Craig Huffhines, Executive Vice President of the American Quarter Horse Association

This is the second installment of a new series titled, “State of the Industry.” Each month, we will be examining some facet of the horse industry. We will ask tough questions, invite your participation and input, and seek to discover what is working and what is not. The entire horse industry is going through painful changes as we compete with a changing and increasingly urban culture. Our hope is to establish a dialogue and look for innovative programs that are working.

by Cindy Reich

In our continuing series on the “State of the Industry,” we talk to Craig Huffhines, Executive Vice President of the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) to see how that organization is faring in our increasingly urban and changing culture. As the world’s largest equine registry and breed membership organization with over 350,000 members, we were interested in how their association works.

The AQHA is governed by an executive committee which includes the president, first vice president, second vice president, and two other members. Each member is elected at their annual national convention and serves a term of one year. There are over 250 directors who are also involved in the decision-making process and report to the Executive Committee.

How are major decisions, such as rule changes, made in the organization?

AQHA has a board of directors consisting of over 270 long time members and enthusiasts. In the spring every year, the AQHA hosts its annual convention where board members and non-board committee members meet to discuss the direction of the organization. There is a sophisticated governance structure that allows members to submit written proposals to specific committees for review and discussion. After careful evaluation and debate in committee, the committee chairmen report the proposals to the membership, and the board of directors cast their vote for or against recommendations. Once the board of directors vote on the rule change, it then goes to the five-member elected Executive Committee for final approval. The only area for which the Executive Committee does not have final say covers the rules regarding the registration standard of the American Quarter Horse. Those decisions are determined by the Studbook committee, made up of prominent breeders and veterinarians, and occasionally advised by geneticists.

Is the President of the AQHA a paid or volunteer position? If volunteer, why?

The President has always been a volunteer, elected leadership position under our governance structure. The Chief Executive Officer or EVP is the paid staff leader of the organization that answers to and serves at the pleasure of the Executive Committee. That type of governance system provides strategic and directional continuity. Our President graciously gives of his/her time for the betterment of the industry.

How many marketing people are employed by the AQHA?

The AQHA is for all intents and purposes a marketing company, so it depends on how you define marketing. We have communication and PR teams, digital marketing teams, customer care teams, show and competition teams, youth development teams and media teams. Many of the employees in the respective areas have cross-functional responsibility across other areas and work together to provide the best experience possible to the membership. They all have a marketing and customer experience responsibility.

What initiatives have been most successful in bringing new people into the Quarter Horse breed?

The Quarter Horse breed is the most diverse breed in the world. It is a kind-minded, smart and athletic animal that bonds well with people. It can be trained to accomplish many things across many disciplines. Furthermore, the horse and the lifestyle the Quarter Horse represents are relatively affordable within the equestrian industry. All of those attributes have been instrumental in attracting Quarter Horse ownership which we estimate to be close to four million horses globally.

 In the current culture, horse activities have to compete with soccer, gymnastics, biking, computer games, etc. It is a much more urban culture than it was thirty to forty years ago. How are you competing for attention to get families involved with Quarter Horses? 

This is a challenge for everyone in the equestrian world. We are investing in youth activities and supporting both educational opportunities and activities that youth enjoy. We first are focusing on our core target of kids who have the ability to own and keep a horse close to home. If we do not provide a quality experience for the ones closest to us, then we will never attract those in the suburban environments. Education, opportunity, and a fun social experience are the first legs in the marathon of youth engagement. If we can’t offer the highest quality service to our members, how can we possibly reach out and attract new members? I use Amazon as a model of customer service. We are working towards providing the highest level of customer service to our members across all departments.

What efforts have been most successful in terms of increasing registrations? What has not been successful?

