I do understand the facts and sentiment driving Patti Stedman’s recent essay “Enough is Enough” as well as the many similar statements and calls to action. There are some subtle but very important distinctions that are consistently being missed in this kind of perspective.   There is important background that keeps getting swept under the rug during the distraction of such rhetoric.
I have long been critical of the way AERC submitted to FEI/USET(USEF) demands in the very beginning. The AERC was once an organization with a boarder-blind, multi-national(continental) identity and a global outlook. Its influence expanded rapidly from its origins in California because of the broad demand for a standardized set of rules and record keeping, as many different events inspired by the integrated veterinary control system of Western States (Tevis Cup) began to propagate across North America.
In the early expansion of the discipline it was recognized that standardized rule and recording of performance, applied over as wide an area as possible, was a vital foundation for equestrian sciences and particularly of maintaining a vibrant and healthy gene pool. This consistency in competition also enhanced the disciplines appeal as a sport with global potential. This in turn promoted greater interest in quality breeding and research, so to this extent the economic development of the competitive sport and supporting industries was also in the best long-term interest of equines. We had a very healthy form of globalization underway, and the AERC was the principal supplier of rules and recording standards behind it all.
Then after some initial resistance, the AERC submitted to FEI/USET assertion that the AERC should be a single nation governing body, thus subordinate in the FEI’s INTERNATIONAL system. In complying with this externally imposed definition of itself, the AERC disrespected its non-USA members by forming only one committee to interface with one national federation, creating unequal representation among its membership. “International” is not the same as “global”. International competition is mock wars between sovereigns. In this environment the athletes, and especially their mounts, are inherently little more than solder pawns of a sovereign power.
Those sovereign powers may be autocracies seeking to popularize and secure the power of it’s nobles, or they may be a democratic representation of a million couch potatoes looking to see a new type a sensational sports drama, like watching NASCAR to see the wrecks.  Either way, the populist influence is not good for horses.  For each person that is excited by the drama of the “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat”, there many more that are appalled at having horses involved in such human follies.  Since the most vocal are only equipped with reference that is supplied to them in the form of the anthropomorphizing caricatures of popular media, they really can’t be expected to clamor for any solution more complex than an empathy driven demand for complete shutdown of the sport. Empathy is not the same as compassion (1), so in the end, horses will suffer more in this outcome too.
However big a juggernaut FEI is globally today, there is good reason to question how much longer the world will continue support any animal sports business model that must leverage nationality as the core of its power structure. If the FEI doesn’t undertake major efforts toward a very fundamental change soon it will be to late for this Titanic of an organization of maneuver sustainably into the future. We should all hope that the FEI will have an epiphany soon, but we should do more than just complain about the FEI or withdraw from interaction altogether and wait for it. There is much that can be done to create positive change with or without FEI cooperation. We all need to prepare for the void that will eventually be created if the FEI does not wake up, and in doing to so we create the strongest incentive of all for FEI to awaken from its nostalgic slumber and change.
Our horses can benefit immensely by global standards in endurance tests, but they have suffered enough in the quirky wars and political games of man. In learning how to support horses more globally, without dragging them into our petty tribal rivalries and politically stacked bureaucracies, we will exercise wisdom that is important for our own welfare.
