As the sport of show jumping continues to evolve, so do the rules that protect it, with key governing bodies leaning on the advice of industry professionals and competitors to bring perspective changes to light. A division that has long been a part of the hunter world is the Amateur Owners (AOs), a class with jumps that are traditionally 3’6” in height, open to riders who own their horse outright, whether it be themselves or a member of their immediate family on the paperwork.

Should the division remain the same, or should the rules be adjusted to give more people the opportunity to participate? Or would the option of expanding the rules to allow an annual lease be a suitable ‘happy medium’ solution? In an effort to create a fair and honest debate, we leaned on some of Canada’s most well-respected horse show organizers, top amateur riders and a judge with a plethora of experience in the world of hunters, for their perspectives.

Preserving Tradition

Bobbie Reber has been a trainer and hunter judge in Canada and the United States for over 35 years and recently became the first Canadian to be awarded the Daniel P. Lenehan Perpetual Trophy, given to a person who exemplifies dedication and a lifetime commitment to the judging of show hunters. As one of the most truly passionate supporters of the hunter discipline and an extremely knowledgeable industry professional, Reber stands firm in her position that tradition should be preserved and the rules for AO’s should remain untouched.

“I think the division has to be protected for the person that is a true amateur,” said Reber. “They have to go and buy a quality horse in order to win, so that’s better for the business. These are people who are in top training programs, their trainers have brought these horses along, a lot of the horses will show in another division to get ready for their amateur on the weekend. That’s business for the trainer and that’s business for the horse show to have these horses show in a second division. Opening the door to a proper lease doesn’t work either. I’m a real believer that the AO division has to stay the AO’s. It makes people buy good horses and also stops catch riders who can lease one.”

It’s very common for amateur riders, especially in the hunter divisions, to balance families and professional jobs that keep them from riding full-time. As a result, Reber fears the novelty would be spoiled for those who hustle in their professional lives in order to be able to pursue their passion as a hobby.

“In the other amateur divisions, you often have catch riders who are wonderful people and ride very well, but they’re almost like ‘professional amateurs’,” she said. “I know personally that if I was an amateur that worked all week, came to the horse show and was fourth behind three people that were professional amateurs, I wouldn’t feel it was fair. If you’re in the AOs, you’re likely competing against other people who are balancing similar things outside of the world of horses.”

In the past, the Adult Amateur (AA) hunters weren’t offered at The Royal Agricultural Winter Fair, a show that acts as a national championship and is one that many riders work towards qualifying for when they start each new season.

“If people wanted to show at The Royal, they had to step up and jump 3’6” in the AOs,” she said. “They had to practice, and they had to ride.”

While her vote would be to protect tradition, Reber isn’t worried about the future of the hunter disciplines as a whole.

“The hunter divisions will always be protected because there’s always demand for a quality horse, that is a good jumper and moves well,” she said. “Offering pre-green incentive divisions and hunter derbies help because they keep people interested in hunters.”

Margaret “Muffie” Guthrie has been competing in the AOs since 1984, capturing many championships and competing successfully in the Canadian National Hunter Derby Finals on multiple occasions. With years of experience in the hunter ring, her perspective is similar to Reber’s: tradition should be protected and competition should be fair.

“I think the AOs is one of the few remaining traditional divisions left at the horse show,” said Guthrie. “It was a division that was created to level the playing field for riders who balance careers, families or have other interests, but are extremely good riders. I think that if you open it up, you’ll open it to catch riding and you’ll diminish the quality of the division. It’s a high-quality division on both sides of the border [in Canada and the United States].”

Contrary to Reber’s affirmative stance, Guthrie would be open to the idea of allowing proper lease agreements to be considered enough for entry into the division.

“If it’s a yearlong lease and it’s properly done, I think that’s fine,” she said. “I’m okay with that idea because it still means there won’t be any catch riding and it has to be your own horse.”

Guthrie goes on to describe the division as “pure competition” and emphasizes that it’s a division that riders can succeed in regardless of their budget.

“It encourages amateurs to buy nice horses and because we own our own horses, there’s a greater bond within the division,” she said. “There’s no acrimony, it’s not a business division, it’s a sport division and there’s a level of camaraderie within the division that I’ve never experienced in any other division of the horse show. I haven’t always had the nicest horses. I had ‘Paul’ for ten years and he wasn’t fancy, but it didn’t matter,” she said. “He was my horse and I rode him.”

