THE CASE FOR MEANINGFUL CHANGE

OPINION | 23.05.2018

I believe our sport is at a crossroads. If urgent reform is not achieved, the proud legacy of equestrian sports in this country is in jeopardy.

Equestrian sports have seen major institutional reforms in Canada and the UK and it is time for Australia to follow suit.

There is an urgent need to modernise the management of our sport and there is a strong case for meaningful change.

As a sporting community, we have not moved with the times. If major reform is not achieved, and the controversies continue – equestrian sports are almost guaranteed to see a reduction in funding that will ultimately be the beginning of the end for equestrian.

The current warning signs include a mass dissatisfaction with the management of the sport at the grass-roots level, the executive failing to meet these challenges, major fixtures struggling to survive, inbuilt inefficiencies in the governance structure of the sport and the looming prospect of equestrian sports being removed from the Olympic games.

Stop Bullying in Equestrian Sports (SBIES) is contacted on almost on a daily basis with alarming stories of rampant bullying and poor governance. Given that we are a small volunteer support-group, this is disturbing and a clear indication that the system is broken here in Australia.

The SBIES online survey has uncovered some truly alarming practices: practices that allegedly breach equestrian sporting body Codes of Conduct, Member Protection and Social Media Policies. We have been messaged endless stories where no thorough investigation was undertaken, or disciplinary action was taken by the respective state branches.

The terms ‘governance’ and ‘organisational structure’ are bandied around a lot but are widely misunderstood by members of equestrian sports. In the case of Equestrian Australia, most members (wrongly) believe that as members of a state branch, we are automatically members of EA. This is not the case. In fact, the only members of EA are the state branches themselves.

This organisational structure dates back to the 1950s when EA was first established. What it means is that EA is not a genuine member-based organisation, and this single issue appears to be the source of much dissatisfaction. Under the current structure, EA makes the rules but it is the job of state branches to enforce them – a system that is proving to be strained in the modern context.

Think about it for another second…the organisational structure of our sport dates back to a bygone era when management did not use a consultative approach to business.

Having such a closed-shop means that general members have virtually no say with the governing of our sport at the national level. This undemocratic structure is causing dissatisfied members in some states to vote with their feet and choosing to join splinter groups like the Horse Riding Club’s Association of Victoria (HRCAV) instead.

The word on the street is that the state branch executives are currently conducting talks seeking to redefine their relationship and roles with EA. Ultimately, isn’t this another way the state branches are making sure they maintain the status-quo as opposed to the real reform the sport needs?

Given the relatively small number of members Australia-wide (18,500) , the administration and executive costs of maintaining seven separate state offices, with the full duplication of services appears both inefficient and wasteful, and ultimately not in the best interests of the sport.

You don’t see any other industry body rigorously defending a pre-historic business structure, do you? That’s because they recognise the need to reform if they are to survive in the digital age. Our governing body needs to evolve into a proper national member-based organisation, one befitting of a modern sporting body.

There is much talk about Equestrian Australia expanding its funding base outside its reliance on the Australian Sports Commission. With the sports elitist reputation, we must consider how successful that push will be. Which mainstream sponsors would be willing to align their corporate reputation with a sport that appears archaic, elitist and fractured?

Here are just a few of the recent controversies in our community…

  1. The signing of the controversial sponsorship agreement between EA and Zoetis.
  2. Doping scandals at the Rio Games.
  3. Non-financial members being elected to key boards.
  4. The Australian Olympic Committees withdrawal of dressage funding.
  5. The High-Performance Program failing to meet its Winning Edge funding targets.

Equestrian Australia is currently looking for a new CEO. This could be a significant chance to adopt a reform agenda, however, I fear this changing of the guard may end up being a missed opportunity for our community.

If EA installs one of the “old faithful”, any new-style reform risks being stopped dead in its tracks as we will be delivered more of the same reactionary practices and outdated decision-making.

EA board papers are not made public – so we will never know if Paula Ward ever sought to make the changes needed to modernise EA without the support of the states and the EA board.

