Creating "Desire" in New Riders

This is kind of a broad, ambiguous topic - but I’m interested in what other equestrians think. The main point of this post is below in bold, the rest is just kind of my own personal color.

Lately it’s been weighing on my mind - how do we create a “desire” in new riders? Meaning - how do we differentiate ourselves and provide value as an industry to those who are not involved, or not fully involved today?

As a kid, I was hooked. From day one. I had my first “trail ride” excursion, where everyone walks in a single file line for an hour, and never looked back. Two months after that excursion, I had a six pack of lessons for my birthday. Five months after my first lesson, we bought my first horse.

However, am I an outlier? If you’re on this board, I assume you’re all just as hooked as I was. But I start thinking about losing riders. I start thinking about how we never start riders. Or, we start a rider and then their interest wanes for whatever reason.

I’ve personally been a little upset lately at the state of the industry. I am the world’s best debate captain in my own head - I can usually argue both sides of an argument, despite where my own feelings are. But a lot of what I’ve seen are people priced out of the market, rules that prevent people from moving up in the market, and this weird sense of selfishness that kind of permeates through everything.

My reason for making this post is two fold - one, I can see these problems, but I have no idea how to fix them; two, I’m afraid there are problems that I’m missing.

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Replying to my own topic with my own expanded thoughts from above:

The Pricing Challenge:
When I started riding in 2001, group lessons were $40. Full care board was $300. Currently, group lessons are $70 and full care board is $650. The price has basically doubled, and I have no idea how we can continue down this trend. Most median earners and solidly middle class families cannot sustain this. I understand the cost of absolutely everything has gone up - feed, insurance, land, etc. But I feel like - especially with lesson prices, our industry is shooting ourselves in the foot - because if we can’t bring in new riders, how do we plan to keep our businesses afloat when the existing rider pool retires or quits? Has anyone really thought ahead to figure this out?

The “Pay to Play” Challenge:
The other big change I’ve recently noticed is the lack of movement without money. What I mean by that, is that this industry has monetized absolutely every aspect of this sport. I actually inquired with one of the like, two, lesson barns near me yesterday. (Which - lack of lesson programs is another issue entirely.) I’m feeling frustrated because I do not have a horse capable of jumping right now - my up and comer is too young and too green to go over fences. She is in full training (at a price of $1,500 per month), but I’ve been supplementing with school horse lessons 2x per week to keep myself fit and keep my eye over fences. Every barn around me has adopted a policy of “no jumping over more than cross rails and cavalettis unless you’re in at lease a half lease”. Excuse my french, but how in the fuck are riders supposed to have a desire and a drive to push forward if we never let them experience what that’s like? I completely understand saving a horses legs and not over jumping. 1,000%. Full stop. But, if we’re to drive interest in the market - shouldn’t we say - every once in a while, we’re going to put the last fence on the course up to a 2’ or 2’6’’ vertical or a low oxer just to give people a taste of what that’s like? In my mind, it makes more sense for Susie to jump a slightly elevated fence once a month and maybe have a lightbulb say “WOW that was fun! How do I work to do more of THAT?” instead of permanently leaving people doing the bare minimum unless they fork over more cash. I understand not over jumping horses, and I understand that it’s harder on horses to jump bigger fences - but if you never let people experience it, even if just for a moment every once in a while - how do you expect them to want more out of their experience and out of themselves? It boggles my mind that multiple barns around me have all adopted this strict black and white rule.

The Selfishness Problem:
Last but not least, is the one we all talk about. Where instead of creating horsemen, we create riders who are dependent on trainers for everything. Trainers don’t want to share students, even if it makes them better riders all around. Grooms tack up horses and riders simply get on and off without actually caring for the horses. How do we as an industry get riders hooked on these animals when all we let them do is interact with them as a tool? Is it just that society is changing and they don’t want to spend hours at the barn doing absolutely nothing while their horse munches on lunch? Or have we just completely eliminated that as an option? How do we allow new people to experience the joy of horses, without necessarily the financial commitment that exists right off the bat? Do barns these days allow students to come early or stay late just to groom or hang out with their lesson horse? I feel a lot of times like I’m being shuffled in and quickly shuffled out because we’re all so busy that no one has the time to slow down and just enjoy the horses.

