From Watching to Riding

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You’re always on the lookout for new business, no matter where you are. Now, look no further than your own barn. See the captive audience lined up around the ring? Parents are a wonderful source of untapped revenue for you—and they already know your barn’s “ropes.”

You may have to gulp and go for it, but next time your parents are idly hanging around, just ask: “Why not come for a ride?” Nothing ventured, nothing gained, figures Theresa Petyo, 18-year owner of hunter/ jumper-focused Turning Point Farms in Coto de Caza, Calif.

Her associate trainer, Amanda Cox-Swenseid, explains: “If the kids are riding together in the afternoon and moms are watching, I’ll say, ‘Why don’t you ladies come? What are you doing Wednesday morning while the kids are at school and it’s quiet here? Then you can go have lunch!’”

Starting a new sport as an adult can be intimidating, says Cox-Swenseid. But bonding with women the same age—and the same never-ever level—instills a comfort factor, notes Petyo, who says kids and parents riding together promotes better understanding of the sport at home.

Petyo even hosted a dad’s group, that the trainers recall was based on a bet—“a little about ego.” Barn dads thought riding wasn’t as hard “as the ladies make it out to be, but they found out,” Cox-Swenseid says.

Converting parents is really a no-brainer, and all in the implementation. “When my husband and I ran a barn, we realized that the parents that were around watching their kids ride were a golden opportunity,” says Stable Management’s publisher, Jennifer Rowan. “So, we set up a couple nights a week for the parents to have group lessons. They loved it. It also made them spend a little more easily when it came to horses and their kids.”

Echoing Rowan’s sentiments almost exactly, Carole Kenney, manager of The Colorado Horse Park in Parker, Colo., recalls hosting a parents’ night at a former barn. “No kids were allowed—we had a safe zone—so no laughing. It was a safe, fun night followed by a little party with snacks and wine. It was very popular, and some moms actually became riders.”

See “Mommy and Me” Ride

“Over the years I have tried this with mixed results,” reports Marilyn Austin of Talla Glen Farm in Dallas, Ga. “Right now my current set of parents whose children ride with me have a lot going on already, with their other kids doing different activities.”

Hoisting a parent into the saddle can bring enlightenment, however. Austin has taught mother-daughter lessons, and found the mom no longer so critical of the child’s riding skills or progress—when the boot is on the other foot,it offers a new perspective on that “horse-crazy” kid.

Conversely, Austin has found that typically, the child is a better rider by the time a parent decides to try it out. So she also suggests separate lessons for parents: a group semi-private session of six to eight weeks, and no children.

“I do think offering a free lesson to parents is a great idea and can get some adults hooked,” adds Diane Basile, of Jeffersonville, Pa., from her hunter/jumper amateur’s perspective. “It also gives parents an appreciation for riding lessons so they understand the value of paying for their children’s lessons.”

Easing Parents into the Program

If you operate summer camps as a revenue enhancement, consider a parents’ and kids’ camp, suggests Heidi Waldron of Stepping Stone Ranch in West Greenwich, R.I. She oversees English riding plus Western trail and pleasure.

“Giving up a week is often difficult for parents,” she says, “but I did have nice, positive feedback on parents and kids learning together—it was mostly women. Some parents think they’re too old to learn, the animals are too big, or that they won’t ‘bounce back’ if they fall.”

You do need to quickly assess a parent’s athletic ability, especially if any medical conditions are present, and determine psychological fitness, too. You may also need to adapt your teaching schedule to accommodate working parents.

Interestingly, many of Waldron’s boarders are in their 40s, 50s, and 60s, and are first-time buyers and owners. She nudges parents along by asking, “Don’t you think you’d feel more comfortable if you learned a bit more about this yourself?” So she shows them how to groom and understand equine body language, too.

“At first, don’t focus on riding. Just open the door for them to get to know horses,” says Waldron.

Parents Love Horses, Too

During her 40 years in the horse business, Sandy Arledge of Sandy Arledge Quarter Horses, Inc., near San Diego, has had as many as 250 horses at her facility, which she has since sold. “I’ve done everything,” she says, and her colleagues and students would agree. She also taught up to 400 lessons a month.

A proponent of the “you never know” theory of life, Arledge says her M.O. was to always carry business cards with her. “Wherever I went, I introduced myself with a business card that had horses on it and ‘S. A. Q. H.,’” she says. “Immediately many people were fascinated, and would say, ‘Horses! I love horses!’”

Then she’d segue into her sales pitch: “I have a lovely farm that’s very busy with so many horses—mares and babies. Why don’t you come for a visit? Bring the kids, because I also have chickens, guinea pigs and rabbits.” What family could resist?

She found, like her colleagues noted here, that “fathers seldom take an active part. It is convenient for moms to bring the kids—they’d say ‘for just an hour’—then the kids would stay all day. So I said, ‘OK, as long as he or she is obedient and helps out.’ Then, I’d put them to work doing something simple and safe. That went far with the parents.”

Step-by-Step to Success

Mom and Dad couldn’t help but be attracted by the process, and many did want to join in, recalls Arledge. “It was natural,” she says. Next, she’d invite parents to help groom at shows, run ribbons and generally become more involved. “They got caught up in it even though I never really pushed it.”

Her dedication to making it fun, pleasant and safe attracted more than horse-loving children. She found that the kids would sell the whole concept to their parents, of which she taught “hundreds.” She encouraged lessons and didn’t push anyone to buy a horse “when they were up to their eyeballs and didn’t have enough money or time.” Arledge suggests incremental steps, from lesson to half-lease to lease and then buying.

Never forget the intangible value you offer in this stressful year of 2011: quality time. “The very best reason for parents to ride is so that they spend time laughing with their children, free of phones and Internet,” says judge and steward Susan Gray of family-oriented Fox Hollow Farm in Issaquah, Wash. “The digital world cannot compete with a sweet, loving horse!”