A few weeks ago, when the Chronicle posted an article about the proposed U.S. Equestrian Federation rule changes that would affect hunters, jumpers and the equitation division, I dutifully checked them out. Even though I don’t currently show, I think it’s important to stay up to date on what’s happening rule wise so that when I do return to the ring, there aren’t any huge surprises in store.
I flipped through them one by one with little interest, until I hit GR 1306.4:
“The intent of this proposal is to clarify the status of social media influencers as professionals and not amateurs. It is the unanimous consensus of the Amateurs Task Force that social media influencers are not able to conform to the definition of an amateur competitor by their accepting products or services in exchange for promotion of those products and/or services.”
After that, I was much more interested. As a marketing professional, I thought of all the implications of this rule going into effect from a small business point of view. As a former insider and influencer in another industry, I thought about how ridiculous it would be if I had been deemed a professional cyclist simply because I was an ambassador for an apparel company. I thought about how mean-spirited this proposal seemed to be—grounded in jealousy rather than fairness. I thought about how difficult it would be to enforce. What is the USEF going to do, walk around looking at social media feeds and demanding to see receipts? I thought about the riders who are Black, Indigenous and people of color and are becoming ambassadors and influencers, bringing diversity to the forefront, and how this would essentially shut that whole avenue down.
According to their charter, “the purpose of the Joint Amateurs Task Force is to foster sportsmanship and horsemanship throughout our constituency… [and] provid[e] a voice and a venue for every amateur rider…” among other things.
In the minutes from the March 2020 meeting, I read:
“VI. New business
Ms. [Tracey] Weinberg [committee chair] brought up to the Task Force that there have been issues with GR1306, the definition of an Amateur, regarding being a social media influencer and remaining an Amateur. A USEF staff member sent Ms. Weinberg and Ms. Ayers letters from members who are influencers and believes that there is merit to say they can remain Amateurs. Ms. McKinley brought forward a legislation in Florida that might be passed that allows college athletes to be compensated and/or receive endorsements, which may or may not impact club level athletics. *The Task Force agrees to oppose that individuals who are influencers should still be considered amateurs, based on the compensation they receive for promoting a company.”
*Italics added for emphasis
The 11 people on this task force—11 people—agreed to oppose allowing individuals who are influencers to be considered amateurs, due to the fact that they receive compensation for promoting a company. Not because of their riding ability or their perceived leg up in competition. Even if this rule doesn’t pass, the proposal proves that the system is just so broken and petty. Is this fostering sportsmanship or providing a voice to every amateur? It didn’t feel like it to me.
I reached out to other amateurs with blogs to get their point of view. I reached out to small business owners of brands we all love to get their take. I asked questions on Facebook and on the COTH forum. My original intent, of course, was to write a scathing blog condemning the proposal. But the more people I spoke to, the more I realized everyone was pretty much on the same page: This is ridiculous, and there is probably nothing we can do about it. I started to focus less on this rule and more on the overall idea of being an amateur.
And the more I think about it, the more I feel like being an amateur is less about what I can do (show in amateur divisions at USEF shows and my local Colorado Hunter Jumper Association circuit) and more about what I can’t. I can’t teach beginner up-down lessons and share my knowledge of horses with those who are eager to learn. I can’t earn a little extra money and saddle time on the side hacking some horses on the weekend. I can’t be a volunteer assistant college coach, though my husband could go out and coach an International Mountain Biking Association high school team without being considered a professional mountain biker. And now, I can’t even use what I AM professionally good at, marketing and by extension social media, to maybe get some free stuff down the road. If I turn pro, all of those doors open back up for me.
Let me be clear, it’s not that I have an undying urge to quit my day job and run back to horses. I tried that last year, and neither my back nor my wallet could make it work. I also do not ride anywhere near well enough to be a true professional, able to make my living off of the sport. But I do want to get my “r” judge’s license at some point, and while you can judge and remain an amateur under USEF rules, other governing bodies, such as the National Snaffle Bit Association, count judging as a breach of amateur status. Maybe I should just pull the Band-aid off and become a pro in the eyes of USEF and USHJA as well.
In fact, I might already be a professional by the new rule’s standards. I run our farm’s social media account in exchange for a few free lessons each month, and I also sometimes post and tag the business on my personal feeds. I love where I ride, and it feels great to be able to spread the word and do something useful for my trainer while also doing something that helps my monthly expenses. The fact that this might make me a professional rider is laughable, so I might as well just start laughing.
I haven’t decided if I will turn pro or not—outing my social media connection to Spectrum Equestrian might have made that a moot point if now everyone knows anyway. But the very fact that I’m using that language, “outed,” as if I’ve been hiding in the shadows doing something wrong, highlights the fundamental problem with the amateur rule in general: It takes the stance that amateurs are only interested in cheating, and so endless rules need to be in place to foil our neverending schemes. In reality, the vast majority of us just want a fun horse show experience where we walk away needing few painkillers and maybe a few ribbons every once in a while. I could care less if the guy or gal who pinned above me wore free breeches while they did it.
Sophie Coffey grew up riding by the seat of her pants in Virginia hunt country, and she took a flying leap into the top levels of the sport through sheer will and luck after a cold call landed her a job at Hunterdon, Inc. She continued freelancing as a jack-of-all-trades through her 20s for some of the top names in the industry, getting the best education possible in horsemanship and larger life lessons. After leaving the sport to pursue a career in marketing, she returned in 2018 as an adult amateur with a little APHA mare named Callie, who has a passionate love of peppermints and jumping with her knees to her eyeballs. She resides with her increasingly horsey husband and three cats in Boulder, Colorado.