The 21st Century Rider - Majority of Horse Owners are Adults

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Preaching to the Converted

By Kathy Fremes, EC Certified Competition Coach

There are always new trends in business, and the horse industry is no exception. Some people say that no one needs a horse in the 21st century, and many worry that soon there won’t be a future for horses. But after 30 years of owning and operating Country Hill Farm in Stouffville, Ontario, I disagree. In recent years, more and more mature riders have contacted me wanting to get back into the sport or asking if we take beginners of a “certain age” — and the answer is yes! 

Statistics support this observation. The 2010 Canadian Equine Industry Profile Study, conducted by Vel Evans of Strategic Equine Inc., highlights the shift to the majority of horse owners being adult as opposed to youth. Most of the people who buy horses from me are female, well-educated baby boomers. They are buying their first horse, or an additional horse to add to their herd. Data from the 2010 Study supports this observation.

There are a few reasons for this, and they have nothing to do with bucket lists. At this stage of life, these horse lovers finally have the time and the money to start riding, or to return to riding after careers and raising families, or to buy the horse they’ve always wanted. They also enjoy spending time with like-minded people in their age group at the barn. A significant number are horse-sharing, using part-boarding or leasing animals owned by others. Some are riding older school masters and are dedicated to these animals in a way I seldom see in younger students.

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Kathy Fremes with the 20-plus crossbred school horse, Chocolat, and new rider Georgia Inglis (right) who decided to start riding just as she retired from a teaching career last year. Photographer: J.Leduc

Improvements in instruction/coaching and equipment make the idea of riding less ominous. One of the biggest challenges is just getting started, but after that, most adult beginners (or restarters) find the momentum that carries them along. Even mounting from the ground can be a challenge for an older rider, but the large mounting block at our barn makes getting on a snap.

The environment is safer than it was in the past, and more conducive to learning. For example, like many instructors, I use a microphone to amplify my voice, so my students can hear me clearly inside the arena or outdoors. Although this may sound like a small thing, if you’re on an 1,100-pound animal and can’t hear your coach giving instructions, it can be frustrating and even frightening.

riding horses as an adult, buying a horse for an older adult, riding a retired horse, country hill farm, kathy fremes ec certified coach

Kathy Fremes with the Trakehner mare, Victoria Secret, owned by event rider Gillian Livingston. A busy editor in Toronto, Livingston fights traffic and a demanding schedule to carve out time to pursue her riding passion. Photo: Lorne Ordeal

I also teach equine management at the University of Guelph, and have noticed the average age of my students there has increased over the past decade. As a coach developer, we now take training all ages a lot more seriously. Within the coaching community, the emphasis is now on Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD), and this is not just to produce elite athletes, but for the general public to become life-long active individuals.

Fifty years ago, adults felt uncomfortable in a barn full of mostly teenage girls who were becoming hooked on riding, getting their first pony or horse, and then going off to university. Parents were left “holding the reins” and paying the bills. Today, the vast majority of owners are adults, pushing the youth out to school barns that specialize in group lessons and do very few private lessons, which are the preference of the older student. 

At Country Hill, more families are riding together, and parents are sharing lessons with their kids, but the principal rider is often the adult. Industry data confirms that the majority of horse owners share their homes with others who share their passion.

Not for Love or Money 

The sport of horses has a reputation for being expensive, but mature owners do not begrudge the money they spend on their favourite pastime. 

Dr. Kim Gill bought her horse shortly before retiring from her medical practice. Her riding was jump-started when she took her daughters to their lessons. “I was sick of just watching in the viewing room, and doing my charts as they rode,” says Dr. Gill. “It was always me who loved riding and I wanted to get back in the saddle.” She did just that and now brings granddaughter, Maya, to her lessons at Country Hill Farm, where her first horse still resides. 

“I bought him after my kids were through university and I had a little extra money to afford a horse of my own — something I’ve always dreamed of,” says Dr. Gill.

“This horse is going to change my life,” Mr. Willem Hellema has said of Morris, a Friesian stallion he bought for $20,000 after the horse caught his eye. Morris is now competing at the higher echelons of dressage with a professional rider, with annual costs of $40,000 to $45,000. “You don’t do it for the money,” says Hellema. “This is the only hobby I’ve got, and you’ve got to waste your money on something.”

When my students ask me for an average cost to keep their horse, I tell them to budget for about a quarter of what Mr. Hellema pays, but because it is all after-tax income, it’s quite an investment. That is why the part-boarding idea is so popular with owners — they can share costs and rely on someone to help with the regular grooming and exercise that a riding horse requires.

Denise Chilton is the ideal part-boarder for Maggie May, a Thoroughbred mare 20-plus years old. Maggie May’s owner is a newly-minted lawyer who acquired the mare when she was 13. The two have been together for many years, but since being called to the bar she no longer has the hours to spend at the barn. Chilton shares the chestnut mare’s horse-keeping costs, showers her with love and attention, and keeps her fit, all of which are of paramount importance to the horse’s owner.

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After falling in love with Maggie May, the chestnut Thoroughbred mare she part-boards, Denise Chilton just had to be closer to the stable. So, she and her husband moved from Toronto to rural Claremont, and now live five minutes from the barn. Photo: J. Leduc

Chilton caught the riding bug when she was eight years old. She happily tossed away her ballet slippers for a pair of paddock boots so her parents could afford to pay for riding lessons. Now in her forties, Chilton teaches at Seneca College, Keele Campus, and had commuted to the barn in Stouffville three times a week. However, this changed when she and her suburban-raised husband moved from the city to their new country abode, a stone’s throw away from Country Hill. Chilton found her new rural home through a long-time Country Hill riding student, Gillian Livingston, whose parents live on the farm where Chilton now resides. Recently, Livingston had significant news of her own — she bought the gorgeous Warmblood mare, Victoria Secret, and has eventing plans in their future. 

