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April 11, 2011

Prize Money: The Root Of All Evils

Sally Teague questions why riders now want more for their accomplishments than the traditional ribbons and trophies associated with athletic performances. Photo by Sara Lieser.

Life would be far easier for show managers—and far less conflicted for amateur riders—if every show didn’t have to offer it.

The Chronicle’s editorial staff has written many articles that I’ve promised myself I would respond to, because I have strong feelings about the issues stated, but Beth Rasin’s Commentary of Feb. 21, “Let’s Keep The Fences As High As The Payout,” finally prompted me.

I host and manage three horse shows during the summer at my farm in New Brunswick, Canada. New Brunswick hasn’t had quality shows here in the past, and I’m trying to change that. We’re lost in the “bronze world” of horse shows by Canadian standards.

I run a gold C and two bronze shows, which is equivalent to an A-rated show and two B-rated shows in the United States. I have experience riding the A-rated circuit, so I’m familiar with what makes a quality show, and that’s something that’s missing in our province. I offer what I know is being provided in Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and other provinces, shows that otherwise aren’t being offered here.

I’m trying to change New Brunswick’s reputation. I want to live here, I want to ride here, and I want my children and grandchildren to compete here. That’s why I’m starting a new standard of shows, a standard that I hope other farms in the province will follow.

An Insignificant Part

Until 1989, I campaigned my horses as an amateur on the U.S. AA-rated circuit, in both the jumper and the hunter divisions. My trainer also rode my hunter in the green conformation division. My horses, dog and I lived on the road following the eastern A-rated circuit, from the Winter Equestrian Festival to Vermont and all the shows in between.

I don’t remember getting prize money for any of my classes at those shows. If I did, it was an insignificant part of what I was really doing out there. I was competing to achieve points to qualify for the fall indoor shows. That was my goal—not to make money. I was an amateur, and that meant no pay for what I did. The definition of an amateur is someone who does not get paid to do what they do. The root word in amateur is the Latin word for “love,” and an amateur does what they do for the love of the achievement, not the money they can be paid for the achievement.

I took a 15-year hiatus from showing, because I got married and raised our four children. But by 2004 I was motivated to show in a local show. I won many classes and was awarded prizes, along with the ribbons. It was a complete shock to be awarded a prize. Not only did I feel that if I accepted these prizes I might not be considered an amateur anymore, but I also didn’t know what to do with these prizes. They ranged from familiar grooming utensils to candle sticks and ornaments that I knew would just be more junk cluttering up my house.

I even told the person who was presenting these awards to keep some because I didn’t want them. I wouldn’t have bought them in a store, so I couldn’t see bringing them into my own home just to have to dust around them.

I regarded this new trend as greed on the competitors’ part. This trend must have come from someone who wasn’t satisfied with a ribbon. They just “wanted something”; it didn’t matter what. I think a trophy, which has always been recognized as representing an athletic endeavor, would have been much more appropriate.

Then I attended a few shows with my daughters, and we received prize money. That shocked me again, and I even asked the steward if I could accept the money and keep my amateur status. She said it was perfectly acceptable. I walked away with raised eyebrows, doubting what the world of showing was becoming.

I completely understand professionals collecting prize money, and I even understand money prizes in the bigger jumper classes. But what has become of our amateur hunter competitors? Where did the love of the competition and the desire to collect points to qualify for indoors go? Isn’t the opportunity to go to indoors enough of a reward? A few dollars aren’t going to determine if you go to a show or not. Prize money will never be enough to cover the money we put out to show. So why the random prizes and the prize money?

Somewhere this prize-money ball got rolling in the wrong direction, and now everyone expects it.

I raised my voice about this phenomenon at a local riding club meeting. My position was, ”Where is the joy of showing your mount after schooling and training for the culmination, which is a show? Where is the satisfaction of a job well done? Why is money necessary as an award? Aren’t the ribbon and points accumulated enough? When did all this happen?”

I don’t remember getting money, but I still took my horses to as many shows as were in my budget. I took them because it was fun, and I wanted a unified goal with my horses, so I could feel the satisfaction of training well done with a good pinning. Really, what’s the sense making a few bucks ($25 to $125) when the show costs you $500 to $1,500 per horse (not including shipping, trainer’s per diem, hotels, restaurants and more)?

