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Riding Schools: Panic to Positives

Riding Schools: Panic to Positives
Hansen Dam Riding School student. PC: Kristin Lee

Flat-out panic describes Lisa Sabo’s state of mind nine months ago as she looked at $20,000 in monthly expenses for her Newport Mesa Riding Center lesson horses. The horses had no way to earn their keep as Orange County, like most of California, went under stay-at-home orders.

            Lisa now faces a more pleasant panic: “I need more horses and instructors!” she says. Based at the Orange County Fair & Event Center Equestrian Center, the Newport Mesa Riding School is booked beyond capacity since restrictions on outdoor activities were lifted.

            Before this week’s implementation of new restrictions, that was the case elsewhere, too.

            Ventura County equestrian hub, Elvenstar in Moorpark, has a waiting list for lessons for the first time in its 35-year history. Demand is at an all-time peak at Elvenstar’s Orange County branch. The Hansen Dam Riding School in the Los Angeles area’s Lakeview Terrace rebounded from near-closure to humming along at 300 to 350 lessons a month. And the lesson schedule at Kern Equestrian Academy in Bakersfield has approximately doubled during the pandemic with a big boost from new students.

            In at least one case, the COVID-induced pause inspired a business model revision more likely to ensure long-term sustainability.

            “This is the busiest we’ve ever been in our history, and the fellow professionals I’m talking to are saying the same thing,” says Elvenstar founder Jim Hagman.

A Shot In The Arm?

Hansen Dam Riding School student.

           Nobody is happy about COVID. However, it seems to be spurring interest in riding. That’s been long sought by an industry in which many segments have seen little to no participation growth for many years. If new and returning riders can be kept in the saddle when the world returns to whatever the new normal will be, this base-of-the-sport growth could be a needed shot in the arm.

            Success at the top, international levels of the sport is tied to the scope and strength of its base. Arguably more important than competitive success is the continued ability for all enthusiasts to enjoy and interact with horses. More people with horse experience means more support for keeping public stables, arenas and trails and preservation of the equestrian lifestyle in its many manifestations.

            Elvenstar founder Jim Hagman predicted the pandemic’s effect on interest in horses. “Youth have been impacted to such a degree,” he said back in early spring. “I think parents are going to want their kids to do more things outdoors, in nature, and in less crowded quarters. They are going to want them to do things that involve health and there’s nothing more healthy than being with horses. With the stresses of a shut-down world, I think more parents will want their kids interacting with something more than the electronic box in their hand.”

            The multi-tiered Elvenstar lesson program was just emerging from lock-down orders at the time, but Jim was optimistic that there might be a silver lining.

            He was right. “We hear parents saying they just want their kid to come out into a riding program,” he now observes. Some students are returnees fulfilling pent-up demand from summer camps that couldn’t be held at Elvenstar’s Moorpark facility.

            For other cases, it’s youngsters and adults who’d always wanted to ride and see now as the perfect time to do it. Horseback riding happens outdoors and lends itself to relatively feasible physical distancing protocols. Plus, there’s far fewer activities on families’ previously hectic day planners.

            Along with predicting the boom in interest, Jim expressed hope there would be a new emphasis on well-rounded horsemanship and foundational basics education. The equestrian world, he says, needs to get better at training horse people to be effective educators.

            The 2021 roll-out of the United States Hunter Jumper Association’s new Instructor Credential program couldn’t be better timed, Jim asserts. This evolution of the Trainer Certification Program combines a 10-topic online learning process with live testing workshop and an examination of teaching skills.          

            The online portion covers riding theory, stable management, lesson program best practices and business, legal and ethics. The next phase includes coaching and testing on teaching skills, based on live evaluation. Evaluating actual teaching skills is already part of trainer and instructor certification programs offered by the United States Dressage Federation and the US Eventing Association. This is a first in the hunter/jumper segment of the sport.

            In an “anyone can hang out their own shingle” industry, such training and certification is seen as good for the sport as a whole and a helpful marketing distinction for those making it their livelihood. The programs do cost money and time, but Jim considers them critical for sustainable sport growth.

This Business Of Horses

            Time to scrutinize the business model helped stave off closure that Marnye Langer worried would be necessary for the Hansen Dam Riding School she and her husband Larry Langer founded five years ago. Even though it had been booking 400-500 lessons a month before the pandemic, the bottom line wasn’t financially sustainable. That’s even with the goal of being “revenue neutral,” explains Marnye, whose MBA degree enhanced the examination of the finances with Riding School director Gioia Lamendola.

            “Gioia deserves a ton of credit in this,” Marnye says. “She really rolled up her sleeves.” She and other staff members made sacrifices as needed and the Langers’ extended family of horse people helped with horse care to get through the shut-down. Too much money spent on riders unlikely to make steady progress was the main revelation of the hunkering down over the books. “We cut out the bottom 20% of our clientele,” Marnye explains. That resulted in the current average of 300 to 350 lessons a month, representing approximately 75 to 100 unique clients.

            “We were spending too much time and horse resources having to do one-on-one lessons,” she continues. “People who were incremental riders weren’t getting any better.” Hansen Dam students are now required to buy a package of at least five lessons that must be taken in a set time period. There is flexibility for injuries or vacations, but the idea is to enroll students serious about making progress. “That doesn’t mean that you have to be a great rider or want to buy a horse, but you have to be serious and make a commitment.”

