Are Amateur Classifications Even Neccessary?

I’m sure y’all have seen a lot of the chatter going on lately about USEF taking a hard look at revamping their amateur rules. There’s been a lot of discussions, a task force was created, and a few days ago they had a webinar about some of the ideas they’ve had/changes they’re looking at. A basic write-up of their ideas is here if you missed it. Admittedly, I didn’t watch the webinar, I just read the cliffs notes version. Mostly because I’m honestly just really tired of having the conversation at all.

I think eventing is the sport in which amateur vs pro classifications matter the least. Our divisions are rarely separated by amateur vs open, rather ours tend to either all just be open divisions or they’re divided into “Horse”, “Rider”, or “Open”. I think I’ve been in an actual Amateur division a grand total of once in my entire eventing career, and that was at AEC’s in 2015 where they split divisions every possible different way.

The way our classifications work in eventing is that “Horse” is for less experienced horses: A horse division is open to any competitors, but the horse cannot have completed an event above the next highest level. So for instance, no one could go enter Henry in a Novice Horse division, since he’s competed at Preliminary. A Novice Horse division could have pros on green horses, amateurs on lifelong low-level horses, etc.

Next is the “Rider” classification: A rider division is open to competitors who have not completed an event above the next highest level in the last five years. So basically since I’ve only competed through Prelim, I could enter Prelim Rider but I couldn’t enter Novice Rider. The rider divisions are also not limited to amateur or pro, only by the rider’s experience.

Last is the “Open” classification, which, as may be obvious, is open to any horse or rider of any experience, amateur or pro. Some people just always enter the Open divisions by default because it’s easiest (like Megan with Presto, she just always enters all of hers in Open, and that’s fine, you don’t HAVE to enter Horse or Rider even if you’re qualified for it) and it tends to shake out fine in the end anyway.

It’s slightly more complicated than that when you take into account FEI stuff (it’s all outlined here) but for the most part, that’s it. Pretty simple. However, one thing USEA currently DOES do is award “amateur placings” for points or championship qualification purposes. For instance, if someone who was classified as an amateur came in 3rd place overall but was the top placed amateur, they would get 1st place points toward their USEA amateur leaderboard ranking and would get a 1st place qualification towards championships. You don’t get any extra ribbons, heck you probably won’t even find out your amateur placing until the points get entered into USEA, but that’s the only place where amateurs can benefit a little bit. Honestly, I’d be totally fine with doing away with that and not even having an amateur classification at all. To me this whole amateur thing just seems way more freakin complicated than it’s worth. There’s got to be a better way, even if it’s something totally different than any sport has now, or with more classifications than I listed above.

So my question is – why would something akin to (even if not the same as) eventing’s approach not work for other disciplines too? I’ve come from the h/j world, and while it would be VERY different from how things are now, I can see it working. Honestly it’s a lot simpler than the way things are now with 9000 different things that amateurs can or cannot do under the rules and all the attempts to circumvent it or make allowances. The Horse/Rider/Open classifications also tend to sort themselves more fairly, IMO, because if I’m entered in a Rider division at least I’m not up against anyone who’s ridden at a much higher level.

Mostly though, I’m so tired of having the amateur conversation that I’m ready to just do away with it entirely. They don’t really use it in other countries either, so… why are we so twisted up in it? Is there really not a better, easier, simpler, way than writing a million rules about what people can or cannot do to keep an asinine status? Why are we clinging so tightly to this “amateur” classification in the first place?

30 thoughts on “Are Amateur Classifications Even Neccessary?

  1. I wholeheartedly agree with you! I need to do my own post about this. I grew up in the land of cutting, which has had similar levels all along. They do also have amateur and non-pro divisions, but I digress. I absolutely think H/J could do away with pro vs amateur and separate divisions by horse or rider experience. Rider could be money, points or placings separation and restarted after a long break. Like AQHA has Levels and if you haven’t shown at all in XX years you can pretty much start over. Horse could be the same and imported horse records must accompany the horse, regardless of hunter or jumper. I’d love to show my green horses against OTHER green horses and not against ppl who are amateurs and have exceptionally seasoned horses.
    This whole tracking of how ppl make money to determine divisions is stupid. And I say that as someone who has never shown over fences bigger than 2’9″. For some reason people think that even someone giving beginner riding lessons is a better rider than someone with bunches of money who shows every weekend all year and it makes no sense to me at all. The more objective we make the sport, the more appealing it is to more people.

