Winds of Change Are Blowing Through Canada’s Horse Industry
By Margaret Evans
It’s a familiar story. A horse-crazy child gets her first pony. She takes riding lessons, excels at local shows, finds the discipline of her dreams, and goes on to compete at Regionals. Then she gets her off-the-track Thoroughbred and continues with lessons and clinics while she trains her gelding, hoping to earn a place on the provincial team and eventually compete at Nationals. But along comes high school graduation, university, career choices. Soon, life’s busy demands derail her riding dreams as with more choices, more costs, and hard decisions she realizes the equestrian lifestyle is out of her financial reach. With a heartache, she turns away.
It’s no secret that sports industries go through periodic changes, suffering the ebb and flow of lost participants, members, and supporters. The organizers recognize the signs and the need for the sport to reinvent itself, to invigorate its appeal, and draw in new people. And so it goes for the horse industry.
In some regions of Canada, equine association membership numbers are slipping, show registrations are dropping, training barns are struggling, and horse ownership is shrinking. The reasons are many, complex, and readily apparent.
When younger riders go off to university, they may not return to riding until they have graduated, or much later after careers are established and children grown. Some never come back. “The growth of our show industry is in the hands of lesson barns and the riders they are producing,” says Nicholas Hoyles, NEA secretary. Photo: Shutterstock/Skumer
“The number of Canadians participating in equestrianism certainly appears to have declined over the past five years,” says Akaash Maharaj, CEO of the Mosaic Institute in Toronto and CEO of Equine Canada from 2008-2012. “Unfortunately, the official national figures are out of date, as Equestrian Canada has not published an annual report since 2016. In 2012, there were 21,715 equestrian sport license holders in Canada. By 2016, the figure had fallen to 17,925. A 17 percent drop in participation in only four years is dire.”
The drop is reflected provincially in some regions.
“Unfortunately, we have seen a drop in our membership over the last five years,” says Nicholas Hoyles, secretary, Newfoundland Equestrian Association. “Due to the closing of a major show facility, we have also seen a decrease in the number of shows. Despite this drop, however, we do have a competent team of individuals working tirelessly to rebuild and further growth in the Newfoundland equestrian community.”
Typically, a drop in membership and equestrian activities is a reflection of the economy. Alberta is a classic example of cause and effect when a severe economic downturn affects everyone.
“Alberta Equestrian Federation membership has seen growth (three percent to six percent) for the past six years with the exception of 2017,” says Sonia Dantu, executive director. “Generally, when there is a drop in membership it tends to reflect the economic situation in our province. In 2017, the Alberta economy took a massive hit [largely due to layoffs in the energy sector]. AEF saw a decrease in family memberships and an increase in individual memberships. We attribute this to a cost savings measure for families, e.g., to purchase the individual membership is cheaper than the family membership. [While] there has been an increase of ‘individuals’ at shows, events and activities, we have found that when it comes to educational seminars/clinics (e.g., emergency preparedness, equine nutrition, updating clinics, etc.), it is often hard to fill spots. That said, when these types of educational events are offered online, there is an increase. We believe that this can be attributed to the fact that most of us have limited time in today’s busy pace and would rather do these online, on our own time, in the comfort of their own home. When we offer webinars or online courses, these generally are almost always full.”
But where numbers are not dropping, they may be shifting.
“While Horse Council BC’s membership numbers have held fairly steady in recent years, our new member demographics are shifting very slightly away from youth and family memberships and toward senior memberships,” says Nancy Spratt, recreational coordinator. “In spite of this shift, a Pony Club branch has recently restarted and shows like 55-plus are enjoying record attendance.”
Many horse owners enjoy their horses recreationally and are actively participating in the industry, but do not join an equine association, so are not counted in membership figures. “I believe there continues to be a lot of activity, but do we know where it is happening and who is doing it? No.” – Deanna Phelan, NBEA president. Photo: iStock/Sitikka
That is totally understandable given that there are, in all probability, many horse owners who do not belong to associations, do not compete, and simply enjoy their horses in a recreational way.
“From my point of view, our reason for a drop in numbers may be attributable to individuals just getting out of the sport and not being replaced with new horses, owners, leasers, etc.,” says Hoyles. “Barn owners do have empty stalls, and the ease of online ordering is probably affecting tack shops more than anything. Our show circuit has not been very large for several years now; consistently low entries have discouraged show organizers from planning more. In 2018, however, we did see an increase in shows compared to the prior year. The growth of our show industry is in the hands of lesson barns and the riders they are producing.”
The High Cost of Horses
If there is one growing challenge in common with everyone in the equestrian community, it is cost.
Purchasing a horse is just the beginning of an endless laundry list of expenses from the costs of feed, farrier, and veterinary needs to saddlery, clothing, training, coaching, clinics, and truck and trailer transportation, as well as show fees and all the costs associated with competition.