What is known is that equestrian sports are notoriously bad at instigating internal reform and modernisation initiatives by themselves. Take, for example, the Equestrian Governance Review. This report flagged the need for governance reform as far back as 2003. Yet, you will struggle to see any of these suggested reforms adopted by EA or the state branches.

Compare the performance of our administrators to the innovations we have seen in the racing community and it becomes clear how EA and the state branches are failing to modernise. Historically, horse racing was the bastion of old men in bad suits, but the repositioning of the sport has seen a whole new generation develop an interest in the sport.

Initiatives like Racing Victoria’s Off the Track series, Young Professionals in Racing, Fashions on the Field and new syndication offerings have encouraged new participants to attend fixtures, become owners and align themselves with the sport.

Polo is another great example. The revitalisation of the sport through the development of the Urban Polo League, with events like Polo in the City has brought a whole new tribe of enthusiasts to the matches. Programs at the grass-roots are aimed at encouraging these new followers to get involved at the local club level as well.

When we benchmark EA’s standards against non-equestrian sports there are some additional causes for concern.

For example, the annual reports and preliminary inquiries of these sports indicate:

  • Netball Australia has 16 times more members than Equestrian Australia, yet they spend less than EA on their executive salaries.
  • Cycling Australia has more than three times more members than Equestrian Australia. They have 5 employees in their Head Office, compared to Equestrian Australia’s 20.
  • Swimming Australia has 40 times more members than EA, yet they only spend 6 times on more salaries.

These figures make a clear case for meaningful change in the management of our sport

The equestrian community consistently looks for the EA CEO role to be filled by a fellow equestrian. I personally think there are many other attributes that are more desirable for our CEO at this troubled stage of the game. Traits like the following:

  • Be a skilled communicator – our sport needs a CEO who is an open and decisive communicator. General members are calling out for transparency and the new CEO must be able to deliver on this objective for the sport to grow.
  • Have a sound understanding of marketing – if the sport is to thrive, we need to stop preaching to the converted and attract some new followers. We need new formats, new sponsors, new participants, new supporters and new owners – because at the end of the day, there is always safety in numbers!
  • Someone who understands technology – the industrial period is over. We live in a digital world and the sport needs a CEO who knows how to operate in one.
  • A talented change manager – the case for reform is overwhelming. We need a CEO who can harness support for these changes from the board, the state branches and the state members.
  • An executive who is willing to put the sport first – the time for defending vested interests is over! This new CEO needs to put an end to the culture of “doing deals for the boys” and lay a solid foundation of adopting good governance and best practice to the administration of the sport.

If we can find an equestrian who fulfills these requirements great, if not our sport should be willing to learn from a candidate that possesses the skills to help the sport modernise. Furthermore, it’s vital the general members, and national and state boards support the new CEO in this endeavor.

Unifying the interests of multiple disciplines, over such a vast country is a notoriously difficult task. That is why I believe we need a skilled administrator (not necessarily an avid equestrian) at the helm. Our sport requires much-needed revitalisation and we need to ensure we select the right person for the job, regardless of their sporting affiliations.

If equestrian sports are removed from the Olympic games, EA would lose the majority of its funding. The sport as it currently stands is ill-prepared for that outcome. Now is the time to make changes and prepare for that eventuality, otherwise it will be too late.

Will we see reform, or will we see more of the same? Only time will tell.

I am of the opinion that if we are delivered more of the same, it will only lead to the further demise of equestrian sports. I, for one, support the development of a solid foundation for equestrian sports to thrive in this next reincarnation – this can only be achieved through new attitudes, new ideas, new practices and new people.

I’m not a big fan of change for change’s sake – so I hope I have made my case for meaningful change?

WRITTEN BY HANNAH BROOKS – Founder of the Equestrian Alliance & Stop Bullying in Equestrian Sports

Contact Hannah from SBIES on hannah@hannahbrooks.com.au  or 0412 257 882

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