Murray Kessler officially become president of the newly branded US Equestrian (USEF) during the national convention earlier this month, and since that time has penned a detailed and passionate open letter to the horse community regarding his vision for the future.
Among his very first commitments was a guarantee to crack down on “casual acceptance of cheating” in the USEF-recognized sports, specifically as it relates to doping of horses. “We recently created the position of Chief Compliance Officer for the USEF. This person, armed with independent inspectors who are paid employees of the Federation, will begin to enforce competition quality and safety standards already spelled out in the rulebook.”
He also addressed the common complaint of plummeting access to affordable, lower level shows, citing a 40% drop in smaller recognized shows over the last 10 years and the consolidation of shows too rich for many. “Success at the top can’t come at the expense of access to our sport and crushing our grass roots foundation,” Says Murray. “To those who much is given, much will be expected.” He goes on to outline ways that top riders will be giving back to the sport via education and clinics.
He additionally touches on accountability, continued top performance at the world level, and the need for more member benefits.
You can read his full letter below.
Dear fellow USEF member,
Last Saturday, I was formally elected to be President of the United States Equestrian Federation.
I am deeply honored to have been elected to this volunteer position and am so excited to have been given this opportunity to help drive growth in equestrian sports in the United States.
For those of you who don’t know me, the first thing you need to know is that I come to this position with 45 years of equestrian experience. And put simply, I love horses. Our family didn’t have much money when I was growing up, so for me it was a struggle getting involved in our sport. I started at the grass roots one-day shows and over the years, as my career successfully progressed, our family got more involved with larger and larger events culminating with our daughter competing in the 2012 London Olympic Games in Show Jumping. Today, my wife and I live on our horse farm in Lexington, Kentucky, and both of us show in the amateur jumper divisions on a national level while our daughter competes on an international level. This 45-year journey at all levels of our sport has given me a unique perspective. As a result, I promise you I will advocate for our membership at all levels, in all breeds and in all disciplines. Every member of the federation is important and plays a role in our future.
The second thing you need to know about me is that I have been the CEO and Chairman of the Board of two fortune 500 companies over the last 15 years. This is important for two reasons. The first is that my business skills will help bring valuable experience in governance, process, leadership, analysis, and much more. An example would be the strategic plan that was just unveiled at the annual meeting. This plan outlines the future direction of the USEF and is highlighted by a re-brand of the federation, a new website, a new learning center and new membership categories. You can see the full presentation on the USEF Network. The second benefit of my corporate experience is that I am used to making tough decisions. The businesses I ran are heavily regulated and as you might expect, they required me to have thick skin as it related to managing the business.
I won’t sugar coat it. This job at the USEF requires someone with thick skin to bring the type of change that so many of you have been rightfully demanding. Based on your feedback in a recent member perception study, also shared at the annual meeting, the Board has charged us with addressing the following six priorities:
- A stronger stance on fairness & safety – Purposeful doping of horses cannot and will not be tolerated. The same goes for abuse. While we already have a robust drugs and medication program, it is clear that stronger rules and penalties were needed, and have been approved, to bring an end to cheating and the casual acceptance of cheating by some in our industry. Our membership relies on us to provide a level playing field and protect our horses. They also rely on us to use our best effort to protect human safety. Our immediate focus to further improve safety will be two-fold. We recently created the position of Chief Compliance Officer for the USEF. This person, armed with independent inspectors who are paid employees of the Federation, will begin to enforce competition quality and safety standards already spelled out in the rulebook. We have already increased communication and education regarding concussions and equestrian sports. We will further push for new helmet technologies and corresponding enhancements to protect participants against traumatic brain injuries. Safe sport education has also been implemented.
