Getting kids into horses isn’t as easy as it used to be. Many factors—economic constraints on families, competing youth activities, ever-more-enticing online distractions—combine to make horse involvement a less-likely choice for youngsters than it was just a few decades ago.
This comes at a time, too, when the need to recruit new enthusiasts is the greatest it’s ever been. As horse-obsessed baby boomers begin to age out of active involvement (see “That Was Then...,” page 65), large numbers of fresh recruits will be needed to replace them.
Fortunately, there’s good news, too. Equine organizations are beginning to respond to this critical challenge with resourcefulness and creativity. They’re not only expanding on the ways youngsters can participate within a group’s existing structure, but also actively reaching out to children and families that aren’t already involved in the horse world.
In other words, they’re working to bring new blood into the business.
In this article, we’ll share some of the most innovative of these emerging ideas. We’ll report on the efforts of breed and sport organizations, plus fill you in on the latest from a few other high-profile youth-focused groups, as well.
We hope that spreading the word will provide a multiplier effect by encouraging organizations to learn from and share with each other.
Cool idea: Share young riders’ action videos online via a kid-oriented YouTube-like site.
Who’s doing it: National High School Rodeo Association.
How it works: NHSRA members post videos of themselves competing in their events on the Web site iHigh.com, a high school sports and social media site. As videos are shared, the action and excitement that is high school rodeo is brought to non-horse-involved kids, too.
“It’s like a YouTube community, only just for high school kids,” explains Michael Dixon, NHSRA’s executive director/CEO. “It’s a way for us to reach out beyond our own community, to find new kids who may be interested in our sport.” The site is monitored for appropriate content and devoid of alcohol or tobacco advertising.
Dixon noted at press time that plans were to introduce the iHigh connection at the NHSRA Finals in Gillette, Wyoming, in July. “The folks from iHigh will be there, filming and live-streaming our finals on iPhones, iPads, Droids, Blackberries, and computers. Plus they’ll be interviewing kids and explaining the program to get everyone up to speed.”
Other innovations: NHSRA is updating its Web site to appeal to today’s tech-savvy, social-media-using kids.
To learn more: nhsra.com; (800) 466-4772; iHigh.com.
Cool idea: Corral the youngest children before they’re drawn off into other sports.
Who’s doing it: American Quarter Horse Association.
How it works: “Right now, it’s just a goal, but we’ve hired a point person and hope to have a plan by the end of summer,” says Ward Stutz, AQHA’s director of education. He notes that although kids as young as 4 or 5 are naturally interested in horses, they typically can’t participate fully until they’re older; 4-H, for example, has traditionally had a minimum age of 8 for junior members.
“By that age,” Stutz notes, “they already may be committed to soccer or softball. We want to get kids hooked on horses early-on through something fun and interactive online, then follow up with a safe and fun ‘first experience’ with a live horse, then build from there. Our goal isn’t to sell the family a horse; it’s simply to build and support the interest”—and avoid the sort of disastrous first-horse experience that can turn a child off of horses.
Other innovations: AQHA’s “Youth Racing Experience” brings youngsters to a racetrack for a day to learn, have fun, and compete for scholarships. Kids complete a workbook beforehand, then shadow a trainer through the prep of a horse that races later in the day. They also learn hands-on skills, such as saddling a pony horse and wrapping legs.
Two new AQHA programs will make it easier for youngsters to get into showing. The first, started at the end of last year, allows youths (and adult amateurs) to lease a horse to compete with (but not to breed).
“This enables a youngster to get out there and even qualify for the World Show without having to own a horse,” observes Courtney Martin, AQHA’s manager of youth and education.
The second program, still in development, is a “fundamentals of horsemanship” course. It’s intended for ranch kids who aren’t necessarily interested in events like Western pleasure but would respond to the challenge of starting their own colt, then competing in an event designed to showcase their efforts. “We’re especially hoping to attract more boys,” says Martin.
To learn more: aqha.com/youth; (806) 376-4811.
THAT WAS THEN...THIS IS NOW
We’ve recognized the ticking time bomb for years now—the horse world’s reliance on the baby boomers.
That generation, born between 1946 and 1964, has powered the equine industry for decades—ever since members first fell in love with horses watching Gunsmoke, Bonanza, and the other Westerns that dominated television programming in the ’50s and ’60s.
Though many are still active with horses today, they won’t be forever. Right now the oldest boomers are in their mid-60s, and trends indicate most people stop riding between the ages of 55 and 65. So, forward-thinking horsemen have been worrying about who will fill our boots once the boomers are gone.
