The Fear of Aging Out

By MARLEY LIEN-GONZALEZ

When the leaves start to turn shades of orange, red, and gold, most equestrians rejoice.

The start of fall signals a migration to sunny Florida where sandy beaches and even sandier show rings beckon. But for a margin of riders every year, fall means the beginning of the end. 

To their junior careers, that is. 

When the clock strikes midnight on December 1st, every 18-year-old competitor has to make a choice: go professional or become an amateur. This daunting decision haunts the back of riders’ minds for their last few junior years — at least, it did for me. When I began as a true working student at the age of 16, I had limited resources — especially when it came to time.

Still, nothing scared me as much as the thought of aging out. 

I was fully convinced when that time came, I would never have the opportunity to sit on a horse again. I knew I didn’t have the money to put myself on one, and I was sure no trainer was looking to give catch rides to an amateur. What purpose did I serve if I couldn’t put junior miles on a horse or show in the big equitation ring? 

By the time fall rolled around my final year as a junior, I had entered a state of pure panic.

I would make anyone who had ears listen to me ramble (sorry Mom and Dad) about how my life was about to be over. I even had my local grocery store put, “Happy 15th Birthday Marley!” on the cake I used to celebrate my 18 years of life — as if that could fool USEF, along with my closest family and friends, into believing I had somehow cheated the clock. 

Despite all apprehension leading to up to that day, there I was. I found myself hovering my computer mouse between the boxes of “professional” and “amateur.” I had already decided what I was going to click a long time ago, but finally pressing the button made it so very official. 

Amateur. 

That was my status now. But somehow, the world didn’t explode. Flames didn’t burst out of my computer screen. In fact, nothing changed in my world externally — just everything I felt within. I let go of a big part of myself that day, and a huge chapter of my life closed.

But it wasn’t over yet. 

We are lucky enough to participate in our sport for as long as our bodies are willing. When I was little, I was so often surrounded by parents pushing for their kids and horses to “move up, move up!” and trainers telling their adults, “Maybe it’s time you stepped down a division.”

I had developed the notion that accomplishments have to happen early in life, and after you age out, it’s just a downhill trajectory from there. That is what the industry sometimes paints to be true as well. However, I found I learned more about riding during my 18th year than I did in some of my junior years combined. 

I had to live to learn that age doesn’t define ability, and status doesn’t limit capacity. I chose to be an amateur because it allowed me to continue to do what I love at the level that I do. At the moment, I don’t need more than that, and maybe someday, I will. But I have all the time to figure it out. 

I should never have rolled my younger eyes at my barn’s token amateur for owning three safety vests, or needing to have a glass of wine before getting on her horse.

I should have rooted for her and looked up to her more, because she was living proof that our dreams don’t die and our lives don’t end when we turn 18.