Horsemanship is Dying, And It’s Not The Kids’ Fault
Sigh, kids these days. I think back fondly on the days of my childhood where we spent endless hours at the barn, mucking stalls and scrubbing buckets for the chance to sit on an extra pony, walking a mile uphill both ways to catch a school horse...or something like that. Now we struggle to even get kids to sweep behind themselves in the crossties after a lesson. When you’ve reminded them for the hundredth time about the necessity of cleaning tack or the importance of removing saddle marks, seemingly falling on deaf ears, it can be difficult not to feel like today’s generation isn’t like the ones that came before it. And maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s true that today’s young riders are less focused, less determined, less hungry. But I think maybe they’re not the ones to blame...
Children form their opinions, actions, views, and habits based on the people in their lives that they consider to be role models. For horse kids, this is typically the trainer first and foremost, followed by parents, barn staff, vets, farriers, the list goes on. Trainers and other equine professionals such as vets and farriers are in a unique position to influence young riders because of the pedestal upon which their students put them. They’re supposed to know better. They’re supposed to do better. They’re supposed to know what to do when, to always do the right thing, and to always have the answer. When the professionals don’t prioritize horsemanship, the kids can’t possibly be expected to do so.
I’ve heard stories of horrible horsemanship by trainers and vets that have made my jaw drop and stomach sink. More often, though, there aren’t big despicable acts that go on behind closed barn doors that lead to this problem. Instead, it’s typically just a lack of focus on learning the ins and outs of being a real horse person. The day is so jam-packed with riding lessons, there’s just no time to teach the other stuff. Many parents don’t want to pay for their kid to get all grimy and learn about what their horse eats or the tendon structure of their pony’s lower leg. They just want to get in the riding lesson then motor off to the next activity. Or maybe they’re the ultra-competitive type, that wants to only spend time on riding so they can ship off to the next show, win the next blue ribbon, make the next social media post, shoot for the next championship. Or maybe they just plain don’t get it.
The entire reason we have the horsemanship knowledge we do is because someone along the line took the time to teach us. I was so fortunate to have trainers who took me in and taught me all they could. Many of us professionals want to do the exact same for our students. We want to pass the knowledge down so it doesn’t die out with our generation. For so many of us, we’re desperately trying to cultivate the barn rats of Gen Z, but are running into parents who don’t want to pay for it or days that are overbooked just trying to make ends meet.
For the first several years I taught lessons, I was a starving young professional trying to pay for gas and groceries in the same week. So I agreed to cleaning all the stalls at the horse shows so the kids could go to the tack store. I agreed to pulling all of the horses’ manes so the kids didn’t have to be late to the next activity. I agreed to wrapping everyone’s legs at the end of the night so the families could go out to dinner. I agreed to everything because it made everyone happier, it was a lot easier, and it paid for a Starbucks coffee on the way to the show the next morning - if Starbucks was even open that early.
Then, when I started a new program a few years ago, I decided to change everything. I decided to stop agreeing to doing it all myself and that these kids needed to learn these skills! I created Saddle Club Sunday, a once monthly group horsemanship lesson that every rider in my program is entitled to with their lesson package. We’ve covered topics such as nutrition, anatomy, wrapping, bits, and first aid. I set out to create an atmosphere that prioritizes horsemanship above all else, no exceptions. If the footing is terrible, we scratch. If the horse isn’t quite right, we don’t ride. If the legs aren’t wrapped correctly, we undo it and try again. I don’t always have all the answers and I don’t always do the right thing, but I’m trying. This winter has been rough - when it’s a nasty rainy day, it’s tempting to just cancel lessons, go home early, and eat a balanced meal for once instead of teaching an indoor ground lesson. But the only way horsemanship is going to survive is if the powers that be - and in this case, that’s the pros and the parents - make sure that it does. Horsemanship is dying, and it’s not all the kids’ fault.