They're Never Too Old

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Baby boomers. Their families are grown.They have money. And they’re motivated to ride. It should be simple to bring them into your barn.

Actually, it’s not all that simple.What kinds of programs do you offer? What are Boomers’ special needs? Where (and how) do you advertise?

To answer these and other questions, we talked to two trainers who specialize in this age group: Louise Caccese, head of the beginner rider program at hunter/jumper trainer Betsy Woods’ Ridgewood Farm in Summerland, Calif., and Rebecca Pennington, owner/trainer at Sonesta Farm, in Houston, Texas.

Get the Word Out

To reach potential students, Rebecca relies on her website. “These adults have never gotten over their horse-craziness. Even though they’re not riding, they’re surfing the Net for horses and horse info. They’re hanging out on the horse forums. They’re looking at stallion ads and horse farms. They’re dreaming! And eventually, they’re going to act.You cannot believe how many phone calls I get saying, ‘I saw your website and it says you specialize in adult beginners. That made me call you.’”

Rebecca also targets local riding association newsletters. “The kids don’t read them,” she says, “the horse show moms do. And it often turns out once a kid is off to college or loses interest, it was mom’s dream all along. And now she’s the frustrated adult beginner. But I never just put in a business card that says, ‘Sonesta Farms, Rebecca Pennington, Trainer.’ I add ‘Specializing in the adult beginning rider.’ That really draws their eyes.”

Personal exposure never hurts, says Louise. “I go to the shows and when people see me with my students, they say, ‘Okay. She’s a kind, nurturing, patient teacher.’ That, above all, is what beginning adults want.”

Louise says that longevity also helps. “I’ve been doing this for 12 years, so most of my marketing is word-of-mouth referral by adult students I already have, or parents who love the way I teach their children.”

Scheduling: Be Flexible

Most adults work and/or have family obligations (be they children or aged parents), which is why it’s important to offer lessons at doable times. While Rebecca has a couple of adults whose schedules allow them to ride during the day, “Most of my lessons start at 5:00 p.m. and end at 9:00 p.m.,” she says. “At least it frees me up to train my own horses during the day.” Louise also teaches late at night, as well as “at 7:30 in the morning if I have to. And for some clients with super-busy schedules, I will come in on my day off.”

What to Teach?

“A basic English riding program is best for getting them to the point where they’re comfortable, balanced, and independent,” says Rebecca. “I don’t use the word ‘dressage’ (many beginners have misconceptions about that), but it’s really good, basic, balanced seat dressage.” Louise: “I never tell them, ‘We’re going to do dressage or Western or jumping.’ I explain that I do an English-oriented basic safe riding program that will prepare them for any discipline. They’ll learn how to stay centered, safe and effective.

“And right from the beginning I tell them that I do not do this quickly. If they want someone who’s going to speed them through the process, they shouldn’t come to me. I do it slowly and safely to their ability.

“If they want to progress, they have to work harder and do more—no stirrups, work on the longe.”

Are You a People Person?

If you’re not a “people person,” a beginner adult program is not going to work for you. “The adults tend to rely on you far more than the kids do,” says Louise. “Most of them have a lot of stress in their lives. They have difficult jobs, or children or older parents that are sick or having issues. You can’t just do a technical lesson where they climb on, ride and climb off, because they use their riding to unwind. Chatting a bit about what’s going on in their lives not only helps them relax, it’s the best way to build rapport and trust.”

And trust is essential, because the number-one issue for adult beginners is fear, and dealing with it takes finesse. “If you teach your adult beginners like child beginners,” says Rebecca, “You’re not going to be successful.” Why? For the most part, kids are fearless. They think they’re immortal. And they bounce when they hit the ground. Adults know they’re not immortal. And their fears extend far beyond physical pain and injury—there’s the opinion of their peers, their inner voices, missed work, failed obligations, etc.

“But what's really cool,” says Rebecca, “Is that they’re willing to overcome those fears as long as you’re willing to acknowledge them, and not pooh-pooh them as you might with a child, even though going as slow as is needed can be very frustrating if you’re not used to it.” One way Louise copes is to longe each student without reins for at least 10 minutes at the beginning of every lesson. “It’s a great confidence builder.” She also keeps some students for years. “It’s my goal for them to progress and graduate to other disciplines, but some of them are just comfortable with me. They maybe only take [a lesson] once a month. Maybe they only do a little walk/trot, but they like the therapy of coming to the barn and being with the horses. That’s all their goals are or ever will be, and I can work with that.”

Women are from Venus and. . .

. . .men want results. So, yes, there is a difference in how you teach them. Beginner women want to know every step, step-by-step. Men want to get on, turn the ignition, and go. Women are process-oriented; men are goal-oriented. “With the men,” says Louise, “you have to be a bit firmer about some of the horse management and safety things they need to know. With women, you can spend more time with steps; the men want it to be very simple.”

Unfortunately, most men have the same fears as women. But, says Rebecca, “you must not discuss those fears or even acknowledge that you’re aware of them. For example, when you ask for a canter depart, and a rider tenses every muscle and leans forward, you know as a trainer that it’s a fear response. With a woman you can say, ‘Okay. Let’s talk about this.’ With a man, you have to make it a technical, mechanical thing: ‘When you’re hunched over and tense, you’re throwing your weight over your horse’s center of gravity, and forcing him onto his forehand so he can’t pick up the canter.’”

Not Riders, but Horse People

Says Louise, “One thing I love about adults—especially the women—is that they like the theory. So a big part of my program is horse management. They learn how to groom and tack up. I organize clinics where a local vet might talk about dentistry, or how to do TPR’s—temperature, pulse and respiration. There’s saddle fit or creating a drop-dead, gorgeous tail. A farrier might talk about shoeing. We’ve gone on tours to a veterinary hospital and a lay-up farm. They love the information.”

Rebecca arranges conformation clinics. She teaches her students how to do standing wraps. And since she has an active breeding program, students can learn how to handle foals or teach babies to load on the trailer. She almost never cancels under-saddle lessons because of rain or the unbearable Houston heat and humidity. “My students and I work on something else, even if it’s just watching a Reiner Klimke tape. Or, since I frequently videotape their lessons, we sit down and go over the videos in minute detail. It’s a great teaching tool.”

Socializing on the Farm

The Baby Boomer beginner is a social animal, which means, say Rebecca and Louise, that you’d better be ready to be a big part of her life. “My first students of the evening are done at 6:00 p.m.,” says Rebecca. “But do they go home? Oh, no, no, no. They stay and visit. By the time the last lesson is over, we’re all out there sitting around the pool enjoying a glass of wine.” More organized social activities include monthly cocktail hours or potlucks; holiday parties; a ‘spring fling’ recital where families come and the students do riding exhibitions to show off what they’ve learned; at-home schooling shows (great low-key nerve-settlers for students who want to get their feet wet before starting to go to real shows); even trail rides.

Louise does a camp over a three-day weekend with cocktail hour, barbeques, lessons, guest speakers. “Adults,” she says, “love camp.”

The End of the Beginning

Once Rebecca’s students have mastered her basic riding program, she sits down with them and talks about their goals. At her barn, that can include dressage through second level, hunters up to 3’6”, and eventing through training level. “Beyond that,” she says, “and they’re going to be out-riding the instructor. It’s time to move on to somebody else.”

Louise’s cut-off comes even sooner. “As soon as they’re safe, balanced, and effective, they’re ready to ‘specialize.’ They can move on to the intermediate hunter/jumper trainer in our barn, one of the Western trainers in town or trail riding. And I tend to push them out of the nest, because I’ve got so many other adult beginners waiting to get started.”