A couple of months ago, I received a surprise e-mail from a retired Michigan State University professor. I had been recommended as a potential member of a brand-new, from the ground up committee to develop a marketing program for Michigan horses and equestrian activities. I think I know who may have recommended me but, still, I was surprised. As some of you know, I walked away from the industry four years ago, after a twenty-year effort to develop a nationwide network of riding instructors who were truly devoted to novice riders. I had become convinced that the industry was so entrenched in both animal care and people care practices that were so … let’s just say unfriendly … that it would be unreasonable to believe that new people who cared for animals – had dogs, cats, whatever – would be interested in participating. Still, this invitation for this new, state-wide effort called to me. After all, if I am developing this website and blog to encourage members of the status quo to consider a different way of looking at horses, then this could be a good place to start.
I understand that invitations were offered to about forty-five people. Twenty-two attended the first meeting. There was nothing new about the representation present – MSU horse people, of course, plus Farm Bureau, Reining Association, Michigan Horse Council – people well entrenched in the old guard. But, there were four comments during the meeting that encouraged me to attend a second meeting. When participating in the introductions, I chose to not announce that I owned the American Association of Riding Schools. Maybe, I will later, if I remain in the group. One attendee – the one I think may have recommended my participation – is aware of the AARS. I simply said, “My name is Colleen Pace. I owned a novice-level riding school for thirty-five years. Over a thousand people took their first-ever ride at my stable; and over three-thousand Girl Scouts completed their Horse Lovers Badge with me.” So, the first comment was simply a gasp from an attendee when I said “over a thousand people;” and the second comment was another attendee who, when I mentioned the large number of Girl Scouts, said, “We need her here.”
During a discussion where it was revealed that horse registrations in the American Quarter Horse Association dropped by 25% during the past five years – even I was aghast because that is a huge drop – I commented that it would be nice if there was a way to develop a survey to query people who have left the sport/hobby. One of the attendees said that she did not believe people were leaving the industry. (?!) She believes they are simply moving up – 4-H to breed shows; breed shows to whatever. The retired professor said, “I appreciate your comment, but I think the woman who spoke previously (me) has it correct.” So, that was the third comment. The fourth was related to a comment by that same professor. He said that the national Arabian Horse association (there are two) hired a new Chief Executive Officer (CEO), who tossed a simple survey across the Internet that included questions like: Have you ever thought you might be interested in learning more about horses? Have you ever heard of the Arabian Horse? And, somewhere in there, “If you owned a horse, would you be interested in using it for competition?” Within two weeks, there were over a hundred thousand – yes, 100,000 – responses to the survey. So, that shows that people are still (will always be) mesmerized by horses. Then, the retired professor asked us, “How many of those respondents, do you think, said they thought they would be interested in competition?” Attendees offered percentages ranging from 30% to 70%. I said, “At most, 2%.” A couple attendees looked at me like I was nuts. The professor said, “Zero. 0% were interested in competition.” So, based on that fourth comment, I thought, this professor is listening. I will attend a second meeting.
I was disheartened to hear that the second meeting would be a full month away. Clearly, this is not a high-priority for its members. No matter what else is on their agendas, I find this disappointing. If I’m going to invest time in an effort, I want to see an effort. Worse yet, only nine people attended the second meeting. I’m thinking, I’ve been in this situation too many times over the past thirty years. The woman serving as secretary said it was most likely because a reminder was not sent. But, there were twenty-two at the first meeting and we all have calendars, so that says something about their level of interest. Whatever.
At the second meeting, there was a lengthy discussion about how we might raise money to support this effort. The ideas put forth were the same as those discussed thirty years ago. I know because I was in more than one of those meetings back then. I asked whether this current effort was one where we would simply collect money that would be offered through grants to established state horse associations for their own marketing efforts, and was assured that this was not the case. So, I said that I didn’t think it made much sense to discuss the money needed to run a program, if we hadn’t yet determined what the program was. I was cut off by more than one person, so returned to quietly sewing together a crochet pony. Later, as part of another discussion, an attendee stated that there was a problem with this “new idea” seeping into the industry that people should be keeping their horses for life. I began to suggest that this might be a worthy topic for us to discuss among ourselves, as it relates to efforts to market horses to a “new public’ but, again – and more strongly – I was cut off with aggressively defensive comments. I decided at that point that it made no sense for me to be part of this group.
From my home, I e-mailed the retired professor that he should remove my name from his list because “I do not believe I have any appreciable information that I could offer to a meaningful conversation.” I was quietly surprised at his response, wherein he said that he was sorry to hear that because he thought I would be a valuable contributor. So,… I replied with a couple of paragraphs explaining from where I had come to this point with my horses and the business of horses, as he does not know me at all, and a little about my landing with you – the horse conscious community; which I described as “a parallel universe – a loosely knit group of tens of thousands of horse owners around the world – a group that is growing exponentially – who never were part of, or who left the traditional industry;” and that “I left yesterday convinced that, whether or not they believe change is needed (I don’t think they do) the members of this committee are not even open to earnest conversation. The horse industry is dying because its members are locked in a black box of tradition while the rest of the world moves on. I don’t see this committee as having any interest in peeking outside the box.” That was a pretty strong statement, and did not deserve a response. But, respond he did. In fact, and I quote, he said, “I understand where you are coming from and your concerns. It will be a struggle to effect change but I hope it will be possible. I have the same fears for the industry that you have. I wish you happiness and success in your new found horse interests. I still believe that what you are involved in is where we need to head but it will be a slow process.”
I trust you will agree that his was a worthy response. So, I guess I will attend one more meeting. A one-state marketing initiative cannot change the world of horses; but it’s one place to encourage a new way of thinking. I will keep you posted. Wish me luck.