In fact, “Who’ll Fill Our Boots” was the title of a November ’02 Trendwatch report in H&R. In it, we predicted that many factors—social, cultural, economic—would make it challenging to draw enough youngsters into the fold to make up for the loss of the boomer brigade.
Today, we see the ongoing effects of these influences. Families are strapped, making horses “too expensive.” Young children aren’t imprinted with horses through media—especially television—the way they used to be. Urban sprawl is pushing all large animals further and further from the public eye.
In addition to all that, there’s just so darn much else for youngsters to do these days. School sports, clubs, other extracurriculars. Music/dance/karate/gymnastics lessons. All the resumé-padding stuff that enhances a college-entrance application.
And, ever more influentially, there’s the 800-pound gorilla—the Internet. With YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and countless offshoots, kids hardly have time left over to eat and sleep, much less learn how to ride.
It’s not that children aren’t still enchanted with horses when they get close enough to stroke a glossy neck and look into those large, liquid eyes. It’s that promoters now need to offer affordable ways for youngsters to get that hands-on contact and be able to ride without owning—at least at first. And, they must reach out with these programs in ways that kids will notice—which means online, in addition to more traditional means.
So, the imminent boomer bust needn’t be the end of the horse world as we know it. But it’ll take committed effort on everyone’s part to make sure horse involvement remains viable for the kids of today and tomorrow.
Cool idea: Take your message to home expos to reach non-horsey families.
Who’s doing it: Arabian Horse Association.
How it works: AHA is encouraging its regional and local affiliates to participate in home expos and other area events that draw the general public. “We’ve done horse expos; now it’s time to do home expos, too,” explains product marketing coordinator Kate Cooper, who adds that having a live horse really catches people’s eye. “You definitely stand out from the roofers and spa sellers,” she says.
Other innovations: AHA’s T.A.I.L. program (Total Arabian Interaction and Learning) gives kids a custom educational tour at a show. “We get homeschoolers, parks and recreation class participants, and other kids from the community,” says Cooper. “They watch a class or two, plus visit the vet and farrier stations. They’re also hosted at one farm’s stable area, where they watch a tacking-up or clipping demonstration. And of course there’s petting a live horse—that ‘hands-on’ is always critical!”
The benefits can multiply, she notes. A T.A.I.L. program from a Wisconsin A-rated show drew a Fox News crew, and a clip from the event showed up in the local Fox News’ morning lead-in.
At the end of T.A.I.L. tours, youngsters are given a packet of material, which includes information on AHA’s Discovery Farms program. “It’s completely Web-based,” says Cooper. “You type in your ZIP code to find an Arabian farm in your area. We plan to expand it to include barns that provide riding lessons, too.”
To learn more: arabianhorses.org (use the “Activities” drop-down on the menu bar); (303) 696-4500.
A WORD ABOUT SOCIAL MEDIA
Most of the organizations we spoke with are active with one or more forms of social media. “It’s the least expensive and most effective strategy for getting beyond your immediate circle,” says Steve Taylor, CEO of the Appaloosa Horse Club.
If your organization isn’t already using online media for connecting with today’s kids, consider getting active on Facebook at a minimum. (YouTube is also extremely popular with kids; Twitter somewhat less so.)
Cool idea: Enlist existing youth-club members to spread the word and recruit new members.
Who’s doing it: National Reining Horse Association.
How it works: The online Varsity Reining Club rewards NRHyA (youth club) members for leadership and community service activities outside the show arena. “The ‘Spread the Word’ and ‘Referrals’ part of VRC were created specifically to reach kids who aren’t already into horses,” says Shianne Megel, NRHA youth program assistant. “Spread the Word” encourages members to make presentations to interested groups of youngsters; the presenters then turn in a short report to receive VRC points. “Referrals” awards VRC points to NRHyA members who recruit their friends and neighbors into the fold.
Other innovations: At press time, plans were for NRHA’s popular “Ride a Reiner” program to introduce reining to a new audience at the U.S. Pony Club Festival at the Kentucky Horse Park in July (this is in response to the USPC’s current pilot test to include Western riders—more about that in the section that follows).
NRHA has also created a special event to bring together the top four riders of the Interscholastic Equestrian Association’s individual open reining class and the top four riders from the NRHA’s youth 14-18 division in what’s being called the Interscholastic Reining Championships. At press time, the championship class was scheduled for June 30 during the 2011 NRHA Derby in Oklahoma City.
Finally, the NRHA recently finished the first year of its new entry-level program. “The format provides a fun, educational, and family-oriented ladder of competition,” notes Megel. “Each rung of the ladder welcomes beginning reiners to compete with others of the same skill level as they gain more experience and become eligible for prizes.”
To learn more: nrha.com; (405) 946-7400.
