Reprinted from Endurance News, July 2013, Ride Managers’ Column, monthly publication of the American Endurance Ride Conference, www.aerc.org, 866-271-2372
“If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.”
The demographics of the horse world, including our family in endurance riding, have changed, even during the time that I’ve been involved with both – a mere four decades with horses, and less than two decades in our sport.
When I was a girl, horses were everywhere, it seemed. Many of my friends had grandparents or an aunt or uncle who were lifelong horsepeople, even if their parents were not. We had all sorts of places to ride, and most landowners seemed to accept that horses would be allowed to traverse their property. There was less urban sprawl, fewer strip malls, more tack shops and a seemingly large percentage of my classmates and friends were involved in Future Farmers of America (FFA), 4-H, Pony Club or all three.
We all seemed to have something critical to learn horsemanship – an ethic to do so (instilled by someone) and time.
It seemed perfectly normal that, at the age of ten, I rode my bicycle (helmetless) the five miles to the barn, where I cleaned stalls in exchange for the opportunity to ride (helmetless) all over hill and dale, and then ride my bicycle home (helmetless) before dark.
I look to my nieces, now 13, 15 and 17. They live in a subdivision. Their parents are afraid to let them ride their bicycles (helmeted) along the roads to go anywhere, especially alone. The youngest is at least marginally interested in riding, loves our horses, dogs and cats, but we find it hard to find the time to bring her to the farm to ride, between her schoolwork, downhill skiing, soccer, and now field hockey. There is just no time.
The current economy makes it a luxury to have and keep horses, and we are losing the tradition of doing so. Riders who do continue to engage in the sport seem to take fewer risks, stay closer to the barn (by necessity or choice) and often don’t have the strong horsemanship fundamentals that many of us had drilled into us during our youth.
And you’d have to be blind to not notice that our endurance community is aging. I anticipate the competition for the Bill Stuckey Award is going to be absolutely cut-throat during the next couple of decades!
So what is AERC and the Ride Manager –at the forefront of rider recruitment– to do?
I believe that there is something that is still addictive about our sport. There is a thirst in our country to participate in endurance sports – look at long distance cycling and triathlons – and I think riders are amongst that group. Riders want to know their horses better, want to do something extraordinary with them, find meaning in their relationship with their horse.
We just have to work a little harder to get them to climb that steep learning curve.
I believe there will always be riders who will long to ride 100 miles in one day.
It is our role to make them believe that they can do it!
I believe that eventers and middle-aged dressage queens and recreational trail riders can successfully compete in our sport. We just need to let them know that it is here, why it is so addictive, and teach them the skills they need to get successfully through their first ride (everything from camping to conditioning to trotting out their horse and learning how to take a heartrate with a stethoscope) so that they come back again. And again. And bring their friends.
I believe there are kids out there who will find our sport if we put it in front of them, and provide them opportunities to compete. We may lose them during their teen- and college- and getting-established-in-life years, but they will find us again when they have some disposable income. And horses.
What are we doing to cast that net? How are we baiting the waters?
Tom Hutchinson, a Ride Manager from Maine in our region, who many of you may know as the husband of the recently-passed Kathy Brunjes, recently wrote to me after I told him how impressed I was seeing his granddaughters and another Young Rider at a recent endurance ride. [I’ll go ahead and embarrass Tom by saying that I was especially impressed that these three young ladies were cleaning up the horses’ paddocks and wrapping legs and packing tack while Tom was socializing and eating a burger up at the vet check area! I told all three that I’d happily adopt them.]
“Two years ago, Kathy and I Cast a Wilder Net and caught my two grand kids, ages 9 and 11 back then, and I think they are now hooked pretty solid. They are the epitome of junior riders. We had an ECTRA ride last weekend, about 15 miles from the house two towns over. They asked “Can we ride down to the fairgrounds?” This was where the ridecamp was located. I said “Sure.” Calla, the youngest, had Lazaarr done up in his finest, with a blue mane and tail, and India the elder had the trailer packed before I even got home from work. Their close friend Kayla rode along also, and off they set. Now, mind you, this was on some trails that they had never been on, but their dad and I made sure they found the trails and dirt roads down and they got down there fine.
So, the day before the 30 mile CTR, they have already done 15 miles. Then Saturday, it rained, and it rained hard. They had on good rain coats, but nothing on their legs and you know how irritating it can get with wet leaves brushing onto your legs on the narrow trails. Not a peep. Of course, I am not their parent, but all three of them were a blast the whole ride, trotting their own horses out, getting lost on trail, having a good time.
So, the ride is over and they pull down the junior awards, of course. We get home that night, and Kayla the friend stays with them for the night and they all go out for pizza in town. (I was exhausted!) The next day, they come over to the house, and guess what, they saddle up the 3 year old baby and two others (that have already done 15 and 30 miles) and off they go again through the woods to the other road and back, for 4 miles of training for the baby. The 3 year old goes fine and they get back and they set up the jumps and cavalettis in the ring and they jump the horses for a while. So, I guess my point is these three kids are what we all used to be or want to be, a little bit Wilder.”
Not all kids are as fortunate as Calla and India, having a grandfather who is so motivated them to see them succeed in our sport.
I hope we can all focus on our changing times, and ask ourselves what we can do to find more riders and keep them coming back. It’s not hard for me to see where we’re headed if we don’t make some changes.
What are YOU doing to cast a wider (or WILDER) net?