“Overall, I think the biggest threat to our industry is rising costs,” says April D. Ray, EC certified Coach, and sales and social media manager with Canadian Horse Journal. “Hay is getting more expensive, board is going up, essentially every part of being involved with horses is getting more and more expensive. It would be great to see the provincial and national associations step up in an effort to try and help combat this, as well as encourage participation in the sport, and not just for riders competing. I know there are already programs designed for kids to get school credits through riding, which I think is great, but there must be more we can do. The way things are going it feels like, one day, horseback riding and ownership are going to be accessible only to the well-to-do and I think that’s a really scary thought.
“I wouldn’t be the person I am today if I didn’t have access to horses growing up. As a family of five, it wasn’t always affordable for us, but I worked really hard to be able to keep riding and taking lessons. That willingness to work is one thing I don’t see a lot of nowadays from some of the kids and young riders I come across. What we need to sustain the industry is new blood as many of our pillars in the riding community are aging and retiring, and they need to be replaced.”
Ray says that it seems as though many key places have stopped boarding, likely due to costs and the difficulty of actually making money from boarding. In her opinion, it could also be likely that the number of people looking to board may have decreased as she sees boarding barns getting out of the business. The demand for lessons, too, may be declining.
“I wouldn’t be the person I am today if I didn’t have access to horses growing up. As a family of five, it wasn’t always affordable for us, but I worked really hard to be able to keep riding and taking lessons. That willingness to work is one thing I don’t see a lot of nowadays from some of the kids and young riders I come across.” – April D. Ray. Photo: Clix Photography
“Most training facilities require a minimum of two lessons a week,” says Ray. “This is pretty standard for performance barns. But outside of higher end programs, I would say there has definitely been a decrease in the number of lessons. I am currently teaching less than I was before. With kids typically being active in multiple sports nowadays, riding can become less of a priority, especially if there aren’t a lot of funds to go around.”
She says that, while the bigger shows are keeping up their attendance numbers, local shows are seeing fewer people registering due to the cost of show fees and transportation.
“Cost is definitely a factor for some families, but not for all,” says Spratt. “A common thread between families of average means and those that have more disposable income is time. There are so many after-school and weekend activities competing for kids’ and families’ limited available time. One stumbling block is the reduced numbers of public barns in the urban/rural intersections. However, they are around, and people have all the information they need online and in Canadian equine publications to find them.”
Long term, though, Maharaj sees more serious issues with both costs and demographics.
“The costs of equestrianism are clearly rising far faster than the incomes of equestrians,” says Maharaj. “This is not only a personal misfortune for individual families, but also a grave threat to the essential character of Canadian horsemanship. In our country, horsemanship has historically been far more accessible to far more people [than in many other countries] and has been able to draw in children and adults with a genuine interest in sympathetic relationships with horses.”
Maharaj believes we are facing a serious demographic crisis. He says that, currently, the median age of Canadian equestrians is in the sixties while the median age of Canadians at large is in the forties.
“This is plainly unsustainable,” he says. “In the next 15 years, the vanguard of the equestrian community will begin to die off. We have two choices: We can renew ourselves by bringing in new cohorts of younger Canadians, or we can stand by and watch our sector collapse into a footnote of history. In my view, the overriding priority of all of Canada’s governing equestrian institutions should be recruitment, development, and retention of young riders, drivers, and vaulters. Everything else – corporate branding, involvement in the FEI, short-term podium results – is a lower priority.”
And that makes complete sense. Maharaj wisely says that every competitive rider is or should be a pleasure rider, but not every pleasure rider is or wants to be a competitor.
“The overriding priority of all of Canada’s governing equestrian institutions should be recruitment, development, and retention of young riders, drivers, and vaulters. Everything else – corporate branding, involvement in the FEI, short-term podium results – is a lower priority.” – Akaash Maharaj. Photo: Canstock/RTBuilder
“Moreover,” he adds, “an economically sustainable equine sector can only be built upon a broad foundation of grassroots horse people rather than balanced on the narrow summit of international competitors.”
Maharaj would prefer to see Equestrian Canada (EC) return to the structure of voting rights of individual members rather than the current system that only grants voting rights to 27 collective individuals.
“I share the concern that Equestrian Canada’s new governance model militates against accountability and service to grassroots equestrians,” he says. “Previously, every Canadian who purchased a sport license or who was a member of an affiliated breed association, provincial or territorial association, or sport organization became a member of EC. There were 100,000 members who each had a vote, the right to elect EC’s Directors, the capacity to shape EC’s priorities, and the ability to hold EC to account. While most individual members did not ordinarily exercise their powers, the knowledge that they could do so if sufficiently roused served as an effective democratic check on the federation. Today, EC has a voting membership of merely 27 individuals, and the direct democratic link between Canadian equestrians and the federation that governs us has been severed. Institutions that cut themselves off from their people rarely do so out of a desire to better serve the people.”
Clearly, to breathe fresh life into the equestrian community means developing programs and activities for young riders. This can be challenging since other youth sports are more accessible, less costly, and easier to reach than travelling to a stable. Yet the horse industry is one to be reckoned with as a viable sports alternative. What it needs, though, is better public clarity and focus.
