Adult Ama­teurs Who Ex­cel

As Adult Ama­teurs, these dres­sage com­peti­tors have found a way to defy any pre­con­ceived no­tions to thrive amidst pro­fes­sion­als at the top level of sport.

Dressage Today - - Content - By Jen­nifer M. Keeler

These dres­sage com­peti­tors thrive among pro­fes­sion­als at the top level of sport

Let’s be hon­est: Spend enough time ring­side at large dres­sage shows and you’ll prob­a­bly hear it: “What does she think she’s do­ing com­pet­ing at that level? Leave it to the pros.” “What a waste—if her horse was with a pro­fes­sional, he’d go a lot fur­ther.” “She rides pretty well for an ama­teur.”

Adult Ama­teur com­peti­tors may be con­sid­ered the back­bone of dres­sage in this coun­try, but that des­ig­na­tion on a USEF mem­ber­ship card is much more than two sim­ple words. For some, it’s a badge of honor: rid­ers who jug­gle their love of horses with fam­i­lies and ca­reers, tak­ing lessons long af­ter dark and work­ing to make ends meet and af­ford an­other horse show.

But does be­ing clas­si­fied as an Adult Ama­teur also come with pre­con­ceived no­tions about a rider’s abil­ity to suc­ceed, whether ac­cu­rate or not? While the Olympic Games used to be re­stricted to “ama­teur” ath­letes, to­day it is more of an ex­cep­tion than the rule to see Adult Ama­teur com­peti­tors at the high­est lev­els of in­ter­na­tional sport. But two Grand Prix com­peti­tors, Alice Tar­jan of Old­wick, New Jer­sey, and Char­lotte Jorst of Reno, Ne­vada, agree that while these lower ex­pec­ta­tions are some­times ex­pe­ri­enced or over­heard, they have made the deci-

sion to pur­sue suc­cess in open di­vi­sions any­way.

The Ama­teur Ad­van­tage

Adult Ama­teur Tar­jan, 38, grew up in Pony Club and com­peted in event­ing through her col­lege years. But af­ter law school, she chose to fo­cus on dres­sage, and now as an at­tor­ney she works with her hus­band in in­dus­trial real es­tate. In the sad­dle she’s found tremen­dous suc­cess, in­clud­ing sev­eral vic­to­ries at the U.S. Dres­sage Fi­nals in the Adult Ama­teur ranks, wins against open rid­ers at the Markel/USEF Na­tional Young Horse Dres­sage Cham­pi­onships and com­pet­ing with pro­fes­sion­als at the CDI Grand Prix level at Dres­sage at Devon and at the Global Dres­sage Fes­ti­val in Welling­ton, Flor­ida, with her long­time part­ner Elfen­feuer. Cur­rently, Tar­jan is de­vel­op­ing sev­eral new young horses with in­ter­na­tional as­pi­ra­tions in mind.

“When I was young, like so many other horse-crazy kids, I thought I wanted to grow up to train horses full­time. But my par­ents told me I had to get an ed­u­ca­tion and a real job. The irony is that I did ex­actly that, but still ride al­most full-time. But I only ride my own horses and I like it that way,” Tar­jan ex­plained. “As an adult, I guess for me it never re­ally mat­tered if I was an ama­teur or a pro­fes­sional. Be­cause I still have the op­tion and flex­i­bil­ity to ride in ei­ther open or ama­teur di­vi­sions, the way I look at it, it’s ac­tu­ally an ad­van­tage for me. In cer­tain com­pe­ti­tions like the U.S. Dres­sage Fi­nals, I do ride in the ama­teur di­vi­sions, and I may con­sider par­tic­i­pat­ing in the CDI Ama­teur di­vi­sions in the fu­ture. But I also do a lot of the Young Horse classes and they’re all open, and I never shy away from that.”

By main­tain­ing ama­teur sta­tus and train­ing only her own horses, Tar­jan be­lieves she gains an­other ad­van­tage in the long-term de­vel­op­ment of her charges. “I buy what I want and don’t have to ar­gue with some­one about po­ten­tial. I make my own de­ci­sions and get to do things my own way,” she said. “When the horses are ready to show, I show, or, if not, I keep them home and con­tinue train­ing—I don’t have to deal with any­one’s ex­pec­ta­tions for the horse to pro­duce re­sults. In some ways I feel like this is a per­sonal ad­van­tage over some of my pro­fes­sional friends.

