In April and May the stars of horse activity are perfectly aligned here in Central Kentucky. There are the race meets at Keeneland and Churchill Downs (and Derby!), the Rolex 3-Day Event, a potpourri of horse shows and events here and there, and talk of upcoming weekends of trail riding at Shakertown. (Not to mention the buzz about the upcoming Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in September/October.) Everyone's out enjoying their horses, and the enthusiasm is palpable.
Even amidst all of this excitement and activity, I've heard something concerning about our industry that I haven't much considered before. I might be late to the horse show, but apparently, according to some industry experts, equine interest among youth has declined. Factors like a struggling economy, the decrease of farmland and the rise of suburbia, or simply popularity trends could be contributing. Those explanations would make sense to me, but I realize there could be many others. In light of these changes, maybe horses have become more of an activity for kids and families and not necessarily a lifestyle.
Three of my horsey friends and me (second from right)
at the Virginia State 4-H Horse Show, 1989-91ish.
Programs like 4-H and Pony Club helped fuel my desire to pursue horsemanship as a kid, even when such activities weren't always popular. (I can remember being picked on pretty constantly in middle school by classmates who would whinny behind my back and call me "horse girl." Ah, those were the days!) Despite my distinction as the girl who lived in the sticks, and the many days I winced at those jeers, I remember gleeful summer weeks spent at riding camp with a couple hundred other kids that, like me, by the end of the day were caked in dirt and tinged with the fragrance of human and equine sweat, pool chlorine, and stall cleaning.
My family's horses were (and still are) in our backyard, and my parents have always been the portrait of commitment to my early passion. To this day I am very thankful for that (Ahem--thanks, Mom and Dad!). I realize I pretty much grew up on a horse-loving-girl's utopia.
Other friends I know pursued the horse life, starry-eyed, after reading Black Stallion series books, and were barn rats, attached to the handle of a pitchfork for the duration of a summer to work off lessons, while their parents scratched their head at this pursuit (and, perhaps, cursed Flicka, Alec Ramsey, and/or the Saddle Club under their breath). Still others experienced horses through their collection of the rarest of Breyer horses, and following horses on the Derby Trail with a rabid intensity. Horses factored in to each friend's development and the adult they became when they matured.
We all ended up living the horse life in some manner or another, and it pains me to hear that the industry is worried about losing kids. Who makes up the next generation of horse owners and enthusiasts?
Despite this lurking question, there are bright spots of hope for me: Last weekend one of my friends described the rise of Pony Clubs that are based at lesson barns (trying to combat the decline of the complete immersion in horses as a lifestyle). Programs like the Black Stallion Literacy Foundation serve as ambassadors for the horse. Friends and colleagues at the University of Kentucky's Equine Initiative described to me the appearance of more than 5,000 school-age kids that were listening and watching, riveted, at the Kentucky Horse Park a few weeks ago, as horse demonstrations commenced in one of the big arenas there. "You wouldn't have believed it--there was no texting," my friend described.
Stifling a giggle, I remember the time my mom took one of our Minis to my siblings' middle school in the late 90s, walking him down the hall, into the elevator, and into a classroom for some learning time. Everyone was impressed with how Mom had taught this little guy not to "do his business" inside (turns out she hadn't--she'd just been lucky!). Whether she intended to or not, my mom served as an ambassador for horses, introducing this fascinating animal to a new group of kids at a formative time in their lives. I wonder how many kids we could get into horses just by getting their hands on them in the first place?
Here are my questions for you: Who/what is responsible for you getting bitten by the horse bug, and at what age? What programs exist in your area for engaging the next generation of responsible horse owners? If there aren't any, what are some ideas for raising new horse industry leaders?