Hiding in Plain Sight
The horse industry collectively across Canada and the US is huge, but despite its enormous significance, it is often not recognized as an industry in and of itself. Statistics clearly underscore that fact.
According to the American Horse Council Foundation’s 2017 National Economic Impact Study, the US equine industry generates approximately $122 billion in total economic impact, an increase from $102 billion in the 2005 Economic Impact Study. The industry also provides a total employment impact of 1.74 million, and generates $79 billion in total salaries, wages, and benefits. The current number of horses in the US stands at 7.2 million, and the top three states with the highest population of horses continues to be Texas, California, and Florida.
There is no up-to-date data on which to base decisions that will guide Canada’s horse industry to a strong future. The last study of Canada’s horse industry was conducted by Equestrian Canada in 2010. Photo: iStock/Somogyvari
“Those involved in the equine industry already know how important it is to the US economy. Having these updated numbers is critical not only to the AHC’s efforts up on Capitol Hill, but also for the industry to demonstrate to the general public how much of a role the equine has in American households,” says AHC President Julie Broadway in the February 28, 2018 press release. “While the number of horses in the US has decreased, this was not entirely unexpected due to the decline in breed registration trends over the last few years.”
Another interesting statistic according to the Impact Study is that 38 million or 30.5 percent of US households contain a horse enthusiast, and 38 percent of participants are under the age of 18. Additionally, approximately 80 million acres of land is reserved for horse-related activities.
For this study, they particularly focused on the number of young people in the horse industry in order to get a clearer picture of the next generation that will be steering its direction in future years.
Canada’s horse industry, while smaller than that in the US, is also proportionately significant. At the time of EC’s 2010 Canadian Horse Industry Profile Study, our industry contributed over $19 billion to the Canadian economy. In fact, the horse industry in 2010 was larger than Canada’s dairy industry, as illustrated in statistics compiled by Maharaj.
At the time of EC’s 2010 Canadian Horse Industry Profile Study, Canada’s horse industry contributed more than $19 billion to the Canadian economy and was larger than the $15 billion dairy sector. Photo: iStock/Steverts
“For equine, I drew on EC’s 2010 Canadian Horse Industry Profile Study,” he says. “For dairy, I drew on The Economic Impact of the Dairy Industry in Canada (2011) by the Dairy Farmers of Canada. Those two research pieces showed that the equine sector’s contribution to GDP was $19.656 billion and the dairy industry’s contribution was $15.183 billion. The equine sector was responsible for 566,044 full-time equivalent positions (of which 164,527 were paid positions, and 401,517 were unpaid positions). The dairy industry was responsible for a total of 127,363 full-time equivalent paid positions.”
Clearly, Canada needs an updated nation-wide study to identify the current state of Canada’s horse industry, and provide up-to-date data on which to base decisions for the future. Equestrian Canada has told this magazine that another study is planned for 2019, which should give a more up-to-date picture of the industry’s economic impact. It is, though, as many people say, an industry hidden in plain sight.
Public Perception and the Need for Standards
“What makes us unique, I feel, is what is holding us back,” says Phelan. “Anyone can open up a barn and anyone can teach riding lessons, [but] we don’t know where the barns are, and we don’t know what they are teaching. Anyone can put on a horse show. It doesn’t have to be sanctioned and anyone can just show up. This hurts our sport. I can tell you where all the curling clubs and gymnastic clubs are in New Brunswick, but I can’t tell you where all the barns are. There is no standard curriculum being taught. This can only hurt safety and development.”
Many in the industry – and even more outside it – can relate to that. On October 27, 2018, the University of Guelph, Ontario, held its third Equine Industry Symposium. Horse enthusiasts from a wide variety of sectors in the industry gathered to engage in discussions on standards and professionalism, and all could relate to Phelan’s statement.
“What hurts the industry is the fact that the sector does not present itself in a united way to the public,” says Jean Szkotnicki, Vice President of Ontario Equestrian, who served on the Symposium’s organizing committee. “So many people are left with some of the old thoughts of it being an elite sport from either the recreational, racing (‘sport of kings’) or competitive aspects.”
The work of caring for horses is undervalued. We must dispel the myth that stable work is performed by unskilled labourers when it is, in fact, just the opposite. Photo: Clix Photography
One of the speakers at the Symposium was Dr. Kendra Coulter who holds the Chancellor’s Chair for Research Excellence and is associate professor and chair of the Department of Labour Studies at Brock University, St. Catharines, Ontario. In October, 2018 she released her report Work in Ontario Horse Stables. In it, she recognizes that the labour of caring for horses is often undervalued and under-appreciated.
“This can manifest in frustration about working conditions and high turnover rates among front-line workers, and difficulty recruiting and retaining talented and reliable staff for employers,” writes Coulter. “This tension has long been part of equine cultures, but it has been gaining increased attention for good reason. In order to thoughtfully tackle any problem, first you need to properly understand the challenge.”
