A sanctioned school program can make “school days” at your barn a profitable venture if you consider the advice of our seasoned experts.
First, you’ll probably want to join forces with a recognized school riding organization such as the Intercollegiate Equestrian Association (IEA). There’s also the Riders Interscholastic Federation of North America (RIFNA). Both work with middle and secondary or high schools. They follow similar formats to the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association (IHSA), Intercollegiate Dressage Association (IDA) and even National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). Check out websites for all (shown in box) to learn the ropes and rules before you jump in.
Official organizations require a host facility to provide horses and tack. RIFNA marketing and communications director Lanier Cordell, who’s also on IDA’s board, says this is so “riders don’t have to haul their own horses to competitions, but simply show up dressed to ride and choose a mount by random draw. After a few moments of warm-up, they enter the competition ring.”
It can be a win-win situation for all, says Cordell. “Ultimately, RIFNA is set up so that the schools win by improving recruiting and retention and by having happier students. The barns win by increasing their lesson programs and profits by hosting shows, and the kids win by having the opportunity to ride as part of their school experience and by getting a leg up on qualifying for college riding scholarships and teams.”
President/founder of IEA (an affiliate of USEF) and coach of The Andrews School team in Willoughby, Ohio, Roxane Rheinheimer reminds us that “teams don’t have to be school affiliated, but it’s encouraged.” A school can provide needed resources. She knows some school administrators hear the word “riding,” think the word “liability,” and “that’s the end of the conversation.” If the initial answer is “no,” a trainer can still start a team, perhaps calling it a “high school district team.” You probably won’t get any school funding, but you can compete for a year or two, win and establish a record, then “come in through the back door again.”
IEA coaches must be 21 years or over and carry mandated liability insurance, “but anyone who’s a legitimate riding teacher ought to have insurance,” says Rheinheimer. In your quest, don’t forget about the underlying principle of higher education, either, as “once kids start winning college scholarships for riding, schools really should be interested in supporting this, because that’s what school administration is really all about.”
PERSISTENCE PAYS OFF
“Do it yourself” rings true for the ambitious and dedicated proponents of school riding programs profiled here. Maybe there’s someone in your barn like Devereaux B. Raskauskas of Darnestown, Md., founder and organizer of his own Inter-School Horse Show Series. He’s also a dad, not a trainer, who didn’t wait for things to happen for his daughter. He approached local barns to run his shows and approached the athletic directors in the area to offer equestrian as a sport.
“My oldest daughter was a student at Connelly School of the Holy Child 12 years ago. All she did was ride, so on ‘Sport’s Night,’ she felt left out, unrecognized for all of her showing. I asked the athletic director about organizing a club, and 26 riders came to the first meeting. Then I contacted all the neighboring schools about starting either an equestrian club or team. Next I contacted a barn near us that held classes, and discussed opening shows up to all riders, even those without horses. So the barn allowed us to rent a certain number of their horses. Now I have 150 riders per show with approximately 20 to 30 schools represented. Most riders do lease a horse on show day, some bring their own, too. School horses get pinned as frequently as privately-owned, because they know their job, and judging is based on equitation.”
The involvement of the [academic] schools differs widely, he explains. “Some pay for show entries, while some don’t want to know the students are competing; it basically comes down to insurance issues. My league is safer than most soccer games…so I do not feel like that is the real cause, rather, it’s ignorance about riding.”
Avery Wilson Young is a biology teacher in Cumming, Ga., and last year was a team sponsor for South Forsyth High School. “For our school at least, the team doesn’t actually fall under the scope of the athletic director, because it is viewed as a club and not a sport, and is not regulated/recognized by the state athletic association. We were able to convince him to let the riders earn a varsity letter if we met certain standards. Transportation was never a big problem for our girls, but cost is. Unlike other school sports, which a teacher coaches, our riders had to pay per lesson.”
If it’s a school-sponsored activity, know that teachers must be involved for insurance reasons, says Young, who doesn’t get paid for her involvement. Plus, “school programs frequently aren’t for great profit, and it’s a lot to ask of the horses sometimes.” Young has talked to many trainers who say it’s harder to work with a sponsored high school team and its rules, regulations and parents—who don’t see it as a “team sport” but as a platform for their own child, as at a regular show. “Some parents wanted to decide who lettered,” she says.
Showing can be challenging “with only so many slots” to allocate to riders. A plus? “Lots of different levels for riders.” Remember too, that IEA, for example, stipulates the amount trainers may charge for lessons: $30. A large group lesson can be a moneymaker, but don’t forget that coaches and teams must provide and bring horses to shows.
South Forsyth’s team trainer was Hannah Campbell, who had to ensure certain school requirements were fulfilled for lettering, teach a mandatory number of lessons monthly and attend outside shows, as well as rider and parent meetings. To offset her own program costs she charged each rider $75 a day for trailering, coaching fee for the day, tack and horse “rental.” All horses were her farm’s school mounts, and though philanthropic, she’s realistic: “You have to find some way to be reimbursed.” Amazingly, some parents balked at the charges, to which she asks, and fairly: “Have you ever shown in the real world?”
Plus, “each coach was asked by the show host to bring a certain number of horses, as getting enough for each competition wasn’t always easy. Riders then paid class fees, usually $35 a class, with the maximum of two classes. They could get away with $145 a day at the max, which is pretty inexpensive for a horse show.”
Campbell says she didn’t realize the time commitment, nor that with school sponsorship, that parents make decisions on how the team is run. This trainer ultimately opted to remove her team from direct school involvement and now embraces a newfound flexibility. But her girls can compete in the same IEA shows.
It’s often a labor of love, she says, because when one student goes to Nationals and Campbell is paid $100 for coaching, she still must buy a plane ticket and pay for a hotel. “Sometimes, parents offer to pay, but most don’t,” she says. Campbell even had to fork over $40 to ride a charter bus last year.
Also, if you affiliate with a school, “people assume the school is paying you, and it’s actually not,” Campbell says, adding that she’s a normal working girl and “I don’t have eight sponsors.” She held fund-raisers to help offset participant cost and calculates that “the only place we made money was in lessons.” The designated cost, at IEA’s $30/per, is a real consideration when “the going rate around here is usually $40 to $50 for a group lesson,” she notes.
So compare the advantages and disadvantages of a potential school program carefully before proceeding, and you’ll deserve an “A” for doing your research first.