Is New Zealand Equestrian Showing Under Threat
As a showing enthusiast, are you aware that at on 25th June at its Annual General Meeting, showing’s governing body, the Royal Agricultural Society of New Zealand, will consider a number of controversial remits with the potential for a huge impact on the sport? If adopted, these remits will cost equestrian showing competitors – already the major contributors to the RAS – significantly more money, and all without competitors having any direct say into the direction of the organisation.
During our research into the specifics of these proposals, many more questions arose than were answered. So, just what is the state of equestrian showing in New Zealand, and where is the sport headed?
From our investigations, we learned that the Royal Agricultural Society (RAS) is under significant pressure, with (to the best of our knowledge) current ongoing internal disciplinary actions; one executive members' resignation, together with a pending Court action, a number of historical disciplinary actions which appear to be unresolved and continually resurface, a recent Court case taken by RAS against the Royal Easter Show in which the decision over the use of the term ‘Royal’ went against it, and poor financial performance for three of the past five financial years.
WHAT DOES THE RAS DO?
The role of the RAS is not easy to ascertain. Its mission statement and its charitable purpose is “To promote, motivate and support all members by assisting them to achieve their aims and objectives,” which offers little insight. The tag line on its website – “Supporting A & P Shows and Breed Societies” – is similarly unhelpful.
In a statement to us, the RAS explained,
“The Royal Agricultural Society is primarily a federation of organisations, namely A&P Societies and affiliated Breed and Kindred Societies. They ‘own’ the RAS, elect an Executive to govern and determine how the RAS will operate by voting decisions. The Executive is then charged with running the RAS according to those decisions, which are the constitution, rules, regulations and policies, all available on the RAS website… Competitors are not members of the RAS and therefore do not have a vote.”
Click here for the full RAS statement.
The RAS is responsible for the governance of affiliated agricultural shows in New Zealand, providing the framework within which they operate, and is charged with the enforcement of the rules around competition, including the requirements relating to height certificates – which, in equestrian showing, currently serve as the horse or pony identification document for competition – and Forbidden Substances testing. The RAS also appoints, trains and supervises judges.
The RAS is funded largely through levies: each affiliated organisation pays a levy, and competitors pay a levy for each class they enter at an affiliated show. Based on the 2015/16 Annual Accounts for the RAS, as filed with the Charities Commission and its Annual Report for 2015/16, equestrian-related income makes up around 56% of total income.
HOW DOES THE RAS FUNCTION?
Unlike the ‘Olympic’ disciplines, which come under the auspices of the FEI and are governed here by Equestrian Sport New Zealand (ESNZ), equestrian showing is rooted in the tradition of local Agricultural & Pastoral (A&P) Societies, which are themselves members of the umbrella Royal Agricultural Society.
Included in the membership of the RAS, alongside those 97 A&P Societies, are 65 breed and ‘kindred’ societies, many of which are non-equestrian, covering diverse species and breeds ranging from dairy, beef and sheep to dogs, alpacas and goats. These member organisations are then divided into six geographical districts.
The process of governance over which the RAS presides is that remits are proposed and circulated to the member organisations, then are discussed at district level and, finally, voted on. Each member organisation has one vote, each district has one vote and each of the members of the RAS Executive also has one vote.
Further, within the A&P movement, the equestrian vote is not representative of the number of levy paying competitors. This is because at individual A&P Society level, the committee members who decide the vote have diverse backgrounds and interests, representing the wider rural community and non-equestrian competitors. There can often be a divide between the interests of equestrian and non-equestrian competitors, and although equestrian competitors may provide the bulk of income for both A&P Societies and the RAS, when it comes to the voting process the equestrian vote can be overwhelmed by the non-equestrians.
It’s an unusual structure for this day and age, and many would argue an unwieldy one, where even relatively minor decisions are subject to a long-winded process involving many different factions. The ability of the RAS itself to evolve is also limited by this cumbersome structure, and there is the added issue of the disconnect between those directly affected by the decisions of the RAS – competitors (both equestrian and non-equestrian) who have no rights and no voice, other than as members of affiliated A&P, breed and kindred societies – and the RAS Executive.
