by Ruby Tevis
USDF Group Member Organizations (GMOs) around the country have been affected by declining youth involvement. While there may be a shortage of youth members, there certainly isn’t a shortage of horse-loving kids interested in dressage! National organizations like the Interscholastic Equestrian Association have implemented dressage programs, and they have been met with great success. While this is wonderful news, many GMOs are left wondering how to bring these young riders to their organization. The Kentucky Dressage Association also asked this question, and they are now piloting a brand new Youth Club.
What is a Youth Club?
A Youth Club, like the one proposed by the Kentucky Dressage Association, is an exclusive group open to any KDA member age 21 and under. The purpose of the Youth Club is to encourage new youth memberships by offering educational events, networking opportunities, and scholarships to junior/young rider members.
The KDA Youth Club is overseen by two Board of Directors who coordinate events for club members. The club aims to meet every other month for a new activity. Activities will vary depending on the interests and age range of club members. USDF is unique from other organizations by recognizing youth members through age 21, which includes college-age students in the target market. Some clubs, based on demographics, may cater to elementary age youth, while others are geared to college students.
Events may include guest lectures, tours of training farms or veterinary hospitals, volunteer days at horse shows or rescue centers, and auditing training clinics. Events are typically free, though events like clinics may require a small auditing fee.
Meetings are unmounted, educational, and promote an inclusive atmosphere of support and friendship. The goal is to provide resources and networking opportunities to the future of our industry, regardless of the level they show, the horses they own, or the trainer they are with, all of which are elements that can intimidate young riders.
How will a Youth Club benefit my GMO?
By expanding your youth programs beyond shows, you are opening your doors to all types of horse-loving young people. The KDA has drawn youth members from eventing and hunter/jumper backgrounds to the Youth Club. Alongside drawing in memberships, you are also bringing new volunteers. (Young volunteers with lots of energy and good knees, which comes in handy on the third day of a summer show!) As the KDA Youth Club grows stronger, a volunteer requirement will be put in place for participation in activities.
By implementing a Youth Club program, you are also contributing to the growth of dressage nationwide. “As we lose youth, we lose our competitors and professionals of tomorrow!” says Bill Kraatz, FEI Level 1 Dressage Steward and Vice President of the Kentucky Dressage Association. “Dressage is a sport dominated by adult amateur riders. I’m not sure the statistics exist, but my guess is the vast majority are female and over 45 years of age. Project that forward 30 years, and we can see that dressage may be a discipline in trouble.”
Introducing young riders to dressage sooner than later is important for the future of our sport. “Most all our English riders start riding hunt seat or saddle seat. The saddle seat riders tend to stay that way, as their riding academies are quite discipline specific. The hunt seat riders are then ‘split’ as they evolve to hunter/jumper, dressage, or eventing,” Kraatz says. There are not many dressage barns with lesson horses that cater to young riders, so a Youth Club may be their first introduction to the sport of dressage. From there, riders may move to become grooms or working students that are actively contributing to the industry. In addition, by sparking interest in dressage through a Youth Club, GMOs are cultivating future competitors, volunteers, officials, and sponsors.
Where Should I Start?
To start a Youth Club, one or two dedicated members of your GMO should present the idea to the Board of Directors. Consider the statistics of the GMO, such as the number of youth memberships within the last three to five years. Send a survey to members of your GMO to gauge interest.
Then, begin planning an invitational event to gather interested youth. The Kentucky Dressage Association held an invitational pizza party on the show grounds during their first recognized show of the year. The event entailed free pizza and drinks, games to play such as charades and crossword puzzles, and prize giveaways. Promotion for the event went out through Facebook, Instagram, and e-mail three weeks prior.
At this event, there was an excellent turn out of about 20 young riders, boys and girls of all ages, from several different disciplines. Many of their parents stayed for the event as well. In total, there were approximately 30 attendees.
While attendees enjoyed their pizza, two representatives spoke to the group about the concept of the Youth Club, as well as future events in the works. Though many young riders were already KDA members, six joined on the spot! This was achieved on a $200 budget.
After the first few events, sit down with the Board of Directors and discuss a budget for the rest of the year. Large events such as an invitational pizza party will require a significantly bigger budget than a clinic auditing event, which requires little contribution at all. If your GMO does not have the finances to support the Youth Club, fundraising can be an excellent way to build community and nourish communication skills within your members. Club members can reach out to sponsors, fundraise through restaurant nights, or organize a tack sale.
What else can my GMO do?
Along with starting a Youth Club, GMOs can support youth in several ways. The Kentucky Dressage Association is unique in their offering of a $5,000 scholarship to aspiring NAYC participants. To youth who are not at that point, the KDA offers a $750 education grant to be used for lessons and clinics. For college students, the KDA offers $500 to help cover tuition costs for dressage enthusiasts. These scholarships not only draw in members and youth support, but also show encouragement and support of young riders.
Beyond offering financial support, your GMO can mention USDF youth programs in e-mails and Facebook posts, give recognition to young volunteers, and offer year-end awards specifically for junior/young riders. Voice your support for the future of dressage!
Ruby Tevis lives in Lexington, KY. She is attending Midway University in Midway KY where she is pursuing a degree in Marketing Communications, with a minor in Equine Studies. She serves on the Board of Directors with the Kentucky Dressage Association as the Junior/Young Rider Representative, and co-edits the quarterly magazine.