             Regular riders also get preferential treatment in lesson scheduling, important now that Hansen Dam has a waiting list and especially so for busy weekends.

            Marnye wasn’t sure it would work. “I was afraid not enough people would be economically able or willing to spend their discretionary dollars on riding. But we’ve found that enough of our clientele has stayed employed and they are putting a huge value on coming out to ride.”

            The majority of Hansen Dam’s students are returnees. Most were notified of the program’s resumption through an actively maintained e-mail database. Marnye estimates a 65/35 ratio of kids to adults.

            Like most reputable riding schools, Hansen Dam has an enrollment process that begins with a private evaluation lesson. That is followed by closely-supervised instruction that prepares students to ride safely in a group lesson. Stair-stepped opportunities attached to advancing skills include the Equishare program in which students can ride the same horse in their lessons.  Marnye credits Elvenstar with sharing that idea. Both programs offer a unique opportunity for advanced students to compete at shows held at their venues without the major jump in cost of owning their own horse.

Dwindling Pipeline

            The Langers launched the riding school shortly after taking over the management concession for the vastly revitalized Hansen Dam Horse Park. While Marnye professes “I don’t do anything for only altruistic reasons,” the Riding School was born of their desire to help the sport. “There are so few truly decent riding schools around,” she says of programs with well-cared for horses dedicated to giving lessons. That’s opposed to show-focused training barns with a few horses available for lessons hoped to convert students into training clients.

            The Langers noticed that trainers “were not feeding our own pipeline.” Full-fledged riding schools disappeared gradually over time. It’s an expensive and labor-intensive business, Marnye acknowledges. Especially with an urban area’s Catch 22 of having a huge market to pull from coupled with high land and horsekeeping costs.

            Marnye describes riding schools as a viable business for owner/operators. Non sweat-equity investors need not apply. As a feeder for higher level sport participation, even the best riding school, and lots of them, can’t close the “big chasm” between taking lessons and horse ownership. “But the more people riding recreationally, at least we build more of a fan base,” Marnye concludes. “And some of those will continue on up the ladder.”

Bigger Benefits

            Lisa Sabo has seen first-hand the benefits of providing access to horses, even for those who don’t continue in the sport themselves. Over many years, she’s led efforts to keep horses at the Orange County Fair & Event Center. The campaigns were successful in a scenario that’s familiar to publicly-owned equestrian facilities. Others have not been so effective in saving places to enjoy horses in urban areas.

            “Years ago when we were going door to door in the fight to save the Equestrian Center, I can’t tell you how many times people said, ‘Yes, I support you. I did a camp there as a child.’ These are 50-year-old people and that may have been their only touch with horses in their entire life.”

             Summer and holiday camps are the main entry points for new riders at Newport Mesa Riding Center, and 80% of them return for multiple camps, Lisa estimates. Most, however, “probably don’t do anything but our camp.” Even without being year-round clients, positive equestrian experiences translate to community support that is critical to keeping horses in urban areas.

            In addition to the Riding School, Lisa and Brian Sabo’s multi-level program includes a US Pony Club Riding Center and a training program that takes advanced riders to the highest levels of eventing competition. That structure provides access for young riders of varied economic means. “We have opportunities for kids that might need to work off some of their expenses and for kids and adults with other challenges,” she explains. “I really like the fact that our barn offers that diversity. We’ve learned to help everyone from where they’re at.”

            Meanwhile, the phone was ringing off the hook as of early December and Lisa was looking for another lesson horse and more instructors.           

Good On Google

            A website optimized for internet search engines has been key to Kern Equestrian Academy’s riding lesson program during the pandemic, says assistant trainer Lisé Patterson. After a brief shut down when schools were closed early in the COVID era, the Bakersfield facility re-opened and was quickly booked with returning students and new riders. “Our website pops up as a top five result in Google searches,” she says. “Since everything closed, we’ve had a lot of new traffic to our website. It’s people looking for an alternative for their kids to get outside and into an activity they can still do.”      

            Pony rides provide a way for 3-year-olds on up to get involved, and 7 to 15 is the main age range of new students at Kern Equestrian. Getting new riders onto a set schedule is key to retention. Lisé hopes that will continue to be the case when COVID is under control and the wider range of “normal” activities compete for families’ time and funds.

            “We really promote a weekly lesson and lesson packages,” Lisé says. Pricing that is on par with dance, gymnastic and other mainstream youth activities has also helped. A 50-minute introductory lesson is $30; a single 50-minute lesson is $50; and a package of six lessons is $220.

            “We like to think that our clients get hooked after that initial lesson.” Not everybody will become a lifelong rider, she acknowledges. “You have to feel that out with each client. Our goal is giving them the basics, from which they can move on to our specialties in dressage and jumping.”

            Ten to 20 new clients a month has been the norm during the pandemic, Lisé says of an approximate doubling of new students. Two new lessons horses are on their way to facilitate that growth and she is optimistic about sustaining it.

            Bike paths are busy. Tennis courts and golf courses are full as reasonably safe outdoor activities in the COVID era. It’s a nice change to have horseback riding fit in alongside these popular mainstream sports. Here’s hoping for a speedy end to the horrible COVID crisis and that this significant increase in equestrian interest carries on long after.

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