Where Will New Riders Come From?

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As the Baby Boomer population ages, the equine industry is finding new ways to attract younger generations through its barn doors. Several organizations have been highly successful. Here’s how they do it and how you can get involved.

If you’ve been in the horse industry for a long time you probably recognize how much the world has changed. As predicted by the defunct Horse Industry Alliance in 1997, the demographics of the horse world have changed and, more importantly, aged right alongside the Baby Boomer generation. While our industry has a few more years to enjoy this active and lucrative group, Baby Boomers will soon drop off and we will be faced with the daunting task of creating new riders among the younger generations. Thankfully, a few groups are already tackling the problem.

Baby Boomers grew up with horses on the television: The Lone Ranger, Zorro, Gun Smoke, Mr. Ed were all part of the culture. Baby Boomers were also the first generation to see horses become mainstreamed as a recreation, rather than used primarily for work. Baby Boomers still fill our stables and lesson programs, but as this group ages and drops out, attracting the younger generation to participate in equine activity is the new goal for those who make a living in horses.

Subsequent generations have not grown up with the horse as a favorite television icon. They have grown up as part of the digital age. During this same time, households became characterized by two working parents or single parent households. Schools have shifted what they provide for physical education, and the younger generation’s attraction to computerized entertainment has had a great impact on any and all physical activities. On top of that, our academic system influences young people to multitask their extracurricular activities so that they are more attractive to colleges. This means today’s potential riding population is an entirely different animal requiring a new approach.

So, what is being done to attract new riders to the horse industry? ON a national level, there are youth programs that introduce young people to horses—programs that have been around for years. In order to better understand what their roles are, let’s take a quick look at some of the programs out there and how equine professionals can benefit from, or help, them.

The American Youth Horse Council (AYHC) is the umbrella organization providing leadership and resources to serve and promote the youth horse industry. They produce “The Horse Industry Handbook : A Guide to Equine Care and Management” and “Youth Leaders Manual,” a companion book of fun activities and lesson plans. (www.ayhc.com/resources.htm). These volumes have been written by experts and professionals across the United States. The “Youth Leaders Manual” contains 60 lesson plans on three skill levels that are applicable to all breeds and disciplines. The manual provides a solid foundation for targeting YMCAs, Boys & Girls Clubs and other similar organizations to build equine-based programming. It also is a great manual for building summer and vacation camp programs. Jill Montgomery, CEO of JRAM Enterprises, Pueblo, Colo., has worked with the AYHC curriculum. “It’s very important to have good materials for kids to learn from. It should be a strong curriculum that’s also fun. It doesn’t necessarily need to be hard—a good curriculum provides learning, fun and keeps the kids coming back.”

The American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) and the AYHC partnered on a project called “Junior Master Horseman” (www.juniormasterhorseman.com/instructors/whatisjmh.php). This is a three-book series that is aligned with McRel teaching standards in math, science and language arts. It is multi-level, experience-based, non-breed-specific and in the vernacular of the student. It can be used with 4-H horse clubs, FFA chapters, after-school programs, home-school programs, and Boy and Girl Scouts. You can also “adopt” a teacher at a local school and introduce this to them and help them to institute it in their classroom.

Digital Oats is a new initiative just getting underway. The mission is to get every interested child on a horse. They are tackling the allure of technology as a means to engage young people and bring them into the industry. Digital Oats is organized around creating a relevant digital experience that allows horse interests to be part of the younger generations screen time, not in competition with it. Keep your eyes on this program as it unfolds. (http://digital-oats.com/twitter.html)

The Horse Tales Literacy Project (HTLP) (http://horsetalesliteracy.org/) began in 1999 as The Black Stallion Literacy Foundation. It was founded by Mark Miller of Arabian Nights Dinner Attraction and Tim Farley, Walter Farley’s son (Walter Farley wrote “The Black Stallion.”). Their concept was to combine classic literature with a live horse experience to: 1) stimulate kids to read, and 2) to provide exposure to a horse experience. The program addresses 1st and 4th graders. First graders get a copy of two books—”Little Black, A Pony,” and “Little Black Goes to the Circus.” The organization arranges a visit to the school with a horse. It’s proven to be very exciting for the students to see a horse at school. About four weeks later a field trip to a horse venue or farm is arranged that runs about two hours. Stations are set up covering tack, grooming, feed and hay, and horse shoes. Students spend about 12 minutes at each station. They meet Little Black and Big Red, and also get a kick out of reading out loud to the horses.

Fourth graders get a copy of “The Black Stallion” book. Curriculum for the teachers has been developed that is aligned with state teaching standards. Students also view the movie by the same name, as well as see a live performance.

“We use Mounted Units for school visits and we are 90% volunteer based. These volunteers are retirees, college and high school students, horse owners, 4-H leaders, etc. We couldn’t do this program without their help and dedication of time and knowledge,” says Lindsey von Broembsen, HTLP Florida Regional Director. This entire program has been delivered to over 500,000 first and fourth graders since its inception.

There are many ways that we all can take part in attracting new riders to the horse industry, so that future generations continue to experience the magic that horses offer, and our industry continues to expand. To be successful, it is incumbent upon us to develop programs and to connect with other willing collaborators to reach today’s youth and meet today’s changing market environment.

Additional Programs

In addition to the nationwide programs listed in the article, several states have stepped up to the plate in the promotion of horses. As an example, here is one such program from Kentucky.

The Kentucky Horse Park Literacy Program’s mission combines a horse-themed book with a live horse experience and puts both in the hands of Kentucky students to inspire a love of literacy and a passion for horses. First, Meghan McCarthy’s “Seabiscuit the Wonder Horse” was delivered to 900 first grade students along with a horse, jockeys, goggles and a curriculum right to their schools. The students and their teachers were then invited to the Kentucky Horse Park for a live reenactment of War Admiral vs Seabiscuit (Pimilco Special).

Second, more than 4,800 fourth graders read Michael Morpurgo’s “War Horse” before attending the “The Book Report” at the Kentucky Horse Park’s Alltech Arena. “The Book Report,” a live equine show, brought to life the special relationship between a boy and his horse. One of the main characters, a teacher, reads a student’s book report about War Horse to another teacher while horses and actors captivated the audience. Mollie Jameson, volunteer director, shares, “You could see it in their eyes, as the book came alive and captivated their hearts and imaginations. The program’s books, music, live theater, horses and poetry inspire the love of literacy and passion for horses.” (www.youtube.com/watch?v=g2fGTmyBLq0&)

About the author: Lisa Derby Oden has been providing business development, marketing, and nonprofit consulting services to the horse industry since 1995. Oden is author of “Growing Your Horse Business” and “Bang for Your Buck: Making $ense of Marketing for Your Horse Business, “ and partner in the CD series “Inventing Your Horse Career.” She can be reached at: (603) 878-1694; e-mail at Lisa@blueribbonconsulting.com; or visit her website at www.blueribbonconsulting.com.