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    1. Completely agree with you, and would love to see you outline your suggestions more in a blog post! You’re def much more involved in the h/j world than I am these days, and they’re the ones that would take the most convincing. Admittedly, I can’t figure out what the point of amateur divisions/status is even supposed to be anymore at this point.

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  2. I agree completely. Basically my stance is, if the USEF is committed to keeping AA status, then I think the proposed changes are good ones, but I would certainly not mind them running it like eventing does and getting rid of it entirely. At the very least though, I’m so glad to see them showing any level of awareness for what the rank and file go through, regardless of outcome.

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  3. I’m not sure what problems the new rules are being written to solve. Like, how many social media influencers are getting barred from amateur divisions? To a large extent, it feels similar to companies providing meditation apps to their employees instead of paying them more. The bigger problem of horse sports becoming more and more unaffordable remains unchanged, and that seems like it has much more impact on potential competitors than the minute detail of what is an Amateur(tm)?

    I haven’t showed in 6 years, so I’m definitely out of the loop but this still is so confusing to me.

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    1. They aren’t getting barred, but they are violating the rule as it is written. That’s a problem. Why have a rule if it’s extremely hard to enforce? It only creates bitterness and disrespect for other rules.

      I disagree with the COTH summary that social influencers will be different than sponsored athletes. They are just a subset of them. It also disregards that social influencers are 100% posting from shows and highlighting equipment, etc. Their saddle pad may not say ‘CWD’ at the show, but he picture of them lounging in the tack stall with their friends and all the CWDs right behind them in the very recognizable saddle covers is the same exact thing. How does that get monitored? Does it even need to be? (I’m also pretty jaded about the influencer phenomenon. It’s so…deceptive these days. Buy enough bots and likes and you can make yourself a nice living as an influencer. Yuck. (IMO, Amanda does it right: I trust that she’s not doing those things. She still feels very honest in her reviews and like she only recommends something because she has actually used it and liked it. I don’t even think she’d label herself as an influencer, but I could be wrong.)

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  4. This will probably be an unpopular opinion! 🙂

    As a life-long amateur, I have grown into a different perspective over the years. My view is this: I compete to be competitive. Although occasionally I may enter a green horse just for the experience, for the most part I can get schooling in cheaper, less complicated ways. If I pay entry fees and stay overnight and acquire all the necessary rules-standard dress/gear and yada-yada, then I’m riding for a ribbon.

    As an amateur, I am not competitive against a pro’s much broader experience, their skills base or their daily/weekly riding time. I belong with a competition group of amateurs who are more generally like me in riding-lifestyle. And often amateurs are not on nearly the same quality of horse as a pro who is bringing along a UL prospect for a client.

    In terms of competitiveness and ribbons, there is no point in me entering a division including pros at all. I’m not with my peers. And I enter competitions to be competitive.

    If I don’t get a ribbon then I can live with that and use it as a pointer for improvement into that ribbon-winning group. That’s the whole point of competitive sport, to me – to measure your best against your peers on a level playing field. But pros are not a level playing field with amateurs, because as an amateur I don’t have the base for riding skill that they do. Pros are not my peers.

    This is common in most sports re the pro vs. amateur competitive base. Amateurs do not have the time for the sport, or the experience & skills base, or the same level of equipment as the pros. They are not on a level field with pros.

    Ammys ride several times a week, while pros ride several times a day. For the most part, amateurs have always had non-horse careers, as I have had. For the most part, amateurs gain experience & skills in generally similar ways, through trainers and schooling experience.