As an aside, there is a rule change that’s going nuts on my personal social media with some of the breed show (AQHA and APHA) stuff I’m involved with. They’ve proposed that amateur coaches could be allowed renumeration, so long as coaching doesn’t occur at a horse show. I think that’s an interesting hail mary – we’ve always held that earning money makes you a pro; but if we’re bleeding ourselves dry to the point we allow amateurs to teach lessons, I don’t know how we come back from that as an industry. Kind of a pandora’s box situation.

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We need to have more beginner rider trainers. Right now, the market is mainly trainers/instructors for riders who know how to ride and have their own horse. But there’s few barns that specialize in beginner riders.
The ones in my area that even offer beginner lessons are so expensive. Like $100 a lesson.
I’m not entirely sure how to fix these problems.

I do think the amateur rule needs an overhaul so beginner lessons can be taught by ammys. When I was growing up, my lessons were taught by a bunch of college age girls who thought that making $25 dollars an hour was a great deal. But because of the Ammie rule we are one of the few sports that penalize people for teaching. Almost any other sport that you see soccer, baseball, football etc. can be taught by a amateur. It’s not uncommon to see a 20 year old teaching a bunch of six-year-olds how to play soccer. And that 20-year-old isn’t going to end up not being able to play because he’s taught those kids. But because of the ammy rule college age kids don’t want to teach others to ride because it will make them professionals. On top of that there’s a lot of working professionals who would love to teach lessons on the side (especially on the weekends) but can’t because of the ammy rule and the fact that they want to be able to compete in the ammy hunter divisions. It’s really not feasible to be able to offer a beginner lesson for a low enough price that people will come and take the lesson from your community but also be able to make enough money to support yourself and the cost of your horses. Which is why in the past a lot of times these students were taught by either very young adults or adults that were doing it as a side business and didn’t really care if they weren’t making enough money to support themselves for that entire day.

Another issue that I think that we are facing right now is that the population at large has a very different way of thinking about sports and commitment in general. There’s a huge lack of commitment; and this is something that I found personally when I was teaching lessons. I ran into the issue time and time again that beginning students whether it was a child or an adult would basically refuse to get the proper riding equipment. They would ride in rubber boots until I had to tell them ‘you can’t do X until you get proper boots’. Six months in they were still riding in jeans. And very, very few wanted to commit to leasing or purchasing even when they were more than ready and really couldn’t progress any further without at least doing a half lease. In some of these cases I’m sure it was financially-based but that was certainly not the excuse for a lot of them. This was really strange to me because for the most part everyone that I knew growing up if they progressed to the point where they were riding, jumping, etc then it was pretty much told to them it’s time to go get your own horse and they would, even if it was a half lease. One of the barns where I grew up I actually had a rule that once you started jumping a certain height you had to do a half lease or you could not progress any further.

This is just what I’ve encountered in my area. Maybe it’s different in other parts of the country?

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K, I’ll bite
If you have ever been an owner, manager, trainer at a very nice facility that offers school horses, you would know why we rarely allow those horses to jump over 2’ or 2’3. These facilities are ungodly expensive to maintain, and to keep the schoolies sound and happy is crazy expensive. It is simply not worth the wear and tear on the horses to let people jump even 2’6 frequently.

