June 2016 - In Celebration of Riding Schools

Safety, horsemanship and fun are the priorities at the entry level of our sport.

by Kim F. Miller

Entry-level riding programs have always been the gateway to our sport. They are the pipeline for growth at the base of equestrian involvement, which spurs growth and, hopefully, success at the top—the international level. The media spotlight shines brightest on this level, especially in this Olympic summer, but riding schools and academies warrant attention as the day-in, day-out presence at the threshold of the equestrian world.

Elvenstar’s Kaycee Bischoff with this season’s crop of walk/trot riders. Kaycee is the “world’s best” Mommy & Me instructor, says Elvenstar founder Jim Hagman, and she also teaches all levels at the Moorpark program’s Riding Academy and coordinates special events.

Bridges Equestrian Pony Club Riding Center C1 Maddy Carpenter, 13, competes in the Orange County Horse Show Association Horsemanship Medal at the Signature SJC Horse Show at Sycamore Trails Stables in April.

That’s why riding schools are a focal point of the United States Hunter Jumper Association’s sport growth initiative. The organization hopes to tap the riding school pipeline and funnel students toward the hunter/jumper discipline. Plans include a mutually beneficial arrangement of providing recognition to schools and educational materials and opportunities to their students, while adding to USHJA membership rolls.

“Once we have identified the schools, we plan to collaborate with them to provide value to their operations and their customers,” says Larry Langer, veteran show manager and sport advocate whose latest venture is launching, with his wife Marnye Langer, the Hansen Dam Riding School in the Los Angeles area’s Sylmar. “We believe offering an entry membership level for their riders will be a part of the effort and we anticipate that educational information and programming will also be important components.”

While the program is still in development, Larry says the USHJA hopes to launch it by the end of this year or in 2017.

To celebrate the often-unsung endeavors at this level of the sport, we spoke with several of our area’s riding schools about the realities and rewards of manning the front lines of our industry.

Work days are part of the program at Strides Riding Academy in Petaluma, run by hunter/jumper trainer Maggie Clancy.

Foxfield

Poised to mark its 50th anniversary next year, the Foxfield Riding School is the gold standard. Founders, twin sisters Nancy Turrill and JoAnn Postel (JoAnn’s husband Bill Postel is a founder, too), are still active as instructors, mentors and inspirations. At their 29-acre Sherwood Forest property in Westlake Village, JoAnn and Nancy have continued their original mission of teaching hands-on horsemanship, sportsmanship and keeping the sport accessible for families of normal economic means. Along they way, they have raised riders like Meredith Michaels Beerbaum, who’ve gone onto international success and, maybe more importantly, many who’ve gone on to expand the Foxfield legacy through programs of their own.

“We cater to people who are really interested in horses, in taking care of them,” JoAnn says. Hence, a no-groom policy that applies to everyone from first timers to A-circuiters.

Raising kids has changed tremendously during Foxfield’s 50 years, but “We haven’t felt any pressure to change our program because it’s been successful for us,” JoAnn comments. “It’s a sad change that things have gotten so commercial and I think the big money involved now brings a negative side to the sport.”

Young Foxfielders carry on the program’s legacy by enticing newcomers with free pony rides during the Foxfield Derby. Photo: Kim F Miller

Foxfield hosts shows and takes students to away competitions, “but we never push a show on them.” The Potential Olympic Threats (POTS) shows inspire 30-and-overs to test their skills over fences not to exceed 2’9” and their Sum-Fun shows are one-day affairs geared for beginners or those wanting a low-key environment.

“The fact that everybody is treated the same is probably one of the reasons for our success,” JoAnn continues.

Sleepover summer camps have brought young riders from far and wide to Foxfield, and its famous Foxfield Equestrian Team, in which a wire round the horse’s neck is the only tack, has brought it equally wide recognition.

“The social aspect of our program is very important,” JoAnn explains. Its Little Sister program applies social appeal to horsemanship education in having seasoned students bring the youngsters along. “That passes the horsemanship torch on every year. It’s a heavy-duty program, starting from the ground up.”

Like many good programs, Foxfield has a tiered system of advancement. Beginners start in a western saddle for security, learning their posting diagonals, halt, circle, trot and canter along the way. Working their way to the main ring lessons is a big goal, especially the Saturday morning advanced classes taught by JoAnn and Nancy. “It’s fun to see them looking at the main ring, saying, ‘I’m going to get there!’”

