Eventing, as we all know, is an odd sport. It is not unique, but not far off it. It is one of the few sports where grassroots amateurs can compete on a weekly basis against those with World, European or Olympic titles. Those who have gained medals at the highest levels of the sport are free to compete all the way down to BE100 in direct competition against those who work full-time and only event as a hobby. For most aspiring amateurs the chance to follow William Fox-Pitt into the dressage arena or to tussle with Piggy French for a practice fence is at the very heart of the sport’s appeal and what keeps them coming out week after week. I clearly remember ringing my non-horsey parents once to tell them that I had come 9th at an event. They were fairly non-plussed until I put it in terms they’d understand: ‘and I beat Lucinda Green’. Well, that did it. They Got It. That is why we fight to keep our sport ‘open’. Most of us would lay down in front of a 30-ton Oakley to defend our right to compete in the same sections as the professionals – every time the idea of amateur only sections is mooted it is roundly shouted down. The British amateur eventer relishes the ability to compete on an equal footing with the pros.
So why do we have such a chip on our shoulder about it? We seem to have a real inferiority complex associated with taking part in the sport on an amateur basis. Some of us (admittedly not me!) ride almost well as the pros, regularly win and are placed and are really performing fantastically well, not just ‘for an amateur’ but in terms of the sport overall; and yet we still moan about the disadvantages we face in trying to compete on an equal basis. How much better we could do if we had the same perks as the pros.
Stand around any scoreboard at the end of an event and you’ll hear: ‘oh well, they were bound to get 26, they’re a professional‘; ‘it’s easy for him, he’s got a saddle sponsor and a team of grooms’; ‘I finished 5th, but really I won, as the four ahead of me were all professionals’; ‘no surprise she jumped a double clear, that’s a £25k horse one of her owners picked up for her on the continent last week’.
I’m pretty sure most of us would do an awful lot better on a regular basis if we lost the full-time job and gained the ability to ride and train all day, had staff to take care of the minutiae and maybe a feed and rug sponsor to reduce the bills. I know I would perform an awful lot better without having to devote 60 hours a week to a non-horsey job in order to fund my horse. And the reason most of us have full-time jobs is that realistically we have neither the talent nor the opportunity to make eventing a career. However I’ll lay money down that the pros have as many worries as the rest of us. There are still bills to pay, rents to cover, wages to come up with, husbands/wives/boyfriends to placate and try not to fall out with when the stress hits, and never ever enough hours in the day. I’ll also wager that having to make a living from it and the pressure to succeed would take the fun out of it for most of us.
So why do we have the ‘amateur’ chip on our shoulder? I’m pretty sure that there’s room for both professionals and amateurs in this sport, competing directly against each other, just coming at it from different set-ups, abilities and levels of funding and horse-power. Whilst the one or two-horse amateur is now a pretty rare phenomenom at the top levels, there are plenty of people who manage to compete on an even basis up to Novice and Intermediate. ‘Amateur’ is not synonymous with ‘unambitious’.
Recently I took a naughty horse to a pro rider to see whether he could get a better tune out of it than me. He rode it for a short while then told me not to bother trying to event it and preferably to get rid. He pointed out that whilst I might get it going reasonably well I would have no fun whilst doing it, and I would never be able to rely on it to go to the well for me when I needed it. I am an amateur, the sport is my hobby and it should be one I can have fun and success doing. Horses such as the one we were talking about were the sort he regularly got to ride, and he did because it was his job. They could be tricky, unrewarding and disappointing. Even when they won, riding them was not always an enjoyable day at the office. I was in the position, as an amateur, that I could chose which horses I wanted to event. And in his opinion I should chose something a lot more rewarding and deserving of the precious amount of time I had to devote to it.
And there, for me, lies the crux of the matter. The reason why I have no wish to be a professional, nor to be jealous of them. I don’t give a damn about the perceived advantages. I don’t care if they beat me – they usually do. I don’t resent their 26 dressage scores and their double clears, day in, day out. They can keep their grooms, big lorries and fancily prefixed horses. I will take the lessons that I can from them about training effectively and good management and preparation, but I will never forget that I get to pick and choose where I event. I get to have a bad day without worrying about letting down an owner or a sponsor or having it all caught on camera and relayed to the masses. I get to have the cliched ‘bad day on paper’ and still consider it a fun day out. I get to choose one, or maybe two horses that I really enjoy working with and train them to the best of my ability. And I never forget that my ability is compromised by having a full-time job, a husband, a mortgage and myriad other things that come before eventing on a ‘how important is this in my life’ scale. I appreciate that eventing is my ‘away time’ and enjoy it for what it is, whatever the result. And I do not, nor ever will, have a chip on my shoulder about being ‘an amateur’. For me the grass is not greener and I’m happy on my side of the fence.
Although on the odd occasion that I do beat a professional with an Olympic medal, I will probably still ring my parents excitedly to tell them about it…