With regard to your second comment, I have found over many many years, that you cannot create that desire you are talking about; it’s there or it isn’t. You can nurture it (or in bad hands, destroy it), but that innate desire to learn and grow just isn’t there with some people

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I know someone who used to have a formal lesson program. She stopped for a number of reasons, but one of those was that it has become really tough to get kids and parents to commit to consistent weekly lessons. There is always a reason why the kid can’t make it to the lesson - a big test tomorrow, some school activity, parent made other plans, kid made other plans… I think life is a lot busier today than it was when I was a kid back in the Dark Ages.

Apparently it’s increasingly rare to find kids who have that obsession and who have parents who are willing to support it.

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I am in a different country so we do not have places like you say where they are monetised like that we don’t have hunter jumper competitions.

What we do at our riding school.

One lesson a month is such and such. 2 lessons a month is cheaper per lesson. 3 lessons a month is cheaper per lesson. The total cost of 4 lessons a month is not much more than one lesson a month. They pay a month in advance. If they give more than 24 hours notice they can change day and time or forfeit it if not.

Once a week is jumping lessons. They are group lessons. The lessons are popular. They don’t jump high. All the horses are capable of doing it.

When a new horse comes in to become a lesson horse. The instructor who knows the horse and the students will pick an advanced enough rider and teach them on it, When the horse is safe enough he will speak privately with them and ask if they want to come and ride every day for free and ride that horse for a couple of weeks or so.

That rider is so chuffed they have been chosen. The riding school gets free training. They start off riding by themselves with no instructor. Then in group lessons. Then the horse has different riders and it hasn’t cost the riding school much.

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As a parent of a teen, I will say that there’s tremendous pressure for these kids to be “well rounded” to make them strong college applicants. Meaning: they should play an instrument, volunteer, participate in sports, AND be strong academically (which, for many kids, means time with a tutor).

I don’t know about you, but this was NOT my reality as a teen. I just went to school and rode. That was it. And it was enough to get me into a good college. Well, that’s just not the case anymore. These kids are being pulled in so many different directions. With that many competing priorities, it’s hard to get “hooked” on horses.

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Dang did you speak to me? That sounds exactly like what I dealt with. The amount of times someone would just not show up, and I’d be like ‘hey what the heck?’ And they would just say they were busy. Then they would get upset when I told them they still had to pay for the lesson, because ‘well we didn’t even come, why should we have to pay for it?’.

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Where I ride (Pony Club barn) there is a monthly fee for lessons. The lessons happen rain or shine (unmounted lesson on wrapping legs or whatever if the weather is bad). There are no refunds. (The ponies still have to eat!)

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This. The problem is that if a horse is teaching more than one lesson a day, they can’t jump in those lessons. It’s just not fair for the soundness of the horse. Even an 18 inch jump is hard on a horse when dealing with beginner jumping students. It takes a lot more energy for a horse to jump with a beginning jumping rider over an 12 or 18 inch jump than for that horse to jump a 2ft or 2’6” jump with an experienced rider.

So if I have a horse who only does advanced rider lessons, that horse can’t be ridden more than once a day. So I need to be charging like $100 a lesson to make that financially acceptable. Because that horse is eating food, requiring vet and farrier appointments, tack, training, and taking up a stall which I could be using for a lower level schooling pony that could do 3 walk trot lessons a day. It just doesn’t end up working out.

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This is SO true. My grades/gpa/experience combination from 15 years ago wouldn’t get me into the same school today. If a student is college-bound, getting to ride multiple days a week (even at no cost) is not a luxury they can afford.

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To start with, I don’t think your premise is correct. I don’t think we are “losing riders”, or “never starting” riders. My understanding is that (possibly as a consequence of Covid-related shutdowns) there has been a major SURGE in new riders. This is particularly strong in Western, Saddleseat, Arabian, Morgan.

Second, I don’t think that being able to jump “real” jumps in lessons has anything to do with developing, or keeping, the desire to ride. Don’t get me wrong, I love jumping, and primarily compete in Jumpers and Eventing. But I don’t think “getting to jump a 2’ jump” (or not) has ANYTHING to do with maintaining an enthusiasm about riding.

