all levels and breeds. For more information about Jay, visit: jayduke.com.