This structure allows the RAS Executive a great deal of autonomy, with the only recourse available for those who have a grievance or feel that they have been treated unfairly being through the civil legal system, a costly and time-consuming undertaking. Because the RAS is largely able to operate without a great deal of accountability, the moral integrity of its officers and those appointed to the Executive needs to be seen to be beyond question.
Competitors that have contacted us feel that they do not have a voice, and where they feel an injustice has been done, based on the experiences of others, they are afraid of the punitive measures that may be taken if they make their feelings known.
Past experiences indicate that the RAS Executive is aggressive in confronting any person or body connected with the sport, where it perceives that there has been some form of misdemeanour. Instances where competitors have been yellow-carded and officials have been stood down are widely talked about. As a result most people are extremely reluctant to come forward or speak out about issues.
Some of the most notable examples of this came out of the debacle that occurred in the showing section at Horse of the Year 2016 (on which we reported in the April-May 2016 issue of Show Circuit Magazine). In brief, a number of competitors arrived at the show to find that their entries had been disallowed. In the aftermath, when an affected competitor posted on Facebook, the post was deemed by the RAS to be inappropriate and inaccurate and the competitor was censured, yellow-carded and given 48 hours to post an apology, or further disciplinary action would take place.
Perhaps the most unpalatable aspect of this is that when members of the RAS Executive recently made ill-considered and inappropriate comments during Facebook discussion about the current remits, they do not appear to have been subjected to the same disciplinary action.
There are 17 remits on the table at the 2017 RAS AGM. Of these, 15 are equestrian-related, and some of them have huge implications for the future of equestrian showing.
The wider equestrian community apparently remained largely unaware and uninformed about these remits until concerned individuals raised them on social media. This initiated some robust discussion and it was unfortunate that members of the RAS Executive intervened to shut it down in a manner that was both unprofessional and contrary to the RAS’s own social media policy. We are aware that some individuals have been cautioned as a result of stating their views, even though they did so in a reasonable and non-confrontational manner. We are unable to comment as to whether any disciplinary action resulted from the inappropriate responses by RAS Executive members.
The equestrian community as a whole seemed to have a limited understanding of the RAS processes around the adoption of remits, and as that information came to light (again via social media), some of the interested individuals realised the importance of attending their district AGMs.
However at some meetings, particularly the mid-Northern, those with a point of view were not allowed to speak. Again, this aspect was poorly handled by the members of the RAS Executive in attendance, and many spoke out against the poor behaviour of the President when the topic was raised on social media. Obviously the RAS Executive is under some pressure, but surely, as one of the participants in the Facebook debate (who was one of those who received a letter of caution from the RAS) so ably put it, “This is the time and a golden opportunity to show the true leadership skills that are required with the role, to drive and implement a full organisational and cultural change process that keeps relevance, listens to its participants to grow the sport and attendance, and moves forward while still retaining historical knowledge.”
In the explanatory background information supporting the remits, the RAS has made mention of five forums which were held around the country. The fact is that even if (as the RAS states) between 100-120 people attended in total, that is a very small percentage of equestrian competitors. (We were unable to gauge exactly how small a percentage, as the RAS could not tell us how many equestrian showing competitors there are.)
There was a poor attendance at these forums. While, to the best of our knowledge, they were promoted on the RAS Facebook page (a group page with a current following of around 1300), one of these forums took place during the Horse of the Year Show, where competitors are preparing and competing for the highest accolades. We understand that only 15 people attended that forum.
The remits which will most affect equestrian competitors are remits 1-3, which propose firstly micro-chipping of all horses and ponies, and secondly, require that equestrian competitors become members of the RAS (although competitor membership will NOT have voting rights), and that horses and ponies be registered with the RAS.
Implementation of compulsory micro-chipping from 1 August 2018 for all horses/ponies requiring a current measure.
The main driver for the implementation of micro-chipping appears to be to simplify the issuing of annual height certificates. Currently, height certificates are issued at the measuring stand, which is time-consuming and requires the completion and checking of a diagram showing the physical markings and brands to identify the horse or pony.
The proposal is that competitors will order height certificates from the RAS Head Office and will then present these at the measuring stand. Each horse or pony will have its microchip scanned to confirm identity, the height measurement will be added to the certificate and it will be signed off by the measurer and the witness.
This particular remit has resulted in much discussion, not necessarily because competitors disagree with the intent, but because of the speed at which the RAS is proposing to implement it, and the associated cost to competitors.