Guthrie went on to tell a story of a Sunday night dinner when she asked her father, Hugh Guthrie, for a new horse after campaigning ‘Paul’ for ten years. His response: “Do you get to The Royal every year?” Guthrie’s answer was “yes,” so her father ended the conversation with “Then you don’t need a new horse.”

The response bodes well to the younger Guthrie’s point about the partnership between horse and owner being more important than the price tag.

Creating Opportunity

Julie McDonell has been competing in the Adult Amateur division for 22 years and balances being a mom along with a career as a realtor while riding when she can. She has proven herself in the show ring with countless tricolour ribbons to her name on a variety of different horses including the Grand Champion Amateur title at The Royal Winter Fair in 2017.

In her opinion, there would be a great deal of hard work and preparation required to make the move up to jumping the bigger height, not something people would take lightly if given the opportunity.

“The jumps are that much bigger, and you have to be that much more accurate, so I don’t think people are just going to throw their horse in there on a whim,” said McDonell. “If I moved up, I would need to practice for it. The nice part about a rule change would be that it opens up goals for people who don’t own their horse but aspire to jump 3’6” and eventually do the derbies. I don’t think anyone moving up to the AOs would be an instantaneous winner; you’ve got to put the time in.”

For McDonell, the added benefit of reducing restrictions on the division would be the increased accessibility for riders who are passionate about the sport, opening the door for more people to have the chance to continue to develop their talents.

“Why would you cut people off at the knee?” asked McDonell. “We’re trying to make this elite sport more accessible to people. If we can get more people in by leasing horses, why wouldn’t we do it? I don’t really think they’re going to lose the integrity of the elite status. If you open it up, you may get more entries and it may be an opportunity for some amateur riders to challenge themselves and better themselves. I’m getting older, I’m not as brave as I used to be, and I certainly don’t want to compete against pros so the only thing for me to do is AAs.”

Show organizers Chris Pack and Shauna Moule from Thunderbird Show Park in Langley, British Columbia, echo McDonell’s point about making the more challenging level of competition more accessible.

“From a competitive standpoint, you want each class to have everybody that can enter, to be in it so it really is limiting who can go in that class,” said Pack.

“Some just aren’t in that financial position to own the quality of horse, but they could lease or ride their trainers horse,” Moule added. “Our numbers [at Thunderbird Show Park] in terms of entries are approximately twenty per cent of the numbers in the AOs that we see in the AAs. In addition, the derbies are starting to turn into the primary focus rather than just the hunter divisions.”

In terms of the opportunity for an amendment to include a lease or purchase, Pack is all for it.

“I like the idea that you could add the opportunity to show in the division on a lease because you’re not changing the whole rule but you’re meeting halfway,” said Pack. That would affect a lot of people and I think you’d get a better class and a better division.”

What’s up with USEF?

South of the border, there’s potential of a change on the jumper side of the amateur owners as the United States Equestrian Federation moves through their rule change process. As it stands, a final vote will be done in June and if the change is accepted, as of December 1st, 2021, there will no longer be a requirement to own your own horse in those jumper divisions. In order to regulate catch riding, the new rule would restrict riders from showing more than two horses per height. Jennifer Hayden, Director of National Show Jumping Programs for USEF, provided some insight into the reason behind the proposed change.

“We got a lot of feedback from people who are working professionals outside of the sport,” she said. “They wanted to do something above the AA level and if they did, they were competing in open classes against anyone who wanted to enter. There are a lot of riders who are working as much as they can to be able to show and end up competing against people who never did buy their horse, but instead it was purchased by someone in their extended family. The challenge becomes the fact that there’s no real way to police that part of it and as a result, you leave out all sorts of people who could jump more.”

In terms of a similar change in the hunter ring, there’s been no movement on that front as the people involved aren’t ready. It should also be noted that with the proposed rule change, there is nothing being adjusted about the actual amateur rule and how amateurs are classified. Amateurs are not allowed to receive any type of remuneration, whether they’re riding a sale horse or a horse of their own.

The Verdict

Any potential changes to the Amateur Owner Hunter division will remain to be seen, but a healthy dose of arguments presented on both sides of the equation solidifies the notion that the future of the hunter discipline will be bright – with or without change.