In fact, you yourself say that your are involved with “breed show (AQHA and APHA) stuff”, There is a whole population of people whose enthusiasm and dedication has nothing to do with “getting to jump”.

Furthermore, the recent USEF rule change, to allow Amateurs to teach beginner lessons (less than 20 hrs per week, not at shows) in selected disciplines (Saddleseat, Western, Arabian, Morgan, plus a couple others) is a DIRECT result of a big influx of new riders, especially in those disciplines.

I think you are tilting at windmills.

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I think there are lots of reasons. The time and money involved are the biggest barriers, of course, and are becoming even more daunting. But I don’t think that’s all.

I do think fewer and fewer kids grow up around farms and large animals, which means they’re less likely to be exposed organically. Therefore, efforts need to be made to market the sport to recruit new riders, and VERY few efforts are made along those lines.

In my area, it seems to be a matter of pride for a trainer to never have to go to a non-A show, or even to skip the local As in favour of bigger out of region shows. Very few run school programs or take beginners. Trainers focus almost entirely on attracting clients who are already riding, wealthy, and wanting to show. But that means new riders are kept to beginner-only lesson barns which, while they have their place, don’t necessarily give a taste of what the show world can be. And I think the next step for those once-a-week riders isn’t always clear.

I think the top trainers would be smart to support local shows, partner with beginner-friendly barns and try to offer a way for new people to enter the show world that doesn’t involve daunting week-long A shows that cost thousands (ex. half leases, ship ins, local shows). But many aren’t interested.

I do also think that, even with the best of efforts, this sport is also going to always have high levels of attrition. It requires SO much money and time to be successful that it just won’t be worth it for those of us who aren’t horse-crazy (or maybe just plain crazy!).

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I see A LOT of kids, parents and trainers making all sorts of excuses for why XYZ isn’t attainable. “I’ll never be able to afford that horse” or “I won’t be good enough to do that unless I have at least 2 horses to practice on” or “the kids doing this class all spent $X on their horses/ride with that trainer/don’t go to school”. Half the things they tell themselves aren’t even true but it’s enough to convince the kids that there is no reason to work that hard.

It’s a shame because I see these kids talking themselves out of working towards really attainable goals. Just because hard work won’t buy you the 500k horse your friend has doesn’t mean it won’t turn your children’s hunter into a junior hunter, give you the skills to work with a fancy green horse, or get you some sales horses to ride.

I agree with pretty much everyone here. First, you can’t manufacture desire to do this. I was a horse nut since I was born and can’t explain that! So right away, I was willing to do anything and it wasn’t so expensive in the 1970s, although we made a lot of sacrifices for me to do it. I didn’t have an expensive horse or high-end facilities, but I DID have a trainer who gave me opportunities when the well-off kids in the barn had no interest in doing anything beyond getting on and off. We showed at local 4-H and small local English shows at first—but there were a lot. As a junior, I was able to take my OTTB and show at A shows and go to the Maclay finals. I don’t know if that’s even possible now.

If you don’t have the desire to start with, there’s no way you’re going to even consider making it a career. I can’t imagine—just based on what I see local trainers doing—you could even come close to making enough of a living that most people want these days.

Now, at 64, I’d LOVE to have regular little local shows around for motivation to ride more often and train towards a goal. There is an occasional H/J schooling show and an occasional beginning dressage venue—which are great and not so crazy expensive. But they are infrequent. I can’t afford to show at rated shows, nor do I have the desire to play that game. I’m not taking any lessons right now because the past 2 years have been cost-prohibitive for my business, but there’s no way in hell I can afford to ride 2x a week with a trainer and go to shows.

I would love to help little riders start—unfortunately, I can’t afford to keep school horses to allow that. I do help a neighbor on my road who rides one of her horses H/J and she has a dressage trainer for the other one. I love that—it’s fun. I’d be happy to have a class of little beginners every week. But again…liability, scheduling and commitment from them—I have a full-time business that has to float the rest of this plus maintaining the 90-acre property.

