I have seen so much change in the sector, and it’s sped up over recent years. Right now we are going through a lot of uncertainty and a period of shedding that will lead to a very bright future.
The Business Barn asked me to explore my thoughts on the business opportunities past, present and future, for horses and humans.
Past lives – an embarrassment
Growing up in the industry, equestrianism was so far behind. I remember how unfashionable I felt heading into town after a riding lesson. My biggest dread was seeing someone I knew.
Now equestrian fashion labels flow from yard to street. The material is technical, so no more stiff wax jackets. In fact, equestrian style is embraced by the masses. The horses have benefited from the revolution and now have rugs that don’t rub bald patches. If you have ever fitted a New Zealand rug to a horse you will know what I mean.
Looking back to when I launched my career in equestrian PR, in the days before social media it was a very different landscape. It was so hard to connect with the industry most of which were not online and you still communicated by post, telephone and even fax.
I was involved in organising events and sponsorship. The committees I worked with were mostly retired volunteers. It took time and patience to wait while the world embraced the digital age. I would say even in 2009 when I first started working for the British Equestrian Federation, many of the key stakeholders - coaches, riding schools and committee members, were still not online.
During this period there have been many change makers who have stood up to the establishment. They have shaped the equestrian world into a more commercial and dynamic industry. These are people who were prepared to stand alone and show the way.
It’s due to those people, that the youth coming through are now being championed. Many people have had their own mini-battles in the industry to make it into what it is today. We should all be grateful.
The 2012 Olympics brought great investment into equestrian sport to increase participation. But only a small minority was distributed to grassroots such as riding schools. Instead, the money was lost in a bureaucratic governance system. It failed to have the desired impact on increasing the number of people riding.
Our current blessings in the wake of failure
The lack of increase in participation from Sport England's investment helped opened up a formal review. Equestrian joins the ranks of British Cycling, the film industry and major corporations like VW; all who've hit the headlines with stories of negligible governance and corruption.
Generally, the world is going through a huge shake-up. There is lots of uncertainty right now, with Brexit and its impact on the rural industry. So much past baggage is being unearthed, but all this coming to the surface is the best way for lasting change and growth to happen.
The world has come more aware of the health benefits of riding, mainly down to the ease of distribution of information in the new age of social media. I remember fighting with my PE teacher over the fact horse riding and mucking out was exercise.
Social media has helped connect the fragmented horse industry; support and inspiration is now at your fingertips. I would have liked that evidence available on my phone to show my PE teacher back in the 90’s.
We can network, meet new people and stay connected through so many platforms these days. There are groups and networks for all the various niches within the industry, from people who run riding schools and livery yards to those who blog or are involved with equestrian vaulting or western riding. All these people now have a space to connect.
Though with social media now so well established it’s now a common belief that the level of connection is becoming overwhelming for many. Going forward, it’s all about finding a balance between online and personal connection. Business owners must draw on many strategies to build their marketing campaigns rather than relying on social media alone.
Most people who set up horse businesses tend to be driven by funding their own equestrian lifestyle. To be successful it’s important to question your motives; do you really have a passion to share and teach the sport to others? Or is it just a means to fund your own interest? It’s probably a bit of both, but by determining your level of commitment to the business and where you fall on that scale you will determine how much you’re driven to change and grow.
If you don’t do anything to move with the times you will most certainly lose out. There is a growing army of millennials who are soon likely to outstrip the rest of the populations spending power. They are looking for experiences they can immerse themselves in.
Look at the packages you currently offer and ask yourself if they cater to this market. Take a look at this blog which talks about this in more detail. With the right business planning, riding schools can have it all; a lifestyle and a great income.
Right now, we are seeing many riding schools close down. This is due to many factors from an increase in business rates to an ageing population of riding school proprietors. Those coming to retirement are cashing in their 'property pension' and selling their ‘highly valued land’. Unfortunately, many of these properties are going for housing developments and are thus being lost to the industry.
It’s reassuring when I go to the Farm Business Show at the NEC to see new blood planning new ventures, as well as community-led projects such as The Urban Equestrian Academy so I am confident there is a healthy rate of replacement in the industry, keeping the public connected to horses.
You have got to be in awe of horses when you consider they helped us win World War One as documented in War Horse. Yet we have evolved to see they can help us heal post-traumatic stress (PTS) in the modern soldier, just take a look at what organisations such as HorseBack UK are doing.
Avatar future is on its way
I feel excited that future growth will come from a stronger governance structure. People who embrace this current uncertainty and see it as an exciting opportunity will thrive. Those who fight to control, protect their vested interests and feel threatened by the change, will be the losers in this cultural shift.
Individuals are deepening their connection with horses in many ways. I am sure that like the film Avatar, we will all be plugging in our consciousness and riding as one with our horses in the not so distant future. It was amazing to see a showjumper competing at a Championship Showjumping event with no bridle. This is the start of this becoming mainstream.
With rising house prices and properties being built on smaller plots UK families are craving for a connection to nature in safe spaces. Riding schools and equestrian centres can capitalise on this.
They will become more like holistic leisure centres and retreats; places where people can also spend holidays such as glamping. Families have less and less time for leisure in their weekly schedule, but it’s likely they will top-up in more of a holiday environment that lets them get close to a new experience. People crave spaces to meditate, exercise, eat and enjoy family time with likeminded people.
Facilities in the UK will need investment. Centres of the future will be modern and welcoming structures. It's an exciting future with people starting to lead the way already, providing business opportunities for those wanting to be involved in the industry.
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