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USEF President Murray Kessler: “It needs to be pure at the top, otherwise it’s not sport”

Thursday, 22 June 2017
Interview

Photo (c) Sara Lieser/www.coth.com. USEF President Murray Kessler. Photo (c) Sara Lieser/www.coth.com.

Murray Kessler could have enjoyed his retirement after a successful career in the business world, that included working as CEO and president of Lorillard, Inc. which merged with Reynolds-American Inc. in 2015 – a huge and complicated transaction which Kessler negotiated.

But, slurping on a Copacabana on some remote island is not Murray Kessler’s kind of thing – so he went for the presidency of the United States Equestrian Federation instead. Already making his mark on the international equestrian stage during the FEI Sports Forum in Lausanne earlier this year, World of Showjumping sat down with Kessler to learn more about his passions and politics as well as getting his views on the challenges that the sport of jumping is facing.

Kessler’s big passion has always been horses, and for years he has been competing as an amateur jumper. Murray’s daughter Reed represented USA at the 2012 Olympic Games in London, becoming the youngest showjumper in history to compete at the Games – at the age of 18 aboard Cylana. Today, Reed is an established name at the highest level of the sport.

Jumping politics is not new to Kessler, who has served on the board of the North American Riders Group. Kessler’s dream has always been to be able to give back to the sport he loves by taking on the role as USEF President, a job that does not bring him a penny as it requires that one volunteers for it.  

“This was always my plan,” says Kessler when asked about how he ended up as USEF President. “My jobs in the business world I enjoyed, but they were not my passion – they were a means to an end and made it possible for me to support my family and their love of horse sports. My dream was always to be able to retire, take on the job as USEF President in order to help shape the sport that I love.”

“My wish grew stronger when Reed had so much success. Reed’s career introduced me to the international jumping world, and also to its issues – and it all inspired me to do this,” Kessler explains. “I wish to help drive change and at the same time strengthen governance.”

The jumping sport is growing in America, and Kessler is pleased to see a development where US riders no longer have to live out of home in order to be among the best in the world. “A few years ago, there were only a handful of five-star shows in the North America. Today we have 22, which means you can gain a lot of world ranking points on home soil. Look at McLain Ward when he became world no. one this summer as an example. Eighty percent of his points were earned in North America. This is a development I welcome.”

“One of my goals is to make sure that the US is visible on the world stage with top events that also attract foreign riders. We at USEF are working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to make it easier for European riders to come to the USA to compete, because we would like to have this kind of level of competition in our country. At the moment that is difficult because of the quarantine rules for mares and stallion, and I would like to see a change to that. We had a fantastic World Cup Finals in Omaha earlier this year, and next year we host the World Equestrian Games in Tryon but, both of these were granted waivers to the quarantine rules – I think it is important to keep on building on the success of those events, including making it easier for top European riders to come to our side of the ocean to compete,” Kessler says.

Kessler’s next big issue is clean sport. “I want a level playing field, both at the national and international level. Under my leadership, you can expect USEF to definitely take a tough stand on cheaters!”

Another subject Kessler is extremely dedicated to is opening up the sport, in all disciplines, at the grass roots level. “When I started at the grass root level 35 years ago, there was a possibility to work your way up to the top from there. Today, I find myself in the lucky position to be USEF President and have a daughter competing successfully at international level – but, I am not sure this journey would have been possible today, and that is what I would like to bring back. I want to open up equestrian sport for everybody. That is also why the U.S. Federation in the future will subsidize a number of grass roots horse shows through a program called competition-lite. Simply stated, we want to make a light-version that is more affordable and more accessible for our members,” Kessler says.

Visiting the United States Equestrian Federation’s website, the desire to open up the sport and make it less elitist is clear. Fan memberships, an online learning centre, a portal on how to start with riding – the USEF is about a lot more than the top sport. “We want to bring the joy of horse sport to as many people as possible,” Kessler says. “This is the way to build a spectator sport. But, to that end it is vital to keep equestrian sports in the Olympics, for all of our disciplines. We would like to see U.S. riders win gold medals in order to inspire the next generation, not as an end unto itself; building our sport should be about a virtuous growth circle and not an elitist pyramid to the top. This is also what we would like to illustrate with our Learning Centre: These videos have our best riders, grooms and trainers present their tips on different subjects – how to give your horse the best care after a competition, coping with nerves, walking a course, choosing a bit. It’s about grass root riders being able to get tips from Olympians, it’s about giving back to the level where we all started,” Kessler says. “The idea about fan membership, we actually learned from the Dutch Equestrian Federation,” he says. “They had something like 160,000 fan members, we had zero.”

