I know there are still a lot of horse-crazy girls, and probably a few boys, out there in the world. According to statistics however, their numbers are declining considerably, and the demographic of horse owners is narrowing:
Looking at the overall picture, the typical horse owner is a married female, 45 or older, who is employed full time and has a household income of more than $50,000.
Further, the proportion of horse owners ages 18 to 34 has declined from 24 percent in 2006 to 15 percent in 2009 to 11 percent in 2013, according to Brakke. So overall, Brakke has observed a gradual decline in the proportion of young horse owners. The same goes for the rate of participation in equine competitions, particularly at the local level.
Since 2009, the percentage of horse owners who participate in competitions has declined from 36 to 30 percent. Competition participation at regional, national, and international levels has remained about constant; however, the proportion of these horse owners who also compete at the local level has declined by nearly 10 percent, from 84 percent in 2009 to 77 percent in 2013. And the mean amount of time horse owners spend on equine activities has declined from 20-plus hours a week to 17-plus.
The big question is, why? Have more kids lost interest in horses, or animals and nature in general, because of their obsession with electronic devices? Have smart-phones and social media begun to replace the desire for activities that require them to put down the phones and pay attention to another living being? Perhaps the economy has made horse-ownership too expensive for the average family and accessibility has waned as agricultural land is converted to higher densities. Possibly all of the above.
I think often of the last group of students I had. All but a couple have grown up and gone off to college, world travels, and careers. If they have access to horses they’ll ride, but otherwise it’s an activity that’s fallen by the wayside. One of the reasons I stopped teaching is because there were so few kids coming up behind them. Only one or two enthusiastic, bright eyed little girls wanting to play with the minis. Nobody wanting to put the time or money into showing. Nobody looking for a new horse. No need to look for a new horse anyway as there are plenty standing around whose owners don’t have enough time to spend with them. Too many of those in fact.
I also think of all the horses who have been “sadly outgrown”, neglected, abandoned, or sent to auctions. If only they could all be matched up with the kids who still want to ride, especially for those of whom it’s an economic or accessibility issue. I don’t know what the answers are but if we want to keep the industry sustainable we need to find a way to re-engage youth and connect them back to horses. Perhaps breed associations and lesson programs will have to alter their methods for engaging a younger set of riders, finding new ways to synchronize today’s tech-oriented kids with an equestrian lifestyle.
We know what kind of positive influence horses have on people. In The Compassionate Equestrian, Dr. Schoen and I have proposed new, more compassionate methods for training and handling horses that come from a base of compassion. The program begins by teaching self-compassion and mindfulness and applying compassion to one’s own life as well as to all living beings. Horses are extraordinary biofeedback units. They are so valuable in teaching people, especially young people, the benefits of becoming aware of the emotions and feelings of another being.
One of the key issues amongst teenagers is bullying each other on social media networks. It happens at the barns too and the trickle-down effect from the abuser, to the victims, and to the horses, is unfair to everyone involved. We desperately need a new paradigm that will work for the horses who need compassion, attention and care as much as youth who need the same. We know how much horses can help:
A kind of magic happens when a desperately unhappy child is brought to the country to interact with horses. A change of environment, especially from an urban area to open, natural surroundings, filled with fresh air and flooded with sunshine, can have an uplifting and calming effect, and with time, a troubled teen can begin to let go of a lot of pent-up, negative emotions.
When teenagers first arrive at an equine program, they are often withdrawn and angry. Their relationships have been negative – but the relationship they will experience with a horse will be completely different from any other. Horses and other animals are completely honest in their encounters, and for many teens this will be the first interaction they have ever had in which they can honestly be themselves.
It seems like gone are the days when we would see 80 or 90 kids in a junior hunter class. There’s still a handful that can compete at the big, “A” rated shows, or go to the Nationals for their breed organizations, but those numbers are dwindling too. Breeders are still breeding, and more racetracks are shutting down as thoroughbred racing continues to fall out of favor. People are more over-extended than ever in just trying to survive and manage everything. It’s no wonder horse ownership for kids is waning. Where are all the ponies, pleasure horses and thoroughbreds going to go? What will become of a young horse today that will still be around 10, or perhaps even 20 years from now?
If we don’t find a way to bring a new generation of compassionate young riders and trainers to the industry, I’m very concerned as to what will happen to our domesticated horses in this rapidly changing world. I’m sure they’ll still be here, patiently waiting for their people to show up. Hoping to be taken out of their stalls for some exercise. Looking forward to having somebody to teach. I just hope we can provide them with an endless supply of new students who are willing to learn.