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2006 ASHA Convention Takes Place In Lexington


by Christy Howard Parsons


LEXINGTON, Ky. -- The 2006 ASHA Annual Meeting and Youth Conference was held Feb. 16-18, 2006 at the Embassy Suites in Lexington, Ky. The proposed new split of the two-year-old three-gaited class at the World's Championship Horse Show dominated the open forums during the meeting, as it has the industry for the last several months.

At a retreat in French Lick, Ind., in the fall, the ASHA board of directors decided to ask Scarlett Mattson, manager of the World's Championship Horse Show, to consider splitting the two-year-old three-gaited class (which is typically split purely on numbers) on the basis of set tails versus unset tails. Mattson did decide to split the class in this manner, which set off a series of discussions at the UPHA Convention as well as letters to the editor in Saddle Horse Report and lively discussions on industry internet web sites.

On Thursday evening, the board of directors of the ASHA and representatives of the board of directors of the UPHA met to work out the related issues in a joint executive committee meeting. The consensus of this group was to unanimously vote to NOT have a rule change in 2008 for two-year-old tails to be uncut. The group also voted to strengthen the rule about crooked tails so that they would be severely penalized in the show ring. UPHA President Randy Harper and ASHA President Fred Sarver made this joint announcement in a well-attended open forum. The announcements were met with widespread applause.

Randy Harper addressed the crowd. “We need to discuss rule changes that are proposed with the UPHA and the ASHA and the USEF and work together better to promote the American Saddlebred horse and not hinder it anymore.”

Fred Sarver concurred, “We need to think as one unit; we have the greatest horse on earth. It's our horse and we need to nurture and take care of this thing. I consider it my honor and my duty to push this horse forward.”

Despite the joint decisions, many audience members wanted to be heard on the issue. Different industry members took the microphone to voice their concerns, many still calling for the class to not be held at the Kentucky State Fair, particularly when there  are many classes which have been waiting to be added to the Kentucky State Fair class schedule for many years.

Mary Ann Cronan answered these questions clarifying, “this is not a new class; it is a split section of an existing class. This is a chance to see something different, an opportunity, if you will, to see what these horses look like. There is an interest among members on the board in seeing this as an alternate view.” Cronan also clarified that the issue was about set and unset tails, not cut and uncut tails.

Many from the audience specifically requested that the hunter and western classes that have been waiting to have a class at Louisville for years be addressed. Scarlett Mattson said that the Fair Board is currently reviewing the class schedule and that they will be adding additional classes. “Western classes will attract crowds. Adding western classes is on the front burner now, not the back, the front,” said Mattson.

Scarlett Mattson also discussed how she will handle the split in the two-year-old three-gaited. She said she will be asking exhibitors when they enter to indicate whether they would show in the set or unset class. Once they've decided, they will not be allowed to change that decision.

“Last year there were 29 colts and the class had to be split. This year, some of those colts will opt to go in the unset class. You will let us know on your entry blank,” explained Mattson.

Additional discussion ensued and Scarlett Mattson announced she was working on the wording for the specifications of the class that will be released soon.

Sandy Lilly spoke as a member of the ASHA Board, “We as a board feel a sense of urgency. Our numbers are shrinking.” This represents the other thread of discussion that was woven throughout the annual meeting. In the open members’ forum, Alan Balch showed slides from the ASHA that illustrated the decline in registrations.

“There are breeds that were once robust that now cease to exist,” explained Balch. “We are not in that dire a circumstance yet, but it is a very serious matter.”

The Registrations by Foal Crop graph illustrates the number of registered foals born in each year. The 2005 numbers are misleading as many foals are registered as two-year-olds, but the overall trend on the graph is a decided decline. While numbers on the chart will continue to change as more registrations come into the office, very few Saddlebreds are registered after their four-year-old year.

The graphs of Mares Bred and Stallions Reporting also indicates a decline, although once again, 2005 numbers will continue to increase as late reports come into the office.

“It is extremely doubtful that 2005 numbers will get up to last year, however,” said Balch.

Balch also expressed concern over transfer numbers. He indicated that 2005 was about even with 2004 through July, but then started to weaken until there was a drastic decline in transfers in the last quarter of the year. “We have not had a quarter that low on transfers in our history,” said  Balch.

