Numbers declining | New initiatives launched to revive interest and participation among children under 13
RED DEER — Singer Willy Nelson once crooned that his heroes were always cowboys, but that is not likely the case anymore for young people.
This changing interest has had a profound impact on the equine industry because fewer people are interested in riding and owning horses.
Longtime horse breeder and trainer Frank Merrill said horse organizations have not been quick to respond to the waning interest and there is a chance the horseman will be a vanishing breed across North America and Europe.
“We have learned in the last 12 months we have a 30 percent decline in youth participation in the horse industry,” he said.
The past-president of the American Quarterhorse Association attributes the lack of interest to aging horse breeders, economic challenges and children of baby boomers finding other activities.
He believes baby boomers were interested in horses because they were fans of movie and television westerns and admired actors such as Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. They also knew the names of their horses.
“Now our children are interested in other things,” he told the Alberta Horse Breeders Conference in Red Deer Jan. 15.
The AQHA has launched several programs to draw children back into the horse world. Equine Canada also announced a new program to rebuild the industry and support equestrian sports to encourage more young people to join at the recreational and competitive levels.
The AQHA is launching an online program called Digital Oats, which offers games, crafts and information about horses.
Many of today’s riders are middle-aged women. The association has also found that 80 percent of young people interested in horses are girls. It has decided the new target group could be children aged three to 13.
The concept would also collaborate with the scouting movement or 4-H because both offer horsemanship components.
The association has found that children younger than 13 spend less than five hours a week in sports or outdoor activities, but many sit for as much as 48 hours per week in front of a screen, including phones, tablets, computers and televisions.
“You can see immediately what our problem is,” he said.
The association believes 20 million of the 75 million young people in the United States are potential clients. Five million of them are younger than five.
The most likely participants are children from two parent families with incomes of more than $100,000 per year who live in or around medium to large cities. They need to already like outdoor activities and live from the Midwest to the Rockies.
In Canada, the program would probably target children in Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia.
The AQHA has provided $1 million to support Digital Oats, but Merrill believes it will take millions of dollars to keep the industry afloat. However, he said it has to start somewhere as registrations fall and more people lose contact with horses.
“This program is non-denominational. It is not about the Quarterhorse,” he said.
“We want anybody who is involved with the equine to be involved with this.”
AQHA registrations in Canada and the U.S. have dropped 60 percent since 2004: from 195,000 to 85,000.
Tara Gamble, president of the Alberta Equine Federation, said the faltering economy has affected all forms of recreation, and affordability is an issue for many.
Fewer horse shows are held and some events have looked at lowering their entry fees so that people return.
“There is a price point people are willing to pay,” she said.
Sixty percent of those involved with horses in Alberta in 2009 were children. That has since reversed, and more adults, particularly women, are now involved with horses. Most of them are between 35 and 45, Gamble said.
Alberta horses numbers are also declining, and it is estimated there are 250,000 to 300,000 horses in the province.