I am on a number of horse focused Facebook groups and the majority of my friend circle is made up of horse owning and horse-riding people. A topic of discussion that frequently comes up is that of decreasing participation in any horse related activity and particularly, a decrease in youth participation. While it seems that everyone can wax eloquently on the reasons for this, kids just want to play with devices, no one wants to put in the work, and on and on, very few people seem to want to brainstorm ways to make a change. I am a firm believer in a few things. The first is the philosophy that you are either part of the problem or part of the solution. The second is that change starts from the ground up, meaning that the grass roots folks can often make a bigger impact than larger organizations. I have spent quite some time thinking about this and offer a few thoughts.
- Have a lesson program. Most people who have an interest in horses don’t run out and buy one right away. They start by taking lessons somewhere. A beginner lesson program is the beginning of the pipeline to horse ownership. Not everyone who starts riding lessons is going to continue, buy a horse and maybe start to show. That is not everyone’s goal. If, for example, 5% of those who start to ride in a riding program go on to buy a horse that is good for the industry. The more people that are taking lessons, the higher number that 5% becomes. I know that giving beginner lessons is not really fun or exciting for a lot of people. There isn’t much glory in it and there are no big belt buckles that come from it. The goal here is to develop new riders, to foster the love of horses in new people and maybe inspire someone to get a horse, show and win those big buckles.
- Create new innovative riding programs. We need to make riding fun. Let people know that, though we horse people might be a bit crazy, we are good crowd to spend your time with. This means that we have to get our thinking caps on and come up with some fun ways to get people involved. Off the top of my head, two programs come to mind. Jennalinn Show Horses in New York offers a Sip n Ride program for their adult riders. Riders sign up for a group lesson and then afterward spend time socializing with some finger foods and a glass of wine. Amy Wunderlich Performance Horses offers a Mommy and Me program for mothers and young children. This is a great program that exposes young children to horses and horse related activities, combining horse content with other fun activities.
- Create an Interscholastic Equestrian Association Team: The IEA is an organization open to riders in 4th through 12th grade. The riders do not need to own their own horses. There are local, regional and national IEA horse shows where these students compete. This organization has the same type of structure as intercollegiate horse showing. This is not just a great way to introduce young people to riding, but also to horse showing. This makes showing horses much more affordable as the rider does not need to own the horse or the tack. They need to have appropriate attire and membership. This is a great building block for a student to prepare to either show at a higher-level show, get their own horse, or ride for a college team.
- Host an intercollegiate college riding team: Before the days of NCEA teams, there only were intercollegiate equestrian teams. Post NCEA riding teams, smaller schools do still have these programs. This is another great way to promote horseback riding and showing to those individuals who may not own their own horses. These riders will take lessons at your farm and then show at the intercollegiate horse shows. As someone who rode on the Purdue University Intercollegiate team in the early 1990’s, I can attest that this is a ton of fun!
- Market your riding programs to schools: These days parents may primarily focus on sports where their children can obtain scholarships for college (think soccer). Well, the horse world has NCEA teams now too which means that we have scholarships. I would venture to guess that many families don’t know this fact. They won’t know until we tell them. Contact grades schools and high schools and find out how to let the parents of the world know that their child can get a college scholarship from riding horses too!
It is likely true that our non-horse friends might be over our Facebook and Instagram feeds being constantly filled with pictures of our horses. However, some might not be. Some of our friend’s kids might think the horses are pretty cool too.
- Invite them over: If any of your friends or your friends’ children show interest in your horses, invite them to visit. I am not saying that we must let them ride or turn into eternal givers of pony rides, but we should take steps to foster their interest. For some people just being in the presence of horses is enough to spark their interest. Sometimes if we just let them hang out and brush our horse it can be meaningful for them. It is very hard for anyone to express an interest in something they are not exposed to. Most people do not have any exposure to horses. We can’t make horse enthusiasts out of people who have never seen a horse in person.
Everyone in the equine community:
- Be Nicer: Let’s have a moment of vulnerability here. If we are all really honest with ourselves, we have had moments where we were not that nice to people when it comes to our horses. Maybe this means we were annoyed when a non-horse person asked to pet our horse. Maybe we got offended when a friend asked for a pony ride on our World Champion horse. Maybe we were snobby or rude to the new people on the show circuit because their horses weren’t as good as ours or they weren’t as good riders or competitors. Let’s be honest. People are not going to stick around the horse world if they don’t feel welcome.
- Be Ethical: The term horse trader didn’t get its negative connotation out of nowhere. Unfortunately, historically, our industry has a reputation of being less than ethical. I have heard way too many stories of people in this industry who had bad experiences with aspects of the industry, whether that be bad experiences with trainers or paying way too much money for a horse that is lame or dangerous. This is the type of experience that can make a person change breed or discipline or leave the horse industry permanently. It’s just not ok and it does great damage to the industry.
- Let go of your ego: I know a lot of good horse folks who don’t want to work with beginners or give lessons. Though I respect their decisions, I wonder, where are the great youth and non-pros going to come from? Where are you going to get these great training horses from when no one is trying to bring more people into the industry. I wonder do we need a mind set change. If the only reason we are in the horse industry is to win trophies and money, we are missing a big part of the point of horses. The journey. Can we learn to find as much satisfaction from cultivating progress in a new rider? Can we feed our horse trainer esteem by helping a person make progress in their relationship with their non world caliber horse? Can we learn to find satisfaction in many aspects of training horses and people and not just from trophies and belt buckles?
- Think long term: If you are a trainer or barn owner, have a plan. I don’t know many people who are equine professionals that have a formal business or marketing plan. We tend to rely on word of mouth or clients just arriving on the doorstep. This may have worked years ago, but it doesn’t work today. We need to think farther down the road. How do I make my business sustainable? How do I bring in more clients? How do I market my services in new and innovative ways? If we all don’t start to or continue to think long term, the industry will continue to dwindle. The pool of clients gets smaller. Your income gets smaller and it gets harder to get new clients and make a living. If you want your horse business to survive, and hopefully thrive, a change of mindset is needed. We must be much more proactive and get the word out to the world that they need horses and horseback riding in their lives.
To summarize, I want to say that I am not a horse trainer, riding instructor or barn owner. I am just a nearly life long horse owner who truly understands the value of having horses in our lives, whether that be for the innumerable great things kids can learn from riding or the general mental health and well being benefit from just being around or casually riding horses. I want future generations to know the gift of being raised around horses that I was afforded as a child.