From the Front Office: We Have To Give The Power Back to the People

In recent weeks, the competitive equestrian community has become enthralled by the relationship between the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) and the World Equestrian Center (WEC). The disconnect that began as a disagreement regarding facets of the mileage rule and approved dates has now disintegrated past who is right to whether or not the sport and its relationship with its governing body need to fundamentally change. Discussions of top officials’ salaries, frustrations that amateur athletes and horse owners are not as important as professional athletes have boiled over, and things seem more unstable than ever in recent memory. Of the many voices that have been heard as part of this debate, horse show managers have been surprisingly quiet. This interview is meant to give the perspective of one horse show owner and manager, to help shed light on the complicated nature of competitive equestrian sport in America, and thoughts on if and how things can change.

Ali Nilforushan, the Iranian Olympic show jumping athlete, owner and manager of the popular Nilforushan Equisport Events, in Temecula California, and horse dealer, took time to discuss this topic. Nilforushan has always been outspoken about being a horse show manager and the difficult balance there is between hosting an event for the participants, and not just as a money-making enterprise, where horsemen are secondary. Coming on the heels of running an almost 500-horse event, he gave his insights on both sides of the argument. His thoughts offer another side to the conversation that continues throughout the industry.

Ali and Francie Nilforushan with Grand Prix athlete Mandy Porter

The question of the fairness of the milage rule was the first topic in our conversation and set the tone for a more unique perspective than has been heard thus far.

“When I got into the business, I was the number one poster child for getting rid of the mileage rule,” recalled Nilforushan. “As a horse show organizer, I still struggle with the mileage rule to get dates, but as I’ve educated myself in the business and I’ve seen the numbers, and there is no question that it is absolutely silly to think that you could get rid of the mileage rule. Can it be tweaked? Yes, but if you took away the mileage rule, there’s zero chance that a horse show organizer like me could put out money that we do. In many cases, it is a copout for managers to blame USEF and the milage rule.”

Ali Nilforushan

“Take California, and I only speak from my perspective in California, if you take the 1500 available horses and you divided that into four (4) venues which would most certainly run horse shows, every one of us would have to shut down. You’ll get one or two big, very wealthy people who will come into the industry, build these monster factories of horse shows, but you lose any unique feel with boutique type horse shows that someone like me tries to put on,” he explained. “That’s not what’s good for our sport. The problem isn’t the mileage rule. The problem is the implementation of the mileage rule. I’m a rider, I’m a trainer, I’m a horse dealer, and most of the year, other than my shows, I’m just like everyone else, and we speak with our wallets. We just need more options against mediocre “A” shows.”

One of the concepts that Nilforushan kept referring to in his assessments was that the rating of the horse shows really mattered. Many equestrians on the competitive circuit fail to consider that there are ratings other than “A” or “AA” and that having that high of a rating forces an event to meet certain criteria. Lower level shows offer the same types of classes, but in a different setting and certainly at a different price point and offer just as valuable of opportunities for equestrians with different budgets.

“At the high-level shows, this is an expensive sport. You can’t bring affordability into the discussion when you’re talking about venues that are trying to put out a high-level product. I believe that the ratings are being too easily given to horse shows. If you are given a ‘AA’ rating, you have a major responsibility to live up to that rating and be able to prove that you did. The simplest way that I see to have that happen is to give the power to the people and let them vote on the best and most successful events at different levels of attendance. If horse shows or managers do not meet their goals for their rating every two years, then their event gets dropped down, and that in turn opens the door for a new event to come in and be more innovative.”

Ali Nilforushan during a prize-giving at Nilforushan Equisport Events in 2019.

From Nilforushan’s perspective, the problem is not USEF management but that many managers think they have more ability than they do, and they apply for ‘A’ ratings when they should be applying for a ‘B’ rating and having a beautiful and successful B-rated horse show.

“It really boils down to letting the horseman and spectators have more power than the event organizers themselves,” remarked Nilforushan. “If you put on a horse show that no one is happy with, that’s when we should expect USEF to step forward and go ‘Look: here is your two-year history. You didn’t meet the criteria, and we’re going to adjust your rating to allow an opportunity for another person to take over the dates.'”

Nilforushan believes that the integrity of USEF and its mission to serve equestrians and horse enthusiasts is solid, but that potentially the sport has moved away from following the rules as they were intended when they were made. He also believes that the villainization of USEF and its staff is the least effective way that the community can promote change.

“This nonsense of blowing up USEF and forgetting about the heritage of the sport in America, our community’s culture, and personally attacking the staff that exists to help our community day in and day out has to stop,” says Nilforushan. “I do not believe that we have to scrap everything that USEF has accomplished. USEF and USHJA are fantastic organizations that keep the sport clean and give us great year-end goals. Attacking people online and saying that as a sport that we need something new, is just not the answer, and it does not speak to the integrity of our community as a whole.”

Nilforushan is under no false pretenses that he is in a silent minority of athletes and USEF members that want to find ways to move forward with the current rules. Athletes like Rodrigo Pessoa (also a former horse show organizer in Europe) have made the argument that it is time for America to drop the mileage rule and make horse shows more like they are in Europe – where no similar rule exists. As an athlete and fellow Olympian, Nilforushan takes the opinions of his peers incredibly seriously, but there also does exist a separation of the European model and the American model, which is based mostly on the availability of meaningful corporate sponsorship.

“Trying to make the European system happen in America will never work for us. The big problem is we need more people in the sport,” says Nilforushan. “In Europe, horses are woven into the fabric of the lives of the general population, and many riders care for their horses in the morning and go to school or work after and do the same thing when they come home. It creates a top-down effect for sponsors, events, athletes, and so on. That is not equestrian sports in America, and we need to do a better job being inclusive with different levels of events. It is difficult to disagree with Rodrigo Pessoa because he is a legend in our sport around the world and a personal friend. When I was simply a rider and a horse dealer, I felt the same way that he does, but now that I am a manager, I feel differently, and I see the sport differently.”

Finally, taking the conversation full-circle, Nilforushan believes that the spark that ignited this conversation about mileage rules and accessibility will find a resolution on its own.

He concluded, “We have a culture that we should be proud of, and we need to be open to making changes without so much hate and vitriol. We don’t need any more conventions or meetings. We need to come together and make the appropriate changes based on what the horseman want and allow the sport to grow naturally. We will weed out the complacent management and make sure that only the best product is available for each rating level.”

For more information regarding Ali Nilforushan and the Temecula Valley National Horse Show, click here.

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