WHERE TO NOW?

The equestrian world in Australia feels like it’s in limbo as we all await the announcement of the new Equestrian Australia caretaker board on October 30 . The new EA board will be charged with the monumental task of rebuilding the sport by reengaging with the disenfranchised members and key stakeholders.

Reform is long overdue, and while we are all in limbo it seemed like an ideal time to canvass thought leaders in the community on how the new EA board could go about pulling the sport out of the doldrums

First off the rank is former ENSW board member, Sue Middleton. We asked Sue a few questions about her tenure on the ENSW board and her vision for the future. We hope you enjoy reading about Sue’s career and passion for equestrian sport.

SUE MIDDLETON

  • EA Level 1 General Coach for over 20 years including SSTA (Skills Specific Training Assessor)
  • EA Level 1 Jumping Course Designer
  • EA Probationary Jumping Judge
  • ENSW Affiliate Club President since 2004
  • Jumping NSW member for approx. 8 years
  • Jumping Equitation Judge
  • Qualified Equine Bowen Therapist

Starting off young horses, especially OTTT’s has always been a passion for Sue.  Some 13 years ago Sue suffered a serious riding accident which resulted in surgery to graft and plate her cervical spine.  This caused Sue to focus on the lower levels of the sport and riders dealing with loss of confidence and PTSD. 

Sue also dabbled in breeding a small number of quality warmbloods and purchasing many TB’s out of the kill pens for re-homing.  Last count, Sue had been through around 30 of these.  Some had jumping ability, and some did not, so Sue focused on their individual talents and found homes for them.  Sue later followed her passion for biomechanics and lameness so studied Equine Bowen Therapy. She now combines this with her EA Coaching qualifications and provides treatment and rehabilitation of asymmetries, irregularities and pain related behaviour problems in horses under saddle.  Sue pretty much enjoys anything relating to horses.

Sue, tell us why you nominated for the ENSW board? 

Years of being involved in the sport from a club and state level has given me a good overview of the sport and I had a vision of improvements that could be made.  I’ve had ENSW members ask me to do this on many occasions and this year seemed like the time to give it a go.   Clearer financial transparency, improved communication (to and from members), as well as support and growth of the grass root and Amateur levels of our sport, are areas that interest me and could have a flow on effect for the entire sport.   Welfare of our horses is right up there as a personal interest.

You are a champion of grass-roots equestrian clubs. From your experience on the ENSW board what kind programs does ENSW have in the pipeline to nurture grass-roots sport?

I was unaware of any specific documented policies or procedures that related to regular and ongoing support of grass roots during my tenure.

Immediately upon being elected, I presented to the board an overview of the Discipline Councils/Committees current fee structure and my intent was to instigate a review of these and the funding provided to disciplines in order to streamline the functions and the benefits to the members.   I wanted it to be clear that all levels of the membership are being catered for fairly, right through to clubs and grass roots members.  As a result of the Voluntary Administration of EA and the potential changes to the constitution and the ENSW structure, I had delayed the discussion on this.  It is my view, that the structure can be improved and is long overdue for a review.

This last week as an ordinary member of ENSW, I have attempted to source official policies/procedures whereby ENSW Member funds are used for the “Discipline Club Development Program” which seems to be valued at around $30,000 pa.  I was unsuccessful with my enquiries.

I would like to see the clubs given a clear and effective communication channel so they can plan for annual events and expenditure.  Typically, this should occur via the Discipline Councils/Committees.  These Committees include the three Olympic disciplines as well as non-Olympic sports, and are allocated around $450,000 pa of ENSW member funds.  In my opinion there lacks consistency between the services and some members are disadvantage/advantaged, more than others. 

You campaigned on a platform of transparency for ENSW members. Do you think you were able to achieve that mission during your time on the ENSW board? 

Improving transparency across the organisation was my intent.  I would like to see policies that require all Committees, Councils, and Boards that allocate or manage member funds be required to provide public minutes of all meetings, redacted or abbreviated to provide confidentiality when necessary, as a basic requirement.

As I have discussed above, it is my opinion that detailed allocation of member funds to disciplines and events should be presented in more detail giving specifics.  This detail is not available in Annual Audits.

I would prefer events run via the ENSW office be presented as separate budgets that determines any profit or loss to the members, including a budgeted allocation of staff and office resources.  This is our money.

The Social Media page is an excellent portal for providing clear communication to members and also an avenue for gaining feedback, whether positive or negative. This resource is under-utilised IMO and I did express this on several occasions.   Positive feedback provides a gauge that some services are satisfactory to members (which is important to know), but the negative feedback is IMO, the useful information.  Striving to always address and provide improved member services must always be the goal of any sporting organisation or even business.  Our mindset as competitors is always setting goals and improving.  Denying simple feedback portals is disappointing and counter-productive.  I would be personally disappointed for the members if they were to be banned from the sport for using this option.

ENSW recently conducted a survey to assess member satisfaction. What did you learn from the answers the members provided? 

