As a full-time writer, I spend a lot of time looking at words. The right word can make a sentence sing; it can provoke thought, cause a reader to chuckle, or drop the mic on an important point. But choosing the right word is no easy feat. (Full disclosure, I spend a lot of time staring at the blinking cursor on my screen, thinking about pie.)
How we use words matters, even when we’re talking about ourselves. Lately, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about the word “amateur,” a notion that’s come to have a lot of meaning in my own life.
“Amateur,” can be used both as a noun and an adjective. When used as a noun, it rarely ever appears alone. You’ve probably heard about ‘amateur moments’ and ‘amateur mistakes’, and most definitely ‘amateur hours.’ We commonly refer to ‘amateur-friendly horses’ and ‘amateur’s amateurs.’ And, of course, we’re all familiar with characterizations like ‘timid amateurs’ and ‘weeny amateurs’ and ‘working amateurs.’
In short, there’s a lot of diversity in how we categorize amateurs, which only makes sense. Despite the fact that we all technically ride horses in a non-professional capacity, how and in what way amateurs practice our sport runs the gambit.
There are pro-riding amateurs who toggle between professional and amateur statuses, and self-funded amateurs that compete internationally and train on their own strings of horses full-time (yes, please!). Some of my friends consider themselves to be part of the “weekend warriors” set, while others are formerly competitive junior or college riders that have stepped down into the “just-for-fun” ranks to make way for work, family, and other commitments. And then, there are others, like myself, who are still hoping to achieve longstanding goals or continue to progress competitively in whatever capacity we can in the sport.
All that is to say, there is no one-size-fits-all for amateurs. But there does seem to be a reoccurring, one-size-fits-all narrative.
Let’s pretend, just for a minute, that you’re an extraterrestrial recently arrived from a galaxy far, far away (okay, Krypton), and your Martian boss wants you to integrate yourself into the amateur riding community and report back about what they’re really like. You sign up for a few lessons, read some online articles, join a few Facebook groups, and scan some forums, quickly honing-in on a few trends.
For one thing, amateur riders are busy. Like, really, really busy. Carving out a couple of hours of riding time between weekly TPS reports, Zoom meetings, and carpooling to soccer and tuba practice is a job best left to black-diamond experts, or maybe Olivia Pope. We’re flustered, exhausted, and when we finally do arrive at the barn, those scant moments of riding zen we so depend on are becoming more and more elusive.
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Also, we constantly feel like we’re broke. Even if we’re not actually in danger of becoming broke, compared to the other 0.0001% members of our community, we are definitely broke. Consequently, we will never, ever measure up. We stand in line outside the in-gate, or in the middle of the hack line-up, and glance left and right at our famous-named competitors in exotic, lizard-trimmed tall boots, accepting ribbons on their $2M ex-1.50m horses from Europe. We think, Now, how can I compete with that?
“Well, was that all you learned?” your Martian boss interrupts. “These amateur riders seem mentally, emotionally, and financially drained, but at least they’re out there, doing what they love…”
“Oh no!” you reply. “That’s just the thing. Most of them are completely terrified! They spend the whole time wishing it would all be over so they could just get off.”
So, back to reality, and asking for a friend: Guys, are we okay?
I make light of these stereotypes, but I understand them, too. At times, being an amateur can start to feel like you’re out on a precarious, windy limb alone. It’s hard to justify spent time and hard-earned family dollars on a sport where bottomless budgets are the coins of the realm. And, yes, riding can feel scary at times. There’s a fair degree of risk associated with climbing atop athletic, 1,200-pound flight animals to perform intricate maneuvers or jump sticks. More than scrapbooking, to be sure.
In Oprah-speak, all of this can start to make you question your ‘why.’ And, I’m starting to realize, all that questioning affects how I talk about myself as a rider; why I’m not as good as I’d like to be, and why, sometimes, it’s just easier to punch my amateur-get-out–of-jail-free card and sell myself short.
“Well, that’s why you’re an amateur horse!” I’m quick to tell my young jumper after he kindly leaves early to save us at a tricky combination. Or, after going off-course in a jump-off, I might shrug it off to my trainer, aw-shucksing my error on account of my “adult-ammie” brain. Making mistakes in lessons is an expected part of the learning process, and yet, instead of owning my blunders and working to fix them on my next turn, my first impulse is to crack jokes. (A personal favorite: swapping in my horses’ names at the appropriate places while humming Carrie Underwood’s 2005 Grammy-winning hit, “Jesus Take the Wheel.”)
Is it funny? Maybe. Is it beneficial to my performance or personal growth? Probably not. But it is almost always easier than admitting that I could have (should have) ridden that line a little better, spent more time on my flatwork this month, or made a point to re-check my course.
If I’m being honest with myself, the problem is not that I don’t care. The problem is that I do. I consider myself a serious competitor who thinks about my sport like any serious athlete would. I watch all the big international classes and spend time working out at home, trying to make myself better. Like you, I wring every hour that I can out of my weekly schedule to be at the barn, and I certainly spend money on this sport (read: hide bills from my spouse) like it’s something I take seriously.
"The problem is not that I don't care. The problem is that I do."
In fact, in some ways, I think I’m a better rider in my 30s than I was a decade ago. I’m stronger mentally, and I feel I have a better understanding of the big picture and how to realistically achieve my goals than I once did. So why don’t I talk about myself that way? Why is my first impulse to let myself off the hook, rather than owning my results, good or bad? Any sports psychologist will tell you that practicing positive thinking can play an important role in self-confidence, and, by extension, performance. Is that knee-jerk impulse to blame mistakes on my status as an amateur making me a better athlete? I don’t think so.
And, let’s be honest; we don’t always get a ton of help from the professional counterparts and other thought leaders in our community. For every supportive, positive, and confidence-building coach like my own (bless her), there are plenty of trainers, judges, and others out there who could have taught Joan Rivers a thing or two about acerbic, off-the-cuff burns. For proof, just Google ‘George Morris memes’ or wade through the zingers in the Overheard at the In Gate Facebook group. (Exhibit A: the horse that was, “so broke, a blind monkey could ride him,” or B: the bowl of queso that would, “go great with all those chips!”)
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That’s not to say we can’t or shouldn’t have a sense of humor in this sport. It’s horses, God knows; a sense of humor is practically a prerequisite. And, sure, offhand comments like these are mostly intended to be funny and, by and large, harmless. But ask yourself: How funny are they really to the rider overhearing them being said about him or herself, and maybe not for the first time?
We may never be able to completely shift the stereotypes surrounding amateur riders or change how we’re talked about by others in our sport. But can’t we try, at least a little harder, to change how we think and talk about ourselves? For every missed lead, low score, or rail down that keeps us up at night, let’s not forget to celebrate those things we did do well: the hard work we’ve put in, the bonds we’ve cultivated with our horses, and the rounds we might not have won, but improved. Instead of lamenting and giving in to our fears, we can choose to highlight those times when yes, we felt afraid, but we steeled ourselves, swung a leg over, and got on with it.
Let’s start talking about ourselves as the amateur riders we are on our best days, not our worst. Let’s take our performances seriously, at whatever level we choose to compete. Let’s treat each other, and ourselves, like the athletes we hope to become.
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Photos by Bret St. Clair
Written by Nina Fedrizzi
Nina Fedrizzi spends her days writing about horse sport, food, and travel. She began her career at Travel + Leisure and is a former editor at NF Style. When she's not tapping away on her MacBook, Nina can usually be found on a horse, sleuthing out the local pho, or refusing to unpack her carry-on. Watch her do all three on Instagram @ninafedrizzi.