That challenge is to dispel the myth that stable work is performed by unskilled labourers. In fact, far from it.
“Those who work with and for horses must perform physically demanding tasks in all type of weather and, simultaneously, be attuned to the intricacies of horses’ bodies and minds,” she writes. “It is constant multi-tasking. Horses have species-specific attributes and workers must have accurate and, at times, highly specialized and technical knowledge about horses’ physiology, behaviour, and cognition. At the same time, horses are also individuals who have developed their own personalities, preferences, and dislikes due to their specific life journeys, their relationships, and their own choices. Labour in horse stables involves working proactively and responsively with animals who cannot speak to us in our languages, but who, nevertheless, have a lot to say and their own perspectives and opinions.”
What makes us unique is what’s holding us back, as “anyone can open up a barn and anyone can teach riding lessons. There is no standard curriculum being taught,” says Deanna Phelan, NBEA president. Professionalism and industry standards will help to raise the profile of our industry. Photo: Clix Photography
Profiling the horse industry to the public means focused and professional marketing. On Equine Guelph’s Horse Portal following the Symposium, one commenter noted that when professionalism increases at the stable level, the industry rises to equal other sport industry standards. For a sport to thrive there needs to be spectators, and spectators only get interested through great marketing. Strategic marketing is something that is lacking in the horse industry and something that should be considered more sharply.
Parallel to marketing is engaging youth. One Symposium commenter observed that it all begins with youth and, for the industry to grow, those initial early connections need to be made and then followed through with positive pathways to continued learning. Szkotnicki agreed, raising the open question: What can be done to maintain that initial enthusiasm in the face of so many competing youth interests and sports goals? A key answer is for barns, coaches, trainers, and show organizers to maintain a high level of professionalism that reflects ongoing learning, respect, goal-setting, humane care of the horse, and endless encouragement for the young rider no matter what the endeavour.
Identifying Opportunities, Finding Solutions
Looking forward, the industry has a lot to learn from the past, and many opportunities for renewal and growth.
Canadian Dressage Owners and Riders Association (CADORA) is a national grassroots dressage organization made up of local groups under the umbrella of the national CADORA Inc.
Attracting youth to horses and keeping them involved in the sport long-term is a top priority with equine facilities and associations across Canada. Photo: Soul Touch Photography
“All of us run our own individual events, test days, and educational clinics such as scribing clinics or with a professional dressage clinician, veterinarian or specialty topics, and of course, competitions which have been mainly Horse Council BC sanctioned in recent years,” says Sheila Skene, a director with the Victoria-Saanich CADORA Society. “However, with the creation of a Bronze award program through our national organization, interest has grown to start holding EC-sanctioned one-day Bronze competitions. Victoria-Saanich CADORA Society is this year offering their four one-day shows as dual sanctioned HCBC and EC Bronze to accommodate this interest. Two of the clubs hold annual EC Gold and Bronze sanctioned two-day competitions in July. These are the highlights of our competitive year. For Victoria-Saanich, we have been holding this annual event for over 40 years. The Courtenay CADORA group has been enlivened in recent years by their delightful and hard-working president, Angie Szokol, with all kinds of social interactions with the members.”
Skene says that the make-up of their membership among the three clubs on Vancouver Island (Victoria-Saanich, Mid-Island, and Courtenay) is predominantly women between the ages of 30 to 65. They have very few juniors. And, in one unusual stat, in 2018 in the Victoria area they had two riders achieve “century rides,” meaning the combined age of the horse and rider was over 100 years. One rider achieved this at an EC competition while the other at an HCBC show. Riders can ride at any dressage test level, but the test must be under the eyes of a recognized judge.
“Overall, compared to say 10 years ago, membership numbers have declined especially in the junior to young rider age group,” says Skene. “The reasons are usually the cost of lessons, boarding, and travel to events. There is no doubt that equestrianism is an expensive sport for families to support, especially when their children are involved in so many other activities. However, once the horse bug has bitten, youngsters really do have a sport for life.
“My belief is that there are more junior riders in the hunter/jumper discipline in our area. In fact, as a dressage judge, I do get asked occasionally to judge/critique at test days where, often, riders from other disciplines participate. Their coaches encourage young riders to come and learn about beginning dressage to help their overall equestrian skills.”
Equine Guelph takes a proactive approach to encouraging youth participation and promoting horse health and safety through its interactive youth education program, EquiMania!
Buckets of fun at a Pony Club summer camp. Photo: Kelly Hawes
With appealing illustrations, photographs, activities, and games, the EquiMania! website (www.EquiMania.ca) is ideally designed to draw in children’s attention, provide a learning environment in a fun way, and encourage children to stop (to take the time to think about what they are going to do), think (about how they are going to do it in a safe way), and act (in the safest way possible) when around horses. As much as this site is for children, there are many downloads and links ideally suited for teenagers and young adult riders eager to learn and expand their knowledge.
