By Sally O’Dwyer
I hate it when I hear, “I’m just an amateur” from my fellow ammies. This is a destructive, self-limiting label that holds riders back. Every day, amateurs are out there pursuing greatness, riding at all levels, including Grand Prix. Being an amateur doesn’t mean you cannot live and breathe dressage. We need to remember that the amateur designation was created to encourage amateurs to step out, sign-up, and compete.
If you are an amateur, you belong to an esteemed class of people who are eager to learn and aspire to be more. The Latin root of the word “amateur” is amator, meaning “lover of.” Amateurs love what they do, and their pay is the joy of discovery through learning. And, in the dressage world, you matter. Amateurs comprise the vast majority of riders who pursue the sport of dressage, and they fuel the dressage economy.
Amateurs, broadly speaking, are adult riders who do not earn an income from teaching, riding, showing, or training horses. The term “amateur” is used primarily for competition purposes and is defined within the rules of US Equestrian (USEF). These detailed rules explain how amateurs can maintain their status, and what defines a “professional.” Here are some basics: https://www.usdf.org/education/adultamateur/question.asp
It surprises me that the “legal” definition is limited to how a rider earns a living, rather than other important attributes such as experience, skills, level, talent, or show record. On a practical level, we know these distinctions matter. Since the amateur can’t be at the barn on a full-time basis, there is usually a big gap in experience and expertise between the ammies and pros. Amateurs may only have time for one horse, while professionals may ride many daily. Malcom Gladwell famously discovered that it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill. The professional is likely to have ridden down centerline hundreds of times, while the amateur, not so much!
The amateur status allows riders to compete with others of comparable experience and proficiency. Appreciate your status and make sure you know the guidelines, so you don’t accidently lose it. Amateurs should train with a professional trainer and have goals that make sense for an amateur. This doesn’t mean that the amateur cannot be as passionate or dedicated as the professional. Amateurs get in the same sandbox the professionals do, ride the same tests, under the same judges, and the same set of rules.
The professional has chosen to dedicate their life to the craft of dressage. For many, they could not imagine pursuing anything else. To be clear, the amateur designation is not a “less than” title. Rather, the amateur chooses a different path, earning a living outside the horse industry. There are plenty of reasons for this, including the fact that not everyone is cut out to be an equine professional. Amateurs may feel called to serve, work, experience, and explore other life pursuits.
To some, the term “amateur” has a bad rap. In defining the word “amateur,” dictionaries cite synonyms such as “untrained, layperson, dilettante, incompetent, and inept. Let’s switch the narrative: being an amateur is NOT the opposite of “professional,” (i.e. unprofessional). Rather, it simply means “non-professional.”
The biggest mistake the “just an amateur” thinker makes is to compare themselves to the professional, which is, of course, unreasonable. The amateur sees the amazing professionals riding brilliant, prancy mounts and becomes discouraged. Pros can make great riding look effortless, which can be mystifying and confound the amateur. The amateur forgets that they are witness to the finished product, not the many years of hard work the professional has committed to achieving a high level of skill.
If you are an amateur, connect with other amateurs riding at your level. Reach out, make friends, and build community. Join your local dressage association and volunteer. There is a special bond, camaraderie, or kinship among those traveling similar paths. These riders know your pain, understand your challenges and what it’s like to walk in your boots. Trust me—they need you too, so share with them! Encourage them and congratulate them when things go well. Don’t think of them as your competition, because everyone receives individual scores, every horse/rider combination is unique, and everyone learns on their own, nonlinear timeline.
It’s all about perspective. You can’t change who you are, but you can change the way you think and be inspired by your riding.
Dressage amateurs are beautiful people who:
- Recognize they don’t know everything. They approach riding with an open mind, riding with a sense of curiosity and wonder.
- Know what they do is freaking amazing—and are grateful for every moment.
- Are committed to excellence. The passionate rider embraces the sport with their whole heart, striving tirelessly to improve.
- Are living the dream and have a spirit of adventure.
- Are likely to have a solid work/life balance.
Know that your amateur dressage journey is not going to be the same as someone who rides for a living. It’s just not possible. So be okay with that and accept who you are — a lover of dressage. Do not shy away from challenges and opportunities because you think you are not good enough. Step out, sign up, and go for it! You are not “just” anything, you have potential, and you are good enough. The amateur wins each time they experience the thrill and the magic of learning, and are made breathless by “aha” moments while riding. There is always something new to learn, and moments of discovery and pure joy. And while you may not be a professional FEI rider, as an amateur, you are in it for the love of the sport, and it may be you who is having the greatest time of your life.