    I’m fine if there are fancy horses in an amateur division because those horses are ridden by someone more like me in their riding-lifestyle.

    That is why I think that it is necessary to separate the amateurs and the pros to make for a fair and competitive eventing sport.

    There is much more I could say about how the USEA leadership have preached at amateurs & juniors for decades to *disregard competitiveness* and ribbons. Just pay your dues and entry fees and show up at the horse trials. If you ride well enough a ribbon will miraculously fall into your lap, even though others thought they rode well, too, and didn’t get a ribbon. No focus on how to truly be competitive.

    But then that same leadership expresses endless frustration with the low performance standards and the lack of amateurs riding at the UL’s (especially outside of Areas II & III). And how badly that compares with amateurs in Europe, who jump at the level of USEA prelim as a matter of course. They wring hands over the tolerance of amateurs and juniors for a scattershot quality of trainers/instructors. They rightly despair over the riders who just want a move-up experience without focusing on fundamentals. And the lack of a robust pipeline of team-quality riders. Could go on & on, name names, give examples from horse trials, but that’s enough of that. Well, in my opinion they preached mediocrity for all these years, and now they shouldn’t be surprised at the outcome in their membership base.

    I completely acknowledge that it is a major pain to sort out amateurs & pros, establish criteria, hold people accountable, so on & on … I’d love to be able to skip it. But sport is sport, competitions are competitions, and amateurs shouldn’t have to go up against pros – at least in my mind.

    So that’s my essay on why the very different riding lifestyle, experience & skills level of amateur vs. pro does matter when they compete together, in my opinion.

    Just an opinion after decades of watching this argument battle out in U.S. eventing.

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    1. I go to shows to compete as well. I want to do my best in classes of my peers. I’ve spent my riding life in H/J land with the briefest of brief dabbles in evening. I was surprised by how well the Horse/Rider/Open categories met my needs in being able to compete against true peers…or for ‘stretch’ classes if I wanted to try my had with the pros doing a similar level mostly due to green horses
      .
      Do you see ways that the Horse/Rider/Open system not allow you to compete against your peers in H/J land? I’m not sure I do. What I do see it doing is removing a lot of prestige from all the different types of HOTY awards. No more Green, Pre-Green, Working, etc. awards. That would be incredibly unpopular because it affects trainer reputation and ultimately horse prices at those levels.

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    2. Hanging out a shingle as a pro definitely does not mean someone is a better/more skilled rider though, not by a long shot. I can think of many many examples even just here locally of amateurs that are actually far better riders than many professionals – with more resources and just as many horses to ride, too. Which, IMO, is why “amateur” vs “pro” is really a completely meaningless distinction, because there are no guidelines around what makes up a pro at all aside from someone who gets paid to teach or ride (however much or however little that may be). Being labeled a professional certainly doesn’t mean they come with any sort of set skill or experience level by any means. Amateur is such a completely meaningless classification in and of itself when it comes to sorting people by skill. I’ve been in a Novice Horse division with an amateur that’s ridden through 4* and a pro that’s never ridden above Training. If your main concern for keeping it as-is is sorting people by talent level, there are FAR better, more accurate ways than simply who gets paid to ride/teach and who doesn’t.

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      1. Of course true … but my point is that over the group of all riders, pros ride more, have far broader experience, and better skills than the average amateur. The amateurs don’t have the opportunity to do the same stuff a pro does.

        I’m not looking at the least common denominator in pros. One hopes they are not the average pro. That the average pro will be much better than the average amateur — that’s their role in the discipline, after all. 🙂

        In other Areas it might be that the distance between an ammy rider and a pro rider is probably a lot more apparent. But we do have some excellent pros in A-5. The warm-up ring usually tells the tale. 🙂

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        1. I would disagree. TOP pros ride more than MANY amateurs, but I know an awful lot of amateurs that ride more and better than an awful lot of pros. I also know plenty of amateurs that are so well-funded all they really do is ride a string of nice horses all day and go from one show to the next. I also know several people classified as pro even though all they do is teach lessons one day a week or make some side hustle money riding someone’s horse while they’re away on vacation. It’s dangerous to make any assumptions about someone’s opportunities, skill level, saddle time, proficiency, etc based solely off of whether they get paid to ride/teach or not. Again I will say that there are much better and more accurate criteria for classifying people by actual skill level and experience, if that is indeed the end goal.

