Becoming An Amateur

Nov 29, 2011 - 1:52 PM
“Even today there’s always a small fire in me that says, ‘Maybe I’ll get to the top again,’ ” said DeAnna Burke, shown competing San Marco at Morven Park (Va.) in 2009. Photo by GRC Photography.

She was once the world’s top young rider in eventing. Now 38 and working “in the real world,” the writer explains why the professional avenue wasn’t an option for her.

I’m often asked why I chose to become an amateur, and the answer really isn’t a simple one. I’m not 100 percent certain I can say it was a real choice, but more of a journey.

When I was 19, my desire to become a top equestrian athlete prompted me to pack my bags and my horses and travel from Guerneville, Calif., to Virginia to train with Jimmy Wofford and Paul Ebersole.

The following year, 1994, I competed in my first Rolex Kentucky CCI*** with my horse Champagne Wishes. We finished fifth and won the U.S. Equestrian Team’s Markham Trophy for the top-placed young rider. My other horse, Gus Costadi, also had several successful three-day events, rounding out the year with sixth place at the Fair Hill CCI*** (Md.).

What an amazing year that was. I was rewarded with the No. 1 spots in the Land Rover FEI rankings: top-placed global newcomer and top-placed global young rider. I was also ranked nationally by the U.S. Combined Training Association (now U.S. Eventing Association): first overall young rider, second leading lady rider and third overall leading rider, behind Bruce Davidson and Karen O’Connor. I was ranked with the best riders in the world, all due to two fantastic horses, which cost a combined total of $1,500 and would jump the moon for me.

My fairy tale quickly changed, as it often does in this sport, when Champagne Wishes had to be retired from upper level eventing due to a torn superficial tendon. Then Gus suffered a minor injury early in the spring of 1995, so there I was with lots of accomplishments but no horse to compete. I continued to work long hours every day riding horses, cleaning stalls, teaching lessons, galloping horses on the track and doing anything I could to make money to support my goal to be the best rider possible.

Gus came back, and we had a great season in the fall of 1995, then finished the 1996 Rolex Kentucky CCI*** in 15th place the following spring. I felt back on track with lofty goals.

Then, about two weeks after Rolex Kentucky, Gus jumped out of his paddock, caught his hind end on the fence rail, and injured his stifle. Devastated but not deterred, I spent all the money I had and some I didn’t have to treat and rehab the stifle and bring him back to full health.

Unfortunately, after months of rehab, his prognosis of competing at the upper levels and staying healthy wasn’t good, so I made the difficult decision to let him move on as a lower level event horse. He was an amazing horse with more heart than true physical talent, and although I terribly missed jumping around big courses, knowing that he was healthy and happy at the lower levels gave me great pleasure. But there I was again with nothing to ride and no real promise of competing at the upper levels anytime soon.

A friend of mine who lived in England encouraged me and helped arrange for me to move there to ride. So I packed my bags once again and traveled further east, this time across the pond to work for veteran international rider Eddy Stibbe of the Netherlands.

The opportunity to ride in England provided many great benefits; I rode fantastic horses daily and continued my education with world-class instructors. I have no regrets for my time spent in England, but the opportunity lacked a horse or two for me to make decisions and treat as if they were my own.

I needed that close bond and connection with my horse that is made only between true friends. Without that relationship I felt I couldn’t reach my goals and made the hard decision to move back to States and complete my bachelors degree at the College of William & Mary (Va.).

I did take a horse with me to school, but between trying to ride, work and go to school, both money and time were difficult to find, and I couldn’t do anything more serious than riding for fun.

Decision Time

In my last semester at school I started to ask myself, what next?

I didn’t want to stop riding competitively. I wanted to ride again at the upper levels just as much as I did when I was 18, but how was I going to do it? I started to run the numbers: horse board, veterinary expenses, maintenance costs, health insurance, living expenses, show expenses, truck and trailer (which I did not own), and oh yeah, I should probably think about trying to save a penny or two for retirement someday.

I did the math, and it just wasn’t possible. So this is where the path led to a becoming an amateur rider. I pursued a job as an analyst for a software company in Herndon, Va.

I remember the day I accepted the job offer; I was excited for the opportunity in an interesting field and thrilled to get a paycheck to start paying down loans and bills, but almost immediately I started to agonize over whether I’d left behind my dream of jumping around Rolex Kentucky again or even Badminton (England) someday.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being an amateur and riding as a hobby, but if your ultimate goal is to jump around Badminton, then riding really is not a hobby. I’ve come to the reality that working 40-plus hours a week, plus commute time and travel, in an industry outside of horses leaves limited time for preparing, training and competing at the upper levels.

In addition to lack of time, there’s still the expense of the sport that makes it so difficult to succeed. Although I make a good salary, I don’t have the disposable income to buy an upper-level horse, pay for a groom to help exercise or care for my horse when work keeps me from the stable, or the luxury of taking significant time away from work to compete with my horse in warmer climates during the winter.

Amateur Benefits

But there are some benefits to riding as a hobby versus as a profession. When I was riding and teaching daily as a professional, some days the fun of riding just was lost. Once you make something an obligation instead of doing it for pure enjoyment, it becomes work, to a certain extent.

Of course nothing can zap the fun out of going cross-country or riding an awesome horse, but the daily grind to get there can take some of the joy out of riding for the professional.

Today I ride when I want to ride (or when my job allows me to ride), and my time with my horse is time away from work. Today I even enjoy cleaning tack and raking the yard, because it’s not work for me anymore.

Sure, even today there’s always a small fire in me that says, “Maybe I’ll get to the top again and will quit my job to pursue my goal to ride around Badminton,” but that’s farfetched unless I win the lottery.

What Would Have Been?

I’m happy to see more opportunities and support being given to developing riders today, but there should be even more. I often wonder how things could have turned out if I had the support of a sponsor, and I hope in the future that any rider who has the desire, dedication and talent to compete at the top can obtain the financial support needed to achieve his full potential and not have to wonder what could have been. I hope that for future aspiring riders the choice to become an amateur is a personal decision, not a financial necessity.

Life can take you in different directions when you least expect it, but I wouldn’t change a thing today if I could. Every part of my life has shaped me into the person I am today. I’m thankful for all the ups and appreciate the lessons learned during the downs. I was lucky to have a couple of amazing horses that would jump anything for me and were also my best friends with whom I laughed, cheered, cried and loved.

Achievements are realized by those who never stop working toward their dreams. Who knows, maybe my current 3-year old, Pickle, and I will be jumping around Badminton someday. Stranger things have happened. 

If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. The original version of “Becoming An Amateur” ran in the Nov. 21 & 28, 2011, Amateur issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.

Category: Columns

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