Friday, May. 24, 2024

Keeping The ‘Owner’ In Amateur-Owner Hunters

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Are people interested in running a 3’3” and 3’6” amateur hunter division without an ownership requirement at a proposed 2025 USHJA Amateur Hunter Championship?

U.S. Hunter Jumper Association President Mary Knowlton asked that question to a group of 208 attendees at a USHJA Town Hall held April 17 via Zoom. The answer? A resounding no.

Knowlton brought the idea forward for membership to consider, calling it an “experiment,” after it was raised during a USHJA board meeting. Knowlton was emphatic that it would not mean the amateur-owner hunter divisions would disappear or change, or even that 3’3” or 3‘6” amateur divisions without an ownership requirement would show up at horse shows. Nonetheless, dozens of horsemen chimed in against the idea.

Louise Serio said that anything that could harm the amateur-owner hunter divisions was bad for the sport.

“My concern about opening the door to [an] amateur hunter and not an amateur-owner is it sounds like a slippery slope,” said Serio, a hunter trainer based in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. “I feel that amateur-owner division has been the backbone of our sport for a long time. [Those riders] provide us with a lot of our incomes. By doing an amateur hunter without owners, we’d hurt the professional divisions. We’d hurt the amateur-owner divisions. Also I feel something like that shouldn’t be launched there at a brand new championship. There are a lot of ways to create things in the amateur section that could be fun and exciting. But I feel [a 3’3” or 3’6”] ‘amateur hunter’ division could negatively change our sport.”

USHJA Town Hall attendees were largely against testing out a 3’3″ and 3’6″ amateur hunter division without an ownership component, fearing it would negatively impact those competing in the amateur-owner hunter division. Mollie Bailey Photo

Most of the arguments against trying out an amateur division at 3’3” or 3’6” without an ownership requirement echoed her “slippery slope” concern, assuming that eventually such a division would become permanent and cause problems in the established order of things.

Magnolia, Texas, trainer Peter Pletcher pointed out that there’s extra incentive to support competitors in the amateur-owner division, who are often some of the horse show’s biggest sponsors. Others said these riders are buying young horses for trainers to campaign with the hopes that they will become amateur-owner division mounts. Also, removing the ownership requirement would make it harder to police tricky amateur rules.

“I am in the strong opinion that we need to leave things as they are,” said Kiera Phlipot, an amateur-owner hunter rider from Manchester, Michigan. “I think opening up an adult amateur division at higher heights would only open the floodgates for ‘shamateurs.’ It’s hard to track who’s paying what bill in the office. Are they really paying for it? Is this college-age person getting reimbursed when the horse sells?

“The sale of top amateur horses would be non-existent, if you can lease them out for half or a third of a cost,” she added. “The industry would shift in negative ways. Also, for these hypothetical leased-out horses the welfare wouldn’t be as good as if you owned them. If you can lease a horse for a circuit and pound them out for 3’6”, what’s the benefit of making sure the horse will hold up if you don’t need to?”

Amateur task force member Rachel Howell argued against testing out a new division at a championship, pointing out that other championships, such as USEF Pony Finals and USEF Junior Hunter Championships, don’t have exhibition classes

“There’s a lot of legwork involved to cheat with [ownership of] an amateur-owner horse,” said Howell, Clifton, Virginia. “There’s some disincentive to doing that. But if you start opening amateur-owners up to [non-owning] amateurs, it’s easier for someone to catchride this horse. I can pay a good-riding amateur to show my horse, and it incentivizes more cheating in a way that’s not enforceable. I think this will take the place of the emerging/developing pro category.”

“I think opening up an adult amateur division at higher heights would only open the floodgates for ‘shamateurs.’ It’s hard to track who’s paying what bill in the office.”

Kiera Phlipot, amateur-owner hunter rider

Several participants pointed out that amateur hunter riders who don’t own a horse but want to jump higher than 3’ could petition for a non-pro section to the 3’3” performance hunter division. While this would keep amateurs from having to show against pros, they would have to show against juniors, and it would be difficult for many working amateurs as the performance hunter divisions tend to run Wednesdays and Thursdays.

