Conflict of Interest: What it is; What it isn’t

With a number of newly-licensed judges about to enter the scene (we anticipate making an announcement about newly-licensed judges and TDs next week), it’s a good time to address a topic about which a number of people have written to us in recent weeks: the question of how potential conflicts of interest are handled within Working Equitation in the United States.

Given how small the Working Equitation community still is, there is a very real potential for situations to arise that may appear to present a conflict of interest but fall outside the strict interpretation of that term, as defined by the rules.

This topic is addressed in the United States Rules for Working Equitation. The rules clearly outline specific timeframes for a variety of activities (receiving instruction from a Judge, leasing or buying a horse from a Judge, etc.).

Many people are surprised to learn that the rules do not prohibit a person from taking a group lesson / participating in a group clinic with a Judge just prior to showing before that Judge.  This particular exception to the rule follows a model found within the USEF rulebook and focuses on the difference between group instruction in a clinic environment and individual instruction.

If a rider receives “private” instruction (such as a one-on-one lesson), it is considered “instruction” under the rules, and the student would therefore not be allowed to compete under that Judge until a period of 30 days had passed (even if that instruction takes place during a clinic).  If, however, the rider only receives instruction in a group setting, rather than riding in an individual one-on-one lesson, then this is considered an allowable exception to the 30-day rule.

The rules state, “Conducting clinics or providing assistance in group activities, unless private instruction is given, is not considered instruction.” This statement makes a distinction between ‘group activities’ and ‘private’ (one on one) activities, in relation to the teaching/learning that can take place at clinics.

The distinction is important, and Judges, clinic organizers, and students alike need to be sure that they do not inadvertently stray into the individual instruction realm. 

Likewise, although the rules prohibit an employer or an employee of a Judge from competing under that Judge, they do not address the situation where a Judge might be asked to judge someone who is employed by the same person or company that employs the judge. Under the rules, one is not prohibited from judging a co-worker or horses owned by one’s employer or employee. How might this look in practice?

Say you own a barn and hire someone who is a judge to give lessons there, and also hire someone to ride your horses (e.g., a trainer).  Even though you would be the employer of both the judge and the trainer, the rules allow the trainer to compete on your horses under that judge (in this case, the horse is owned by the judge’s employer, and the rider is a co-worker of the judge). This hypothetical situation is allowable under the rules, as long as the rider has not received individual instruction from the judge within 30 days of the competition.

In all cases, the rules require judges to declare any potential conflicts of interest to event organizers.

And, when in doubt, it might be wise to have a competitor whose relationship to the Judge may be skirting close to the line participate Hors de Concours. This safeguard would enable the rider to receive feedback from the judge, but avoid the potential negativity of the perception of a conflict of interest.


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