Riding Program Success Lessons from the Pandemic

By Jill Montgomery

Passing the one-year anniversary of the COVID19 Pandemic has been a global challenge, especially for non-profit organizations and small businesses like riding stables and equestrian programs, which were generally not considered essential services. Even so, some horseback riding programs have been able to rally their unique strengths for operating with COVID19’s restrictions and excel during this time of social distancing and anti-viral safety measures. As 2021 promises a better new normal, there are some strengths that those in the horse industry may use to get back in the saddle sooner than many other recreational activities.

Some built-in aspects of equine activities are a fit with common methods of staying healthy and reducing the transmission of COVID19 virus. Most interactions with horses occur outside, preferable to inside enclosed areas. Small groups for routine equine activities are typical. The size of horses and normal spacing between riders in most equine activities accommodates social distancing. Equine facilities are familiar with bio-security management practices that limit their horses’ exposure to contagious illnesses. These industry norms can be supplemented to include specific requirements of the broader community’s expectations for operating businesses.

CHA riding instructors and barn managers are accustomed to looking out for the safety of their clients and establishing protocols to keep them safe. Adding safety measures at a stable to meet community business standards during the pandemic may be an easier adjustment than for many other recreational activities.

Many states have adopted similar measures for businesses to operate during the pandemic, however each community may have its own version. As knowledge about the virus is gained the general recommendations will continue to evolve. As the population becomes vaccinated recommendations will change. The local and state health departments are good resources to stay current with community expectations for safety requirements.

Several CHA members who are up and running with COVID19 safety measures in place have reported impressive results and agreed to share their stories.

Jody Taylor is a CHA Certified Riding Instructor and co-owner of Star T Ranch in Aledo, Texas just outside of Fort Worth. Jody and his partner Kim run Star T Ranch on a 16-acre property where they make every square inch of it work. The ranch includes three arenas, of which one is covered, a twenty-meter round pen, a modified cross-country course and eight acres of up and down trails. An office and classroom as well as the barn aisle are used for classroom type instruction, but not during the current circumstances. Their services include boarding, training, and riding lessons. The operation accommodates 30 head of horses and they maintain a herd of 12 to 15 lesson horses with the balance of the herd being private mounts. Their program offers both English and Western riding lessons, and specializes in Eventing, Dressage, Show Jumping and Natural Horsemanship. Their proximity to the Dallas Fort Worth Metroplex affords big potential for new clients. Full capacity at this facility is 85 lessons/week some of which are provided to boarders on their own horses.

The business closed for the month of April. Regular barn staff did routine care and management for the herd. Boarders could check on their horses with strict limits on the number of people in the barn at one time. All were required to observe social distancing and use the newly provided handwashing stations. The lesson program business was brought back online incrementally, starting with 25% of capacity, increasing every two weeks until reaching 100%. By July demand had exploded and the program had a waiting list. Jody credits this response in part to pent-up demand, people looking for outdoor activities, closure of gyms and bounce houses and kids begging their parents to let them learn to ride. He notes that the parents saw value in the outdoor and physical elements of learning to ride. The program’s students are predominately youth ages 8 to 18 years comprising 75% and 25% are adults. The following simple rules for riding students were established early in their Pandemic experience and posted at the barn. The students complied faithfully.

  1. Anyone feeling sick needs to stay home and cancel the lesson.
  2. Sanitizing protocol is listed in the barn.
  3. Riders only in the barn.
  4. Masks are required in the barn.
  5. Social distancing – at least 6 feet apart.
  6. Team Star T be safe.

Jody describes their experience, “We started out 2020 with a well-established program and a great crew of six CHA certified riding instructors. When the Pandemic hit, we developed protocols to keep our students and boarders safe following guidance provided to area businesses by the City of Fort Worth. By showing leadership and sharing the plan with our clients – we made a smooth transition from closing the month of April through a graduated re-opening of services and were back to 100% by July – that led to the busiest Autumn in our history to date.” He went on to say, “Clear and regular communication with our clients about the rules and commitment to their health and safety were keys to our operation’s success dealing with COVID19.”