Many equestrian competitors show a string of horses and/or ponies and have expressed their concern at the potential costs. For older animals reaching the end of their competitive career, it may be seen as simply not worthwhile to undertake micro-chipping, so these animals may be retired from the show ring altogether while still being able to participate in ESNZ competitions.
The consensus appears to be that since micro-chipping has become a relatively widespread means of animal identification, its introduction may be inevitable. However, it would be more easily managed if a staged introduction was undertaken, for example initially requiring micro-chipping for life certificates, or requiring young stock to be micro-chipped.
Requires competitors (owners, riders and handlers) to become members of the RAS. Note that competitor membership will NOT carry voting rights.
The membership fees proposed are $35pa for adult competitors, $25pa for junior competitors, and for those wishing to attend one show only during a season, a $15 one-day membership.
Proposes horse and pony registration with the RAS, at a cost of $35pa, or for more than two horses under the same ownership, $20pa for each horse. There is also a one-day registration fee available at $20 per horse or pony.
We put a number of written questions to the RAS, to which they chose to respond with a blanket statement, rather than directly answering each specific question. Our questions around the remits were –
1. Who proposed Remits 1-3?
2. What process of consultation has been entered into?
With members (A&P and Breed Societies)
3. What benefits will competitors acquire by becoming competitor members of the RAS?
4. We understand that the RAS currently has a database.
In what areas is the current database inadequate?
Does it currently hold up-to-date information about competitors?
How is the current information used?
How will administrative processes be improved through the commissioning, or accessing, of a new database?
We were very interested to have a response to Question 3 – “What benefits will competitors acquire by becoming competitor members of the RAS?”
The RAS statement does not directly address this, but says:
“In the past couple of years the RAS Executive has been promoting the idea that competitors are customers and therefore should have the opportunity to be more involved. They piloted a series of equestrian competitor forums, created a Facebook page and published more information, not previously available, on the website.”
That still raises the question of how competitors can be more involved, when they will have no voting rights, and no mechanism for addressing issues directly to the RAS.
With respect to membership and registration, the RAS statement says:
“Remits 2 & 3 proposed competitor, horse and pony registration. There have been mixed views about these proposals and certainly a lot of argument that any increase in fees beyond what competitors currently pay could lead to a fall-off in entries at shows. Efforts to put those cost concerns in the context of the total cost of owning and competing a horse were difficult because no one seemed to know exactly what the true cost was.
“The RAS currently has a restricted database which was set up to record heights and novice wins. It does not record any other information. One of the proposals is to develop a more comprehensive database. Those attending the competitor forums accepted that if they wanted additional functionality beyond the original scope of the database, they may have to pay towards that.”
While our Question 4 again was not specifically answered, the RAS website Horse Search information is headed by the following:
“…until we can afford to employ dedicated staff to undertake the specific job of equestrian data input, we all need to bear with the system and work with it… this is the reality of the situation.”
On the surface, it appears that the purpose of competitor membership and horse and pony registration is to fund both database inputting and improved database functionality.
With apparently no decision on how the question of database functionality is to be tackled, it’s therefore difficult to understand how the RAS has arrived at the proposed fees.
The potential risk of a fall-off in equestrian competitor numbers should be taken seriously. This risk exists on two levels. There is a risk that current competitors may decline membership of the RAS and the accompanying horse and pony registration and choose instead to compete at non-affiliated shows. A competitor who has elected to follow that route would also likely see no benefit in maintaining membership of their local A & P Society – a lose-lose situation for the RAS.
In the Annual Report & Statement of Financial Performance, for the year ending 31st March 2016, the Treasurer’s Report indicates that equestrian levies declined by some $10,000. The RAS accounts showed an operating loss for the year of almost $20,000 ($19,820). The report also notes:
“While this reduction in levies is noted, the Equestrian section continues to provide a major contribution to the Society as a whole.”
The Statement of Financial Performance for the 2016/17 year which will be tabled at the RAS Annual General Meeting is to be released today (15th June 2017) on the RAS website. Click here for the Statement of Financial Performance.
The importance of equestrian competitors in funding the RAS is clear. What is less clear is the importance of the RAS for equestrian showing, and the future direction of the sport.
Words - Pip Hume