Leveling The Playing Field

One of the most difficult questions for horse associations to answer is, “What is a non-pro?” To define the term, some associations have created an Amateur division, while others divide the Non-Pro into levels based on money earnings.

In 2013, the National Cutting Horse Association (NCHA)’s new Unlimited Amateur division was implemented. Previously, once an amateur reached $50,000 in earnings, he or she was forced to move up to the Non-Pro class. The Unlimited Amateur class increased the monetary cap to $100,000, and also gave riders the option of choosing their division. Once an unlimited amateur reaches $100,000 in earnings a choice must be made: remain an unlimited amateur and compete exclusively as an unlimited amateur, or to compete as a non-pro. You cannot do both.

Most of the discussion about the Unlimited Amateur class centered around the fact that many amateurs, despite their earnings level, still do not feel they can be competitive in the Non-Pro division. It sounded to me like a great way to keep people competitive at their individual level, and I thought I understood the rules.

And then Mary Jo Milner won the 2013 NCHA Non-Pro World Championship and was Reserve Champion in the 2013 NCHA Futurity Unlimited Amateur.

No, it wasn’t a bad mistake. It seems the Unlimited Amateur rules also include an age exemption for individuals over 60. The rule states: “Once an individual reaches the age of 60, if he or she qualifies under Amateur rules, they may return to the Unlimited Amateur class (LAE Events Only), regardless of Limited Age Non Pro class money won. The member will be allowed to show in both LAE Non-Pro and LAE Unlimited Amateur competition.”

That is how Milner, who has earned $3 million riding cutting horses, was able to compete in the Unlimited Amateur at the Futurity. Should she have been able to, if the intent of the Unlimited Amateur was to keep those people from having to compete against the non-pros? Maybe, maybe not. But I’m going to bet there aren’t too many 60-plus-year-old, eight-time world champions who still haul and ride like Milner in the first place.

Milner’s dual eligibility came about because of age, which is a funny thing in the horse industry. In reining, people regularly enter the Prime Time class, which is restricted to riders over the age of 50. And they are proud to win it. In the cutting industry, however, the Senior division, for riders 60 years of age or older, is not quite as popular. In fact, during my tenure at the NCHA, I actually had one Senior Champion ask me not to print his name and picture as the class champion, as he did not want to be recognized for winning something simply because he is old. Who wants to win a class for being considered, well, a senior citizen?

Age aside, there are similar “revolving door” rules that allow for Open riders to move divisions and compete in the John Deere Open (formerly the Limited Open) at NCHA limited-age events. If a rider has not earned $200,000 in the past five years, he can step back to the John Deere Open. In 2008, that rule allowed NCHA Riders Hall of Fame member Pat Earnheart to earn $19,911 as the NCHA Futurity John Deere Open Co-Reserve Champion. The National Reining Horse Association (NRHA) and the National Reined Cow Horse Association (NRCHA) both have similar rules, allowing riders to step down a level based on recent performance (or lack thereof).

At the other end of the scale, non-pros who make too much money are sometimes asked to leave their division. Annie Reynolds had to give up her NRCHA Non-Pro card after surpassing $100,000 in Open earnings. The NRHA has a similar rule, and in the NCHA, non-pros who earn half that much in the Open cannot compete in the Open again without giving up their non-pro status. It was a decision Sandy Bonelli made when she wanted to show Flo Rider in the Open at the 2008 NCHA Futurity.

Each association has struggled to successfully define a non-pro in such a way as to promote fair and level competition in every class. It’s a noble cause; nobody wants to feel they have wasted their time, money and efforts getting to a horse show, only to be pitted against competitors far above themselves in skill level and experience. It is no secret, many people who compete in the NRHA’s Level 4 Non-Pro feel that way competing against Mandy McCutcheon. Mandy was raised horseback as the daughter of Tim and Colleen McQuay, both successful trainers – Tim in reining and Colleen in the English world. Mandy then married professional trainer Tom McCutcheon, which brings up one of the great debates about the non-pro designation – that of trainers’ spouses and family members.

Many feel that the spouses, children and even grandchildren of trainers have an unfair advantage when it comes to showing. Their arguments run the gamut from easier access to better horses, to free training and lessons. Quite honestly, I’m not sure I agree with all of it. I could make the same arguments about anyone who has more money and time to ride than I do. After all, Mandy, or any other rider in that position, still has to have the skill and ability to get her horse shown.

Confused yet? You should be. Trying to define “non-pro” and “amateur” proves to be a nearly impossible task, especially when you add in age exemptions and revolving door rules and monetary eligibilities. The good thing is our associations keep trying, with ever-evolving rules and restrictions aimed at leveling the playing field and making showing fun, and fair, for everyone involved.