- Increasing access and growing participation – I’ve heard loud and clear the concern that competing in equestrian sports has become so expensive that it is prohibitive. I’ve also heard the perception that USEF only cares about the elite end of the sport and not the grass roots member. I think the most poignant quote comes from a recent member survey where someone told it like it is when they said, “You people at the USEF have lost touch with reality.” I’ve dug into the numbers and frankly they support these concerns. Smaller USEF horse shows have declined almost 40% over the last 10 years, while there has been a steady increase in large scale, more expensive to enter events. These larger shows, overall, have been good for the sport as they have driven more prize money, more television coverage, and higher rankings for U.S. riders, as just a few examples. Likewise, it is critical that Team USA continues to win at the highest levels. We need heroes (horses, riders, vaulters, and drivers) to inspire the next generation. But success at the top can’t come at the expense of access to our sport and crushing our grass roots foundation. I will tell you plainly that under today’s competition environment, my family would have never been able to afford to participate when we were first getting started and I wouldn’t be here writing you this letter today. The good news is that it’s not an either/or. It will be a high priority to provide low-cost solutions to grow participation in U.S. horse sports without sacrificing the success of Team USA. Furthermore, it will be an expectation for those at the very top of the sport, who benefit by significant investment from this membership, to give back to their community in various forms like participating in USEF-sponsored video clinics free to members and other opportunities to inspire the next generation. To those who much is given, much will be expected. You can already see a number of these educational videos in the new learning center on the website.
- Improved value and customer service to our members – The USEF has historically been a business-to-business organization. Members only joined because they had to in order to compete. As a result, as soon as they stop competing, they stop being a member. To put that in perspective, we turn over a staggering 21% of our membership every year. We announced at the annual meeting a dramatic improvement in member benefits and service to change this to an organization the members want to belong to, not just have to belong to. Things like increased access to education, discounts, and better data access are just a few examples of how we have improved value that ultimately should lead to a more stable membership base. That, along with the new low cost “fan” membership category ($25), will provide more access to our sport.
- Stronger collaboration with and among Federation Affiliates – One of the things I have quickly learned is that there are many great resources and experience at our affiliates that go unshared. This is a significant opportunity to benefit the combined community. I have also learned that many of our affiliates have a significant number of members who are not USEF members, tracing to a lack of perceived benefit. Hopefully, the improved value initiatives I just mentioned above will encourage higher levels of USEF membership by our affiliate partners.
- Creating pathways from grass roots to elite sport – It is essential that our teams continue to win at the highest levels. They are the engine that inspires the next generation and are the key to viewership and sponsorship growth as stated above. To keep them winning, our sport department has made significant changes, also announced at the annual meeting, that will ensure that happens. A new major events strategy has been put into place that will make sure our teams peak at the right time and also to encourage major events in the USA. It’s already working. We will have major World Championships in the USA in 2017 (Omaha FEI World Cup Finals – Dressage and Show Jumping), in 2018 (Tryon FEI World Equestrian Games – all eight FEI disciplines, and the Saddle Seat World Cup competition), and 2020 (Las Vegas FEI World Cup Finals – Dressage and Show Jumping). It was also announced at the annual meeting that there will be a second CCI4* Eventing competition in the United States starting in 2019. We are down to two finalists to host this event – Fair Hill and Great Meadow. In addition, Will Connell and team have developed a new pipeline strategy for horses and riders creating a solid pathway for riders aspiring to represent the United States one day.
- Increased Transparency & Accountability – There are times when the USEF, as the national governing body, must make decisions that are good for the sport but can be unpopular to some. While this won’t change, the basis for these decisions must be more transparent and the USEF itself must be held accountable to the membership for its decisions. We recognize that members can be frustrated when there is limited transparency in situations that are often emotionally charged like a drug violation hearing or an application to become a licensed official. Changes have already been made to be more transparent in hearing committee findings, licensed officials communications, communications from leadership via town halls, and there are more changes coming. Likewise, we must be accountable for the decisions we make and the investments we make with members’ dollars. Starting with this year’s annual meeting, we shared expanded financial reporting and business analytics so you can judge for yourself the progress of your Federation.
Each of these priorities will help the USEF achieve its new vision – To Bring the Joy of Horse Sports to as Many People as Possible. I hope you will help me make that vision a reality. We started last week’s annual meeting with 81,000 members. This is a level we have been stuck at for years. I’m proud to announce that today, with the help of some incentives for those at the Pony Club and interscholastic levels, we now have just over 100,000 members. We are off to a good start.
Finally, I wish all of you a great year in competition and much success. I hope you accomplish that success fairly and always keeping horse and human welfare an integral part of your winning ways. I thank you for being a member of US Equestrian.
Bringing the Joy of Horse Sports to as Many People as Possible,
Murray S. Kessler