May 2019 - Prepare To Promote
Written by by Kim F. Miller
Tuesday, 30 April 2019 03:09
PDF Print E-mail


We can all help promote & preserve the equestrian lifestyle by helping newcomers find the best local riding programs.

by Kim F. Miller

Welcome to our fifth year of celebrating programs that introduce people to horses. They are the lifeblood of every level of the equestrian lifestyle and critical to preserving it. Most reading this don’t need a beginning riding program themselves, but we want to inspire all horse owners and enthusiasts to educate themselves on good beginner programs to recommend to those who ask.

We’ve all had somebody ask, “Where should I go for lessons?” when we’re out and about in the real world in our boots and breeches or emitting a certain “eau d’equine” that signals our passion for horses. Sending potential riders to a reputable, welcoming beginner-friendly program is critical to getting them into the sport. A well-founded suggestion leads to a good experience that will hopefully hook a new person on horses for good, whether as a lifelong fan, eventual high-level competitor or any level in between.

Toward that end, here’s a glimpse of three such programs and our updated list of schools that members of our staff can vouch for. Please get in touch with any additional recommendations: we’re updating the list on our website as a year-round referral source (click here for our current list of recommended schools).

The Hayden Riding School at Hayden Clarke Sport Horses
In Orange County’s Laguna Hills

Twenty-five years after launching a beginning riding school, Mickey Hayden might be expected to be a little blasé about the long-thriving program. Instead, the veteran jumping coach and horseman is cooking up new ideas still flowing from his original vision for the school. “We have a soft spot for those who want to enjoy horses but might not be able to afford it,” explains Mickey, whose Hayden Clarke Sport Horses holds a prominent place on the A hunter/jumper show circuit.

Ten weeks of summer camp introduce a steady flow of new people to horses every year, and year-round lessons structured on progressive levels of skill and knowledge provide a place for them to continue with the sport. A newer, year-round Pleasure Program offers horse interaction for two hours every Sunday.

Depending on the experience level of each week’s participants, the sessions may or may not include actual riding. Many people “just love the introduction to general horsemanship: it’s an adventure,” Mickey reports. Tours of the barn, meeting the horses and simple activities like learning to walk one out of its stall and around the property attract adults and kids. Some sign up for repeat Sundays and some get more serious and move into regular lessons.

Throughout his tenure, riding school clients still come for the same reasons, Mickey observes. “It’s a hobby and an entertainment for a lot of families. They just want to be involved with horses.” As riders, many students top out at jumping around 2’ in height. Others go much farther. “Some of my best clients have come from that riding school,” he says. “We develop them from scratch, they wind up leasing a horse from us, then decide to get more serious in our training program.”

Both the riding school and the training program are structured around having students pass levels of skill and knowledge before moving onto the next. “It ends up being a motivator for students, but the reason I implemented it is to oversee my instructors and see how they are doing,” Mickey explains.

Regardless of a client’s budget or long-term goals, ensuring their progress as horsemen is a priority for the Hayden Clarke team.

The Hayden Riding School is located at the Nellie Gail Equestrian Center in Laguna Hills. It’s ideally situated in one of Orange County’s few remaining equestrian communities, Nellie Gail Ranch, and draws students from throughout the County, especially San Juan Capistrano and Dana Point. Six to eight horses, mostly retired show mounts, comprise the lesson string.

Having a full-fledged lesson program and an A-circuit training barn at the same location provides many synergistic benefits. Beginners and those moving up the ranks have daily exposure to show horses being developed and advanced riders honing their skills. That includes Mickey’s former protégé and now partner, Lane Clarke, an accomplished and active Grand Prix competitor, and top rider and coach April Branson.

The environment is lovely and a friendly barn culture encourages interaction between all enthusiasts. Advanced training clients usually comprise the volunteer crew during regular riding school shows and community events. It’s a role ripe with new learning opportunities that come from sharing knowledge, while newbies learn from watching experienced equestrians ride and manage their horses. Loans or donations of show apparel are common, as is sharing encouragement and advice.

Periodic horse shows at Hayden Clarke serve the dual purpose of creating affordable, low-key competition opportunities and showcasing horse sports to the surrounding community.  “They are more to draw us all together,” Mickey explains.

With the Hayden Clarke enterprise running smoothly under Lane and April’s daily direction, Mickey is focused on developing the program’s ability to mentor serious young equestrians and bring more of the community into the horse world. He’ll continue working with Lane and April and their advanced horses but, at 64, “I’m turning that page toward more things that get the community involved in our sport.” Given what he’s accomplished this last quarter-century, that’s good news!

For more information, visit

California Riding Academy
At Sweeney Ridge Equestrian in the Bay Area’s Pacifica

Making a great first impression on new customers has been key to the successful launch of the California Riding Academy in the San Francisco Peninsula town of Pacifica. Seasoned hunter/jumper trainer Jessica Beyer Harrell opened the program six months ago as a sister business to her training facility about half an hour’s drive away in Woodside. Recognizing a niche for a high-quality riding program in the San Francisco suburb, Jessica acknowledges, “It’s been a tough six months, but the hard work is starting to pay off.”

The lifelong horseman is convinced that even families with no prior horse experience recognize a quality program when they see it. A no-obligation introductory lesson and assessment lets prospective students do just that: come try it out. “We take pride in what we do and I think it shows,” she says. “Our horses are well trained, well cared for and in good weight and our equipment is checked regularly.”