“For ex­am­ple, I don’t have to ex­plain any­thing to any­one if I de­cide to pull my horse out of the show ring for an en­tire year to fo­cus on train­ing for the Grand Prix,” Tar­jan con­tin­ued. “One year I went all the way to Chicago for the Young Horse Cham­pi­onships and I didn’t present the horse well. I learned my les­son, but I didn’t have to ex­plain to any­one how I spent a lot of money to go half­way across the coun­try and do a lousy job. I have the lux­ury, per se, to just own up to my own per­for­mance and learn from it to make both my­self and my horse bet­ter. To be blunt, it makes my life a lit­tle eas­ier be­cause I’m not de­pend­ing on those pay­checks—I ad­mire how my pro­fes­sional friends

man­age those ex­pec­ta­tions.”

Don’t Stop Be­liev­ing

“Ama­teurs are so in­tim­i­dated by pro­fes­sion­als or by the no­tion of be­ing a pro,” said Jorst, 54. “And I think that’s a shame. I was de­ter­mined not to let that stop me from achiev­ing my goals.”

Jorst could be con­sid­ered a poster child for Adult Ama­teur suc­cess: In 2013, she and her West­falen stal­lion Kas­tel’s Vi­talis rep­re­sented the U.S. at the FEI World Breed­ing Cham­pi­onships for Dres­sage Young Horses in Ver­den, Ger­many. In 2015, she and Kas­tel’s Nin­tendo trav­eled to Europe to rep­re­sent the U.S. at the CDIO5* Rot­ter­dam (the Nether­lands) and Ha­gen (Ger­many), com­ing home with a team bronze and in­di­vid­ual third place, as well as fin­ish­ing as one of the top eight Grand Prix com­bi­na­tions in the coun­try at that year’s U.S. Dres­sage Fes­ti­val of Cham­pi­ons. In ad­di­tion to pur­su­ing a spot on the 2016 Rio Olympic Team, she took the ride of a life­time when cho­sen as one of the two U.S. rep­re­sen­ta­tives at the Reem Acra FEI World Cup™ Dres­sage Fi­nal in Gothen­burg, Swe­den, that same year.

“Two years ago, I did change my of­fi­cial sta­tus with USEF to ‘pro­fes­sional’ be­cause I wanted to teach a clinic, and hon­estly for me at this point in my rid­ing ca­reer it’s nei­ther here nor there,” Jorst ad­mit­ted. “But I have kept it that way be­cause I do think it looks a lit­tle bet­ter at the top level when you’re de­clared a ‘pro’, even though I haven’t done any other ac­tiv­i­ties since that clinic that keep me as a pro­fes­sional. I don’t re­gret chang­ing my sta­tus be­cause it re­ally doesn’t af­fect what I do, and what’s on pa­per hasn’t af­fected my life­style. I don’t usu­ally teach peo­ple and I don’t re­ally want to, it’s just not my thing. So I may go back to com­pet­ing as an ama­teur when I get a lit­tle older and am not com­pet­ing at the in­ter­na­tional level.”

Jorst noted that she has ex­pe­ri­enced some per­cep­tion prob­lems first­hand be­cause she is widely known as be­ing— un­til re­cently—an Adult Ama­teur. “I still hear com­ments when I ride, even from an FEI judge, to the ef­fect of, ‘Oh, I wish I had a school­mas­ter like [Kas­tel’s Akeem Foldager].’ They as­sume that be­cause I was an ama­teur, the only horses I can ride are steady school­mas­ters who just carry me around the ring,” she ex­plained. “Which is hi­lar­i­ous be­cause he’s not an easy horse at all! So I get quite a laugh out of that. No one would ever say that about some of the other team rid­ers! But that’s the kind of as­sump­tion that gets made. You’re al­ways fight­ing those types of per­cep­tions.”

No Ex­cuses

Jorst be­lieves that, un­for­tu­nately in some cases, neg­a­tive per­cep­tions can ex­tend be­yond sim­ply be­ing an Adult Ama­teur. “I do think there’s an el­e­ment of a lack of ob­jec­tiv­ity, not just as a ques­tion of ama­teur or pro­fes­sional sta­tus,” she ex­plained. “Be­cause I’m a suc­cess­ful busi­ness­woman, peo­ple may say that I’m try­ing to buy my way onto a team, whether or not I’m of­fi­cially an ama­teur. As an out­sider who came into the sport later in life like I did, that kind of neg­a­tiv­ity can be re­ally in­tim­i­dat­ing.”