Cool idea: Provide expertise—and oomph—to Scouting’s horse badge programs.
Who’s doing it: American Paint Horse Association.
How it works: “We’re encouraging our AjPHA (youth club) advisors to organize efforts to help Girl Scout or Boy Scout members achieve their horse badges,” says Shelly de Barbanson, APHA’s director of youth activities. She notes that the proficiency and enthusiasm an AjPHA member can bring to the endeavor can open the door to a longer-lasting horse involvement for the scouts. “In that way,” says de Barbanson, “we’re going outside the box to connect with and recruit a completely different group of people.”
Other innovations: A mentor program for youngsters who don’t own a horse is also in the works. “You assign that child to a youth club member who does own a horse, and the new kid can hang out with the member, watch her ride, go to meetings, and help out at shows,” explains de Barbanson. “It’s important to get the new kids actually around the horses—because that’s where the attraction and attachment kick in.”
To learn more: ajpha.com; (817) 834-2742.
ALSO CHECK OUT...
Here are a few more great resources:
horseland.com (online community and game where youngsters can care for, compete with, breed, and trade virtual horses).
EquineNetworkStore.com (online bookseller with titles such as Horse Crazy! 1,001 Fun Facts, Craft Projects, Games; Pony Play Games and Puzzles).
blazekids.com (quarterly magazine for children 8 to 14, promoting literacy and information about horses, nature, history, creative arts, and more).
PROVIDING A FOUNDATION
So, that’s what’s happening in some of the more forward-looking breed and sport organizations; now let’s turn to what some other youth-focused organizations are doing to help recruitment efforts.
American Youth Horse Council. The AYHC is an umbrella organization providing education (through materials and symposia) and support (through its grant program) to volunteers who work with children and horses.
Executive director Jill Montgomery says AYHC is particularly excited about the HorseQuest segment of eXtension, the interactive educational Web site that delivers researched information from “the smartest land-grant university minds across America.”
Users can access equine materials developed by a consortium of over 50 extension specialists, veterinarians, and other experts. A Q&A function also allows for specific queries. (For more information: ayhc.com, 719/547-7677; extension.org, search with horsequest adult leader; to access eXtension’s YouTube channel, search at youtube.com with eXhorses.)
Certified Horsemanship Association. CHA is all about safety, and safety concerns are crucial when families are deciding whether to become involved with horses. Chief executive officer Christy Landwehr says one of CHA’s marketing campaigns is directed at parents, to encourage them to think of the benefits of horse involvement, and to select certified instructors to teach their children.
“We have small ads in magazines such as Parenting and Women’s Day to reach out to the general public,” says Landwehr. “We also go to homeschooling conventions to explain how horses can be used in a homeschooling environment. And we have a speaker’s bureau, complete with power point presentations, that can be deployed at Optimist Clubs and other public-service organizations to reach a broad audience. We are trying not to just preach to the choir!” (For more information: cha-ahse.org; 800/399-0138.)
United States Pony Club. Pony Club is one of the oldest and most successful equestrian education programs for youth in existence, renowned for its rigorous horse-management-education program. The exciting news now is that Pony Club, which has traditionally been for youngsters who ride English, is now pilot testing a plan to open its doors to youth who ride Western. The development of Western standards of proficiency will allow for the same incremental learning experience current Pony Clubbers enjoy, where members set their own goals and proceed at their own pace.
If, as is likely, plans proceed to allow for competition, “we’re thinking reining,” says April Smith, member of USPC’s ad hoc committee on Western. “NRHA is bringing their ‘Ride A Reiner’ demonstration to our festival this year.” Smith adds that the ultimate goal is to have both Western-oriented regional clubs and integrated English/Western groups. “Pony Club is all about a happy kid on a happy horse—it never said anything about the saddle you’re using.” (For more information: ponyclub.org; 859/254-7669.)
4-H Horse and Pony Program. 4-H has traditionally been the entry point into horses for youngsters in many parts of the country. With federal funding cuts, Cooperative Extension positions that have supported 4-H are being lost to attrition. Still, determined volunteers are working to find ways to keep 4-H programs viable.
One new initiative that will help is HALTER, or Horse Adult Leader Training and Education Resource, offered through the eXtension Web site. This progressive series of lessons offers 4-H leaders and other volunteers the information and techniques they need to provide children with great hands-on learning about horses.
“It can help leaders and potential leaders feel more confident working with kids, plus provide ideas for new ways to share horses with young people,” says Karen Waite, equine extension specialist with Michigan State University. (For more information: 4-h.org, or call the Cooperative Extension in your area; extension.org/horses, search with HALTER.) n