Foxfield founders Nancy Turrill and JoAnn Postel.

A palpable family atmosphere and lots of multi-generational family involvement are Foxfield hallmarks. “We have all kinds of levels and abilities,” JoAnn says. “We love the kids and love the horses and sport. Foxfield is a whole way of life for us. It’s not just a way to make money.”

Although residential development now surrounds Foxfield, the property and the program are set to stay in the large Postel family into perpetuity. “We have set it up so that it can’t be sold unless the whole family wants that, and I know that one of them will always want to carry it on,” JoAnn shares.

A student at Linda Levy’s San Diego Riding Academy navigates a jump. Linda identified a niche for catering to “boomerang riders” in her area and enjoys helping many adults return to the sport, along with lots of kids.

Elvenstar

Founder Jim Hagman is one of those Foxfielders who went on to build their own legacy. With his family’s help, Jim developed the tiered, tree-shaded property in Moorpark in the 80s. He started giving lessons with one school horse and one pony. Fast forward 30-plus years, and Elvenstar now has a roster of 150 students in Moorpark, plus another 30-40 every week in a satellite location at the Huntington Central Park Equestrian Center in Huntington Beach.

Jim’s original mission was to offer instruction for beginners through medal finals winners, and Elvenstar’s offerings have broadened within that in recent years. A business-savvy horseman, Jim calls it a “wide bandwidth” approach. During and after the economic downturn around 2007, Jim observed a shift in the market. “It was like an iceberg had broken up in this ocean of extraordinarily rich people who could do anything. If that was two percent of American families, it became .5 percent.” That got him asking, “What do you do with the rest of the families who can and will participate in this sport?”

Elvenstar pony rider.

He’s frustrated that equestrian sports, overall, lack proactive growth models. “In any other industry, you wouldn’t say, ‘If they can’t go to Thermal for eight weeks, they’re not worth it’.” In professional baseball or soccer, for example, “They want the amateur group to play the game.”

Knowing that Moorpark families have an average annual income of $63,000, Jim asked, “At what level can a small child stay in this as an after-school activity.” The answer is programs that are primarily based at the home stable, or not far away. At Elvenstar, these include middle and high school team programs like IEA and IEL and Mommy & Me classes, all intertwined with the Elvenstar Riding School. Jim added a U.S. Pony Club Riding Center to Elvenstar’s offerings, yet another affordable avenue of involvement.

Elvenstar’s diversification also reflects societal shifts in how kids spend their time, particularly as the demands of college admission pressure students to be very forward-thinking in their time commitments.

Kayla Lott is the most recent of several riders to embody what’s possible when a rider of average economic means lucks out in landing at Elvenstar. This year’s Interscholastic Equestrian Association national champion and the winner of several top regional junior equitation titles, Kayla earned a scholarship to ride for and attend Oklahoma State University. (See story on Kayla, in this month's issue)

The only thing Jim doesn’t like about Kayla’s story is that it was “luck” that brought her to Elvenstar in the first place. “I don’t like that.” Jim believes there should be some form of licensing, ideally with a rating system, that would help newcomers identify good quality programs. “It really matters. We are educating youth for the most part, and people ought to be able to know where your school ranks.”  Such a system should fall under the USEF’s jurisdiction, per its Ted Stevens Amateur Sports Act responsibility to govern all levels of an Olympic sport. “It’s an obligation and it starts with riding academies!”

In lieu of that, all of Elvenstar’s instructors have earned their USHJA Trainers Certification and the school itself is licensed by the County of Ventura as an academy. “By state law, people who do nails and hair have to be licensed,” Jim asserts. “What we do is far more important. We should be required by law to have a license to put a child on a pony.” At higher levels, the economics involved in A circuit horse purchases should also require some form of licensing, he adds.

Meanwhile, Elvenstar continues to provide a great experience to newcomers under its own barn roofs, while also helping professionals adopt its multi-tiered business model. It helps that he owns the Elvenstar land, Jim acknowledges, but his ideas can be scaled down to suit different situations. He hopes that all young professionals will see the connection between providing entry-level opportunities, their own success and contributing to that of the sport as a whole.

