How Do We Grow Horse Sports?

So this post was inspired by a post that was submitted as part of the HN Blogger Contest by Carson Nelson. In the post, she hypothesized about why people don’t get into horse sports. The number one answer she found – money.

However, I am not sure I buy that. I have looked into how much it costs to join a yoga or pilates studio… I have seen the cost of barre classes and crossfit memberships. The truth? They aren’t a lot cheaper than riding lessons. Throw in a cheap pair of paddock boots, a barn that has helmets, and yoga pants (or even jeans you already own!), and you are about there in terms of clothing. Again, not much more than a yoga mat and appropriate clothing.

Please be aware, all of the below is a HUGE generalization of the horse market, and it is not directed at any person, barn, or organization. It is just my observations as a member of horse sports in, arguably, two of the most horse-dense areas of the country (excluding NYC).

Horse Pop
Chart from The State of the Animals IV: 2007. Highlights mine. 

Websites

I think it is terribly confusing, difficult, and discouraging to try and find a lesson barn as an adult, ESPECIALLY as a beginner. We no longer live in a culture of phone calls to strangers. We live in a culture of email, contact forms, and online scheduling. Farm websites tend to be clunky, not mobile friendly, and lack even basic SEO to show up on google searches.

As someone who moved to an area and knew no one, I know how much power your website can have. For a beginner adult – they are looking for something that looks approachable. Unfortunately, most websites either show an amazing plethora of small children, with no adults, or they show shiny show horses and only people in full formal attire. Neither of these things is likely to resonate with someone considering taking riding lessons.

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Is this relatable to the average person? Maybe?

Price Transparency

Farms can also have a nasty habit of hiding costs, leaving outdated prices on their website, or telling people to “Call for Pricing.” Pricing is readily available for nearly any product we could want, and we can pay for almost anything with a credit card. Therefore, it can be a bit off-putting to not find the real price of a service on a farm’s website.

How many times have you heard of someone being burned by a barn, including experienced people, because they weren’t made aware of other charges they were incurring? It goes from something as innocent as “would you like us to tack up your horse before your lesson?” (no mention of it being $15 extra) to THOUSANDS of dollars worth of charges at someone’s first competition. Nothing quite like having to shovel over some of your savings to make you want to quit a sport.

Trainers – have a rate sheet. Hand it out. Post it online and in your barn. If you don’t know how to do this, I can guarantee you that someone in your barn does.

Horse riding would benefit as being sold as a form of fitness, as much as a hobby. Then, maybe, people will be more likely to devote a portion of their budget to this “new kind of classes.”

Diversity

Let’s face it. Horse sports fall pretty far to the bottom of the diversity spectrum. We lack diversity in race, ethnicity, body types, and socio-economic status, among other areas. At the lower levels, the only Olympic sport where men and women compete against one another also lacks gender diversity. There are a multitude of reasons for this, but let’s just say that being friendly, welcoming, and promoting a sense of inclusion at barns would probably help keep everyone more involved.

It is scary enough to join a new sport as an adult. As for me – how many classes have I taken in sports/classes I am not already familiar with, alone? (None). If you are an average sized woman or man, are you going to call the barn that only shows very slim riders in white pants in their photos? Or no one that looks REMOTELY like you? Didn’t think so.

Beginner Adult Friendly Barns

Where are the Mimosa Rides? or the Wine Wednesday Evening Lessons? I will admit, both of these things appeal to women more than men AND serving alcohol with horses is a terrible business idea. However, there is just about no marketing barns do to encourage adults to come try riding lessons. In contrast, I have seen “Back to School Specials”, “Spring Break Sessions”, and “Summer Camps” for the under 18 crowd. Let’s try material that is targeted for the adults. Hey, it could even be “Back to School Specials” with special lessons during the day for stay-at-home adults.

Most adults don’t want to lesson with children. We learn differently, our bodies react slower, and our muscles don’t grow as fast. Trainers need to offer private and semi private lessons to accommodate adult schedules. AND have the horses to accommodate them.

Ridiculous outfit
Hilarious photo of May as a “lion” and me as a “lion tamer”… This is a fun facebook pic… but probably doesn’t below on your barn website. 

I am sure I can go on, but I think this is a good start. Is there a market for this? Honestly, I think there is. Plenty of adults lacked the funds, time or access to horses as kids that  might be able to try it out now. MANY adults are bored, and open to trying something new.

I don’t think large membership campaigns, such as USEF’s “Join the Joy”, have made any significant strides, especially outside of the already established horse community. Growth will have to be the grassroots kind, and, as tough as it is, that starts with the trainers and riders with their boots already planted firmly on the ground of their communities.

What do you think? What can riders, trainers, and organizations be doing to help grow new interest in horse sports?

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First Jump Lesson with New Trainer!