EquiMania! is the only travelling equine exhibit in North America and operates on a zero-based budget thanks to the support of the horse industry. Since its debut at the 2005 Can-Am All Breed Equine Expo it has been part of the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair in Toronto, Ontario (since 2006), and has travelled in Canada from Manitoba to Nova Scotia to participate in trade shows, fairs, and competitions. It has also travelled to the US and was the only Canadian exhibit invited to be featured at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Kentucky, where it was touted as “the most hands-on exhibit at the park.”
In 2014, the Ian Millar School of Horsemanship was established at Wesley Clover Parks recreational parklands in Ottawa, Ontario to introduce new riders to the sport. Since then, hundreds of riding lessons have been offered on a weekly basis and 30 handpicked horses work in the lesson program providing positive and unique experiences for riders receiving their first equestrian experience, the guiding principles being horsemanship skills, correct basics, safety, and fun.
“HCBC, under the umbrella of a ‘Discover Riding’ program, has developed a Rookie Rider platform for beginning riders and a program called Ticket to Ride (launching spring 2019), which matches potential new riders with qualified coaches in their area using a website locator tool,” says Spratt. “Information is also provided on what to expect on your first visit to a barn, what to wear, etc.”
It is also encouraging that, according to Spratt, some disciplines are experiencing an increase in competitors.
“Western dressage, ranch riding, and mountain trail classes are enjoying a surge in senior participation,” she says. “Cutting and working cow horse seem to be growing in both the youth and senior demographics.”
Encouraging children to ride is clearly top priority for equestrian centres across Canada. At the Pickering Horse Centre (PHC) in Claremont, Ontario, programs for very young riders are offered including their “Ponies and Tots” geared toward children from 3 to 6 years of age, providing them with a fun, safe environment for their first exposure to horses.
Children and ponies enjoying the competition at a Pony Club event. Photo: Tracy Carver
“Children learn basic grooming, theory, and safety practices all within the context of games,” says PHC owner Emily Yaghdjian. “They also interact with an equine simulation vaulting barrel that acts as a horse’s back to allow them to become comfortable with the height, balance, and skills required before even interacting with the horse. Once they have completed these initial sessions they progress to engaging with the horses, and finally a pony-ride style horseback experience. Our analytics show that each year our number of participants does increase and by inputting programs like this we are able to keep the rider in the sport for longer.
“On the larger scale of horse sport in terms of competition, costs have reached a point so high that we are seeing a decrease in participants at those higher levels. However, the entry and mid-market level continues to grow and that growth looks to continue in the future. The riding school market provides a good price point for the average family to enjoy an equestrian lifestyle that balances engagement with the sport and pocketbook quite well. Once the client realizes that for $200 per month, they can experience a once-per-week riding lesson by EC certified coaches in an approved environment, they are eager to join. By making riding more accessible to this demographic, our industry can see an increase in participation.”
The PHC Rookie Rider program is geared toward children 6 to 12 years of age and provides the starting point for youth to get started in equestrian sport.
“The goal is to make the general population more aware of how accessible the equestrian lifestyle is, similar to more streamlined sports like soccer and hockey,” says Yaghdjian. “This program will be brought into schools and community centres as well as riding schools, which will hopefully create an increase in the number of participants in equestrian related activity.”
In recent years, the Canadian Pony Club (CPC) has been on a downward trend with national membership now at around 2,200, down from 3,000 members in 2010.
“One of my largest concerns has been the consistent decline in our membership and what we can do to address it,” says Tracy Carver, Regional Chair for the BC Lower Mainland Region of the Canadian Pony Club. “Awareness is one way and I have written several articles to stir up some interest in equine sports and Pony Club. We have also considered why our show attendance numbers were dropping and have incorporated changes, which are slowly bringing numbers up, but our overall membership numbers are sadly still dropping despite our efforts.”
Pony Club has traditionally been an organization strictly for children and youth to age 21 but today membership is from ages six to 25. In 2015, CPC introduced its Horsemasters program designed for adult riders. Any CPC parent, volunteer, or alumni who was 21 years old prior to January 1st of the year of joining can apply for membership and enjoy all the lessons, clinics, and camps (mounted or unmounted) that regular members benefit from. Currently, in the BC Lower Mainland Region, which has a membership of around 200, Horsemasters members make up 10 percent of the total. Extending the youth age and introducing an adult program help to bring in new members and expand appeal.
Pony Club national dressage competitors proudly display their ribbons.
National membership in Canadian Pony Club has dropped to about 2,200 from 3,000 members in 2010. To help combat this, the Horsemasters program for young adults was introduced in 2015 to attract new members. In the BC Lower Mainland, Regional Chair Tracy Carver says the new segment now makes up 10 percent of total membership. Photo: Tracy Carver
In New Brunswick, Phelan says that jumping, dressage, and eventing are all classic disciplines involved in their Long Term Equestrian Development (LTED) program. Cattle penning and reining are also pursued among Quarter Horse riders. But they also offer incentives to encourage new membership and participation.
