The fountain of youth…

26 Aug

The business model for horse sport in the US–and elsewhere — has been a combination of finding wealthy sponsors/patrons and building ‘the next generation’ from the ranks of young and younger riders.

Through the late 1940’s, early 1950’s, horse sport belonged in great measure to the cavalries–people whose income came from a source other than the buying and selling of horses.

It was a closed, elitist world where everyone knew everyone else and their business, even though the Internet was not yet around.

Even through rose-colored glasses and nostalgia for the good old days, we know now it was not all that rosy for either riders or horses. Especially not the horses.

Nevertheless, today’s realities leave a lot to be desired. A recent issue of USDF Connection (the monthly magazine of United States Dressage Connection) asks how to get youth into dressage.

Not one mention of California Dressage Society’s Junior Championships–now going into its 20th year. Not one mention of CDS’s clinics, grant programs, and support, all aimed at younger riders. Of course, it is more fun to wear jeans or jump fences rather than go around the sandbox, and even CDS has found it difficult to attract younger riders.

One look at the Jr/Yr classes at just about any show anywhere in the US is proof of that.

But U.S. Eventing Association President Brian Sabo–himself a product of Woodland Hills Pony Club, run by Olympic medalist and legendary horseman Hilda Gurney– has started a concept that deserves applause and attention from the rest of horse sport,especially in the U.S.

He asked a central question: How can a kid get close to a live horse today?

Because if the next generation does not see a horse, touch a horse, smell that special wonderful scent of horses–let alone ride a horse– it is a fairly sure bet they are not going to grow up to want a horse or support the sport.

Brian and USEA director Jo Whitehouse went to Kentucky, to the annual meeting of U.S. Pony Club and worked out a plan to integrate the aims and programs of the two groups.

As Brian Sabo says, ” USPC was the foundation.it was where top horsemen learned to ride and the great C-3 pony clubber was created: someone who loves horses and wants to see sport grow.”

(C-3 is a level/rating in Pony Club and is just what Brian says–someone you can hand your horse to, and come back a day or a year later to find the horse in good shape–because enough love and knowledge was around to make sure this happened).

There is now cross-over between the USPC National Examiners and the USEA’s certified instructors. Joint memberships are being worked out,so that involvement in one group helps the other and keeps both groups flourishing, even as the dreaded late teens hit members and they find other interests. Competition fees and discounts; promotional goodies; support. Everything is on the table, incl;uding and especially Pony Club Centers.

These Centers are affiliated with the actual Pony Club Regions (comprised of clubs), but are run not by volunteers and parents. Instead, a professional rider/trainer reaches out to the local population, using school horses, camps, and their own local involvement to attract NEW numbers to try horses.

“We are basically starting with NEW riders from the ground up,” says Sabo.  “We are the introduction to horses for them, so we are not really taking clients away from existing barns.”

Eventers such as Olympic medalist Gina Miles, 4-star competitors Jennifer Wooten and Lisa Sabo, and others have all established Pony Club Centers, and all so far are flourishing.

“If you start with the foundation—that is something that you can build and will build,” says Sabo.

Starr-Vaughn, the well-known dressage facility in Northern California (daughter Genay Vaughn has competed at NAJYRC and will be doing Brentina Cup U-25 this year) also runs hunter/jumper shows. At a recent h/j schooling show, they had a leadline class for adults. Yes–adults who do not normally ride but pay bills and stand on the sidelines were lead around the arena by their only-too-happy children and once again we heard those famous lines delivered in stage whispers:

Head up! Heels down!

And everyone got to share in the pleasure it is to be around a real live horse.

( Below is Moorpark Pony Club ,  shared venture between Lita Dove and Sue Sally Hale)

ponyclubmpk 001

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