“If you want equestrian sports to grow, you have to connect the grass root level to the top,” Kessler says.

“This is also why it is so important that we have fair invitation systems. There needs to be a pathway, with steps – all the way up from two-star to five-star level – that gives everybody the same opportunity to succeed. I am happy to have been invited by the FEI to participate in a working group that will look at this. Following the FEI Sports Forum, it was decided we go back to the drawing board to look at the invitation system and how it should work fairly for riders and organizers alike.”

“I will say emphatically, that I personally don’t think you should be able to ride at five-star level just because you “pay to play”. That would be like paying to play at Wimbledon against Roger Federer. I think it’s fundamentally bad for the sport. It needs to be pure at the top, otherwise it’s not sport. Also, those riders paying are blocking others who should have been there based on their ranking and who would have had a realistic chance to earn world ranking points and climb up,” Kessler says. “However, I think it is a bit different at the two-star level. Here some level of additional financial support is needed to fund the entire event; the organizers depend on that income to make the total event sustainable – they don’t have big sponsors or ticket sales to rely on. And, they accept many more riders at each show. The two-star shows are a different animal, and will not survive without some type of additional income. And, of course, as I said, grass roots national shows must be inexpensive and accessible to feed the future. ”

The future of the Nations Cups is also something Kessler speaks eagerly about. “From what I can gather, everybody would like to jump the Nations Cups – but of course we see that there is a challenge when these clash with other five-star events that offer a lot more prize money and even clash within the same event because the Grand Prix offers a lot more money. My opinion is that it is a mistake that the World Ranking List only rates the importance of the events based on prize money offered, and this is why the proposed Event Classification System is so important. There are so many other things that could and should be considered when classifying a show and ultimately determining its appropriate world ranking points: The quality of the competition, the footing, the stabling facilities, security, the list goes on. Out of all these criteria, you can decide the importance of the event and it can be done with a quantitative formula,” Kessler says.

“We also have to look at whether we should move the Nations Cup day from Friday to Sunday, normally the main day of the show – which holds more interest for sponsors. ‘We’ve always done it that way’ is an answer that is wrong for not moving. I understand tradition. But sometimes you need change,” Kessler says.

“I also think the point collection in the Nations Cup Series needs to be easier to follow, you can’t have a team winning the five-star Nations Cup of Dublin but not gaining any points in their league for it. Who could understand why the winning team did not move up on the overall standings after an event? This happens with teams competing when it doesn’t count for them.  This needs to be made more simple.”

“Another problem is that we have premier events such as Aachen and Spruce Meadows – two of the most famous Nations Cups in the world – not part of the series because of sponsor conflict. This just makes no sense from a spectator point of view. There has to be a way to solve this, and make these two events part of show jumping’s most important series. We should have the best of the best in the Nations Cup series – riders, horses & events,” Kessler says.

“My daughter Reed has an interesting idea on how to move the Nations Cup to the final day. She is pro merging the Nations Cup competition with the main event Grand Prix. Under this model, the team competition is still scored the same as before but how you finish individually determines how the prize money is split. Your individual performance decides what you earn thereby encouraging riders to put their best horse in the Nations Cup and sponsors to see the nations cup on the final day,” Kessler says. “And perhaps we should look at whether or not riders should earn more ranking points when competing in Nations Cups. These types of ideas will need to be discussed in the near future.”

As to the decision to eliminate the drop-score from Olympic competition, Kessler and the USEF supported the decision and still do. “If it was up to me personally and nothing was at stake, I would have kept the drop-score at the Olympics. However, that wasn’t the case and that wasn’t the choice.  We at USEF believed the FEI leadership, and still do, and their stated desire that the Olympic format changes were necessary to keep equestrian sports in the Olympics.”

Kessler wants to be a president for an active and engaged federation, but also for a respectful one. “I am not a fan of people fighting in the press. Express your point of view, that is fine – but I don’t like fighting. I believe you get things done when you sit down respectfully together and work through the issues. Bottom line is, we have to work together to responsibly and fairly grow our sport.”

 


Text © World of Showjumping by Jannicke Naustdal / Picture © Sara Lieser / www.coth.com

(No reproduction without permission)

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