Walking a Fine Line

While the difference between a professional and an amateur is no big deal around the barn, it's a very big deal at competitions.

“But, gosh: I really didn’t mean to. I didn’t know the rules.”

Excuses? Officials at the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF), National Reining Horse Association (NRHA) and American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) and others have heard it all before and could likely write a book about the “assistant trainer” conundrum. We don’t have that many pages here, but let’s consider what’s legal and what’s not, for we all know “it” goes on.

First, the problem: Riders want to retain amateur status when they’re engaging in professional activities. Not OK. On a popular rider forum, visitors shared articulate and sometimes-heated opinions on this subject:

“My favorite slippery slope rule: (Hypothetical): I feed on Saturday mornings to work $30 x 4 off my board. My ‘ammy’ (amateur) friend goes to Florida for a week. ‘Will you hack my horse a few times when I’m gone? I just want him to get out of his stall a little.’ ‘Sure,’ I say. I tack her horse up, throw a leg over him, and…Whammy! I’m a pro!!” But are you? Maybe…maybe not. The rules follow below, but first some more thoughts from the rider forum:

“If [a] person (‘assistant trainer’) is paid to teach…lessons and yet shows as an amateur, she is in violation of the amateur rules and *could* be protested…but such things can be a challenge to prove, and a lot of people feel that the hearing process is too onerous to deal with so they choose to look the other way. Many times they grumble to others, but it is relatively rare for it to go any further.”

Another rider writes: “There are ‘loopholes’ in the rules and people who cheat all the time. They do not usually call themselves ‘assistant trainers’ though.”


“A lot of people are floating on the outer perimeter of being a professional,” says Glenn T. Petty, chair of USEF’s Competition Management Committee and owner of Triangle Farms hunter/jumper facility in Wake Forest, N.C. “Trainers get in trouble when a disgruntled customer leaves a stable—maybe has a fight with ‘Mom’ who owns the stable, and her child has been riding the customer’s horses. That departed customer ‘tattles on’ somebody or may have cancelled checks. It’s fine to do as a junior, but once you become an adult [age 18], you either have a [professional ’s] card or you don’t. You can’t do what you once did as a kid.” A number of cases are indeed pure ignorance, Petty agrees.

Past president of the American Saddle Horse Association, co-chair of USEF’s Ad Hoc Hearing Committee Task Force and an officer of that federation, Judith F. Werner of Red Wing Farm in Waterloo, Ill., weighs in, too. “There needs to be a clear division for the amateurs, who need as much of a level playing field as they can have. People who get way more experience by being an assistant trainer and show as an amateur are wrong.”

On the flip side, “In many areas, people helping get people into horses by giving riding lessons, I sympathize with them. But someone who’s an assistant trainer is pretty darn visible.” Werner says that at a hearing, “I don’t presume anybody guilty, but do look at the entire case. Some don’t understand, some don’t read.” Moral: Take time to learn those rules.

“I don’t think people realize how clear and precise amateur and professional rules are, and how far-reaching,” says trainer Larry Hoffman of Heston Park (Arabians) in Hastings, Minn. He serves on the USEF Arabian Committee, chairs its Ad Hoc Awards Committee, sits on both its Nominating and Safety Committees, plus he fills a number of key roles for the Arabian Horse Association (AHA).

“Ignorance of the law is no excuse and people who aren’t paying attention are being negligent,” Hoffman says. Within his breed, “more issue is with spouses and significant others. The minute you coach somebody on a horse, and your parent, spouse or sibling is being paid to do that service, you’ve stepped over the boundary on the amateur card the way the rules are written.”

Even Hoffman’s daughter, Hilary, age 23, “a very successful youth exhibitor, occasionally showed a training horse as a youth. But then we drew the line and we’re extremely careful, even to the point of her not leading horses around the show ground so there’s no sense of impropriety.” In the Western arenas, at the AQHA, Rajeana Thompson is senior manager of Amateur Activities and World Show Services. “If an individual trains or gives lessons for remuneration, they are no longer eligible to compete as an amateur with AQHA. When AQHA receives a complaint against someone, I conduct the investigation, and what is discovered during the investigation determines whether or not the individual goes to a hearing in front of the Amateur Compliance Committee. Our Committees cannot discuss what has happened within a hearing.”

How does it feel to contemplate this dilemma? Hilary Hytken, age 30 of Olney, Md., taught hunter/jumper lessons from June 2003 to September 2004. She says, “I was managing a lesson barn full time and being paid to manage, but not teach. I started filling in for the assistant trainer more and more and when she left, I took her job. I loved the teaching and really enjoyed the kids. So I declared myself a pro and stopped competing my own horses in ammy divisions. Do I really ride as well as people like Tommy Serio, etc.? Heck no. But in keeping with fairness and the rules that govern our sport, I did what I thought was right. Numerous people said, ‘you shouldn’t declare, no one will know,’ and they were wrong.

“When I left that job I started the process of getting my ammy card back. I don’t teach any more and I do miss it sometimes, but I like riding and showing my own horses more. I’ve lived this from all sides and I feel like it is really unfair for the ‘cheaters’ to cheat, even if they are only teaching beginners. It’s a rule. Deal with it.”






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