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        2. I promise there are some pros who definitely don’t ride as much as I do and I have a FT job and don’t WFH more than 2 days a week, if that. I don’t think hanging the proverbial fairness hat on “pros ride more” carries weight in the grand scheme of things. The top Amateur riders ride as much as many pros and have the added advantage of mostly only riding solid, well-schooled horses.
          Separate people by their exhibited skill. If someone goes to 20 shows a year and can’t win a Novice 2’6″ class, they shouldn’t be able to move up to an Intermediate (or something similar nomenclature) 3′! But if someone goes to 5 shows and wins every 3’3″ class they ride in, they shouldn’t be able to compete against the beginner 2’6″ riders. And it should be able to reset if need be. If I don’t show for 5 years I shouldn’t have to start back at the 3’6″ level I was showing in unless I want to.

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      2. Hafta agree with Amanda here! If Rider and Horse divisions are done appropriately, everyone would compete either with other riders of similar skill level OR horses of similar experience level. And I bet if these kinds of divisions existed a whole lot more “local” trainers would go to a few rated shows every year because they and their students could compete in appropriate classes and have a chance at a ribbon rather than show up and ride in the Modified Adults or Children’s and compete against people with bottomless bank accounts, but don’t want to/can’t/aren’t ready to jump bigger jumps.
        And I still think there is a way to continue at least some of the “traditional” HOTY divisions, but even the HOTY has just become a race for whomever can haul to the most shows in a year. I kind of like the (I think) proposed rule changes to them. Look at the International and Green Derby finals today. Pros and Ams and Juniors compete together and they have made a class format where EVERYONE has a chance at a big ribbon.

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        1. I think HOTY stuff and year end awards that are based solely on total points are the root of much evil in horse sports, so I certainly wouldn’t be sad to see them reduced or restructured!

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          1. Agree. HOTY is pretty dumb and overall bad for horses/ponies. They announced some changes, but I don’t recall the details at the tips of my fingers right now.

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  5. Just for what it is worth …

    Presto probably has a shot at some championship qualifications, including year end awards, in the Horse division. He may get there anyway in Open, though. 🙂

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    1. If he goes to AEC he will be in the Horse division simply because they don’t offer Open, so Horse is his only option. 😉 I don’t do any local associations so no year end awards (that’s a whole nother thing I have a big issue with) and he def won’t get any nationally with only a few shows.

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  6. Back in the day when I was competing Novice Eventing I started in the Novice Rider division. When I started to prepare to move up to Training I did some Open Novice as it was slightly more challenging than NR. I did NOT mind competing directly against pros since I’d rather lose to an Olympian than to my peer amateur from down the street. Just my two cents.

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  7. Hunter people would have a cow.

    (I’ll happily recant the statement if there are H/J riders who think the majority of their peers would be open to the idea)

    Also, the internet has taught me that people have really warped misconceptions of what it means to be an amateur or a pro. The words are utterly meaningless for distinguishing rider ability.

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    1. I too think that they would have a cow lol. Granted, they’ve already had multiple cows at any and all proposed changes, so… maybe they just need to birth the cow once and for all and get it over with.

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    2. LMAO! I’m a hunter rider and an HR lady. I would argue that most people have cows over ANY kind of change. That doesn’t mean I’m going to stop being a squeaky wheel advocating for change.

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  8. Long time lurker, first time commenter, hunter rider having a cow (lol).

    I do like the eventing Horse/Rider distinction. But, eventers are much more efficient in running their horse shows and can manage to fit everything in a long weekend unlike us hunter people who need a whole week.