It’s impossible to accomplish anything globally without paying basic respects to the various legal structures of the nations that quilt the planet. However, it is not essential that the business models be based on license to economic monopolies in each sovereign, or against governance entities that are represented in several sovereigns.
In summary, standardization and globalization of practices in sports is of vital importance to the welfare of equines, but we should be critical about the degree to which nationalism needs to be a part of globalization.
Whenever the AERC posts new proclamations about what it dislikes about the FEI or International competition, what it “cannot tolerate” the FEI is allowing to happen, that it should not ratify the terms the FEI has drafted for it, that it will stop diplomatic relations and withdraw into its own more limited domain; the AERC is effectively defining itself in subordinate relation to the FEI and international competition.
It is unfortunate that this FEI-reactive definition of its own identity has also resulted in other unhealthy changes in the AERC community. In the absence of popular understanding of details behind the issues in international competition, there arose a popular rejection of many aspects of the pursuit of excellence itself.  Notable exceptions to this popular dismissal of achievement in the AERC have largely centered around the completion of mileage and the softening of reward standards that enhance the enlistment of new entry level membership.   It is no coincidence that this pattern aligns with AERC’s own limited business model and its most immediate avenues of cash flow.
In its own way, the AERC has created its own unhealthy bias toward a very constrained scope in the pursuit of excellence. This has also depressed its support of the economy of associated industries and endeavors. While the U.S. economy has been blamed for the recession of participation and the withering of our major breeders,  the same activities have been expanding in other nations with weaker economies.   This economically oppressive and short-sighted outlook has impacted the character of the new applications for membership, disenchanting youth with aspirations toward long range, full time commitment to the discipline; and attracting older, recreationally oriented participants who shared in the limited view of excellence.   Thus, the AERC fell into a classic self-fulfillment feed-back loop of populism, complete with its oppression of creativity and achievement,  and the declining spiral dynamics of a pursuit of mediocrity.
There is a better way. There is a way for the AERC to become more honorable and resolute in its mission, and to respectfully allow other organizations the opportunity to decide if they would like to interact on AERC’s terms. I will point out how the AERC can re-secure and even expand its own identity, independent of what is going on in the world elsewhere, and still be diplomatically open for contact, ready to cooperate with change for good.
The world needs examples governance organization that endeavors to EXCEED what is available today. We need governance that has the capacity to be objective, self-examining and creative, such that it never stops looking to improve itself. We need to continuously refine best practices. We need to support the pursuit of excellence in our systems of governing and the definitions we doctrines we base them upon, just as we support the broad pursuit of excellence in horses and horsemanship.
To do this the AERC needs to begin by becoming precise in its understanding of itself, and more explicit in its projection of its mission.  We must learn to do better than to quote oxymoron and other rhetoric that is in abject conflict with the written word of the AERC’s own by-laws and rules.
The AERC needs to resolve many conflicts of logic in its policies. We need to ask questions of ourselves such as: Why does the AERC continue to maintain by-laws that prohibit it from sponsoring anything but races when so many of its participants do not want to race? If we really take this thought exercise seriously and contemplate how we might correct this conflict, it unravels a long string of non-sensical affronts of logic.      (I’ll save further expansion in this area for another time)

