WELLINGTON -- The North American Rider's Group is moving aheadwith evaluating 25 top hunter/jumper horse shows in North America asone of its priorities for the coming year.
Also on the NARG's to-do list: redistribute prize money, capentry fees, abolish the 250-mile radius non-compete rule betweenrecognized shows and evaluate the quality of World Cup qualifyingclasses.
In addition, NARG is backing proposed changes by theinternational governing body of equestrian sports, allowing for useof low-level non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs by horses incompetition.
The one-year-old group had its annual meeting Tuesday night atthe Wanderer's Club, drawing more than 200 riders, trainers, owners,show managers and interested horse people.
Last year's meeting was organizational.
This year's meeting had the goals and the methodology to getthere led by a board filled with super stars of the sport.
First on the agenda: a newly devised rating system that will rankthe top 25 major venues in the United States, Canada and Mexico. Thegroup already tested the system at the Hampton Classic Horse Show onLong Island in September.
Board member Murray Kessler described the Hampton Classic as 'oneof the best horse shows in the U.S.' But the show earned an overallscore of 81 percent, mostly due to low scores in the area offooting.
The evaluation consists of 500 total points, encompassing --among other things -- the quality of footing, stabling, courses,jumps, scoreboard, announcer, officiating, prize money, sponsorship,VIP facility, press relations, customer service and foodconcessions.
The most important category -- footing -- is 24 percent of thetotal score.
'We are not trying to set ourselves up as enemies of horse showmanagers,' Kessler said. 'We are lobbyists, activists on behalf ofriders and trainers.'
On the list: the 12-week Winter Equestrian Festival inWellington; Spruce Meadows in Canada; four HITS shows in Ocala,Thermal, Calif., Saugerties, N.Y. and Culpepper, Va.; as well asmajor horse shows in Syracuse, Delmar, Calif., Boston, Atlanta,Cleveland, Upperville, Va., and Devon, Pa., among others.
The theme of Tuesday's meeting: the system is broken and needs tobe fixed to elevate the sport in North America.
'How is the wealthiest nation running the poorest of shows?' saidboard member Andre Dignelli. 'There are no requirements for thingsthat really matter: footing, stabling, food, size of arenas,bathroom facilities, lounging areas -- all the things we know makeup a really great show.'
NARG wants to eliminate a long-standing mileage rule mandatingthat no United States Equestrian Federation-recognized show can takeplace within a 250-mile radius of another sanctioned show on thesame dates.
'We have no standards in place, we have no competition and now wehave no incentive for any of these shows to be any better,' Dignellisaid. 'The big question is what to do.'
The group plans to target improvements to the higher-endprofessional divisions with the benefits trickling down for thelower divisions.
'Things like footing is going to change, quality of events isgoing to change, entry fees are going to get lower and cost ofshowing in general is going to go down,' said NARG Vice PresidentMcLain Ward, a double Olympic gold medalist.
The prize money realignment and an entry fee rule cap is in theworks, with a goal of having a rule change by August, Ward said.
Treasurer Kent Farrington said 60 percent of a show's prize moneyshould be allocated to the open divisions (meaning the higher-leveldivisions.)
The juniors, amateurs and pony classes should not be competingfor higher prize money than professionals at the highest level,Farrington said.
Board Member Norman Dello Joio, a World Cup champion and Olympicbronze medalist, said entry fees should be more affordable for lower-level classes and there should be a fee cap on the bigger moneyclasses.
'There needs to be an incentive in place to rise to the top andreward people who try to improve their skills,' Dello Joio said.'Amateurs and juniors by definition should not be motivated byprofit, but by sharpening their skills as horsemen and riders. Bylowering costs, we are reemphasizing the importance of developinghorses and riders, which is where the true profit is.'
Ward added, 'It's time for this to change. We are costingourselves out of the sport. Even for the most affluent, the sport isgetting unaffordable and we are becoming a country club.'
Mark Bellissimo, CEO of Equestrian Sport Productions, whichproduces the Winter Equestrian Festival, said he supports what NARGis doing and believes there needs to be fundamental changes to thesport. Bellissimo said he is a strong believer in upping thestandards of the shows.
He does not agree, however, with eliminating the mileage rule.
'The reality is there is competition,' Bellissimo said. 'I've got300 horses from California coming here. They can go to Ocala,Gulfport, Phoenix, Texas or Southern California. But they come here.The mileage rule would destroy the sport. If there was no mileagerule, there would have been no improvements to WEF.'
Bellissimo and his Wellington Equestrian Partners sunk multi-millions into improving the Palm Beach International EquestrianCenter.
'The standards need to be elevated and that's what we're doing,'Bellissimo said. 'We started this thing in 2005 and have put tens ofmillions of dollars into it. I haven't seen a dime. I won't see adime for years ... There's a great opportunity here and that's whywe're heavily invested.'