“For ride/drive we give great prizes for hours logged on a horse,” says Phelan. “We fund riders to get their rider levels, we fund coaches to get certified, and we give out six $500 bursaries. We are all doing a lot to encourage people to try our sport and find a pathway that suits them whether recreation or sport driven.”
As much as introduction to riding is the first step to encouraging young people to a life-long sport, introduction to graduated levels of competition can be just as much fun where riders can enjoy low-level shows without high-level stress and cost.
“There is a large equestrian population in and around Ottawa and various levels of horse shows from local 4-H, fairs, Bronze, Silver, and Gold,” says Bridget McKessock, co-owner/partner of Westar Farms, Ashton, Ontario. “We have riders in our riding school who want to add a little more to their weekly regimen but aren’t prepared to commit the time and/or expense required to lease a pony or horse as well as pay the fees associated with even a Bronze level show, having never tried competition before and not knowing if it is really for them.
We started running development shows about three years ago, mainly for the students in our riding school as well as those from other local stables. We offered four divisions, from a glorified Lead Line division up to a two-foot equitation division, reasonably priced and run on a Tuesday evening. Each division would take about an hour and include some warm-up time, so a family could have a good idea when they needed to arrive and the few hours they would be there. The atmosphere was casual and, as it was the first time either away from their own stable or in competition, the coaches were welcome in the ring to assist and guide their students. At those first shows we had about 15 to 25 participants and four or five would be from our own barn. Three years later and we’ve had to move the shows to Sundays with 50 to 60 riders, dressage, and equitation divisions in three show rings. We’ve worked hard to maintain the intimate atmosphere and keep the fun and educational aspect of the shows. Some of the divisions get 15 or more riders. We split them into two sections so hopefully everyone gets to take home a ribbon or two, or at least have a positive learning experience. The format is still much the same and we’ve kept the prices down as much as possible. For some riders, this is just the right push outside their comfort zone and for others it may be the first taste of competition before moving up to the next level of shows.”
Encouraging Education and Professionalism
At the continuing education level, Szkotnicki sees professionalism becoming a hallmark of distinction in the horse industry’s future. Attendees at the Horse Industry Symposium recognize that things are changing for the better with many of them appreciating the value-added academic training opening up within the industry. Many attendees were from the University of Guelph Equine programs, so the leaning toward a more professional, academic profile of the industry is not surprising.
“The Horse Portal, Equine Guelph and its continuing education programs, the University of Guelph equine management program, and Ontario Equestrian sport coaching requirements all attest to the fact that the industry is moving in a lifelong learning process targeting professionalism within the sector,” says Szkotnicki. “Standards, qualifications, and professionalism are all integral to that. It might be a tough move, but requiring insurance is a logical step, and encouraging insurance companies to only insure qualified people would be logical. Industry tends to, at present, value experience over academics. But there was a sense that this is changing.”
Today’s youth have a multitude of competing interests and many sports are less costly and more accessible than those with horses. We need to help young riders find an equal place among their peers in other sports. Pictured are members of the BC Lower Mainland Region of the Canadian Pony Club. Photo: Tracy Carver
She adds that there was a mention of the need to reach out to the recreation horse owners/activists and the racing sector since they represent a significant proportion of the horse industry. Attendees also conveyed the importance of reaching out to parents and youth at an early age.
Maharaj extends that further.
“Equestrian institutions will need to work with youth organizations such as 4-H and the Canadian Pony Club to strengthen pathways into equestrianism, to work with school boards to ensure that time at horse facilities fulfils volunteer requirements for secondary school diplomas, and to work with ministries of education to build equine options in the Biology and Science curricula,” he says. “They will also need to work with ministries of trade and employment to strengthen support for apprenticeships and opportunities in equine professions, such as facility management, farriery, and horse husbandry. Perhaps, most pointedly of all, equestrian institutions should press governments to provide greater public support for equine research and market development out of the funds those governments collect through horse racing.”
Many believe that a more professional, academic profile of the horse industry is essential to a positive future. To achieve this, equestrian institutions will need to work with school boards and ministries of education, trade and employment to provide opportunities for equine professionals and apprentices. Photo: Clix Photography
Maharaj admires the US Equestrian Federation (USEF) Athlete Lettering Program, which recognizes and honours equestrians in grades 5 to 12 for their dedication to the sport. The student receives an achievement certificate, and a letterman patch and lapel pin for each year of the program’s requirements, and they are worn on existing lettermen jackets as a symbol of achievement. A letterman jacket is a baseball style jacket worn by high school and college students to represent the school and team pride as well as display personal achievements and awards.
To be eligible in the equestrian program, each student must be a USEF member, log 100 hours of equestrian activity, compete at three competitions of any type or level, and submit proof of enrollment in school.
“I think highly of the US Equestrian Lettering Program which recognizes middle and high school students’ time in the saddle,” says Maharaj. “It provides a form of national validation and that young equestrians have an equal place as peers alongside other young athletes. I am also impressed by the competition model run by British universities and college sports, which has a series of mini-leagues, regional cups, and a national championship, all conducted on borrowed horses. The model gives student equestrians an affordable option.”