Not sure there’s an answer. But I can definitely violently agree with the issues!

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To better preserve her school horses, my trainer has just instituted a rule that any lesson clients who wish to ride more than once per week will only get one jumping lesson per week and the other lesson will be flatwork. (Of course, likely how it should be, but tough to explain the benefits of flatwork to beginner riders whose sole goal is to learn how to jump.)

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I’d like to address this point. The barn I boarded at for years had no grooms for the riding school students. Just a few working students helped the kids tack up. The program grew to over 40 privately owned horses, big money clients, all the big horse shows, but still no grooms at the barn. Frequent chaos when there was a tack issue, which was stored in a locker in each horse’s stall. There was rampant theft. When that trainer moved and took 40 horses with her, she reorganized to hired grooms and a central tack room. Everyone was happy with that, especially the parents who no longer had to replace DD’s Edgewood every other month.

That was over 20 years ago. Today at the same facility there are no working students at all as they are too unreliable. All horses in training are in grooming also. Yes, the kids lack horsemanship skills and can’t wrap a stocked up leg to save their lives. But it’s orderly. All five horses in the lesson are ready at the same time and lessons run on schedule.

We all get the barn rat ideal, but a busy program with limited space has to be realistic.

ETA there’s a lot of that “good old days” nostalgia in the original post. Hey, I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but they weren’t so good. Kids whose parents drop them off to hang around the barn all summer and help out in exchange for lessons are the ones who fell prey to unscrupulous or abusive trainers. Concussions were minimized as having one’s bell rung. Not so good.

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I personally try to, every chance I get, introduce young people into the sport. I have a horse who is dead dead dead broke, and is perfect for it.

But, because of the ammy rule, I can’t/won’t/don’t do this on a regular basis. My horse needs $$ maintenance, and if the young rider isn’t helping with that I can’t justify the wear and tear for free.

If they changed the ammy rule, I would be more than happy to give a few up-down lessons a week - which is all I’m qualified for.

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OP I don’t accept your premise that it is the responsibility of trainers/instructors to feed riders into the horse show industry.

I have a small beginner lesson program. I have a never ending supply of young riders who want to learn to ride. My lessons are primarily walk-trot, with more advanced kids doing a little bit of canter and tiny jumps. Although I have a very strong local show organization all around me, literally multiple shows every weekend within an hour in every direction, that’s not my gig. I show my own horses but I don’t want to be the trainer with students expecting to show.

The biggest challenge is finding and maintaining horses who can do the job of teaching beginners and also jump any sort of height safely. And I’m not willing to invest more money in horses so that someone else can ride them. Does that mean I’m not “giving back” to the industry? Maybe. As I said, I show my own. I invest in the maintenance of my show horses and support the industry while also getting personal satisfaction at meeting my competitive goals.

But if a lesson kid wants to meet their own competitive goals, then yes, they need to pay to play. It’s a conversation I have often with parents. Your kid can ride once a week and do these things and it will be fun and here’s the cost: $X
Or your kid can ride multiple times per week and go to horse shows and that will be fun too but here’s the cost of that: $XXX But since my business model doesn’t support that option, by choice, here’s also a list of trainers I respect and I’ll send you over.

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Somewhat off topic, but what I foresee here is a possibly widening gap.

On one side, you have the kids who will only ever be once-a-week-lessoners. On the other side, you have the kids who are wealthy and show-motivated.

They have one thing in common: they want and need very made horses.

So what will happen to the market of greenies and prospects? In this day and age, a nice one can cost in the mid-five figures. Your average trainer can’t afford that kind of investment. Are we losing the group of juniors and amateurs who have the necessary drive, desire (to use OP’s word), and commitment to develop a horse?

(No strong opinion here…I’m just waxing philosophical).

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