Emily Morin’s first memories with horses were as a five-year-old. Growing up in Indiana, her mother, Marianne Ash, introduced her to the sport, and both competed, sharing an interest in developing young horses.

Nearly five decades later, Morin shares the sport with her own daughter, 16-year-old Gabrielle.

“It’s been a multigenerational experience,” Morin, a member of the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF), said.

An ophthalmologist by trade, Morin competes as an amateur, and she’s earned championship honors across the country, notably riding her faithful mount Ace of Spades to the Amateur Owner 36-and-over tricolor at the 2017 Washington International Horse Show. At the moment, she’s put the focus on Gabrielle’s endeavors in the equitation, junior hunter, and junior jumper divisions, though she fit in a few rounds of her own at the Great Lakes Equestrian Festival in Traverse City, Mich., in July.

Through three generations, the Morin family has seen hunter-jumper sport evolve greatly. But even as life has intervened with brief breaks for medical school and to raise her family, Morin asserts, she has always come back to the show ring with a familiar sense of comfort.

“I have been a USEF member my entire life, and as an amateur, I have been able to enjoy the sport on different levels at different times in my life,” said Morin, of McLean, Va. “USEF has sanctioned events all over country. Sometimes we’re [showing] in the Midwest, and sometimes we’re on the East Coast in Florida. It’s still a seamless experience for us, and it’s allowed us to connect as a family in a way that would be very different if we weren’t doing a sport that we could all enjoy.”

As an amateur rider, Morin makes up the largest portion of membership within the USEF, the national governing body of equestrian sport in the U.S. As the decision- and rule-making entity, the federation has come under scrutiny in recent years as defining issues have come to the forefront, from a human pandemic to equine virus outbreaks, from diversity, equity and inclusion programs to aligning with the U.S. Center for SafeSport, to the age-old dilemma of properly defining “amateurism” in the sport.

With those challenges has come significant leg work that, on a surface level, has meant additional requirements in training, paperwork, and fees for members. But for Morin, holding USEF membership has meant far more than rules, definitions, and fees. She associates USEF competitions with protection—for herself, her horses, and her daughter.

“USEF competitions don’t just have drug testing. The playing field is more equitable, the horses are healthier and safer for the people riding them, and there are programs in line to protect our youngest and most vulnerable,” Morin said.

Safe Sport is the most visible protection measure for young athletes. What’s less widely understood is USEF’s role to protecting horses and humans. For that, we have to dive into the legislative weeds.

Crisis management

In 2020, equestrian sport was among the first to return to play following the global shutdown of sport due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was a feat largely accomplished due to the quick creation and implementation of protocols to ensure horse and rider safety. Michael Stone, the president of Equestrian Sport Productions (ESP)—which operates the Winter Equestrian Festival (WEF), the longest-running equestrian event in the world—worked in collaboration with USEF and the Fédération Équestre Internationale (FEI) to help lead the charge on reopening.

“They basically helped us coordinate an industrywide response. We were pushed in the position that we were the first real show to get off the ground after the initial lockdown,” Stone said. “So we work very closely with USEF; with Dr. Mark Hart, the USEF and FEI chief medical officer; and with the FEI to come up with the protocols that eventually were established across the country, most of which we’re still actually doing today.”

ESP reopened in July 2020 in the midst of the pandemic, welcoming exhibitors with masks, thermal temperature checks, and social-distancing protocols. ESP still requires exhibitors to have their temperature checked upon entry to their facilities, and the number of people on site at competitions is still somewhat restricted. All visitors on site must wear masks indoors, as well.

When a second virus—this one equine—affected operations in Wellington, Fla., in 2021, Stone again proactively worked alongside USEF to ensure the welfare of their exhibitors and their horses.

In March 2021, news of an EHV-1 case in Ocala, Fla., broke. USEF immediately distributed its Biosecurity Measures Pamphlet and Toolkit for equine events. WEF restricted access to the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center and Equestrian Village showgrounds for horses outside the immediate vicinity of Wellington and required trainers to institute twice-daily temperature logs for all horses stabled on site. Both organizations issued statements strongly urging equestrians not to ship horses throughout the state for the foreseeable future.

“It really was a collective effort, which I think was especially due to the transparency and openness USEF showed right from the beginning [of the EHV-1 outbreak],” Stone said. “There was no cover-up or no pretending this didn’t exist. That’s the role of national governing body.”

Both USEF and the FEI continue to provide sanctioned competitions with COVID-19 risk assessment and mitigation plans. In September, ESP was recognized with a SUNsational Award for outstanding event safety from the Florida Festival & Events Association.

