An Amateur Bill of Rights

Dec 15, 2020 - 2:59 PM

The past two weeks of participation in the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association’s virtual convention has demonstrated to me how wide the gulf still is between the amateurs and the governing body of our sport. The dilemma is how can we change this situation.

My journey to riding in the amateur hunters began six decades ago. I was 5 then, and I’m 64 now. Every time I see that number, it surprises and astonishes me because it’s a reality check on how much time has gone by in my life. There have been lots of twists and turns, disappointments and sadness, but the one overwhelming joy has been the horses themselves.

Me in pigtails with Sandy
Penelope Ayers got her start riding horses when she was 5. Photos Courtesy Of Penelope Ayers

I’ve been blessed to have known horses that have amazed me with their talent, kindness and compassion, always there, always loving, always true. They have been my inspiration when I feel disillusioned with life, with people and with organizations. This is such a moment.

I’ve been riding and competing in the amateurs for four decades, another startling number. I’ve ridden at small shows, and I’ve ridden at the fall indoor championships. Although now I have the most amazing horses and a great trainer, it didn’t start out that way.

At the beginning, I had some questionable horses and not a lot of training. I lived in New York City, and I commuted out to ride in New Jersey, where I still live today. I took a bus from the Port Authority out to Highway 35 in Middletown, where the driver let me off on the side of the road, and I walked the mile and a half to the barn. It’s shocking now to realize that back then this was not illegal or alarming. All of us who rode at that barn did much of the work there for free. When I went back to this barn after college and started my adult riding career, I had one of the most dangerous horses I’ve ever owned, and I realized I needed to be with another trainer. Happily, I lived through that experience and moved on to a trainer who taught me how to ride.

To understand the disconnect now between the USHJA, the U.S. Equestrian Federation and the amateur riders, you have to go back to the past. In those days the trainers were the ultimate voice of authority. Most of the trainers I remember from that time were larger-than-life figures whom you would question at your peril. I wrote an article for the Chronicle in the ’80s about the unequal relationship between amateur riders and professionals. As an amateur, you could have all the experience in the world in your career and be dismissed outright as not qualified to have an equal say in your career as a rider.

In today’s world and economy, training has become more of a service industry, and the customer has and should be entitled to an equal voice in decision-making. This evolution has not carried over to the organizations that define the industry.

My other career has been in the nonprofit sector where I have worked for both small and large organizations. I served on the boards of the ASPCA, South Street Seaport in New York City and the Pennsylvania National Horse Show, to name a few. Now, I work for Danny and Ron’s Rescue, the New Jersey Conservation Foundation and The Sloth Institute of Costa Rica. I’ve been in USHJA governance for about 15 years. I’ve served as a member and chair of the Owners Committee, and I’m currently on the Safety Committee and the vice chair of the Amateur Task Force. I helped fundraise for the USHJA building in Lexington, Kentucky, and I made the lifetime achievement award videos for Sally Ike and Leo Conroy.

The USEF and the USHJA have not been part of the evolution that has shaped other nonprofits, which mainly depend on the generosity and goodwill of donors. Their role as regulatory bodies, even though they have nonprofit status, has allowed them to operate without needing to cultivate the goodwill of the membership. We have to belong to them in order to show our horses at USEF-sanctioned events. As a result, both organizations have used the dependency of the membership to maintain the same unequal relationship with their members that the trainers once had with their customers. In other words, to change the organizations, you need to change the culture that currently exists in both bodies.

At the USHJA, the board is heavily populated by competition managers and professionals. If you define an amateur as riding and participating in the amateur divisions and not merely holding an amateur card, there are currently only two amateurs serving on the board. Amateurs make up about 40 percent of the membership, but we pay most of the bills for training, showing and horse ownership. I realized early on we needed and were owed a bigger voice and more representation in the organization. That goal has been my focus, and it’s been disheartening not to have made more progress.

“I realized early on we [amateurs] needed and were owed a bigger voice and more representation in the organization,” says Penelope Ayers.
This past week I ran for the new amateur-designated board seat and lost the election to the current chair of the Competiton Management Committee. I was disappointed personally, but as an amateur, I am disheartened that the board has failed again to recognize our value as the largest constituency they serve. In speaking with USHJA’s president, Mary Babick, whom I like and respect, I was told that the Governance Committee should have defined the board seat more clearly, and the Nominating Committee should have been given more guidance in the selection criteria for the nominees. Both of these statements may be true, but they miss the bigger issue, which is that the culture at USHJA, dominated by professionals and competition management, voted for the candidate they felt comfortable with, another competition manager. There was a complete lack of awareness on the board that the largest block of the membership they work for is very disillusioned and dissatisfied with the current state of affairs in our industry and that this board seat was supposed to address that deficiency.

So what’s next for us as amateurs in this sport that has yet to recognize our worth and thank us for our financial support? One comment I’ve heard is that we have failed to make a clear statement that outlines the problems and issues we are unhappy with in the sport and with the USHJA and USEF. I would like to propose that as a group, we work on an Amateur Bill of Rights, similar to the Patient’s Bill of Rights you see posted at hospitals.

I would like all of you as amateurs to write out and publish what you feel are the top five issues you would like to have addressed by the USHJA and USEF. Please share them as comments on this article or on the Chronicle’s Facebook page or forums, and hopefully other amateur-centered groups will join in, and we can look at and discuss your posts. Let’s create a document that we can use to educate both organizations. The final goal will be to e-mail our document to every member of both the boards of USHJA and USEF and their sponsors. At the same time, we can circulate our document to as many equine organizations and media outlets as we can reach.

This campaign won’t be the solution to the disconnect we see in our governing bodies, but it can be a first step. I would like to create a vehicle for our amateur community to come together for the first time and make it known that we want the organizations in our sport, that we pay for, to be accountable to the members they are supposed to represent. I am confident we can make a difference and win this battle if we use our political and economic clout to achieve the changes we want to see in the sport we love.


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