Denise is one of many Country Hill riders and horse owners who make the move to the country after making a commitment to a horse. In fact, I was working as an editor-writer and living in The Beach neighbourhood in Toronto before moving to Stouffville 30 years ago. Back then, the town was tiny and had no GO Train. If anyone had told me then that I’d be coaching riding, training, and breeding horses at my own equestrian centre, I would have said they were nuts.

For the vast majority of urban riders and horse owners, urban sprawl has caused a major commute to the farm where their horse resides. This brings with it significant financial and time commitments.

Country Hill Farm has a ride-sharing Facebook page, which is especially popular because clientele largely come from Toronto. Commuting to Stouffville by GO Transit is another option because there is a shuttle service to the farm, only five minutes from the station. Other clients rent a car or take Uber, and share the costs with their fellow passengers. In fact, one Uber driver became a regular riding student that way.  

Mature Riders Love School Masters

I’ve known for a long time that most horses hate retirement. Along with an older rider demographic, Country Hill has a growing number of serviceably sound senior horses that need a job. They may not be winning races or bringing home ribbons, but these school masters enjoy mature students who shower them with love, kindness, and carrots. Adult students appreciate what these animals have to offer — experience and affection — and form real bonds that enrich their lives and those of the horses.

One such rider is Georgia Inglis, a retired teacher who took an online equine studies course at the University of Guelph and is now an adult beginner taking lessons at Country Hill Farm. “My school horse, Chocolat, has proven to be a wonderfully well-trained and gentle horse. It is a joy to learn to ride and my lessons have been great. It is so interesting to learn about the horses, visit the barn, and see the other riders with their horses.”

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Mature rider and former elementary school teacher, Georgia Inglis, shares her knowledge with a short stirrup student at Country Hill. Photo: J. Leduc

Over the years, Country Hill Farm has gone through a lot of changes since the days of breeding sport horses, and today the focus is on keeping our maturing herd engaged and earning their keep. One of our best senior horse and school masters is Dudley, a 27-year-old Clyde-cross who came to the farm more than 20 years ago. Dudley is well-trained, which mature riders appreciate, and he keeps getting better with age. For Dudley, Country Hill is his forever home, and his owner, Patty Fleischman, says, “He was the best thing I’ve ever bought.”

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A tender moment between owner Patty Fleischman and her loveable crossbred Dudley, now 27 years old. This couple has been together for over 20 years and are still very much smitten with each other. Photo: Lorne Ordel

Many students with considerable riding experience feel the same way about their mounts. Peter Grady, a real estate developer in his seventies, was a master of the hounds. In the past he has owned many horses and farms. Now he is getting back to riding after a hiatus, and learning a lot from the horse he part-boards. “Tierian is the best-trained horse I’ve ever ridden. Now it is up to me to get up-to-speed with him. He’s got a lot of bells and whistles I’ve never had before in my hunters. I even plan to take lessons again!” says Grady. “I have a relationship with Tierian and the other riders, and I’m looking forward to hacking out with them come spring.”  

riding horses as an adult, buying a horse for an older adult, riding a retired horse, country hill farm, kathy fremes ec certified coach

Peter Grady decided to dust off his chaps and get back in the saddle in his seventies. He is a real estate developer and a part-boarder of the fabulous Tierian, a crossbred owned by Kathy Fremes. Photo: J. Leduc

For my part, seeing older riders rejuvenates me, and not just because I’m one of them. Now 62, I’m not embarrassed about my age or the fact that I just bought a new horse. I’m part of a growing demographic. I loved riding as a girl and it still makes me feel young at heart. But now, I’m a much more knowledgeable rider and my coaching style reflects that. You’re never too old to learn, and horses are great teachers. I’m also teaching a new generation of instructors as a coach developer and clinician.

As an industry, one of the most talked about subjects is the future and what it will look like for horses, which were once Ontario’s sixth largest industry. These days I’ve become more positive, and it’s because we’re doing what works best — we’re preaching to the converted. By reaching out to these mature riders, they in turn share their love of horses with family and friends, and it has regenerated what used to look like a sport on the decline. They also mentor the younger generation of riders and serve as role models in a way that is healthy for our industry, teaching care and consideration for horses.

In my youth, I was taught that the horse comes first. Good horsemanship, and all it entails, must be passed on to the new generation of riders. There really is a need for horses in the 21st century, and it matters more now than ever before that this sport, and all it has to offer, has a future. 

riding horses as an adult, buying a horse for an older adult, riding a retired horse, country hill farm, kathy fremes ec certified coach

For Kathy Fremes, the circle of love also includes stray dogs. “Miss Whiz, my pug, was abandoned in the middle of a snowstorm almost three years ago, and I picked her up on the town line with no identification and in very bad shape. Mange had left her coat sticky with blood, rotten teeth made her breath unbearable, and her anal glands were about ready to explode according to my vet. She has become the barn mascot and we’ve even had a fundraiser for Pug-a-Lug, a pug rescue organization, for other dogs like Miss Whiz who didn’t land on their paws.”

Main Photo: Kathy Fremes with the latest horse to join the herd of “schoolies” at Country Hill Farm. “At 62, I’m as young as the legs underneath me, and this handsome crossbred just turned 12,” she says. Credit: J. Leduc