Changes and Initiatives
Despite the hardships that many Albertans have coped with over the past few years, AEF strives to offset limitations and offer incentives to keep membership numbers up and entice new people to horses. While Dantu recognizes that the industry is fragmented, her organization tries to use that to their advantage by offering something for everyone. The common denominator is passion for horses and AEF does what it can to capitalize on that in their marketing strategies.
“AEF Wild Rose competitions have been increasing (the number of shows sanctioning), while we have seen a steady decrease in EC sanctioned shows,” says Dantu. “We believe this is due to the costs associated with sanctioning and competing in provincial versus national sanctioned competitions. In addition, we believe that many competitions run unsanctioned as they may not see the benefits to sanctioning. AEF offers affordable competition sanctioning fees.”
AEF works hard to offer something for everyone by keeping costs and fees as low as possible, and by offering incentives. They have seen an increase in AEF Wild Rose-sanctioned competitions and a decrease in EC-sanctioned competitions, attributed to the costs involved in running and competing at provincial versus national shows. Photo: Shutterstock/Nicole Ciscato
AEF’s membership costs and fees for programs are kept extremely reasonable and have not increased in over four years. They provide funding to offset costs of educational and professional development, and offer scholarships specific to equine studies. They have a popular referral program in which individuals, clubs, and businesses get $5 for each new or returning member they refer to AEF, which has proven to be good word-of-mouth promotion for the federation. Then there are incentives such as Win Your Entry ($100/person/Wild Rose Show) to win back $100 on entry fees, incentives for shows to apply for funding to help offset costs of officials, and incentives for instructors and coaches to stay current with a monthly draw.
The AEF’s New Rider incentives/programs include the Rookie Rider program (starting this year), which teaches activities and skills fundamental to riding including gymnastics on mats, skills on a “barrel horse” and then concludes with an introduction to riding. Once completed, participants are given a Ticket to Ride (a two-year-old program) in partnership with Equestrian Canada certified instructors and/or coaches offering a free introductory riding lesson or an introduction to horses. For youth ages 7 to 15, there is the Live Outside the Box free program all about spending more time outside and being active with less screen time. Dantu says that parents love this program and prizes are awarded monthly and at year’s end.
In Newfoundland, Hoyles says, “The equestrian community is not as fruitful as has been in prior years. However, we as a Board have been working very hard to grow the community, especially within the last year. Many of our members are solely interested in competition (which is already a low number), and this year (2018) we connected with more recreational riders. Personally, I run a lesson program and, out of interest for the community, have communicated with other lesson program owners. We do have a healthy number of beginner students getting into the sport at a very elementary level. With proper, certified coaching and guidance I feel it is possible to begin to see a regrowth of the community in the not-so-distant future. With that being said, nothing is for certain and numerous factors could come into play. In the past year, there were more educational activities held and a growth in interest in joining the sport. We have strong hope this will lead to a growth in our community in the coming years.”
Hoyles says that, while the equine industry does not have a large economic significance in Newfoundland, they have a large number of Western recreational riders with a growing number of competitive ones alongside English riders in competition. But any drop in the number of recreational riders could negatively affect facilities offering board and lessons. On the positive side, they have a number of certified coaches in each discipline working diligently to produce a healthy accumulation of new riders.
In Newfoundland, membership numbers have decreased over the past five years, due to individuals getting out of the sport and not being replaced. “We as a Board have been working very hard to grow the community, especially within the last year,” says Nicholas Hoyles with the NEA. He says the province has a large number of Western recreational riders, and the number of Western competitors is growing. “With proper, certified coaching and guidance I feel it is possible to begin to see a regrowth of the community in the not-so-distant future.” Photo: Clix Photography
At the renowned Dressage at Devon facility in Devon, Pennsylvania, the organizing team decided in 2016 to inspire the next generation of dressage riders by organizing an annual Kids’ Day of entertaining and educational experiences. As a result, Dressage Explorers was born and in 2018 their activities included riding a make-and-take stick horse down the centreline in the Dixon Oval before professional announcers and judges; a selfie scavenger hunt to take a selfie at five special spots on the showgrounds and then claim a prize at the souvenir shop; watch a quadrille team of 12 horses and riders bring the classic fairytale “Snow White” to life; and take an equine trivia quiz. They could also watch young riders perform dressage tests and see special exhibitions and demonstrations of excellence in horsemanship. The experience is all about the horse and the fun that an equestrian lifestyle can offer.
In 2018, the London International Horse Show worked in consultation with the FEI to revitalize the Dressage World Cup competition by making it more interesting and understandable to a wider audience. Changes were made to the Grand Prix level in a two-year pilot project to gage audience appeal. They include a shorter technical test of five minutes with music selected for each rider by a professional musical director; after the test, each rider to remain in the arena to watch the judges’ scores; and spectators to be able to compare their scores with those the judges. These changes make dressage more interactive with the audience, providing direct feedback to the rider and perhaps bridging the divide between the mysteries of this classic sport and those who really want to know more.