“Even though I haven’t per­son­ally ex­pe­ri­enced a time where I felt like I wasn’t be­ing taken as se­ri­ously be­cause I’m an ama­teur, I can see where that could hap­pen,” Tar­jan con­curred. “I don’t feel like there are nec­es­sar­ily lower ex­pec­ta­tions for ama­teurs, but I do think the re­al­ity is that the ama­teur di­vi­sions, in gen­eral, are less com­pet­i­tive than open di­vi­sions, but that’s the whole point: to give ama­teurs a place to com­pete against their peers. That’s fine and there isn’t any­thing wrong with that. Ama­teurs have real lives and ca­reers out­side horses and usu­ally can’t de­vote the same de­gree of time and re­sources to rid­ing that a pro­fes­sional can.

“The way I ap­proach it is, that at the end of the day, if you want to play the game and do well, there can’t be ex­cuses,” Tar­jan con­tin­ued. “Re­gard­less

of what you are, pro­fes­sional or ama­teur, if you ride in a big show or CDI, it’s the judges’ play­ground there and if you don’t score well, you need to learn some­thing from it and go back and work to get bet­ter. I be­lieve the judges will score what they see, and it’s your job to make it hap­pen and ride a good test, not com­plain about how your sta­tus sup­pos­edly af­fects your score.”

Do these ama­teurs be­lieve that pub­lic per­cep­tions of their suc­cess would be dif­fer­ent if they had de­clared as pro­fes­sion­als or gone pro ear­lier in their rid­ing ca­reers? “I think it’s a per­sonal de­ci­sion, and when it’s time to make a change, you just do it. I was al­ways very forth­com­ing about be­ing an Adult Ama­teur— I never tried to hide it just to fur­ther my rid­ing ca­reer,” Jorst ex­plained. “So I al­ways en­cour­age oth­ers to go for it as well be­cause I be­lieve fear holds peo­ple back. Some ama­teurs can’t even fathom rid­ing in the big ring with the pros, but if I do it, any­one can! I think peo­ple should be true to who they are, dare to dream big and go for it. All too of­ten I see peo­ple who are be­ing held back by the per­cep­tions of oth­ers or even of their own ex­pec­ta­tions of them­selves. There’s no rea­son for it, so stop mak­ing ex­cuses—there’s no time like the present. I think in­tim­i­da­tion is a very hard thing to over­come, but suc­cess should never come down to a la­bel.”

Reach­ing Max­i­mum Po­ten­tial

Peruse any horse-sales web­site and one can find plenty of mounts deemed “ama­teur friendly” (or Steady Ed­dies) or “suit­able for an am­bi­tious pro­fes­sional” (of­ten in­cred­i­ble move­ment but hot). Why does such a dis­tinc­tion even ex­ist and does this mean that Adult Ama­teurs are at a dis­ad­van­tage in find­ing mounts with the ta­lent to achieve their com­pet­i­tive dreams? Do sell­ers make as­sump­tions that a horse won’t be able to reach his po­ten­tial with an ama­teur rider, lim­it­ing avail­abil­ity of top mounts for non­pro­fes­sion­als?

“That’s a great ques­tion,” said Jorst. “I haven’t per­son­ally en­coun­tered a sit­u­a­tion where I felt like any­one was out­right prej­u­diced against me. But I do see where that can hap­pen and have sensed a lit­tle bit in the past when I was get­ting started. Now that I’ve done well, I think it’s a dif­fer­ent story. But I have to say I could see where some peo­ple might have that kind of ex­pe­ri­ence.”

“I’ve never run into that ei­ther,” added Tar­jan. “But I don’t buy trained horses and I think that could be a dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tion. I look for ta­lented young horses, less than 3 years old. I per­son­ally have not come across a sit­u­a­tion where a seller felt like the horse wouldn’t reach his po­ten­tial with me just be­cause I’m an ama­teur. So when I’ve looked at horses it’s al­ways been that if I’m will­ing to write the check, they’re more than happy to sell him to me!

“I some­times shop in Europe, where I feel like the sell­ers aren’t as emo­tion­ally in­volved. But I also look in the U.S., where I think it’s a lit­tle dif­fer­ent mind­set buy­ing from breed­ers here be­cause they want to see the horse do re­ally well,” Tar­jan con­tin­ued. “I have heard of some breed­ers out there who have ta­lented horses but who may feel that if they’re sold to ama­teurs, they may do well at the lower lev­els but don’t re­ally go to the level the horse could po­ten­tially do. But I also have done rel­a­tively well in the show ring, so more peo­ple know me and know that if I’m able, I will do some­thing with

the horse and he won’t just sit in my back­yard.”