Three full-time instructors and additional part-timers pass Jessica’s careful scrutiny and focus on safety, detailed horsemanship and top-notch instruction.

Having fun is also critical. As the mother of three kids, (two of them accomplished show riders) Jessica has an advantage in knowing that learning occurs best in a positive and constructive environment. Jessica wants, and enjoys most, sharing the magic of horses with any student, regardless of their level or experience.

Welcoming and accommodating riders with varying goals is also key. One adult couple came to CRA to get comfortable with horses, (on the school’s western-outfitted Quarter Horses) before taking a horseback safari in Africa. Other students get their first equine interaction as summer campers, contract the horse bug and set their sights on CRA’s Show Team. The latter is currently based at Jessica’s training program at Portola Farms, with a sister show team in development at Sweeney Ridge.

A four-tier program provides a place for all, including hunt seat, dressage and western riding. An “exclusive use” tier enables students to ride the same horse every lesson, giving them a taste of having their own horse without the financial commitment of leasing or purchasing. Many of CRA’s horses are show quality and attend shows with CRA students.

“Opportunity” classes at The Horse Park at Woodside hunter/jumper shows offer another step-up in involvement at still-modest costs. Jessica is the only five-time winner of the Langer Equestrian Group’s Trainer-of-the-Year Award (2013-2017) for coaching the single top-placed rider in each of three divisions at their Woodside shows.

A competitive pathway is clear, but not pushed at CRA. “We don’t pressure people to lease or purchase a horse,” Jessica explains. “It’s a very expensive sport and not everybody has the funds or desire to do that. We want to involve everybody with a very welcoming environment.” Competitive goals and horse ownership are welcomed and supported with professional training, guidance and development for horse and rider.

U.S. Pony Club Riding Center status is another element to CRA’s growth in the new location, again filling a void in the area. Sweeney Ridge’s location and many amenities are additional draws. A large, fully-lighted and covered arena allows year-round training and lessons. Jessica also recently updated the facility’s original restaurant to serve as a clubhouse, providing clients a comfortable gathering place for hosting seminars, birthday parties, camps and other events.

Jessica’s professional approach includes a savvy business strategy. Attracting those with a genuine interest in horses and retaining them are priorities. A move to outsourcing her website development to a professional has resulted in an appealing and functional online presence. This pays off in many new student leads.

Beyond overall quality in her horses, instructors and facility, promotion efforts include offering summer campers a free lesson before camp starts and then a discounted lesson package in the fall. Word of mouth recommendations remain her best marketing tool. Whether online or in person, “You have to address all facets of your reputation,” she notes. “We’re not getting rich, and we don’t have the benefits of working for a big company, but we love our horses and we love what we do and I think that’s what matters most.”

For more information, visit

AG Equestrian Training
In San Luis Obispo

Amanda Garcia considers the riding school part of her hunter/jumper training business critical to sustained success. “Your kids are going to graduate high school and you hope they go onto college, so you always have to have the next set of kids coming along.” She took over the business seven years ago when Grand Prix rider Harley Brown relocated to Northern California and she made a priority of adding a beginner program to her show-oriented training at that time.

Multiple group lessons slots Tuesday through Saturday, scheduling flexibility accessed via a Google sheet and quick responses to requests and inquiries are core business principles that enhance well-cared for, good-quality lesson horses, ponies and instructors. The combined effect has resulted in a steady waiting list for getting into regular lessons at AG Equestrian.

Amanda is conscientious about kids’ busy schedules these days. Lesson horses live in the barn, along with the show horses, and are body clipped in the winter for more time efficient pre- and post-ride care. She allows lesson cancellations while also maintaining reliable consistency in the schedule.

Lesson program wait-listers are encouraged to join a monthly horsemanship class that introduces all aspects of horse care and knowledge. Students don’t ride, but they get a chance to see the scene and their attendance reflects the genuine interest that could bump up their position on the waitlist.

As with most riding schools, summer camps are a great pipeline for lessons, leases and/or moving into the show-oriented track with horse ownership. Horse care and riding and arts and crafts activities comprise the beginning sessions. An advanced rider camp is growing significantly, offering experienced riders the chance to help younger/newer counterparts in their summer sessions, along with field trips throughout the year. Visits to the Alamo Pintado Equine surgery center and trail riding on rented Clydesdales are past advanced camp highlights. This year, Amanda is working on a field trip to the USEF Pony Finals in Kentucky.

Overall, “I try to keep it classy and that’s why I think we are successful,” Amanda says. “Whatever we do, it’s clear that we want the best for our students and our horses.”

She estimates that half of her riding school students become training barn clients. Right now, she has three students who started with AG Equestrian Training and now campaign their own horses in the 1.3M jumper divisions. Although she’s guilty of not updating her website in a while, Amanda considers the online presence critical to business.

Community involvement is another worthwhile investment. Donating gift certificates to fundraising events is an easy way to do that. Whether or not the certificates are redeemed, it’s good visibility that prompts people to “at least call or come see what we offer.”

Hosting her son’s kindergarten class of 65 students at the stables this month will be a little more labor intensive, but also worthwhile, she laughs of her ongoing commitment to connecting horses and young people.

For more information, visit