The conduit to high-performance sport

As Stone describes, USEF is the “conduit to high-performance sport.” In the U.S., only USEF sanctioned events may host FEI events. ESP held 14 weeks of FEI competition between January and April 2021 alone. Four of those competitions were held at the CSI5* level, the highest available in the sport.

“They’re our conduit to the FEI, whom we work really closely with on all aspects of the horse show at the highest level—everything from the competition to organizational structure to health, safety, welfare, all those sort of areas, as well as scheduling,” Stone said. “So there’s a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes that most people don’t even realize is there.”

With those clearly defined rules come the teeth to enforce them. USEF’s complaints process arms stewards with the tools and sanctions to enforce the federation’s bylaws—something that becomes increasingly important with international competition. The higher the prize money, the greater the incentive to cheat and the risk to horse safety.

“I firmly believe that we have to have a strong USEF who enforces the rules,” he added, “which will drive people up the wall from time to time, drive people mad. But if we don’t have the USEF supporting us, any enforcement just goes out the window, and then when you have other organizations organizing horse shows with, you know, virtually no rules, no restrictions, that’s when you really get into a scary scenario. That will do more damage to the sport than anything.”

A level playing field

High-performance sport, of course, doesn’t apply to the majority of USEF’s membership. The federation’s governance, however, does.

“People really don’t understand what putting on a horse show entails. Horse show managers don’t exist without exhibitors, and exhibitors don’t exist without managers. You need a governing body to oversee how all of that works,” said Archie Cox, a trainer as well as a USEF licensed official and “R” judge.

“USEF gives me, a horse trainer in Southern California, the ability to work locally, regionally, and nationally and know that the safety of my riders and horses will be ensured [wherever I go to compete].”

Cox, who runs his Brookway Stables out of Lake View Terrace, Calif., has served on the USEF Board of Directors, was a founding board member of the United States Hunter Jumper Association (a USEF affiliate organization), and has trained more than 50 USEF National Champions. He has served as a judge for 18 years and has been a licensed steward for nearly a decade. Attending USEF horse shows, Cox is able to view the competition before him from a variety of perspectives.

“Going to any USEF competition, I’m aware of class restrictions, a rider’s eligibilities, of schooling ring rules, and of the drugs and medications program, which the USEF oversees,” Cox said. “All of those things give me a sense of confidence for the horse and the rider, to compete against like-minded equestrians and to be protected.

“Throughout the years of being a USEF member, of being a USEF board member and a founding board member of USHJA, I can understand and appreciate that the amount of work and different layers of administration are enormous,” he added. “Rules are so important to have, and when you look at them, you realize they are made for the majority and to ensure the safety and welfare of the horse as well as fair competition.”

As an official, Cox is also required to complete continuing education courses, where rules are not only explained, but also reviewed and amended.

“That does help to create a sense of fairness and understanding by the different judges of what is the standard, what is correct, what is correct position,” Cox explained. “The Rulebook will tell you. It’s all there.

“There’s a continuing dialogue [at these meetings], and all of the rules that are passed, prior to being passed by the board, are vetted by so many committees,” he added. “I try to stay involved in the rule change process, because I’m in the field. What works in an office or on paper often doesn’t work in practical application. It’s a little different. That’s where being involved on a volunteer basis is so good.”

Clean sport across the board

USEF recognizes 11 breeds and 18 disciplines, including the Olympic and Paralympic disciplines. To execute its large umbrella of oversight, the federation works in lockstep with affiliate organizations.

“At the end of the day, we’re all trying to compete in a clean sport,” said Deborah Johnson, Arabian Horse Association President. “There’s consistency across competitions to ensure fair competition across the board. There’s consistency across different levels [of the sport], from a local show to a national championship show. There’s a level expectation for participants, and drugs and medications rules are consistent as well. It just creates a level playing field.”

Johnson, currently in her first year as AHA President, is a longtime USEF member, and she works with the federation to establish association rules, manage budget, and develop programs that bring value to membership. Each breed has a rules committee, and that group comes together at the National Breeds and Disciplines Council, which oversees the national breed and non-FEI sport programs within USEF.

While affiliate organizations run independently, they have USEF’s support, guidance, and access to resources. The federation also advises the federal government on horse protection rules, some related to specific breed shows.

“You have to constantly be aware of what is out there from a political and government standpoint. As the world moves, [you have to be aware of] the flow of public thought and public perception of what is reality,” Johnson said. “Having rules there to support you and protect you [as an association] protects the horses, the humans, and the sport.”

It’s a relationship that has and continues to evolve.

“There’s always the aspiration of finding the best ways to align the breed with national governing bodies,” Johnson said. “It’s a never-ending conversation. We’re always doing our due diligence [to make sure] that we’re aligned in the best way to go forward.

“It’s positive,” she added. “There is a lot of good going on.”