How AQHA is Governed

Take a behind-the-scenes look at how rule-change proposals are examined at the AQHA convention, where all members are invited.

The American Quarter Horse Journal

The show committee meets at the 2012 AQHA Convention. (Journal photo)

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the December 2012 issue of The American Quarter Horse Journal. With the 2016 AQHA Convention right around the corner – March 11-14, to be exact – the Journal staff dove into its archives to provide readers with this behind-the-scenes article about how a rule-change proposal becomes an AQHA rule.

Don Clark had an idea.

“I was raised around the western horse,” the lifelong horseman says. “I thoroughly enjoyed him, and I made two AQHA Champions and several Register of Merit horses.”

But Don, who has been an AQHA judge and director before elevating to director emeritus, wasn’t seeing those good ranch horses recognized in AQHA competition, and his idea persisted in his mind.

“I kept thinking, ‘We’ve got to have a place for these ranch horses,’” he says.

So he made a phone call to Don Treadway Jr., who at the time was the AQHA executive vice president.

“I called him and said, ‘I’ve got an idea,’ ” Don Clark says. “I’d like to do a ranch pleasure class at regular shows. And everything went quiet. I said, ‘Dumb idea?’ And he said, ‘No, no, put it on paper and get your thoughts to me.’ ”

So Don hand-wrote a long letter and send it to Don Treadway in a big manila envelope.

“I’ll never say never in response to someone’s request for a rule change unless it’s illegal,” Don Treadway picks up the story. “Sometimes, some ideas are ahead of their time. (Don) didn’t have rules or anything like that (for his proposed class). His suggestion was submitted to the show committee where it was studied for a year. Don kept insisting that it was something that needed to happen.

“It took about three years, but we finally got ranch pleasure as a class in 2012. It’s one of the most popular new classes we’ve ever introduced.”

So popular, in fact, ranch pleasure, now called ranch riding, is now offered in the youth, amateur and Select divisions, as well as junior and senior in the open division.

The class isn’t exactly as Don Clark envisioned it – he had asked for the class to be worked on the rail – but he’s still thrilled with the response to it and the nice working-type horses he has seen shown in the class.

He claps his hands together when he’s told that 220 horses qualified for the first ranch pleasure class at the AQHA World Championship Show and that 66 were entered.

“I think it’s a wonderful class,” he says. “They changed it from what I wanted, and it’s fine because it still shows the versatility of a good-minded horse that has some handle to him.

“I’m a poor traveler – I’ve had back problems and two new knees – but I have it in my mind to come to the World Show to see ranch pleasure.”

Changing the Rules
Well, that’s great for Don Clark, who knows Don Treadway. But can someone who doesn’t know an AQHA employee make a difference?


“Every AQHA rule and every class came from a member,” Don Treadway points out. “I’d say 95 percent of the AQHA Handbook of Rules & Regulations has come from members and from committees made up of members.”

AQHA has a procedure in place for any member who has a good idea like Don Clark’s, and it starts with going to the member services area of and clicking on the “rule change” link. Fill in the form and submit it by December 31 to get it on the agenda at the next year's AQHA convention.

Let’s say that you want to make a rule that all exhibitors in western classes must wear white shirts.

“You’d submit that as a rule change,” Don explains. “We have a rule that specifies that exhibitors must wear collared, long-sleeve shirts. To amend that rule so it says, ‘white,’ you’d go to the website, get the form and say that you’d like to amend Rule SHW320.1. Submit it by December 31, and I assure you it will be sent to the appropriate subcommittee.”

For example, an attire rule would go to the general subcommittee of the AQHA Shows Committee.

At Convention
AQHA committee members get notebooks full of proposals to consider, minus the frivolous ones, such as discarding shows.

“The staff in Amarillo combines similar-sounding rules or at least groups them together,” Don says. “The shows committee receives nearly 200 suggested rule changes every year. We group those by category, and there are multiple subcommittees of the shows committee.”

Suggested rule changes go to the subcommittee that handles that discipline or class.

“So if someone wants to change a particular rule regarding western pleasure, and another person wants to change it differently, and a third person has yet another idea, all those would go together,” Don says. “The subcommittee would consider each one independently, and then it’s up to the committee to either take a little of each one, deny all three of them, pick one the committee members like or take no action.”

Many committees offer three to five minutes for AQHA members to make their case or offer support of any agenda items.

“Traditionally, we ask the committee chairmen to see if there are others in the room who’d like to speak about a particular suggestion,” Don says. “After two or three are saying the same thing, we normally ask for a show of hands to see who else feels the same way. That gives the committee a good idea of how many people are in favor of an idea.”

It’s not necessary to attend convention if you submit a rule change, Don says, but letters of support are important.

“Rather than having many people submit the same rule change, other AQHA members can send a letter saying they support your recommendation,” he says. “A lot of people can’t attend convention, but they feel passionately about rules and procedures, so if they’d like to submit a letter, that’s fine, and the letters will be given to the committee that will be handling that particular rule.”

Speaking on behalf of a particular rule change is not terrifying, says Carol Whittaker, an AQHA director from Arizona, who has submitted several rule-change suggestions, including ideas on rules related to Level 1 (formerly known as Novice) and developing an AQHA handicapping system for shows.