(and my first jump lesson since my birthday back in April) New trainer and I chatted a bit as she set jumps from the prior x-rail lesson. “What height have you been doing? Like BN?”

I blanked… I admitted we hadn’t really been jumping and then said, “between Starter and BN is pretty comfortable.” Spoiler alert, turns out it wasn’t super comfortable (but everything was a hole or two smaller than the pics). The jumps were laid out in a way that gave a lot of options, gymnastics, and related distances. Overall, everything was set up to be super technical.

June 7 Course

The orange line was a placement rail, 5 one-stride jumps, and then another placement rail to help riders get into and out of the gymnastic on the right stride. The blue line was a x-rail, two strides to an oxer, and then two strides to another x-rail. The green line was set in a moving 4, and the purple line was set in a steady 5. The only “stand alone” jump was the blue, double barrels. The new trainer offhandedly asked me if I thought they would be an issue, and I flippantly said no. (and then immediately was thinking (OMG we’ve never done barrels like that.”)

I warmed up, and she had me head through the gymnastic towards home, trotting in and cantering through. It was originally set really small, with just one side of each pole in the cups, and the distances were a true one stride. NT explained to me that the ring has a bit of a slant towards the barn, so things will always ride more forward coming towards the barn (i.e. traveling left to right of the above photo).

May was a bit wiggly the first time, and I don’t blame her. We haven’t done a gymnastic like this in a LONG time (like more than 2 years), and she wasn’t totally schooled in them at that time either. However, I kept my legs on, my reins open, and we were just fine. We alternated our approach to it a couple of times (making a right turn into the gymnastic, a left turn at the end, then a left turn into the gymnastic and a right turn at the end), until it was smooth and easy. Then, she put them up to small verticals (about a hole smaller than the above pic).

After that, it was time for our first course. Down the gymnastic (left to right), right turn and up the green line in 4, left turn and down the barrels. Sounded easy enough. Except I also cannot remember the last time I did a line that was oxer to vertical… That line was set to about 2’6″, and the approach to it was a bit weird. I tried to capture it in the below photo, but you had to come maybe 2 strides past the corner of the ring, turn, and then had maybe 2 – 3 strides off the rail to the oxer. AND THEN we would have to turn right and come down the double barrels that I wasn’t too sure about.

The “Green” line (oxer to vertical). 

I nodded. I picked up my canter. I came through the gymnastic, May landed on the right lead after, I looked for my line to the oxer… and looked… and then just pulled back around the corner, lost her shoulder, lost any straightness or rhythm, and had a BIG OL’ CHOCOLATE CHIP into the oxer. I kicked on out to get the 4 strides to the vertical on the second half of the stride… and finished really well over the barrels. (At least there was some good)

Then the dreaded trainer words, “So what do you think happened there?”

I briefly blanked before blurting out, “I lost her shoulder in the line and then everything fell apart.”

NT nodded and then elaborated, “You lose her shoulder, couldn’t find a distance and did nothing. When you keep this horse balanced and on the line, you have no issues with jumps, distances, etc. However, when she loses her balance, then she pulls you off balance, and then it all just kind of falls apart. Worry about balance and straightness, and if you’re in doubt, add leg. The barrels were really good though.” (I swear, she is SUPER positive, but the negative feedback is more important right now than the positive)

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Old blurry media… 

We did that course one more time and while the turn to the oxer wasn’t perfect: I didn’t throw my body at it or panic. I just added leg and tried to keep my body back. Overall, a lot of improvement.

Now for a new course! Down the gymnastic, a right turn to the purple line (so oxer to vertical), and then around to the barrels. Gymnastic was great. I got to the oxer into the purple line, and we lost our balance a bit. I over corrected coming down the line, and got to the out in 5 and 1/4 strides… and promptly threw my body up May’s neck. Uh… not helpful. We rubbed it hard and landed in a heap on the other side.

The “Purple Line” is the red white and blue, square oxer to the purple jump. You can also see the turn from the gymnastic to the oxer, and the turn off the corner to the “green” line. 

“KICK AND SIT UP!” I heard from the other end of the ring…. oh gosh. our first lesson and here she is terrified that I am about to eat dirt. Oh well, I kicked on. Got a brief instruction of “always kick away from something like that!” while I cantered past her, and back to the barrels, which were, once again, no problemI walked, and huffed, and puffed (it was like 85 degrees with 80% humidity). May was prancing around like she was ready to go run the Belmont. Trainer sent me back to do just the barrels to the purple line again. It got tight on me again, but I sat back and it rode fine. SHOCKING.

Finally, it was time for our last course. Is your head spinning? Mine was. UP the gymnastic, a left 90* turn to the purple oxer, a right turn down the blue line, a right turn to the barrels, and then ANOTHER right turn to the green line. The turn from barrels to the green oxer wasn’t quite as tight as it looks in the pic, but it wasn’t much more generous.