 

 

Say what you mean, mean what you say

Would not a rose by any other name…….
We shouldn’t depend on creating our own definitions of words in defiance of Webster’s dictionary to explain ourselves. This only make us appear less credible in the end. It doesn’t need to be this way. We can fix this and be better off for it.
As I just indicated, many of the changes that need to be undertaken must begin with a formal revision of AERC by-laws. For the most part, the by-laws have been a useful document, but many clauses that seemed appropriate or harmless in 1972 don’t accurately reflect the long term best interest or values of the membership; and the environment of the distance riding discipline today.
We came into the quirky rhetoric of defining the races that AERC was formed to promote as “Endurance Rides” because of the nature of competition for market share with competitive trail ride organizations that once dominated the distance riding scene in America.   The win the most new members AERC needed to capitalize on its races potential for excitement and yet appear as temperate as competitive trail rides when needed.  The AERC adopted a somewhat disingenuous approach for playing both sides at once to the market, attracting potential members away from competitive trail riding and in into its projection that its all-race catalog was a complete entry level to elite program for a distance riding discipline.   It exclusively offered more entertaining and exciting races but also promoted the use of language to describe those races by more general terms which rhetorically avoided explicit association with the history and potential hedonism of “jackpot racing”.  People then could actively support racing by their participation dollars, and simultaneously distance their egos from association with any heinous behavior with their rhetoric.   How convenient!   Thus trite, misdirecting and inaccurate statements became the norm.   The practice was an immediate marketing success for the AERC, but it has left us with a deeply embedded conflict that tortures the soul of the discipline everywhere to this day.
Take a moment to look at the AERC by-laws at 4.01(a).
Let’s examine the language more honestly for what it is, and more precisely according to commonly accepted definitions of the words of English language. A race is an event where the winner is the fastest to complete the course. It is an indication of the self-fooling disingenuity of the day that the by-laws went to the bother of attempting to redefine the more general term “Endurance Ride” to be the most commonly applied one to the AERC’s exclusively race events.   An “Endurance Race” is a type of “Endurance Ride”.  There was no need to attempt to make a specific definition of the common words “Endurance Ride” in the by-laws except to play rhetoric games and discourage use of the more precise and accurately transparent description of AERC Endurance Races.
The AERC should change its by-laws to accommodate the support of other distance riding formats in which the winner is not necessarily the fastest to complete the course. We should especially be sure to support events were there is no “winner” at all, just academic grades. The by-laws currently regulate that the only type of endurance ride the AERC sanctions is a race. This makes the mantras “to finish is to win” and “it’s a ride not a race” just non-sensical and deceptive statements in conflict with the facts of the organization’s legal definitions.
If the AERC will free itself of this counterproductive, self-imposed, limitation of only sponsoring races, we open the possibly of creating entry classes at AERC events with rules and scorings that are more specifically tailored to those that want to ride in a structured event but are not interested in participating in race.   This would allow us to honor the integrity of the competitive result of races as a guide for better breeding and a measure of equestrian skill, while providing non-racing participants a more productive experience as well. Most particularly, this can allow is to construct more effective platforms for young horses and neophyte riders to learn and grow. We can create event formats were the resulting scoring is more of academic in nature.
There are times when a race, performed in the proper reverence and for the pursuit of knowledge, is the ultimate format to discriminate and rank the most advanced participants. This knowledge is of vital importance to the equine species. It is our best opportunity to return a long-range positive contribution.
Other non-race formats have better potential to carefully nurture the early development of that reverence and respect for knowledge, and the respect for the individual equines we partner with in that quest. Trainers with this experience and insight will realize that the same academic formats are also the best tools for careful development of potential endurance race athletes.
We should support many formats of distance riding. Each will have a place and proportion in the most effective distance riding and endurance testing program. The discipline cannot reach its full potential without unified governance of the whole.
This unification concept will result in overlap with the domains of other distance riding organizations, particularly those which the AERC has previously competed with for memberships and participations. There may be opportunities for merger that would resolve this unnecessary and counterproductive competition between distance riding organizations.

How could good people let this Happen?

