03 December 2009

Jo and Kevin: The Man (and Woman!) Behind the Curtain


The United States Eventing Association’s (USEA) Annual Convention takes place this weekend (now, actually!) in Reston, Virginia. That makes for perfect timing to get a word or two from the USEA CEO, Jo Whitehouse, and her partner in crime, USEA President Kevin Baumgardner. So if you can’t make the trek to horse country just now have a look see here and find out what they have to say about sitting under Gypsy Banners as a child, getting bitten by the bug, and thoughts on the loss of the long format. Jo is charming, incredibly clever, and has a killer Bristish accent. Kevin is warm, knowledgeable, and passionate; they’re both wholly dedicated to eventing and totally have our backs. The interview itself is a combination of two so is a bit of an experiment. It’s broken into several parts so make sure to check back in for Part II. Here goes!


Q. What is your role at the USEA?

A. Jo Whitehouse: Well I’m CEO at the USEA. I was put into that position about two years ago. I should back up saying I joined the USEA in November 1987 as a volunteer. My daughter went to a private school in Beverly, MA and it was a long drive. How could I spend a few hours a day? The USEA was right around the corner.


I started as a volunteer which developed into something part time and was full time within a matter of weeks. I worked in every department for the USEA through the years. Specifically I was editor and communications manager and then also, in December 1988, I was made the Executive Director until, I think, about the end 2006 when I was appointed CEO.


We’ve seen quite a few changes over the years of staff gradually taking on more and more of what was done by volunteers. Volunteering seems to have changed in last 5-7 years. Baby boomers are all raised to volunteer so it will be a concern for the future. This sport is so reliant on volunteers; I’m not sure the culture will still be there. That’s tough for eventing. I do have a lot of hope and belief in people who love this sport. It’s such a passion, it brings that side out in people. If people want this sport it’s going to be volunteering. It’s such an expensive sport, it requires such a lot of positions, it would be too expensive to hire the people for jobs that volunteers do.


Q. What is your role as USEA president?

A. Kevin Baumgardner: There are a few things. It’s first to be chair of the executive committee and chairman of board of governors. That’s the ultimate governing body of our organization. When policy issues come to board or executive committee they come through me and I work with Jo Whitehouse, the USEA CEO. As a practical matter what that means is that Jo and I are almost in constant contact; we talk nine out of ten days on the phone. I have a lot of interplay with the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) and Malcolm Hook conveniently chairs the eventing committee at the USEF and is a member board of the board of governors and executive committee. The USEA has an eight-member sub group board that governs the week-to-week policy of the organization. So that’s one role.


Kevin and his lovely wife, Gretchen, at the Place de Vosges, France

photo courtesy of Kevin Baumgardner


The second role of the president is to make use of the platform that the position gives you to air issues of importance and views of the association. I’ve tried to take advantage of that. One thing that’s been very important for me is what we’ve been talking about: the community and culture of the sport. Once in a while I hear “We’re your customers and you need to treat us like we’re customers.” And I push back on that. The USEA is second to none in customer service. But I don’t think our culture is a culture of leadership up here and customers down here. I think our culture is one of a community where we owe something back to the sport. I’m a volunteer and have put 100’s of hours into the sport, and I’m lucky to do it. I know hundreds who have done the same thing.

We’re standing on the shoulders of those who built the sport. I don’t think you can be a customer, I think you have to be part of a living, breathing sport that’s moving forward. The economics are such that it’s a challenge and we need to pull together to make sure that we keep it doable and affordable for everyone. Most people are receptive. They’re self-starters who want to make a difference. I’ve been trying to communicate how much the sport is just a miracle. I think out of that epiphany is that we all have a responsibility to shepherd the sport forward.


Q. How did you first get involved with the USEA?

A. Kevin Baumgardner

I started showing up at area and annual meetings. I started doing that when we began eventing in the early ‘90s and I ended up, around 1996, on the area council. It’s just an example of people who want to get involved and show up at enough meetings get put on something. We’re victims of our own attendance. So in 1999 I was the Area 7 Chair. I was in that position for three years. After a one-year hiatus I went on the board in 2002 or 2003. It’s been a really good experience. It’s been a lot of fun to meet and expand my horizons and to meet folks from around the country who event. To realize that when you deal with national issues and that there are 14,000 of us and that we’re a small organization of extremely committed people who are scattered over various areas of a huge country. It’s given me a sense of how important it is to maintain a sense of culture and community. This came from people who gave back and were part of the solution not the problem. Every time I got to an event I think, “this sport is a miracle.” Think how much goes on on the ground and how much work has gone in to creating what we see. How much of that work has been compensated at market value? A lot of them are doing it as a labor of love. They’re contributing to the culture of the sport. It’s volunteers who jump judge, build the courses, act as officials, and it’s the riders who give back. It’s something I like in the eventing world that you go to an event and you see someone is having problem and a trainer who knows them casually will go over and help out. That’s unique and we’ve got to maintain that.

I hope we maintain that atmosphere of community as opposed to being cutthroat. Our sport is more about the journey than the destination.

Check back soon for Part II where Jo dishes on the ins and outs of her job and Kevin gives up some exciting developments on the competition front!


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