California Riding Magazine • December, 2013

An Unfortunate Connection?
Amateur rules aren't helping horsemanship.

by Macella O'Neill


One of the most constantly controversial topics in our industry is what defines an amateur. In the last couple weeks we've been besieged by notices advising us to "familiarize ourselves" with the amateur rules as they are a " hot topic at the USEF." We are further informed that "amateurs are not allowed to set jumps in the warm up area."

Another frequent topic of discussion is the "lack of horsemanship" increasingly evidenced in today's show world, accompanied by the corresponding complaints about the incompetence, pitiful work ethics and diva behavior so often displayed by today's young professionals who turn pro right out of the junior ranks.

Am I alone in seeing an unfortunate connection? If only a "professional" is allowed to set jumps in the warm-up ring, teach anyone at all and, in short, be involved in all the vital aspects of horsemanship, except getting paid for it, can we really be surprised by the resulting "lack of horsemanship?"

I think everyone is familiar with the dictionary definition of amateur: "a person who engages in a pursuit, especially a sport, on an unpaid basis." Taking this definition, why don't we restructure the shows so that only a "professional" can ride for prize money and receive money for training. The vital and educational activities of teaching, setting jumps and untold other "horsemanship" activities should be available to anyone with that thirst for knowledge and excellence. I simply cannot believe it is anything but good for our sport to have passionate people involved in the excitement of setting jumps in the warm-up ring. Whether it be for their trainer, their horse or their barnmate, it promotes knowledge and enthusiasm and is bound to produce better future riders, coaches and even owners.

After this much more useful "apprenticeship," some of these amateurs may feel they are sufficiently competent to enter the "professional" ranks and ride for money. Otherwise they can retain their amateur status, enriching themselves only with knowledge and experience, but not financially.

All of us know people who comply with the amateur rules as they currently exist simply because they can earn so much prize money by being able to ride in virtually every division. While they may be very "legal," these people are certainly not adhering to the spirit of the amateur rules, to say nothing of the dictionary definition.

Additionally, this change might infuse some support for today's professionals struggling in a system that currently offers very little incentive for anyone to provide a horse for a professional to compete on.

Author Macella O'Neill and her partner Charles White operate Diamond Mountain Stables, a hunter/jumper training program in Napa County's Calistoga.