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Poolesville, Maryland-based amateur-owner Jessi Lohman said shows don’t have room for additional classes, and adding divisions would lengthen show days that already stretch until twilight in many places.

Buffalo, New York, trainer Susie Schoellkopf didn’t want to discourage what she saw as some of the most important competitors in the sport.

“Amateur-owners have invested in horses starting as juniors, through to younger amateurs to older amateurs,” she said. “A lot of those amateurs are very good riders and could hop on a leased horse or a horse they don’t own, and that would discourage so many amateurs. They’re going to walk away from this.”

While the overwhelming majority of the participants disapproved of the idea, a few chimed in with differing opinions.

“There is a little inequity in the fact that juniors can lease but amateurs cannot,” wrote one anonymous attendee. “It shuts people out that don’t have the resources to buy their own horse. [It] smacks of elitism.”

“A lot of those amateurs are very good riders and could hop on a leased horse or a horse they don’t own, and that would discourage so many amateurs. They’re going to walk away from this.”

Susie Schoellkopf, trainer

Alexandra Beaumont of Ridgefield, Connecticut, echoed the sentiment that there should be a place for hunter riders who don’t own to compete at the higher levels.

“We are supposed to be a sport, and the sport part is dying,” she wrote. “We need to find a way to encourage non-owner amateurs to jump higher. Our sport needs to be more accessible to more people. The [amateur-owner] hunters have simply become too expensive for most in the sport right now.”

Shanette Cohen, who runs the Hampton Classic Horse Show (New York), had a different perspective.

“I think the people already engaged in the support (most on this Zoom) are understandably interested in keeping the status quo,” she wrote. “But, it’s possible others could be brought into the sport at a higher level if they didn’t have to own a horse. So, perhaps it’s unfair to assume this wouldn’t be popular if it existed (and non-pro performance classes may make the most sense to be palatable and avoid confusion that this would be a replacement for [amateur-owner hunters]).”

After spirited debate, Knowlton said she would share comments from the town hall with the board.

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Revamping Zone Horse of the Year Awards

While most of the town hall conversation focused on the amateur conversation, Knowlton also suggested that members consider whether it’s time for changes to the zone Horse of the Year awards. The U.S. Equestrian Federation controls national Horse of the Year points, but starting in 2024 the USHJA will be in charge calculating points for the zone HOTY awards.

Knowlton asked for opinions on whether it would be more interesting to limit zone HOTY awards to just champions and reserves in each division, or to count only results from up to, say, 15 or 20 shows. But the most conversation came out of asking whether points earned in contiguous states should count toward zone HOTY points.

Currently points earned in contiguous states—that is, states and countries that are next door to one another—do count toward zone HOTY awards. (You can see a map of the USHJA zones here, and a list of the contiguous states and countries that count toward each zone here.) But some, including Ocala, Florida-based trainer and judge Otis Brown, feel they should not count.

“I agree with [Brown],” wrote Elizabeth Kieffer, a Maple Grove, Minnesota, amateur who sits on the Zone 6 Committee. “However, given the way the zones are formed, in some ways, it can be very unfair to certain parts of a zone. Zone committees can decide whether to allow contiguous states, or which states, or no contiguous states at all. Wearing my Zone 6 hat, every year we talk about not allowing contiguous states, but that leaves poor Wisconsin, who has no rated shows, totally out in the cold. Their closest shows are in Chicago, which is Zone 5. So it’s a quandary.”

One anonymous attendee suggested that only a certain number of points or shows from contiguous states should count. Howell felt that contiguous states counting toward zone HOTY awards was a good thing.

“[It’s] an example of ‘good progress,” she said. “It makes showing easier, not harder. It allows people to show at the places that are closest and most affordable for them, particularly in areas where shows may be very far apart.”

Future Meetings

The USHJA has scheduled three more virtual town hall meetings for members who would like to participate, at 7 p.m. Eastern Time on each of the following Mondays: May 22, June 12 and July 24.

Each Town Hall is open to members and non-members and will include an open question-and-answer period. Individuals are encouraged to come with thoughts and opinions and may submit questions, comments or feedback in advance of a Town Hall to feedback@ushja.org. To learn more, click here.

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