The Blue Line. 

I jumped up the gymnastic and actually had too tight of a turn to the oxer… and promptly forgot to turn right. I looped back around, got my right lead, and came down the blue line. Despite being a true 2 strides to 2 strides, the second half got a bit tight (*more of this later). The barrels, as always, rode great, but we landed on the left lead. I tried to fix it. I failed. I lost her shoulder and AGAIN the green line was ugly. At this point, I actually felt nauseous from the heat. (May was fine though. Totally amped and ready to keep going).

NT waved me over and said, “I am going to tell you something that is going to blow your mind. Stop worrying about the lead. Worry about balance and your line.” Now, I know this is kind of a controversial topic. However, I can tell you that for May and I to drop down to a trot, get the canter back, get balance, and get our rhythm back… it can sometimes take a lot of effort and coordination and TIME. So I decided to try it her way. (there is also a small chance that, if I stop fixing it for May, she might start fixing her own leads on her own.)

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I jumped the barrels, we again landed on the left lead, I left the lead… and couldn’t turn to save my life. I ended up pulling her around the corner at the last minute and almost missed the jump. I did get a nice 5 in the line though. I was officially done tho. We identified something to work on, and it was overall really positive.

NT really liked May. She was shocked by how easily she got down the line, how un-bothered she was by all my mistakes (my words, not hers), and how light she actually is on her feet. She seemed really excited to be working with us, and I felt like I got a lesson that really challenged me without over-facing us. The whole idea is to do really technical courses at home, so, at shows, things feel easy. Sounds good to me!

*Now the striding thing. Since May had her hocks and stifles done, her stride opens up MUCH easier, and I am still getting used to riding the difference. She is also more receptive to taking the long spot, vs. chipping in, so it has really affected my riding.

(As a total off topic, I came across this article on stretching tight hips. https://www.popsugar.com/fitness/Best-Stretches-Tight-Hips-44931840 I remember when I first got May, I had to be DILIGENT about stretching my hips to be able to ride her. Time to get back on that band wagon!)

The New Barn

I am sure some of you saw this pic on instagram:

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Happy mare #majestic #horsesofinstagram

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and you might have had a brief thought about how it didn’t look like this pic:

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May wishes everyone a #merrychristmas! #horsesofinstagram

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Then maybe you saw this pic:

and it definitely didn’t look like this one…

Or maybe you just know me personally and know that I moved May to a new barn! The “reasons” are pretty mild, as far as these things go. I wanted to be with a trainer that had more of a “team” going to the local shows like the one I did last month, I was also looking for someone who was around for at least most of the winter months, and I was looking for a program where a bit more of the horse care was on the trainer instead of the owner. This is 100% a preference thing, but I think this type of program just works better for my lifestyle.

The new barn!

New Barn.JPG

The barn is part of a 40 acre farm, but NT only manages the small barn in blue. May will be turned out in the field that is circled in green. The other part of the property is rented by a Dressage trainer who has her Silver medal and is an L graduate. Both sides get along well, share both arenas, and share some general barn duties (like dragging the arenas). I liked this mostly because it means that, even if NT is away, there is another professional keeping an eye on the arenas/general barns. New Trainer (NT) goes to Aiken for a couple of weeks before the start of the season in KY and travels a bit for shows, but that works for me. The barns are completely separate, so that keeps both programs from bumping up against one another.

The covered building next to the small barn is the indoor. This isn’t my picture, so sorry it is in a weird format. The interesting thing, for me, is that this is the first “open” indoor arena I have ever ridden in. They don’t close it in the winter, so it might be a bit cold. However, I figure it shouldn’t be much colder than a stand-alone, closed in indoor. In fact, it might even be warmer, as sometimes that stand alone indoor is like a fridge!

The indoor and outdoor arena are right next to each other (see the pic below). Next to the outdoor arena is a big open field, which most people use to either warm up, cool out, or do some fitness. The property next to ours is also open to us to go trail riding. I am pretty excited about getting to explore those a bit more!Image result for tuscany hollow stables

The barn May is in has an interesting setup, with a main barn aisle with stalls, tack room, feed room, etc and then a line of stalls that just open to the outside of the barn and back up to the feed room, tack room, etc. May is in one of those outside stalls, and she seems to LOVE being able to stick her head out and watch what is going on out in the fields. While the barn gets a nice crosswind with all the doors open, here are also ceiling fans that keep the air moving. Since the horses are in during the day, May seems to be really appreciating this feature.

So far, everyone I have met at the new barn has been super warm and welcoming. It’s definitely a very social barn, which I realized I had been missing more than I realized. I think that is pretty much it! May settled in really well. Although, she was a bit of a beast for our first ride on Tuesday. I think this was more due to the fact that I had barely ridden her the week before vs. the stress of moving. Either way, I have my first lesson tonight, so stay tuned!