“Adult amateur.” In the hunter/jumper world, the phrase conjures many images: the timid woman, sitting nervously on her fat, happy packer at the in-gate; the mistakes that are immediately followed by an eye-roll from a beleaguered trainer; a bevy of riders sitting in the horse show tent, drinking rosé after (or before) their classes, laughing about the calamities that occurred (or are surely to come) in their respective divisions.
These are just a few of the widely embraced stereotypes about adult amateurs. For a while, I thought of myself in that light as well. My non-professional status gave me permission to make mistakes, and it also made me open to others’ opinions and guidance. I saw each missed distance or rough canter departure as my amateur side coming through, proving that I was neither competent nor ready to trust my own knowledge or instincts.
But the truth of the sport is that, at least in the rules, there is no skill distinction between being an amateur or a professional. We’ve made it all come down to money and whether or not someone gets paid for their services. We naturally assume that someone who accepts money must be inherently more experienced than someone who doesn’t, but that can be a dangerous leap to make when anyone can become a professional, for a variety of reasons, and none of the rule book definitions have to do with riding or training ability.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about the Latin roots of the word “amateur”: an “enthusiastic admirer,” someone who does something for the love of it. While the word over the years has come to take on negative connotations, there’s something inherently positive about it. A person pursuing an endeavor not for money, but just for the sheer joy of participation. That type of undertaking deserves respect, especially when the time and money put into that pursuit is deliberately allocated at the expense of other things in one’s life.
When I look at my husband, an amateur cyclist who has participated in bike races for the majority of his life, I don’t see any sort of self-deprecation going on. The people who line up at a bike race may not be professionals, but they take themselves and each other very seriously, as do the coaches who train them. This is true for entry-level racers to professionals, men and women alike. While after the race there is camaraderie and support for fellow racers who had good days, there is no poking fun at the pursuit, no self-depreciating “well, I’m just an amateur” remarks. They are all athletes, even if they’re doing it for the love of cycling and not for a paycheck.
I’ve come to think that the hunter/jumper world needs more of this thinking. While there is something positive about bringing the “fun” aspect of riding to the forefront, there’s equally something lost when many adults who participate in our discipline place themselves into an infantilized box.
I’ve seen the memes and reels going around of the trainers who impersonate their adult amateur clients, and while of course it’s meant in good spirits, it’s grounded in the belief that adult amateurs are well-meaning but ultimately clueless individuals who would be utterly lost without the steady hand of their trainers. This in turn potentially leads to dependencies between rider and trainer that aren’t healthy at best, and a breeding ground for abuse at worst.
Personally, I’m tired of that stereotype, or at least of grouping myself within it. I see adult eventers and dressage riders who view themselves as perfectly capable individuals, going to competitions and schooling at home with the guidance of others they trust, but not with dependency on them. I see them taking lessons from a variety of trainers, keeping what they like, but also being discerning enough to put aside what they don’t. They ask questions of those in authority and listen to their own instincts. And though I’m an outsider looking in, it seems that trainers in those disciplines seem to support this type of independence.
Moving forward, that’s the type of amateur I want to be. More like my husband, who has goals for his upcoming cyclocross season that he’s worked toward all year with the help of his coach, but who never talks about what a bad bike racer he is because he’s not a professional. More like my friends in other disciplines—and some in my own—who have confidence in their riding and in the belief that they are neither hapless nor helpless.
Now all of this is not to say that I think everyone should ditch their trainer and go it alone, nor do I think you can’t bring some levity to the table during your journey—after all, sometimes laughter is the best option. But I do think that everyone should take themselves seriously, regardless of their level of skill or experience. After all, in any relationship, you have to respect yourself in order to best respect your partner. Shouldn’t the same be true for the relationships we have with our horses?