The total membership numbers are where the ASHA is the strongest, although the increase in 2004 of almost 1,000 members was due to the mandatory requirement to be an ASHA member to show at recognized horse shows. Balch indicated that the total number of recognized competitions is dropping.

Prize program payouts are growing, in large part due to the All American Cup and Bluegrass Futurity, which have boosted the total prize program payouts to a tentative total of $2.4 million. The ASHA has not released a final figure as they are still receiving data from prize programs across the country.

Donna Baldridge asked a question about the possibility of an amnesty program on registrations to encourage breeders who have not registered their horses to do so without incurring late penalties. Alan Balch answered that this was discussed at the 2005 annual meeting in the Breeders Committee and that they declined to recommend it to the board. Their primary concern was that if it is done once, everyone expects it again in the future, and that this was not fair to those who have paid the penalties and supported the Registry in the past.

Chuck Herbert asked the question about why breeding numbers were down and whether that was attributed to losing large breeders to attrition. Balch answered while anecdotally that seems to be true, upon examining the data, large breeders defined as persons registering 50-80 horses a year have always been very few in numbers and this did not have as much an impact as the drastic decline in people breeding one horse.

“We are still analyzing the data, so we're not ready to make a formal announcement. But it appears that there are about as many breeders registering 20-50 foals a year as in the past. What we have lost is breeders breeding one horse. It's still an open question, but it appears we are losing the small breeders,” said Balch.

Questions were asked about the impact of limited breeders programs like the All American Cup and the Bluegrass Futurity. In one forum on this topic, the founder of the idea of stallion service auctions, Rick Luft, released data indicating that in 2003, 9% of the mares bred were by donated stallion services. In 2004 that number was up to 13%.

“Stallion owners are under so much pressure to donate their services. This puts pressure on their bottom line,” said Luft.

Jim Aikman defended the programs. He runs one of the largest in the All American Cup. “These programs are designed to help the stallion owner. They are the most monetarily rewarding classes in the industry. At the All American Cup, $50,000 gets paid to the winner and the stallion donor of that winner gets $13,000 of that. Every stallion owner in America should strive to be a part of one of these auctions. They will be rewarded if they believe in their stallion,” said Aikman.

Some people discussed the downside of the program, when people who would like to breed to a stallion use the auctions as a vehicle to buy a cheap stallion service, even if they have no intention of showing in the class.

Wendy Lewis, who has won two stallion service auction classes and was third in the All American Cup this year, answered. “Stallion owners have to take more control. We buy ours back instead of letting them go cheap, then we sell it to one of our interested mare owners who would like to show in the class. You have to use it as a tool to get good mares to your horse. Everyone should be involved in these programs,” she explained.

As for the programs' impact on registrations, Fred Sarver said “We really can't tell. Would there have been a further decline without the limited breeders programs? They have definitely increased the number of registrations earlier in the year to meet the deadlines of the programs.”

Much discussion also centered around proving there is a value to registering horses. A lot of different breed associations are struggling to prove the value of owning a registered animal at the same time that total horse ownership in the United States in increasing.

Another topic of discussion is the new division, country park pleasure, which becomes effective in December of 2006. This new division will be judged just like country pleasure but it will allow professionals to show in the class, particularly when they need to school a country pleasure horse.

Other ideas before the board including regional championships are still being discussed. Louise Gilliland, director-elect, summed up the feelings of many at the Convention. “We must give credibility to every trainer of every horse, whatever his job may be.”

The ASHA has effectively negotiated its structural reorganization, which took place in 2005. The result is a financially strong organization that feels a sense of urgency to address its problems and that is poised to put forth ideas to grow the breed.

Alan Balch expressed his personal feelings in this way: “The beauty of this horse is what sells this horse. The Saturday night horses are the pinnacle of the breed. But for whatever reason the ‘elite’ threaten the ‘non-elite’ and the ‘non-elite’ threaten the ‘elite.’ We must meld those two together to work for the American Saddlebreds. That is the challenge before this leadership.”

Balch used an analogy of the alpine skiers who resisted the inclusion of snowboarding in the Olympics for many years because skiers considered snowboarders as “non-elite.” Now that snowboarding is in the Olympics and attracting more and more people to winter sports, the entire sport has benefited.

Balch asked the crowd to raise their hands if they were in favor of the concept of the "elite" and "non-elite" working together for the good of the breed. The result was a unanimous, positive response followed by applause.

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