While we are “under the hood” and going through the process of editing the by-laws, we should also consider other past due updates. Most notably is the glaring conflict with the nature of human interaction in civic groups. The AERC’s highest order body, its Board of Directors, is unwieldy and dysfunctional large.   This is at the core of how otherwise intelligent people make the kind of collective miss-steps I just described and why we have such a hard time correcting our errors.
Humans perform their most efficient and creative work in smaller groups. In groups of 5-7 we tend to have enough minds to field and develop new ideas efficiently, and the group is broad-based enough democratically to keep the wildest schemes in check. Larger groups become more democratic still, but also more creatively constrictive, as there is more propensity to form coalition against an innovative or complex proposal. By the time a decision-making body gets to be larger than 13 it becomes much more likely that a sophisticated proposal can’t be adequately conveyed to enough people to survive rebuttal. It is much easier to kill a good idea than to present one.  The resulting intellectual constipation proves the axiom that “none of us is as dumb as all of us”.
The AERC board of directors, its ultimate decision body according to by-law, is 26 voting members.   If we could populate it with 26 Einstein’s we would still have trouble getting the most mindful and creative thinking to pass through this gauntlet.
It’s also a common tendency of a primary authority group this large to have trouble delegating and respecting advisements from committees.  There is always at least one person on a 26-member board with enough personal interest in a matter to pull its detailed discussion into the board of directors, thus usurping any charter a committee might have been authorized to carry. I’ve watched many hard-working Presidents do their best to exercise the full potential of committees, but it is difficult to keep committees populated at all when the wind is so often taken from their sails.
The decision-making body is then so large and so democratic that decisions are seldom different from what could be more efficiently resulted by taking a poll on Facebook. This may seem like a triumph of public will, but groups acting with this much populist democracy always turn polarized, unstable in seeing through long term plans, unable to grasp innovation, and ultimately become self-defeating. Therefore, we must work to create and evolve appropriate structures of a representative republic, to keep this self-defeating tendency in balance. Times always change, successful evolution of institutional structure is the key. If this sounds like a familiar problem, it is.
The solution in this instance is to construct a new hierarchy of power, a power structure that breaks decision makers into smaller groups in a prescribed pattern. For example, this might be with a modest sized board of directors-at-large at the top of the structure, with several regional directorships under the primary group but with certain by-law prescribed powers that can’t be usurped by the upper body. This is just one example. I welcome all to think about this concept and make other proposals of structure.

 

KNOW THYSELF

Once we have completed such a re-invention of the AERC, when the organization has a less self-conflicted and more functional definition, the relationship pattern with other organizations like the FEI will inherently change. The root issues we have been witnessing in international endurance are the same ones we have been struggling with in America since before the FEI adopted endurance racing and continue to struggle with today.    The FEI simply absorbed the AERC’s flawed projection that a progression of increasing distances of racing constitutes a complete distance riding program and injected it with the steroid of the international circus’s pomp and prestige.   The AERC created the original dysfunctional concept, the FEI only amplified and broadcasted it.   It made the defects of our own creation glare back at us like never before.   That’s why we are so sensitive, so defensive.
Our “we are not like you” identity proclamations won’t be necessary when the AERC is freed from the present internal conflicts of identity and able to focus more on its own pursuit of excellence.   When the AERC’s mission can be clearly and accurately supported by its own by-laws and when its members can convey how they participate with accurate and intelligible statements, we won’t need to be so concerned about being mistaken in our interactions with other groups.   When the AERC’s own identity is clearer it will appear to all as distinct in and of itself, and we won’t need to be as paranoid about cross-contamination of public relations in any future attempts to cooperate with other organizations.
When the AERC has secured itself with by-laws that genuinely reflect its aspirations for integrity it may then choose to cooperate with the other organizations in a completely different manner. The AERC will be better able to author terms of inter-organizational relationships based on its own mission, and other organizations will be able to choose how they want to cooperate or not.
When the AERC finds the courage to acknowledge its errors and rectify its short-comings; its conflicts of logic, language and wisdom; it will be much easier for the rest of the world to follow.   If the AERC cannot undertake this rebirth soon, one where it can respect and dignify many forms of distance riding tests, including racing, it will eventually be overtaken by another organization that can meet those demands.   The AERC has been pointing fingers and fielding arrogant and irrelevantly specific directives after examining through a pipe from a distance.   Meanwhile the world has been looking back to the AERC, the originator of the modern endurance concepts, for inspiration toward fundamental solutions and seeing nothing but another form of infighting over blatantly false rhetoric.   The world needs a better example.
We were the first to screw this up.   We should be the first to fix it.
Our horses have waited long enough.   The world has waited long enough.
Enough is Enough.

IT PAST DUE TIME TO RECONSTUCT THE AERC BY-LAWS!!!

 

For additional narrative about the related history of endurance riding and potential paths into the future please see my journal of essays, starting with The Rebirth of Endurance Tests (currently at the very bottom if the Journal page)

1. For more on this on this very important distinction between empathy and compassion I highly recommend Yale Professor Paul Blooms book Against Empathy
There is an excellent review of this book here

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