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 3), 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 the 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 of 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.