Surveying the members has been on my agenda since the 2015 ENSW AGM, when a motion was put forward requesting ENSW perform this annually.  This motion was agreed upon verbally, but has not eventuated until January 2020 whereby a survey was then released to the members.  I was so excited about this development, that I shared it on social media and encouraged my friends to respond and make our sport better by providing honest feedback.  Sadly, the excitement I was expressing was not appreciated and it was demanded that I immediately remove the post from social media as I had apparently “compromised the process by posting on facebook the Survey Monkey link, so that anybody can respond”.

All 8,000 members (including juniors) were then sent an email informing them I had apparently compromised the data by posting public and allowing non-members to respond. It was my opinion that “non-members” could well include past members who have not re-joined and potential new members.  Both these “non-member” groups could have provided valuable feedback in regard to member services.

Although I would have presented the survey questions differently, there was a large amount of valuable feedback received via the “comments”.  It is my hope that at some time in the future members will receive feedback for their efforts.

What are your thoughts on the current situation with EA and the response from the state branches?  

When applying for the Director role, of course I had no idea what was about to unfold from the National Board that resulted in EA going in to Voluntary Administration.

Choosing to put the organisation in to Voluntary Administration is certainly viewed by many as a controversial decision but it is what it is and I would have preferred that the states embrace the option of reform as swiftly as possible and enact direction that would move our sport forward and become more efficient. 

I would love to have been involved in the early discussion stage between KM and the states.   It is sad for me to witness the continued apparent disunity between the states with at least two choosing to force liquidation, rather than take a leap of faith and move forward. 

I could not support the “veto” clause added to the updated constitution.   This goes against all that I stand for and was one of the deciding factors when resigning from the ENSW Board.

From your experiences on the ENSW board, what functions do you believe should be centralised at the national level? Is there an opportunity to make cost savings and allocate resources more effectively? 

As the VA process unfolded, members have put forward some excellent and inspiring ideas and options for all members to consider and these are available on the KM website for all to view.  It is my opinion that although there could be significant trimming and consolidating of resources on a national level, the reform could still result in the independence of the states on certain levels.   The states are necessary to provide the effective connection to the clubs, who are the life-blood of the sport.  State bodies are also the link to any state government funding and support which it is vital to maintain.

Although I have not been able to view specific details of the financial allocations of ENSW member funds, I had made personal assumptions on where savings could be made as part of the reformation on a national level.  There are many areas that can be centralised, providing a cost reduction for members, or increased services.    As President of an Affiliated Club, I consider communication at State and National level is poor.

NB: The current communication re state government COVID recovery funding of course is not a common occurrence and does not apply to my above comments.

Do you think the current organisational structure provides accountability for members, committees, and clubs? 

Absolutely not!  As I have discussed above, the current structure is long overdue for review in order to provide clear accountability direct to the member. 

Communication is vital. Do you think the members have a strong understanding of the vision the state branches and EA have for the sport? What could be done to improve the lines of communication?

Members are bouncing back and forth from confused to excited.  The VA process has been extremely difficult to understand.  The majority of my knowledge of the process has come from reading through all the KM documents and attending both online public meetings. 

The member voting numbers were clearly higher than that of the board election upon which I joined the ENSW Board.  These numbers, IMO, could have been much higher if members had a simpler and briefer explanation of the process, but I do not know how this could have been achieved in the timeframe.  Sadly, the numbers that didn’t vote, could be considered as satisfied with the sport as it is, though my experience with interacting with members, concludes this to not be the case.  Feedback tells me that the process was either:  Too hard to understand or too rapidly evolving to keep up with, and then there are always the apathetic members who confidently think someone else will take care of the politics and management side of the sport.  There was also the pressure on members when it was noted after the 1st creditors meeting that their names would be available for public view if they voted at the 2nd creditor’s meeting.  Fear of retribution is real in this sport.

Of particular concern to me is what appears to be over zealous misinterpretation of the disciplinary code for members.  I see the term “bringing the sport in to disrepute” a grey statement and open for misuse.  Members have expressed concern to me re the ramifications of making complaints and also the lack of privacy during voting.  The MyEA portal is significantly under used and would allow states to allow only current members to vote/provide feedback, but would provide them with the anonymity they so desire.  There is a notable fear of retribution for “speaking up” especially on social media.  It appals me that our associations spend member funds taking legal action against members.  Members are the owners of the organisation and if they are not satisfied with any processes of the management/function, then I see it as their right to say so.  Most only end up doing this publicy on social media when they see no other channel of successful communication.

What do you think members want for their membership fees? What changes could be made to improve the ENSW service offering? 

Most members I speak to are of the opinion that their membership fee covers insurance and ENSW/EA office management and are unaware that there is a significant portion that is available to, and allocated by, ENSW staff and board for different areas of the sport management. 

It is generally true that members mostly just want to ride their horses and not be involved in the management or the politics of the sport.  However, our sport is generally considered expensive and the cost of keeping horses is continually rising and it is considered by many to be an elitist sport.  Costs of travel to major events from rural and regional NSW is becoming prohibitive and the staging of major events in expensive locations is adding unmanageable hurdles for many to overcome.  We are one of the few countries in the world where the average working class citizen can afford to own and compete at least one horse.  I’d like to see it remain this way, and our organisation has the ability to support this concept.  Staging of expensive events at venues like SIEC and potentially using ENSW office staff and resources is not equitable use of member resources and only benefits a small percentage of members. 