Increased Costs

I just received approval from Equine Canada to hold my shows this summer. I’ve finished all the preparation that a show requires, except for the prize money. Now I’m faced with the awesome task of raising money for prizes, in addition to the regular costs. I absolutely hate this part, because I don’t believe in half of it. I’ve been lying awake at night fretting about how I’m going to raise enough money to cover expenses and about what an imposition the prize money is. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all I had to raise were the simple costs of show operation? That would be half (!) of what I have to raise.

But if my show is going to be successful, I have to raise the prize money too. I hate visiting businesses that have nothing to do with horses and asking them to support my show. I’d love to invite them to enjoy a pleasant afternoon in our community. We’ve always had a supportive group of spectators, albeit small, and a few of my previous sponsors have even come to see where their money went.

But riding isn’t the top sport in this area. Many can’t even begin to afford it. Let’s face it: Showing is expensive. And now I have to increase the costs for the competitors too, so that I can afford to hold the horse show.

If I didn’t offer prize money, I wouldn’t have to charge as much to my competitors. Before they pay any show entries, each competitor pays me $137 in fees: a jump levy, drug-testing fees, number deposit, and administration and stabling. I’ll admit that I try to make back some of my costs through the stabling and administration fees. But I find this kind of corrupt. Still, I realize that this is how a business is run—and I have to regard my shows as a business.

I host three very nice shows on our private, rural farm. I invite these people and their horses to our home by holding the shows here. I offer safe, sturdy and large temporary stalls, which I own.

I have a terrific, large arena with sand footing, lots of lovely flowers, greenery and colorful jumps for the jumpers and appropriate hunter jumps.

I have original and beautiful ribbons and we give embroidered, top-quality, woolen coolers and leather halters for champion and reserve champion prizes.

My officials have always loved coming to my show. I offer a pig roast on Saturday night that used to be free, but now I have to charge for those tickets. That means I have to rope off the area and have someone check tickets, but it also means that I have another way to raise the prize money I have to provide, if I don’t raise enough through sponsors. Above all, I have an open mind, and I ask the competitors what I can do to make the show better for them next year, and I follow through.

I have three divisions that support one local and two national charities. I can see having prize money to attract more competitors to those divisions.

But I’ve had to hire a consultant to teach me how to better raise money and how to approach big businesses. I’ll try to make back those costs of hiring this man through other charges, but I have to do this to make my shows pay for themselves. I’m also decreasing my prize money from last year to try to make all this easier. I wonder how the competitors will see that change and if they’ll still come?

What’s Happened To The Amateur?

The bottom line is: What’s happened to the amateur? What’s happened to the excitement of watching your points accumulate with the anticipation of qualifying for indoors? What’s happened to the satisfaction of just knowing you and your horse did a job well?

Canadian horse shows are classified by the prize money offered, as Gold A, Gold B or Gold C. Money has become the primary factor that determines where riders show. After that, they might consider a show’s other attributes, like footing and stabling.

I think that prize money started the great big ball of corruption rolling. I think that charging for this and that, as I have to, is corrupt. I want to make my shows fun, rather than a business, but my shows are already running a deficit of more than $40,000. That figure would be much lower if I didn’t have to offer prize money.

The cost and the difficulty of raising prize money may force me to quit holding shows all together. How unfortunate for all of us if that happens. Honestly, it will be the prize money that did that.

I do this for the love of the sport. I regard holding horse shows as giving back to the world I love. I wish we could go back to the time when no prize money was offered. It is, indeed, the root of all evils.

Sally Teague has managed the Oldfield Farm horse shows in Wakefield, N.B., Canada, since 2009. She competed as an amateur-owner hunter and jumper rider in the United Sates and Canada during the 1980s and returned to the amateur ring in 2004. Three of her four children prefer ski racing, but “my youngest has started riding, and he likes it enough to continue when the snow melts here. We’ll see…”

If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. "Prize Money: The Root Of All Evils" ran in the April 11, 2011 issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.