This was edited on March 21, 2015, to more precisely reflect the direct quotes found in the AQHA transcript of Johnny Trotter's speech.
I made a quick (36-hour) trip to Fort Worth over the weekend to attend Saturday's events at the AQHA Convention, which also commemorated the association's 75th anniversary.
The overarching feel at the event was positive. There were lots of celebrations, including the Hall of Fame inductions, the Cowtown Showdown exhibition, and the year-end high-point awards ceremony. I saw many pats on the back and high-fives over the current status of the cloning lawsuit, with the district court judge favoring AQHA's stance against registering clones. (The plaintiffs have noted that they're in the process of appealing.) And there was just a feeling of pride for having reached the milestone of becoming an industry leader over the course of 75 years.
But as you'll read below, there was an undertone of concern, calling out the organization and its membership to do what's right for the horse rather than serve personal interests, to focus on improving the welfare of the horse, and improving the membership experience.
I went to both the general membership meeting and the show committee meeting on Saturday. Here's what I took away from the discussions.
General Membership Meeting
I ran into an old friend from my days at AQHA on my way into the meeting. She noted that registrations were up for this convention, with more than 1,000, which is likely attributable to the location, right in the center of Texas Horse Country. The large ballroom at the Fort Worth Omni hotel saw every seat full, and numerous people standing in the back of the room.
After the opening of the meeting, the Mayor of Fort Worth, Betsey Price, spoke about a city she loves very much. It's clear that she was trying to sell the attendees on the attractiveness of Fort Worth for major events, even noting that the city has missed AQHA since the Youth World moved to Oklahoma City in 2007. She noted that the Will Rogers Memorial center will undergo a major upgrade, to be complete in 2018. It'll include underground warm-up facilities and tunnels to the John Justin arena. Price noted, "Your shows will fit here," with a smile.
Outgoing President of the Executive Committee Johnny Trotter spoke quietly, with a deep Texas drawl, but he was clear and adamant about one thing: "I have always felt that each of us needs to do what is best for AQHA and the horse, and forego personal bias. Members of the Executive Committee, task forces, and voting body members should serve with credibility."
He spoke sternly about drugging and welfare, across showing and racing, saying, "I think people now know that we are serious about cleaning up our sport--by ourselves--without Washington outsiders or animal rights activists telling us what to do."
He advised that the owners must take responsibility by giving their trainers specific instructions of ethical training expectations. He also thanked Carol Harris for her efforts to bring welfare to the forefront of the discussion. (See more about that below.)
The financial report, given by Trent Taylor (chief operating officer and treasurer), hasn't been a highlight of the meeting since the industry went into a downturn. But he began by noting that it's the best report he's given in years, with the first increase in total revenue since 2008, registrations increasing by 9 percent over last year, and the first time that the number of mares bred has increased since 2008.
AQHA Executive Vice President Don Treadway gave his final address to the general meeting, as he'll retire soon and Craig Huffhines (pronounced HUFF-heinz, in case you introduce yourself to him) will take his place at the helm. Treadway began with a warning that he might get emotional, which is to be expected from someone who's spent his entire 41-year career in the same organization. He gave an oral history of the organization, and was presented with a custom Montana Silversmiths buckle. He noted, "I've never won a buckle!"
Show Committee Meeting
Members jam-packed the Show Committee meeting, with all chairs full. Meeting process dictates that the moderator (2015 AQHA Professional Horsewoman of the Year Stephanie Lynn) reads the rule changes up for consideration, and attendees can speak in support or disapproval.
The Protect Them Coalition, represented by Kathie Hansen, spoke about changing the penalties schedule of fines; adding a statement of protecting the Quarter Horse's welfare to the association's mission statement; and hiring professional stewards to police shows, rather than the peer-based system that's currently in place. This coalition represents what Johnny Trotter mentioned in his address when he thanked Carol Harris for her efforts.
Lynn Palm spoke about adding Western dressage to the standard slate of show classes, including at the World Shows, noting that "as ranch riding classes have proven, pattern classes get participation."
The raising of the age to compete in select classes (now 50; proposed to raise to 62) seemed to largely face opposition. While a change could beef-up the amateur classes if those riders ages 50 to 61 decide to stay in competition, it's more likely to see those competitors drop out altogether.
The ranch classes came up many times, with rule changes proposed regarding penalizing the "ambling," over-animated walk that's sometimes rewarded and adding ranch trail and ranch rail classes.
A proposal regarding changing the World Show schedules so that open and amateur classes of the same type run closer together on the calendar seemed to get resounding approval, with no one speaking against it but the roomful of people applauding it.
The final major discussion involved the use of lip chains in halter classes. Those against them regard the chains as unnecessary and say that those handlers who need them could spend more time working with their horses to handle without a chain. Those in favor of the ability to use chains say that chains keep participation up in halter, particularly in amateur and youth classes, where handlers might be smaller or of a more fragile stature for the select crowd.
All of the proposals required discussion by the committee members, and then go through other chains of command, ending with approval or dismissal by the executive committee. We won't know any final rulings for quite some time.
It seemed like everyone in Fort Worth recognized this as a time of great change and opportunity for the Quarter Horse industry, as well as the industry as a whole. With new leadership comes a learning curve, growing (or retracting) pains, and uncertainty. But the now openly articulated focus on the horse rather than personal agendas is the best place to start building toward success.