It is questionable whether any ENSW member funds should be funnelled in to these expensive venues without a structured and monitored oversight.

The sport will be facing huge challenges in the next 12-18 months. What measures could the state branches be looking to adopt in this COVID environment. How can ENSW prepare for the challenges ahead?

I would like to see ENSW improve communication with members and build a stronger understanding of the members needs and wishes.  Staff using terms such as “less well-off elements” to describe the grass root level rider from regional and rural NSW could be seen to highlight poor understanding of the members.  This type of categorisation IMO shows a disconnect with, and lack of understanding of the member base. 

I had hoped to be an advocate for reducing the incidence of bullying in our sport, and in the process,  found myself to be a victim

Those that speak up have been referred to as the noisy minority, myself included, when challenging the controversial ENSW Hendra Policy that later became known as the EA Hendra By-law.  Those “noisy minority” that joined myself called a SGM and halted this process, making a clear statement that we will never put our animals’ welfare below that of sponsorship and deals done by those that should be tasked with protecting the welfare of our animals.  These same “noisy minority” went on to secure a $53 million Class Action in the Federal Court.  It is my experience that the noisy minority are often a section of the silent majority should not be treated with disdain.

Most clubs that have continued to function during the Covid environment, have done so with the talents and skills of voluntary committee members.  I would like to have seen a group chat instigated between our organisation and clubs so we could support each other.  The Club I am President of, HVSJC, provided our working documents for Covid events and I had hoped these would be used to support other clubs.

Recently ENSW (along with many other sports) has secured state government funding for COVID recovery, return to sport programs which was combined with the ENSW Discipline Club Development Program.  This has been a substantial amount of money and has been extremely welcomed by clubs, mostly at the grass root and participant level.  It has been open to all ENSW affiliated clubs with specific requirements of “grass root” with the intent of helping clubs get back up and running.   I have faith that affiliated clubs with volunteer committees will put this money to good use in supporting their grass root members.

THANKS TO SUE FOR SHARING HER IDEAS. STAY TUNED FOR MORE INTERVIEWS WITH THE REFORMERS OF THE SPORT.

DON’T WASTE THIS OPPORTUNITY

OPINION PIECE

The governance of equestrian sports in Australia is long overdue for major reform. The sport has been in decline for some time with national membership numbers dwindling from 26,000 in 2010 to a mere 16,500 in 2018 (this 2018 number also includes interschools students not previously included in the 2010 count).

Since establishing Stop Bullying in Equestrian Sports (SBIES) I have been inundated with evidence of widespread bullying and harassment in our sport. Equestrians bravely shared their personal stories with me, and to be honest it was beginning to become overwhelming. Given Equestrian Australia’s (EA) resistance to tackling the toxic culture in our sport – I had truly given up on the prospect that anything could be done to help the SBIES supporters, other than listening to their stories. Continue reading “DON’T WASTE THIS OPPORTUNITY”

HOW WILL THE NEW NATIONAL SPORTS PLAN IMPACT EQUESTRIAN SPORTS?

Last week, the federal Minister for Sport, The Hon Senator Bridget McKenzie, outlined the future of Australian sport when she launched the new National Sports Plan, Sport 2030 in Canberra.

With the Australian Sports Commission’s (ASC) financial contribution making up 45% of Equestrian Australia’s (EA) funding, the equestrian community should be asking ourselves if the changes detailed in the plan will have a significant impact on the health of our sport. Continue reading “HOW WILL THE NEW NATIONAL SPORTS PLAN IMPACT EQUESTRIAN SPORTS?”

REFORM OR BE REFORMED

Stop Bullying in Equestrian Sports (SBIES) was founded with the mission of providing much-needed support for equestrians who have been the victims of bullying and harassment.

What a ride it has been (excuse the pun) as countless equestrians have taken the SBIES ‘pledge’, participated in the SBIES survey and shared their painful stories.

As the movement evolved, we truly believed that the equestrian governing bodies would listen to the groundswell. The stories we had gathered were so shocking, and the statistics on bullying so alarming, that we were sure the peak sporting body, Equestrian Australia, would sit up and take action. They had an existing suite of Member Protection Policies to provide for the members’ safety and mental health, they just needed to ensure they were enforced. Continue reading “REFORM OR BE REFORMED”

‘ME TOO’ MEETS EQUESTRIAN SPORTS

OPINION | 9.07.2018

Just like the Harvey Weinstein-inspired #metoo movement, participants of Equestrian sports in Australia are bravely coming forward with their negative experiences and declaring it is time for change.

Prior to this, there were many good, smart people who fought like HELL in private, in an attempt to right wrongs and get reform across the line. Without their efforts, the current groundswell would not be possible. We say a heartfelt thank you.

When we started Stop Bullying In Equestrian Sports, it was to simply provide a ‘safe’ place for victims of bullying to come together, share their stories and try to turn a negative experience into something positive. Continue reading “‘ME TOO’ MEETS EQUESTRIAN SPORTS”