Equestrian Australia Forgot it’s About the Horses and the People

Last Monday, Equestrian Australia’s Board of Directors placed the company into voluntary administration following the withdrawal of funding from Sport Australia, the body that oversees the governance of all sports.

In this opinion piece, Denzil O’Brien, a former EA Chief Executive Officer, weighs in on some of the structural failures that have led to the catastrophic loss of its licence to operate.

I feel sad and disappointed about the current furore around Equestrian Australia (EA).

I was the CEO of the organisation from early 1996 to early 2001 and was privileged to be in the chair when Australia’s eventing teams won Gold Medals at two Olympic Games, including one on home soil.

My memories of the win at Sydney are among my happiest. Of course, I contributed very little – probably nothing – to those victories, but nonetheless I was happy to bask in the reflected glory.

During my tenure, EA (then the Equestrian Federation of Australia) began the process of ‘reforming’ the organisation to align it more closely with the governance requirements of Sport Australia, then the Australian Sports Commission.

The federated system (which forms a national Board from State representatives) was viewed as old-fashioned and clumsy, and not adequately representative of the actual members, who were technically members of a State Branch, not of a national organisation.

As I recall, our funding was at least implicitly tied to reformation into a nationally structured organisation, with a ‘skills-based’ Board. What that meant in practice was that EA’s Board should be made up of people from industry, business, accountancy, the law, whatever, but not necessarily from a horse-related background, and that they should be elected by the ‘national’ membership.

During my tenure various significant changes were made to the structure of the organisation, at the behest of Sport Australia. No matter how you looked at it, EA members were still members of their State Branches, and not members of a national organisation, since no pathway to membership of a national organisation existed.

To get around this, EA was set up as a company, and the ‘members’ of EA were defined as the Branches themselves, thereby theoretically providing a pathway for the real members – the riders, the horse owners, the coaches, etc. – to become members of a national organisation.

I was always aware during my tenure, that EA struggled to be seen as providing tangible benefits to members, because the national organisation was too far removed from the base: events were run by the States, members and volunteers were members of their State Branches, their horses were registered with their State Branch, and there was a perception that the only thing the national body did was take members’ money, via the Branch membership system and various levies, to run the High Performance system, manage a national coach accreditation scheme, and provide a national insurance scheme for members, coaches and clubs.

I was almost certainly unsuccessful in altering that perception, which I regret.

After I left EA in 2001, I did retain a strong interest in what was going on, (including briefly re-joining EA as an associate member so I could be appointed as chef d’équipe for a jumping team to India, self-funded of course) and happily observed the successful stewardship of Franz Venhaus as CEO.

As I understand it, Franz oversaw a significant increase in memberships and left EA with a healthy bank balance.

After Franz, I have only observed an organisation that appears to be internally conflicted and lacking any clear direction. Board members have come and gone; CEOs have come and gone. And now EA has gone.

I was astonished to discover that the Constitution has not been changed at all since 2010, which is a bad sign for any organisation.

Constitutions are living documents and should constantly be amended to reflect changing circumstances. I was further astonished to discover that EA members are still members of their Branches, that there is still no national membership, and that the ‘skills-based’ Board has often included people with absolutely no knowledge of the horse industry, let alone horse sport, or indeed horses.

So what next?

In the immediate, there are clearly two significant things that need to happen; first, members need to be reassured that their member benefits and entitlements are secure; and second, the relationship between a now non-existent peak body and the international body, the FEI, must be re-established in a way which secures the pathway for our international competitors to the next major competitions. In a way, COVID has been a blessing for EA, since there are no competitions worldwide. This may be dampening the voices of frustrated riders clamouring for reassurance about their competitive futures.

Ultimately though, the most pressing need is for EA to be restructured in a way which allows members to actually belong to EA, and to have a direct voice in the way in which the organisation manages their money.

I don’t pretend to have even the remotest idea of what that structure might be, except that I do think that there may now be an opportunity to do away with State Branches altogether, provided that there are clear lines of communication between the members, the disciplines and the national body.

Currently, the State Branches are not really branches of a national organisation except in name only, as they often act independently, have different rules, charge different fees for different things, and basically run as they like.

If the State Branches are to be retained, they need to operate uniformly and consistently. For that to happen, a truly volcanic restructuring will be needed, and the members’ input will be vital.

I note that many other people are calling for strengthening the role of State Branches, with the national organisation retreating to a more figurehead role in order to maintain EA’s FEI and Olympic affiliations.

It is precisely these differing opinions which need open and frank discussion.

So, I am sad and disappointed because I had the opportunity to work with real horse people, the elders of the sport if you like, whose opinions helped guide the organisation along that tricky path that winds through the occasionally opposing forces that surround it.

Sure, there were disagreements, at Board level, at Branch level, and among the members. When I read much of the current online material which alleges an organisation-wide culture of bullying and harassment, I feel even sadder. Perhaps social media has brought this to the fore, but I really hope that this culture is not as endemic as it is portrayed.

I observe that EA seems to have forgotten its members in recent years, and perhaps more importantly, they have forgotten the horses.

After all, it is all about the horses and the horse people, isn’t it?

Denzil O'Brien

Denzil O’Brien has worked in several distinct areas over her career: epidemiological research in spinal cord injury and horse-related injury; sports management (including 5 years as CEO of Equestrian Australia); project management with the Sixth World 3DE Championships in Adelaide in 1986; and originally scientific and educational editing. She was Management Committee member and Secretary of the Horse Federation of South Australia (Horse SA). Denzil has published on various topics, including risks in eventing and risks for horses in jumps racing.


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