Don’t Lis­ten to The Naysay­ers

Both Jorst and Tar­jan noted their dis­cour­age­ment with an un­seen ob­sta­cle that they be­lieve can be a no­table fac­tor that im­pedes some Adult Ama­teurs’ suc­cess in dres­sage com­pe­ti­tion: the power of naysay­ers. “[Lack of sup­port] re­ally is an­noy­ing, I have to say, and it can get you down,” said Jorst. “Try as you may, it can be al­most im­pos­si­ble to ig­nore. Some­times my fam­ily says to me, ‘why do you do this?’ Peo­ple al­ways think that some­one else has it eas­ier. But you can never know some­one else’s story or make as­sump­tions. This is an in­cred­i­bly dif­fi­cult sport for ev­ery­one. That’s why I share as many of my fail­ures on Face­book as I do suc­cesses, be­cause I feel like it’s im­por­tant for peo­ple to see that this is real life. Once in a while it does get to me, but when it comes down to it, I do this for me. And when you have a good ride and the judges re­ward you for it, that’s a great feel­ing and makes me feel bet­ter about stick­ing with it.”

Jorst also be­lieves that some rid­ers, es­pe­cially ama­teurs, don’t pur­sue op­por­tu­ni­ties be­cause they as­sume some­thing is sim­ply out of their reach or are afraid of crit­i­cism from out­side the ring. But Jorst says, who cares? “If you don’t set goals and at least try, you def­i­nitely won’t get there. If you don’t ask, the an­swer will al­ways be ‘no,’” she ex­plained. “I also think some train­ers are guilty of not push­ing their Adult Ama­teur stu­dents enough. Hold your­self to a higher stan­dard, re­gard­less of the horse you’re rid­ing. I may have been very naïve when I started in dres­sage, but I just went for it, and plenty of peo­ple

were like ‘What is she do­ing?’ And sure, it wasn’t great at first, but it got bet­ter through per­sis­tence.”

“When I was event­ing, it was a very dif­fer­ent at­mos­phere—ev­ery­one was al­ways so sup­port­ive of each other, more of a com­mu­nity,” Tar­jan agreed. “I think a prob­lem with dres­sage is that it’s an in­cred­i­bly dif­fi­cult but lonely sport. Peo­ple can be so nasty, and you al­ways know the rail­birds are watch­ing and judg­ing. It’s kind of un­for­tu­nate, but true. I can imag­ine that there are peo­ple who say that be­cause I’ve done very well as an ama­teur, I should just com­pete in the open di­vi­sions and ‘let some­one else win.’ I haven’t ac­tu­ally heard it about me, but I’ve heard it go­ing around about oth­ers, so I’m sure I’m not ex­empt from the crit­i­cism.

“But at the end of the day, there’s no per­fect way to de­fine the di­vi­sion any­way. No mat­ter how you di­vide ama­teurs and pro­fes­sion­als, some­one isn’t go­ing to be happy,” Tar­jan con­tin­ued. “Just be­cause an ama­teur may be able to af­ford a more ex­pen­sive horse, do we now cre­ate an­other di­vi­sion to sep­a­rate those peo­ple from rid­ers of more mod­est means? It could get ridicu­lous. And just be­cause some­one is a pro doesn’t au­to­mat­i­cally mean they’re very good— there are plenty of open-di­vi­sion rid­ers who are much, much bet­ter than oth­ers as well as ‘pro­fes­sion­als’ who never com­pete above Se­cond Level.”

Ul­ti­mately, Tar­jan be­lieves that the point of dres­sage should be about a rider’s per­sonal choices and goals, not com­pet­i­tive re­sults, no mat­ter what di­vi­sion she rides in. “I look at it in that I’m on my own jour­ney,” she said. “I know where I’m at; I know where I want to go; I’m work­ing every day both at home and in the show ring to get there; and know that I’m do­ing the best I can do. Ev­ery­thing is rel­a­tive, and the di­vi­sion on your mem­ber­ship card is not a guar­an­tee of suc­cess—or fail­ure.”

ABOVE: Alice Tar­jan rid­ing Elfen­feuer at Dres­sage at Devon

RIGHT: Adult Ama­teurs form the back­bone of Amer­i­can dres­sage.

Alice Tar­jan in her tack room at home in Old­wick, New Jer­sey.

As an Adult Ama­teur, Char­lotte Jorst found suc­cess at the in­ter­na­tional lev­els.

“The di­vi­sion on your mem­ber­ship card is not a guar­an­tee of suc­cess or fail­ure,” Tar­jan says.

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