    We kind of have the Horse side with the green divisions. There are people who will say the imports that already jumped 1.40 shouldn’t qualify as green, but when they show up here in the US they ARE green to the hunters. Jumping a hunter class is a much different job than doing the jumpers. I think the young hunters is a good compromise here, my young horse will absolutely be doing those classes where they are available.

    The Rider split is a little hard, because we have too many trips at the horse shows. Even if Rider replaces amateur, what about those of us that are amateurs with younger horses not ready to do the A/O’s with the other horse? You can say put them in the Horse/green divisions, but I don’t want to show in the middle of the week. (This is the ultimate first world problem.)

    As it is, I don’t think using amateur status is an issue in dividing the hunter divisions. Competing against amateurs who ride all day and have a string of nice horses doesn’t bother me at all. These people are amateurs for a reason! Sure at the very, very top ($$$$$$) of the sport there are amateurs that ride just as well or better than pros, but they are playing a completely different game than the vast majority of amateurs who just want to enjoy some competition with their horse(s) on the weekend, hang out, watch the prix, and drink wine. I actually like the proposed changes to the amateur rule from that committee. It’s time for a complete rewrite of the rule, and as long as people who are being paid to ride and train at a higher level still qualify as professionals I’m good with it.

    My biggest ask for the amateur divisions is a guarantee that they run on the weekends. We don’t seem to have too much of a problem with that in zone 4 where I am, but I have plenty if amateur friends in zone 7 specifically that never get to show on the weekends! How is that in any way encouraging amateurs to show? This is show management issue, but having a rule like the juniors have that requires the amateur divisions to be held on the weekend would help.

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    1. You’d have to restructure the divisions in order for new classifications to work, I don’t think they’d slot into the current system very well since it’s SO amateur/open centric at this point. Basically scrap it all and start again to center around new/different rider and horse classifications.

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      1. Oh I agree the whole system would need to be scrapped. Is it worth the effort? I don’t know, I think the vast majority of people would end up in the same groups they are now. My preference would be to spend that time rewriting the amateur rule. For people who will say shamateurs would run rampant again, there is a reason we have a system to protest. We should probably look into that process as well.

        If you’re going to do the hunters, you’re signing up to always be beat by someone with a nicer horse and more money than you have. I’m certifiably insane because I’ve accepted this and am happy with a good score (love open numerical scoring!) and a ribbon in good company. 7th at WEF feels a lot better than a win just about anywhere else.

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        1. Rereading everything I think it’s very obvious I’ve been stuck in hunterland for too long lol. But if someone figures out how I can show my young horse against other young horses without skilled riders on the same weekend I’m doing the AO’s or whatever we want to call it on the nice broke horse, I’ll be the first one to sign up.

          Also, we need to let the 2’6” ladies who are very happy jumping around 2’6” with their very nice horses keep their place. They bring the wine 😉

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  9. I ride in dressage-land and we have a huge problem with “shameteurs”. There was a whole crew of them at our last big show. They’re advertised as trainers on the barn website but showed as amateurs. Not cool IMO. If I were Queen, it would be a point system. E.G.., horse and rider earn a point value per score. Then have similar divisions as the UK has – point total x is bronze division, point total y is silver, z is gold. It’s not perfect but it would be better than what we have. IMO if you work horses for $, you don’t show as an amateur. We have to pay extra for an amateur card which is required for amateur divisions. Why should I pay extra to ride against someone who is paid to ride or teach?

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    1. I like the UK system too. Germany and France have similar ideas… we’re the weirdo country trying to do this “amateur” thing, which clearly doesn’t work very well!