“I went as a member, before I was a director,” Carol says, and the experience was positive. Her suggestion that each class be considered a separate Novice skill set passed.

After each AQHA committee meets and votes on which ideas to advance, the chairman of the committee reads its report at the general membership meeting, the Monday of convention, Don says.

“The membership in attendance votes yay or nay on the committee reports,” Don says. “The recommendation simply states that they’re voting that the board of directors consider the committee report, and then the report goes into the board meeting immediately following the general membership meeting.”

The board of directors votes on whether to forward the reports to the AQHA Executive Committee.

“There are only two exceptions to that,” Don adds. “The Executive Committee cannot change any bylaws, so if it’s a bylaw change and the board votes on it, yes or no, that’s where it stops. It can’t go to the Executive Committee for further action. The same holds for rules of registration. The Executive Committee cannot change rules of registration, so the board of directors has the final say.”

The Executive Committee

Let’s assume that our imaginary white shirt rule has made it through the board of directors. Next it goes to the AQHA Executive Committee at its quarterly meeting in April.

“The Executive Committee looks at all the recommendations with the exception of bylaws or rules of registration,” Don says. “Something that might have sounded like a great idea at the board meeting or through the committee process might not be a good idea when we look at budgets and there’s no feasible way to fund a particular initiative or to make it happen.”

The Executive Committee can table a line item, deny it or send it back for consideration the next year.

“We usually explain to the person who submitted the rule or policy change what happened,” Don says. “We also let each committee know the result of all of its committee recommendations.”

Some ideas are ahead of their time, Don points out, like Don Clark’s ranch pleasure idea that took several years to come to fruition.

“The wheels of change turn slowly, but a good idea will eventually get there,” Don Treadway says.

Amateur Division
One rule change that took nearly a decade was the creation of the amateur division.

“I remember that very well,” Don says. “We started out with just two amateur classes, western pleasure and bridle path hack, in 1972. They were in the first World Show in 1974. Then as they grew, there were passionate members who wanted their own division. It took several years to get that through.”

In 1979, the amateur division opened up for all classes.

“It was a pretty radical change from the old way of showing horses in an open format,” Don remembers. “We did have youth classes, but the open show was the open show.

“But the interested members kept pushing and kept driving. There was a big petition brought to the show committee in 1978 to say ‘We want this.’ The amateur division opened up, and it has been one of the most successful things we’ve ever done.

“So my advice to people is if you think you’ve got a good idea and others think it’s a good idea, don’t give up. If it’s a good idea, it will eventually find a place in AQHA.”

Writing Rules
So you have a great idea that you want to submit. How should you write it up?

“I’ve talked to people who have wanted to submit rule changes, and what I always tell them is you have to be very careful when you write a rule-change proposal,” Carol says. “Think about the consequences. It’s important that you present to the committee something the members can look at, understand and not have to modify.”

Now that she’s a director, looking at rule changes from a committee perspective, Carol says it’s important to keep all of AQHA in mind, not just your corner of it.

“Just because I know what’s happening in my region and what works here in Arizona, it’s not necessarily the same thing in the Northeast or in Montana or in Europe,” she says. “When you’re looking at a rule change, you really have to have a broad perspective. We need to be able to apply rules globally and have them function globally.”

Members who want to suggest a class should think about whether the class will benefit the American Quarter Horse as a horse and the American Quarter Horse as a breed, not to mention spectators, exhibitors and owners, Don Clark advises.

“Be prepared to give AQHA a class routine and time needed to conduct the class. Before presenting it to AQHA, talk to other people and get their support,” he says. “A new class must be different from what’s being done. Be patient. It will take time – maybe two or three years – to get it approved.”

Making a Difference
The welfare of the horse was one of Don Clark’s foremost thoughts in suggesting ranch pleasure.

“There are horses in every discipline that are failures at that discipline,” he says. “But their bodies are still good and their minds are still good. Those horses can be ranch pleasure horses, and that gives them value.”

And adding value to horses helps the horse market, he says.

Doing what’s best for the horse is on the minds of all of the members of the board of directors, according to Gunnar Otness of Duvall, Washington, a former chairman of the now-disbanded AQHA Amateur Committee.

“There have been several directors’ meetings where it’s gotten pretty hot and heavy,” Gunnar says. “Some of the guys were in tears on some of the items that came up – they were so passionate about where they stood on the issue.

“AQHA’s direction comes from directors, through the Executive Committee.”

Directors welcome suggestions from members, he says, and communication is key.

“Without members writing in and presenting proposals, we wouldn’t have anything,” he says. “That’s where I’m coming from when I say that as a director, don’t be afraid to talk to people. There’s nothing to hide here. We’re not in secrecy.”

Some meetings are closed, Gunnar says, but members can attend meetings and know exactly how the vote went.

“If we didn’t have the people out there, we wouldn’t be where we are today,” he says. “We’re the biggest breed association, but not only that, we’re the best. And we’re the best run. Bar none.”

The 2016 AQHA Convention is March 11-14 at the South Point Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. All AQHA members are welcome to attend the convention, and most committee meetings are open to the public and allow time for member comments. Convention is also where year-end high-point exhibitors and horses are honored, as well as the inductees into the American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame. Visit to learn more about the annual event.