Written by: Jan Stephens

Senior Officials Article Backlash
Jean-Christophe Gandubert’s opinion piece “Shortage of Officials Looms” in the November issue of Horse Sport set off a firestorm of controversy. Here is a rebuttal to some of his comments.

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“Organizers don’t own any of the stewards I know. “

Jan Stephens
FEI Level 3 Eventing & Jumping Steward
EC Senior Steward

“The future of Canadian horse shows depends on attracting new stewards, judges, and TDs” shouts the lead statement in an article by Jean-Christophe Gandubert published recently in Horse Sport magazine – as if suddenly this is a new challenge!

This problem is not new. This challenge has been identified and discussed for years, and it is not confined to equestrian sport. “To secure the presence of intelligent, unprejudiced, courageous umpires at all contests has been one of the vexatious problems confronting those in control of our national sport. ” So said Albert G. Spalding in1911. Simply replace “umpires” with “stewards and judges” and you have our sport.

In fact, many parts of Gandubert’s discussion have been addressed or are being addressed. But of greater concern than his unnecessary sensationalism are his statements and inferences throughout the text that have little relationship to reality.

For example, I take great issue with his claim that stewards do not report serious incidents because they are afraid of losing their positions. Or worse, that stewards don’t report incidents because an organizer has instructed them not to because of insurance increases. What hogwash!

I do know that in order for issues to be dealt with there must be someone who will fill out a report or write down a complaint. This can be more difficult than it might appear. Stewards often come across he said/she said, with not one person willing to step forward and confirm the incident by putting pen to paper. Gandubert’s claim that numerous situations of horse abuse are not reported by stewards as it would lead to suspensions of trainers/coaches is not correct. Horse abuse incidents could be reported by others if we stewards are as corrupt as Gandubert infers.

When I first was asked to sit on an EC committee many years ago, Al Patterson was at that time chair of the Board of Directors. He asked me, “How do you assess the competency of the stewards?” What I had taken for granted – the competency which included the integrity of stewards – had been questioned. I said the education program including shadowing, mentoring, an exam and a clinic as the first step, then the organizers/industry sorts out those that just want to be at the competition.

The next point in Gandubert’s article pretty much says the organizers own the officials. This is nonsense. Organizers don’t own any of the stewards I know. I am the first to agree that in a perfect world officials could be assigned, or the lead officials could be assigned. For many years we have tried to find some system that might work. In the end, it always comes down to economics and significant costs associated with moving officials across the vast geography of our country.

Do officials try to work with organizers? Yes, but many times I have heard stewards say, “Well, I guess I won’t be invited back there.” Mistakes are made; we are human, and as Tracy Dopko says in her well-written article on stewards published in the same issue, sometimes we are very tired!

Gandubert says we are in crisis because of the FEI retirement age limit. That is a problem for some officials, but there is no age limit for stewards, and it is only about stewards that I can speak with any authority.

Where do stewards come from? They come mostly from stakeholders surrounding the sport ‒ older athletes, coaches, moms, and dads. Because our competitions have changed significantly from weekend horse shows to five- to six-day tournaments ongoing for five or six weeks, it is no wonder that we are looking at a population of older officials.

The young people have jobs. You must believe me when I tell you that you could not live on a steward’s salary. There is not enough work to stay employed all year – we live in a country with winter and horse shows stop. This is strictly an avocation, although a very professional one. As I stated, I speak only for the stewarding program and education of FEI stewards in the jumping discipline in Canada. This is my field of expertise.

*****

We have had a national stewarding program in Canada since the early 1990s. The program was developed and delivered by Sandra Silcox and was used as a base in several other countries including Australia. As mentioned, the national program includes working with senior stewards at competitions, follow-up mentoring where necessary, face-to-face seminars (clinics) which are very valuable for networking, and an open book exam useful mainly for becoming familiar with finding where rules are placed in the rule book. Equestrian Canada has promised online education for at least eight years now and perhaps we are closer to that end than we have been.

The skill acquisition flow has been:

1. Introduction
2. Development
3. Consolidation, and
4. Refine

Steward educational clinics have been delivered with a clearly-stated mandate that consistency must be foremost. Until this year, those clinics have been offered each year at the convention with the attempt to also deliver one clinic east or west in alternative years. Provinces have also offered clinics which are organized in a cost-neutral platform. These clinics were reviewed by the steward committee to maintain the above-mentioned consistency. This process is now under review.

Gandubert says to expect very vocal resistance from senior officials regarding a national officials’ development program. Again, hogwash! There are several national programs in place including a course design program, a judges’ development program, and a steward development program. The national stewards’ program has the stated intent that a senior steward should transition seamlessly to a level 1 FEI Steward in the jump discipline.

How can these programs be improved? A task force is looking into the issues with the intention of upgrading and streamlining the existing programs. I agree with Gandubert that redevelopment and implementation is no small task and will not be delivered nor implemented without input from those in the field of play. We are a complex sport; an academic approach alone will not satisfy many of the needs of officials’ development programs in the equestrian field.

Let’s look behind Gandubert’s figures on jumper stewards. When the FEI mandated that four minimum Level 1 stewards and a chief must be utilized at FEI jump competitions, we have provided three opportunities for national stewards to upgrade. In order to further the Level 1 accreditation to Level 2, our candidates must travel outside of Canada to participate in courses on their own nickel. This is a significant expense that is not achievable for many.

It is a small world at the top levels, says Gandubert. Well, I would say it is a small world at the top level of any sport, business, theatre, music, and even government. He is unfair when he says everyone is territorial about assignments. I have worked closely with organizers who are very open to having junior members on the team in order to develop officials. I would also add that it takes a lot of personal effort and expense to stay educated and current at the top level.

I will give you a personal example. I work as a steward at three-day events as well as jumping competitions. Rolex is the only four-star event in North America. I worked for 13 years as a volunteer steward at Rolex at a cost of at least $1,500 per year. This was not a holiday; this was continuing education.

In the last two years I have travelled to Dublin and Madrid (on my own nickel) to take part in refresher courses to maintain the latest information and to ensure that stewarding in Canada is equal to, or better than, stewarding in other parts of the global competitive sport we embrace. This year I have registered for the conference in Leipzig ‒ again, on my nickel. I work to stay at the top level, but I also encourage anyone with a nano-spec of interest.

This is not a sustainable livelihood. Certainly not for a Manitoba resident where there are two gold shows per year, which I do not officiate at since my kids’ coach and I want no perception of conflict of interest.
We are aging. It is a problem identified by Sport Officials Canada across all sports. When I attended their weekend seminar on “Recruitment and Retainment of Officials,” one fact stayed with me: the proven best way to recruit and retain is on a one-on-one basis, where a potential official is identified and nurtured throughout the development stream. Old-fashioned? If you think of those you know on a personal basis, perhaps just old-fashioned enough to be true.

Can we improve? Yes. Are we corrupt and owned? Absolutely not.

Does a national program exist? Yes. Can it be improved? Yes, it is in a continuous process of review and refinement.

We always need to attract new stewards, judges, and TD’s. It is ongoing and has been for many years, and again I remind you our sport is not alone. In many sports where they start officiating at a younger age, they lose 50% of those officials yearly. I really don’t want to see that in this sport.