How Do We Define A Modern-Day Amateur Equestrian?

Dec 10, 2020 - 8:01 AM

What constitutes an amateur has long been contested in equestrian sports, and defining what is and isn’t allowed has just grown more complicated in the age of social media. At this year’s U.S. Hunter Jumper Association Annual Meeting, which is being held virtually, there are two rule change proposals to GR1306, the so-called “Amateur Rule,” on the docket, and these proposals have ruffled feathers.

Amateurs are up in arms over potential rule changes. Kimberly Loushin Photo

The first of these RCPs, which was put forth by the USHJA Joint Amateurs Task Force, addresses social media influencers. The proposed change, which adds to the list of designated professional activities, states: “Accepts remuneration AND uses his name, photograph or other form of personal association as a horse person in connection with any advertisement or social media channels or product/service for sale, including but not limited to apparel, equipment or property.”

“Keeping in like with the broad definition of amateur, which is to compete as an unpaid athlete, we felt it should be included,” said task force chair Tracey Weinberg. “Social media influencer is analogous to brand ambassador if you’re being paid to do so. Tagging what you like or don’t like isn’t a problem; it’s the premise of being paid that is.”

The RCP has caused a firestorm of frustration online, including a petition with more than 900 signatures, and the conversation remained passionate during the annual meeting.

“This feels like an additional restriction on amateurs that isn’t necessary,” said Johanna Jessen, an amateur based in Lake Charles, Louisiana. “These brands aren’t looking to give out top horses as remuneration but rather equipment to serve a mutually beneficial [partnership] to brand and rider. Why does that affect competition at all?”

Weinberg pointed out that if riders are NCAA amateur athletes, then they can’t be paid or be sponsored, so the amateur committee was following the NCAA lead.

USHJA board member Britt McCormick is also a member of the U.S. Equestrian Federation’s National Breeds and Disciplines Council, and he was asked to join an ad hoc committee tasked with creating a different version of the rule that makes sense for today’s competition environment and social media.

“The biggest difference [in the proposals] is how we identify and relate to social media influencers,” McCormick said. “What it boiled down to for us was two things: 1) The current situation says it’s OK for an amateur to own a company that makes the boots, but an amateur can’t wear boots to be promoted on social media, and we didn’t think that was fair. 2) We felt a social media influencer wasn’t gaining any more ability in the competition and that they were like a tack shop owner, not someone out there like a professional.”

The RCP presented by the USEF ad hoc committee includes notable changes to the amateur rule, such as upping the maximum value of a non-monetary gift of appreciation from $300 to $1,000 and creating an avenue for college students who want to be working students and also ride in NCAA competition.

The provision would allow them to ride horses they don’t own in open classes, although not in classes restricted to amateurs, and they couldn’t receive remuneration for riding, training, teaching or showing in a competition environment. Currently, NCAA riders can’t be sponsored or receive any remuneration, but McCormick said the NCAA would follow USEF’s definition of amateur.

Another provision allows amateurs to get paid for a little bit of teaching. The proposal states, “Accept remuneration when serving as a part-time instructor (not independent contractor), apprentice or working student so long as the Amateur is doing so in a non-competitive environment. Non-competitive environments are defined as those environments where instruction and/or training is not related to competing at any level.”

According to McCormick, this change would be beneficial for some areas of the country where there are few professionals and would play into USEF’s “Discover The Joy Of Horse Sports” campaign, which aims to get as many people involved as possible.

“Say you live in Idaho, and you own a horse or two, and you’re an amateur, and a kid down the street wants to ride,” he said. “It should be OK for you as an amateur in the area to introduce a person to horse sports and get some [compensation] as long as you’re not doing so in a competitive environment or intend to compete.”

A criticism of the USEF task force’s RCP was that non-competitive environment is ill-defined and needs fleshing out. The rule is still going through changes with the USEF legal department, and McCormick said the real goal was to get the proposal in front of the affiliates affected by the change to get feedback. The USEF won’t vote on RCPs until the mid-year meeting, which takes place in June 2021.