Bridges Equestrian School of Horsemanship & Training

Orange County veteran horseman Ruthanna Bridges jumped on the US Pony Club Riding Center concept in 2012. She had long had a successful multi-level program at her San Juan Capistrano base, and was drawn to the national curriculum and certification built into the USPC Riding Center concept. Both governed by the USPC, Pony Clubs are non-profits run by volunteers and Riding Centers are for-profits run by professionals and often in concert with a Club at the same facility—as is the case at Ruthanna’s facility.

San Diego Riding Academy students often spend free time volunteering at the barn, helping out with the horses and learning more about them.

Affordability and a systematic approach to building a horsemanship foundation are hallmarks of both programs. For $35 a month, Bridges Pony Club members get two unmounted and one mounted horsemanship lesson per month. All but two of its 34 Pony Club members are part of the Riding Center lesson program. “People can get a foot in the door for very little money,” Ruthanna explains. “Every little rider should be able spend some time with and learn about horses.”

The Club and Center are next steps for Bridges’ Pony Pals program for 4- and 5-year-olds, and feeders to more advanced training programs, including Bridges Equestrian run at the same facility by Ruthanna’s daughter-in-law Kendra Bridges (wife of up-and-coming professional rider Devon Bridges). Ruthanna is proud of comments she gets from Kendra and others who take on her graduates. “It takes a tremendous amount of man power and time to run what we have, but trainers constantly say, ‘We love getting your students because they have such a great horsemanship base.’ That is the highest complement somebody can pay me because it means we are building the base of sport’s pyramid with people who have a good foundation.”

And it’s building at a good clip. In April, Ruthanna’s program delivered 620 lessons and, with summer camp, that number will close to double, she reports.

Strides Riding Academy

Hunter/jumper trainer Maggie Clancy turned professional in 2006 and added the entry-level program to her Petaluma business in 2009. It has grown consistently: now giving about 60 lessons a week (not including horse-owning training clientele) on 11 school horses and ponies. Strides caters to everyone from “itty bitty” riders, summer campers and beginner adults to full-fledged show clients. Adding an Interscholastic Equestrian Association team five years ago has provided a competitive outlet for lesson students and training clients.

Strides Riding Academy students.

A new mother, Maggie admits “I never do any of the marketing that I’m supposed to,” yet growth has been steady. Good word of mouth and social media reviews contribute to that, she says.

Maggie recently purchased and moved onto her own property in Petaluma, improving the financial logistics of continued growth and affordability for entry-level clients. “Not having to pay board on our horses and having control of board prices is huge!” Maggie says. The lesson program has graduated many to the training program, but “having to tell parents that their new pony’s board will be a $1,000 a month was tough. This allows us to keep a cap on things.”

An emphasis on safety, horsemanship and fun have driven Strides’ success.  Three of her instructors have their Certified Horsemanship Association credentials. Sunday Five Strides Club invites lesson students to spend extra educational time at the stable and field trips to places like Circle Oak Equine Sports Rehabilitation have been big hits.

San Diego Riding Academy

Linda Levy ran a large lesson and training program on the East Coast before starting the San Diego Riding Academy in Lakeside from scratch in 2012. She determined there was a niche for serving adult riders, often “boomerang riders who rode as kids,” and that’s proven true. Based at Silver Bullet Ranch in Lakeside, the Academy averages 25 to 30 lessons a week, plus a more recently-developed training clientele geared toward competing on the hunter/jumper circuit.

“My niche is women who really want to understand horses and horsemanship,” Linda explains. “The horsemanship aspect makes us unique, I think. A lot of our students come out on non-lesson days and volunteer to help care for the horses because they enjoy it and they learn a lot from it.” Adults and kids learn to muck stalls, take equine temperatures, bandages legs, etc., on top of the basics of preparing their horses before and after rides. Grooms are not part of the deal.

Many graduate to leasing or ownership. “I made it really clear to people that those horses need exercise, veterinary care, etc.”   

Kudos to these programs and the many others in our region providing safe, fun and horsemanship-intensive gateways to equestrian sport. It’s rarely the most lucrative or glamorous level to be working in, but the rewards are meaningful for all involved and key to the sport’s future.