The marketplace has had to adjust to a new norm since the economic crash of 2008 as well as the banning of horse slaughter in the mid-2000s. Breed associations, try as they may, can do very little to impact the economy which has more to do with the marketplace than anything else. AQHA continues to support high-quality experiences at competitive events. However, the majority of horse owners are recreational riders, and they are impacted by economic times, disposable income, and cultural demands, all of which are out of the control of the breed association. The reality of those major economic adjustments in our industry has resulted in a more responsible breeding objective for the industry. No longer can people simply keep a stallion around and breed a few mares if there is not a planned marketplace for them. Unwanted horses become a liability, therefore registration trends reflect an adjustment to the new marketplace. This year will be the first year AQHA will see stallion breeding reports up and registrations holding steady since before those major economic changes now going on 10 years ago or longer. I believe this is a sign that the industry has adjusted well to the new marketplace.

Are show entries down? If so, what are you doing to increase entries?

Show entries are up for the AQHA due to the AQHA leveling program that allows exhibitors to compete within their competitive ability.
We have also added new classes such as walk-trot to encourage novice horse owners to get started. I am a big advocate of allowing people to compete at their own level and build up their expertise and confidence over time. We see this every day in youth athletics and it works.

We have a disconnect between the halter horse and the performance horse in the Arabian breed. Do you have the same in AQHA? If so, are you doing anything to bring the two together?

The conformation halter horses and performance horses are very much two different classifications of horses. For that matter, specialization of horse type and kind proliferates in the competition world across disciplines. While we have allowed the marketplace and the judging to determine the outcome of horse shows for all disciplines, which drives breeding demand for those specialties, we are working diligently to preserve the intent of the Performance Horse Halter class. We want to make sure that the horses competing within performance halter are in fact performing in an event in order to qualify for the halter class. There is a proposal at our upcoming convention. The intent of the proposal is to require a Performance Halter horse to compete in the non-halter event that it intends to qualify in at the show where it will be competing in halter. Right now the halter horses must earn a certain number of performance points to qualify to show in halter. These points are based on the number of horses in the class and what discipline the horse is showing in. One of the new proposals being debated at our upcoming convention would require the horse to compete in the non-halter class at the same show where they are competing in performance halter. We are hearing a great deal of buzz today regarding form to function across the marketplace. That’s a healthy debate. Furthermore, it appears that our judges are rewarding those horses that are more natural and functionally sound in type. There seems to be a type change taking place within that community that I believe is healthy. We all understand that winning drives breeding objectives in the show industry.

The AQHA was very progressive, very early, in establishing the breed in Europe. What made your strategy so successful early on?

The AQHA conducted several tours to Europe promoting U.S. reining with the goal to eventually get the sport into the Olympics. This was a collaborative effort with the FEI and the NRHA. In addition, horsemanship educational clinics have been organized all over Europe for years, which has brought the love of the American Quarter Horse to Europe. Today, there are nearly 16,085 AQHA members in Europe, and we allow their elected leadership to participate in the governance process of the AQHA.

What do you do now, in terms of outreach, in both the U.S. and Europe? Do you have a specific department/committee for outreach?

We have an International Department that liaises with an International Marketing committee made of both domestic and international board members. The committee works to enhance services for international Quarter Horse enthusiasts around the world through the planning of riding programs, education, and AQHA-sanctioned international competition. AQHA has developed an incentive fund for supporting special horsemanship events and membership activities. There are over 32,000 AQHA members abroad who are breeding, raising, training, riding and competing on AQHA registered horses.

If you could wave a magic wand and change three things in your industry, what would they be?

1. Our industry should be more inclusive and inviting to people who are getting started.

2. We should always put the horse first as it relates to welfare issues. The horse is a gift to man, and our responsibility is to respect and care for it even at the end of life.

3. We must advance our abilities to reach more people through technology on a global scale.

In summary, Craig said that they have had to put forth a major effort in terms of cost and manpower to bring the AQHA current in terms of technology, especially IT and social media. He admits they were left behind in recognizing how important being technologically current was going to be, but they have now caught up, and their focus is on providing superior customer service. “We are not really focusing on bringing new people into the breed a this point. If we can’t provide the very best customer service and experience possible, how can we do a good job for new people in the breed?” asks Craig. Therefore, the commitment to excellence in service is their main focus as an organization at this time. At this writing, they have just concluded their 2018 Convention, and we will check in with the AQHA in a future article to find out what changes are coming about for this year.

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