Susan Garside is a CHA Certified Riding Instructor and Certifier and the Equestrian Program Director at Akron Ohio’s YMCA Camp Y-Noah. Camp Y-Noah offers a year-round riding facility for youth and adults. Programs include riding lessons, trail rides, birthday parties with ponies and both day and overnight youth camps. Being part of a larger organization Susan’s program has several levels of management to clear when changing program details. She describes 2020 as a stressful year requiring creativity and adaptability. She also saw big pay offs in getting two parts of their Camp running for the 2020 season. The experience required recalibrating priorities.

Susan describes the 2020 season, “Following our Governor’s requirement for businesses considered non-essential to close, we operated with only a skeleton staff to care for our herd of 25 horses and the 250-acre facility from Mid-March to Memorial Day. During this time, our focus stayed on preparing for what was doable and being able to adapt to a rapidly changing environment. We re-opened with the riding lesson program and day camp. New protocols included hand washing stations, sanitizers at the arena and mounting blocks for riders and for the tack and grooming tools, masks for everyone until after they were mounted. Access to the barn was limited and all observers needed to stay outdoors. A staff member would meet participants at their car, take his or her temperature to rule out fever, make sure they had no symptoms of illness and then escort them to their horse or activity. This practice created an unexpected benefit of a touchpoint with parents of our young students and the campers. The changes were readily accepted by the participants who seemed quite happy to be able to join us after their period of social lockdown. Communication and teamwork with management, staff and student/campers and their parents was excellent. People were on board and cooperative in responding to the changing environment as our protocols evolved. By October we looked back at this season as the healthiest for staff and students, cleanest for horses and equipment and the most participation we ever had in these programs. October generated 115% of our pre-COVID19 goal for 2020.”

The increased participation required hiring more staff, a change Susan believes will continue into the next season and beyond. Cleaning and sanitizing all the tack led to taking more time between lessons, and something most instructors can appreciate – spotless tack! The new protocols focused lessons more on riding and less on over-all horsemanship, but the students seemed happy to spend more time riding. Another benefit was there were less staff sick days than previous seasons, presumably because so much attention was given to cleaning and disinfecting.

A good example of Susan’s creativity is an effective tool to introduce their new Equestrian Program safety protocol. She made a video for the YMCA website describing what to expect for new riding lesson procedures. In it Susan lays out the process participants will experience upon their arrival, during the lesson, and upon completion while holding one of the program’s horses, Destiny. A Dalmatian wandering in the background adds levity to the serious subject. The video provided assurance to parents that the students health was a number one priority.

Take away points from Jody and Susan’s success include:

  • There is pent up demand for equine activity and many alternative activities are unavailable.
  • Do what it takes to comply with the COVID19 safety measures your community expects of your business.
  • Be creative and adaptable to meet the demands of this time.
  • Reach out to your past, current, and prospective clients and let them know they can come and enjoy the ride.

As the horse industry’s busy season looms large for 2021, there is much to be hopeful about. Our activity meets the requirements for this historic time. Riding instructors and barn managers are in a unique position to help people dealing with the traumatic experience of 2020. Health experts describe the need to exercise, be outdoors and be in nature. Is there a better vehicle to get there than on the back of a horse? Not for horse crazy kids, and not for us. The saying that the outside of a horse is good for the inside of a human gains even more relevance as people find their way to the new normal of post pandemic life.


 About the Author and Contributors:

Jill Montgomery is a CHA English and Western Riding Instructor, Equine Facility Manager, and Certifier for EFM. She is owner and CEO of JRAM Enterprises, Inc. an equine business consulting firm that focuses on work to keep equine activities accessible and enjoyable for everyone. FMI Jill@JRAMEnterprises.com

Jody Taylor is co-owner of The Star T Ranch, located in Aledo, Texas near Fort Worth. Our mission at Star T Ranch is to provide the best quality, care and service for your horse and you with excellence in safety and education. Kim and Jody are all about being mindful of the horse and incorporating horsemanship in English and Western riding disciplines. FMI TexTaylor@yahoo.com

Susan Garside is Equestrian Director of the Akron YMCA’s Camp Y-Noah and a Certified Horsemanship Association Board Member, Certified English and Western Riding Instructor, Equine Facility Manager and Certifier for EWI and EFM. Camp Y-Noah’s skilled instructors help foster responsibility, compassion, work ethic, self-confidence, patience, and assertiveness for our riders of all ages FMI sgarside@yahoo.com