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The real winners

Successful amateurs are the ones with professional standards, says Carolyn Henderson


The dictionary definition of an amateur participant in any sport or activity is someone who takes part without payment. So why do so many riders assume that “amateur” is synonymous with second-rate?


By definition, professional riders should be top class or on the way there. But amateurs can be top class, too. In all disciplines, there are amateur riders who take on and beat those whom produce and compete horses for a living.


There are many reasons why some amateurs are hugely successful and others find a level below that of top performers. They may have natural talent and they must have dedication and determination. They must also have a horse with the necessary attributes, with whom they have built a great partnership.


And yes, some may have comfortable bank balances behind them. Competing at any level is expensive; competing at affiliated level sometimes makes you feel that the only answer is to sell one of your kidneys.


The thing amateurs who rise to the top have in common is that they have professional standards. They don’t look out the window and decide not to ride because it’s raining and they’d rather not get wet, but they do pay attention to every detail of management and schooling.



They get help when necessary – as do professional riders. Everyone needs an eye on the ground, whether you need suggestions or structured training. They may complain about the rising costs of diesel, entry fees, and training, but they work hard and go without other things to pay for them. I know one rider who has three part-time jobs to pay for her eventing and rides as soon as daylight allows, all year round.


Professional-standard amateurs don’t blame their horse for not being good enough/the judge for needing an eye test when things don’t go to plan/that inconsiderate rider who upset their horse in the collecting ring.


Human nature being what it is, it’s natural that amateur riders sometimes get disheartened because they can’t crack that glass ceiling, let alone break through it to beat the pros. That’s why every discipline has competitions restricted to amateur riders.


Even so, some aren’t satisfied. A recent survey showed that many of the 904 respondents were unhappy that an animal which qualifies for Horse of the Year Show in showing classes could be ridden there by a different rider from the one who gained the qualifying ticket.


In showing, it’s the horse which is being judged, not the rider. Implying that all judges pick faces on top rather than the horses underneath them is unfair and insulting and also reveals a level of ignorance.


There are professionals who can get on a horse, assess it and pull out a better performance than its regular rider. They know how to ride a ring, how to give horses confidence and how to show them to their best advantage. Because they do it all the time, they stay calm on big occasions, whereas anyone competing at HOYS for the first time who doesn’t get nervous must have ice running through his or her veins.


 There are arguments from both sides. As you’d expect, it’s a hot topic on social media. But it’s clear that the riders who express opinions calmly and politely – whatever argument they support – are the ones with professional standards.


Full marks to those who inspire the rest of us. At Burghley Horse Trials, that included Sarah Pickard, an amateur rider from Kent. She rode Polo Striker, a 12-year-old she has owned since he was four, so plenty of dedication went into their first appearance here.


The Burghley Young Event Horse five-year-old final went to Ellie Ormrod on Keyland William. Ellie bought Keyland William from his breeders two years ago and had some very well-known names below her in the final line-up of this competition, which is designed to spot potential international four-legged stars.


Views on whether amateurs are penalised or pampered will all vary, but here’s a thought. In all disciplines, there are riders who delight in any improvement in their and their horse’s performance – especially if they’ve overcome problems - regardless of whether they get a rosette.


If you’ve exceeded your expectations, we’d love to know about you and your horse. In my book, you’re the real winners.


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