“Listening to this conversation, I’m struck by the tiny minutia and details that have made this chapter grow and grow,” said Arizona-based horse show manager Chris Collman. “I think maybe it’s time to flip the other way and say, ‘What exactly is a professional?’ Should you be able to find a distance to eight fences on course? If you can, you’re a pro. It seems we’re so carried away with how to get rid of people. I feel like we’ve gotten so far away from where we should be.”

Other Notable Discussions

Two additional rules that affect amateur riders also earned plenty of attention. The first, a suggestion by the USHJA Amateur Task Force, proposes adding a third age split to the 3’3” and 3’6” amateur-owner hunters, creating six sections total. (This link is to the original version of the rule; it’s since been tweaked slightly). After analyzing the number of amateurs by age, the task force suggested that rather than the current 18-35 and 36 and over divisions, it should be 18-25, 26-41 and 42 and over. “The age spread between the youngest and oldest riders has widened, and the number of the youngest riders 18-25 far exceeds the rest of the participants,” was the explanation on the rule change proposal.

Several suggestions to modify the rule change proposal came up, including changing the cut-off from 42 and over to 45 and over, and having three USEF Horse of the Year awards instead of just two, as was in the original proposal.

USEF National Hunter Committee member and trainer Shelley Campf and USHJA Hunter Working Group member and trainer Jim Hagman pointed out that an important part of this rule is to protect the older amateurs from having to compete against the “hot shot” younger riders who are fresh out of the junior divisions and often still funded by parents.

The USHJA Competition Management Committee disagrees with the RCP, saying that the total number of amateur-owner competitors don’t merit three sections.

Louise Serio, a trainer and member of the USEF National Hunter Committee, supported changing the splits.

“For 3’3” [the numbers warrant an additional section], and I think for the 3’6” [the rule] will encourage people to move into it,” said Serio. “It’s definitely needed.”

Another RCP addressed the “owner” component of the amateur-owner jumper division. It would eliminate the “owner” requirement from those classes and just have one open amateur jumper division. Currently, there are amateur and amateur-owner jumper divisions, and they are often combined together or with the junior jumpers at shows. The RCP would keep separate HOTY awards for amateur and amateur-owner jumper divisions.

USEF Director of National Show Jumping Programs Jennifer Haydon explained said the idea was discussed at last year’s annual meeting, and the USEF had planned multiple town halls on the topic before the pandemic began (one did happen at the Desert International Horse Park [California] in early 2020). She pointed out that not all amateur jumper riders have equal opportunity to compete since many shows don’t offer both amateur and amateur-owner jumper classes.

She said that owning your own horse is a point of pride, which is why there will still be an amateur-owner HOTY award. She pointed out that working amateurs often can only show on the weekend, and there may not be a class of the appropriate height if they don’t own their own mount. She also said the rule won’t affect the amateur-owner hunter division or the amateur rule itself.

Several attendees addressed the ongoing concern that many amateurs unethically “buy” horses so they can show in the amateur-owner division.

“People buy horses for a dollar, show them for a week and ‘sell’ them back because it didn’t work out,” said USHJA Vice President David Distler. “We’re getting rid of behind closed doors operation. I think it’s good for the sport. I understand amateur-owners wanting to compete against people who own their own horses, but this just makes it cleaner. It’s something that’s going to happen, maybe not today, but next month or next year.”

Jimmy Torano, who is a professional rider, a member of the USHJA Jumper Working Group, and the spouse of amateur jumper rider Danielle Torano, pointed out that riders in the amateur jumper division are limited to just two horses, so they can’t ride unlimited sale horses, and that helps keep “shamateurs” out. He said removing the owner requirement will remove the incentive for people to cheat by showing horses they don’t legitimately own.

“The general consensus is people are accepting of this proposal to move forward,” said USHJA Jumper Working Group Chair Charlotte Skinner Robson.

The USHJA Amateur Task Force will discuss all of these proposals again on Dec. 10 at 4 p.m. EST.


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