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Growing the Grassroots: Advisory Group Takes Inventory of 2018

by US Equestrian Communications Department | Jan 11, 2019, 7:02 PM EST

(left to right) Lisa Blackstone, Barb Kohr, Frank Madden, Mary Babick, Elisabeth Goth, and Bill Moroney speak at the Growing the Grassroots panel (Photo by Taylor Pence/US Equestrian)

Initiated by US Equestrian President Murray Kessler, the Grassroots Advisory Group is tasked with the responsibility of examining the barriers of entry for people into equestrian sport, opportunities for development and collaboration at the grassroots level with US Equestrian affiliates, how to better meet the needs of members, and how to promote the sport across all levels.

US Equestrian CEO Bill Moroney, along with Grassroots Advisory Group members Lisa Blackstone, Barb Kohr, Frank Madden, Mary Babick, and Elisabeth Goth addressed panel attendees, giving a report on the activity of the task force in 2018, what they learned, important initiatives, and where they are headed.

The Grassroots Advisory Group set out on the goal of identifying key issues at the grassroots level and raising awareness of existing affiliate and US Equestrian programs and initiatives that address those issues, finding the gaps in the ramp to entry into the sport, assisting affiliates in developing opportunities, and increasing awareness of and the benefits of US Equestrian.

Their starting point was to define “grassroots.” Within the sport of equestrian, this word has different meaning to different people, affiliates, and groups. However, the dictionary definition of grassroots is “ordinary people regarded as the main body of an organization’s membership.” Armed with this definition, the Grassroots Advisory Group reported the following on their work in 2018.

What the Grassroots Advisory Group Learned

  • A majority of US Equestrian members feel that they are encompassed within the definition of grassroots
  • Only a small number of members feel that the needs of the grassroots industry are being adequately addressed by governing bodies
  • The majority of members want to show, but the prohibitive cost and the feeling that they are not wanted or do not belong is a large barrier to entry
  • Each breed and discipline defines grassroots slightly differently and this creates unique challenges
  • Most members are unaware of US Equestrian’s benefits
  • Affiliates are US Equestrian’s connection to the grassroots level of the sport – therefore, both must work hand in hand to provide more opportunities for members, make them feel more important, and develop pathways to help members to advance to the upper levels of the sport if they so choose

2018 Initiatives of the Grassroots Advisory Group

  • Increased Alliance Partner engagement, including email blasts to contact lists with the invitation of a free fan membership to Alliance Partner organizations, education pieces focused on competitions, and education pieces focused on riders/owners/trainers
  • Competition 1, 2, 3: a tool for helping affiliates and competition managers with putting on cost-effective and successful competitions. The tools have suggestions on how to run competitions successfully, encourage participation, how to identify and remove barriers, and helping competitions focus on short-term solutions that do not involve rule changes
  • USEF Lite (formally Competition Lite) was approved by the board approximately two years ago but now has almost 80 competitions that are now US Equestrian competitions
  • Better explanation of the Drugs and Medications program through Learning Center videos and other online resources, as well as a celebrity endorsement campaign

Grassroots Advisory Group Looks Ahead

  • A major question is how we simplify equestrian sport. People new to the sport are getting lost in what can be an overwhelming experience – how can this be resolved or lessened?
  • Eliminating the barriers to entry; how can we create successful “on ramps” to the sport for all levels?
  • Affiliate engagement in developing breed- and discipline-specific programs that attract and retain members for both organizations
  • Research and investigation into creating an affiliate-wide riding stable directory
  • Creating a greater US Equestrian presence at events to welcome first-timers in the door at these events
  • Seriously consider the grassroots discussion from the Affiliate Roundtable meeting at the 2019 US Equestrian Annual Meeting

What Grassroots Advisory Group Members Had to Say

“We have to make that on-ramp experience fun and enjoyable, and safe and fair at the same time. … “The first thing we have to do in sport growth is connect people with a horse. When we look at the holistic approach to growing the sport, I believe the work of US Equestrian is to assist its affiliates in tearing down some of the barriers and then challenging each other with how we get people here. ...

“It is our job to expose people to the breeds and disciplines of the Federation, but first we have to get them through the door. …

“If we can connect an adult or a child physically [with a horse], you start right at that moment of starting a bond.” – Bill Moroney

“The biggest challenge for me with this project is defining what grassroots is. In Arabians, it’s about getting new people to engage with the Arabian horse. [US Equestrian] sees grassroots as those who are already on horses at the beginning level and getting them to move up. I’m not saying that any thought is wrong, there are just different ideas about where we need to start.” – Lisa Blackstone

“Yesterday, Howard Pike said that the sport is like a big parking garage. I thought that was a great analogy, because my perspective on this whole thing is really that the middle of our sport is focused on attracting new people. But in the in hunter/jumper world, it’s about keeping them. The upper levels of that parking garage are full, and the lower levels of that parking garage have tons of unrated horse shows. We are losing those people. …

“People want the rated shows, but right now there is no incentive.” – Barb Kohr

“I think we have to start from the bottom and work our way up, work these issues from the bottom up. I think one of the most important things is, number one, introducing people to the horse. We are all in it for the same reason, and it’s because we love horses. It is an extremely emotional sport, it’s expensive, with so many ups and downs, if you don’t have that love and passion for the horse, I tell people [they] are not going to survive it. So I think we have to find a way to introduce people to an actual connection to the horse.” – Frank Madden

“For all groups, creating pathways so that people understand how to be better and where you can possibly go. As a trainer, I will say, every student I have, even if they never go to a horse show, we always have a goal for them, and we help them to choose an appropriate goal so that they feel like they are making progress and they really enjoy the sport and are enjoying the horse. That is the thing that all of us could do a better job at, is creating these pathways and making sure that our riders are connected with their horse.” – Mary Babick

“The initial meeting with a horse or pony is of primary importance. … “Ultimately, it is that connection, and why it is so important to me personally, is that I want people to be lifelong equestrians. I want them to have good experiences, I want them to experience it all. …

“I want to see a return to good teaching and horsemanship that fosters better care, more love, and better stewardship of horses. I feel like this is a really large element, in a way, that has many aspects to it. And as you can see from the variety of answers, there are a lot of challenges facing many breeds and disciplines.” – Elisabeth Goth

View the entire panel discussion on-demand video on the USEF Network.

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