Sharing the Gift of Horses
“Horses will always be a part of the human story,” says Spratt. “Basics like board, farrier, and vet will stay strong because they must, but anything beyond that is hard to predict. It’s a changing world.”
McKessock agrees. “It is a different world we live in today than 20 or 30 years ago,” she says. “There are so many extracurricular activities that you can search for with a click or two, though today, just like then, girls and boys are attracted to horses — their beauty and strength and the bond between rider and horse. Parents see the value in getting kids out of the house and in touch with nature, as well as getting some physical fitness. Some rode as children themselves and want their kids to enjoy the same experiences they had and learn some of the valuable life lessons of perseverance, responsibility, respect, and empathy. Some of those parents even start riding again themselves.
“General love and beauty of the horse gets people hooked initially,” says Jean Szkotnicki, VP of Ontario Equestrian. “This creates a bond among all horse people. And this is part of our vision – that the horse unites us all regardless of our varying pursuits.” Photo: Clix Photography
“Because there are so many choices out there, it is vital to show people a bit of what you are about using all the methods available — website, Facebook, Instagram, and still probably the most valuable - word of mouth. A real person, someone you know who likes a product or service, is more reliable than any online review. So, providing a great service, which in our industry means having great staff, instructors, and coaches who are reliable, responsible, and respectful ambassadors of our brand, as well as a solid group of school horses and ponies who are loved and appreciated by all who experience their kind, tolerant and giving natures, is essential. We are not the least expensive or the most expensive, but we do believe that people see the value in the quality of the service they are receiving, and want to know they are appreciated. We are very particular to speak of our ‘students’ as opposed to ‘customers.’ It is not an arms-length transaction, but a relationship that we hope to nourish and grow, and that sometimes extends from one generation to the next. Even as technology creeps into more and more of our lives, there’s nothing like the smell of fresh hay or shavings, or the sight of a sweet pony - ears pricked, hoping for a carrot - or the smile on your face or your child’s when learning something new about riding.”
Yet as much as things change, there is an enduring universal thread that has connected us to horses since the beginning of time, holding us tightly to ancient cultural roots. It was there millennia ago when horses ran wild across the plains of Kazakhstan. And it is here now as people are once more drawn to and captivated by horses. Many times, people can’t quite express in words their admiration for the beauty and appeal of the animal.
Clydesdale Creek’s Lucky Lady pays a gentle visit to Jace at the 2018 Yorkdown Harvest Showdown in Saskatchewan. Photo: Delvin Szumutku
“General love and beauty of the horse gets people hooked initially,” says Szkotnicki. “This creates a bond among all horse people. And this is part of our vision – that the horse unites us all regardless of our varying pursuits.”
Then something happens at an emotional level that leaves people full of wonder and brings the fascination for horses full circle at a deeply personal level.
At Saskatchewan’s Yorkton Harvest Showdown last fall, Clydesdale breeder Delvin Szumutku was getting three horses ready. He was tired. They had just returned from the World Clydesdale Show in Madison, Wisconsin, and he couldn’t help asking himself why they do all this work for a class that seems to last just a few minutes before it’s over.
In the show barn, school tours were starting with an expectation of 1,000 children visiting in just two days. The competitors were expected to take a horse into a separate aisle and answer the children’s questions. One of his horses, Clydesdale Creek’s Lucky Lady, had taken her turn for an hour and Szumutku cross-tied her to rest.
By the railing was a little boy in a wheelchair. His name was Jace and he was cared for by his twin brother, Joshua, and an assistant. Jace had cerebral palsy and could not speak or walk so he was unable to approach any of the horses.
Szumutku untied Lady, intending to lead her to Jace. But she immediately walked over alone to Jace, put her head down about a foot from his face and looked directly into his eyes. It was a moment of astonishment for Szumutku and those around him as time seemed to stand still.
“An economically sustainable equine sector can only be built upon a broad foundation of grassroots horse people rather than balanced on the narrow summit of international competitors.” – Akaash Maharaj. Maharaj is pictured with his horse, Rex Bellorum. Photo courtesy of Akaash Maharaj
“You could feel her asking him, ‘What’s wrong? You are so quiet.’” says Szumutku. “His eyes were as big as saucers. In that moment they communicated something that was above us all. It was as if Lady told him she understands. She lowered her muzzle to his cheek and they touched for about a minute. A huge smile came to Jace’s face. Then Lady stepped back and watched them leave. In that moment I understood why we do what we do. That little boy did not need that experience. That big horse did not need that experience. We needed the experience. That little boy and Lady already knew what we still have to learn. It’s about touching people with what touches us. It amazes me how one special little boy and one gentle giant, neither of who could talk, could speak so loud.”
Main article photo: iStock/Groomee
This article was originally published in Canada’s Equine Guide 2019, the January/February issue of Canadian Horse Journal.