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  10. In competitive trail and endurance, divisions are made by weight. Yes, you schlep all of your tack down to the management tent and weigh in with your tack! In competitive trail, it’s a simple cutoff number: 189lbs and under is Lightweight, 190lbs and over is Heavyweight. Every once in a while someone will be riding the cusp, but for the most part people end up in the same division they’ve always been in. For example, I weigh 115lbs without tack. I will literally always be a Lightweight. However, I do know people who were campaigning a horse for a National award and found a Lightweight rider for their Heavyweight horse, and used diving weights to “make weight” so the horse stayed in the same division. It’s not common but happens, and since horses and riders are scored totally separately, nobody really cares. There is a “novice” division for those new(er) to the sport, and after you earn a certain amount of points (based on the rider, not horse), you are no longer eligible for novice and must move to “competitive pleasure” (shorter distance at a slower pace) or Open (longer distance at a faster pace). There are no restrictions on competitive pleasure or open beyond a minimum age for the horse, so folks can and do jump freely between the two.

    I don’t know enough about endurance to know how the weight divisions work: there are more of them, and at an isolated ride it doesn’t really matter: unless you stand for Best Condition, nobody weighs you. If you do stand for best condition, the weight is factored in to that score, so often the heavier riders have an advantage there as a horse that carries more weight is considered “better conditioned” (which is total crap, I think, a horse is conditioned to the weight they normally carry. Put tiny little me on a horse usually ridden by a 200lb guy, and the horse is going to be able to travel a little further. Put that 200lb guy on my horse, and she’s going to tire faster than she would with me.)

    However, neither competitive trail nor endurance are governed by the USEF, and there’s also not nearly the same type of “pro”. With a few exceptions (mostly the FEI riders), there aren’t a lot of people who professionally ride and train endurance horses. We’re all just a bunch of amateurs that spend every non-working minute on our horses to get them in shape.

    I also go to a few dressage shows a year. Usually 1-3 shows, so I’m never in the running for any awards. In that ring I really DO wish they’d come up with a better division: riding Training and First Levels, and because I go to so few shows I rarely pay for a full USEF membership w/ammy card, I’m usually competing “open” against the pros on the green horses. I’ve long thought this a bit unfair, because it’s just not worth $80 for a couple shows a year to be an “amateur”. I much more like the Horse/Rider/Open divisions of Eventing, that I think would put me on a much more level field: especially since I have a non-traditional breed for dressage. My Arab is never going to move like a warm blood, ever, so it’s disappointing when a pro shows up on a 4YO warm blood and scores a 75% on a training level test, just because the horse moves like a warm blood and cost 5x what mine did. I’d rather put myself against other riders who’ve never shown above First Level, who also perhaps can’t spend $20k+ on a fancy horse. I’m also a big fan of a points system breaking up the divisions because that puts the break on ABILITY and not money.

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  11. I came here expecting to disagree with your stance as a hunter rider, but instead, I learned about rider designation in eventing, and that seems like a similar, possibly better classification. If I have a nice hunter again someday, I don’t want to have to compete it against Amanda Steege. I don’t ride at her level, and I don’t have the money to have a horse that could outshine my limitations. But if there is a rider designation, then that shouldn’t be an issue.

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  12. 1000% agree. I just want to compete against people who are in a similar boat as I am. I know pros who are worse riders than I am and I know ammies who are way better and very talented. It’s such a weird division in the US at this point.

    Dressage rider here. Have a rating system for levels. Say if you/your horse has earned above a 60% at a certain level–you are now rated at that level. Can go back to below it after a long break for the rider.

    This keeps pros on their greenies away from “ammies” on their greenies.
    Keeps green horses from competing against established horses that are being shown Fourth with the trainer and First with the owner (idk how often that happens, but still).

    Only issue is when you get to the FEI levels. “Ammies” will still be competing against “pros” once they have shown their horse GP and gotten a 60%. Could divide the top even further by having two ratings? Say above a 75%? I’d say if you’re scoring above a 75% at GP, you clearly can ride with the best.

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  13. South Africa has no pro/ammy classifications in dressage, except at certain shows which separate the divisions according to level, not where you earn your money. Amateurs still regularly do very well against professionals. Under USEF rules I would be a pro, but I regularly get my butt handed to me by ammies, and honestly no one seems to care either way. It’s more of an issue when someone imports something that showed at a high level in its home country and then has to ride it through the bottom grades to get to the top grades!

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