Developing an Affordable Sensory Trail
By Jeanna M. Pellino
Reprinted with permission from NARHA
Being outdoors naturally arouses our senses. The sound of rustling leaves, a gentle breeze blowing on the face, the rhythmic clomping of horse hooves, the smell of pine needles, a squirrel running up a tree--all of these sensations stimulate the brain. Furthermore, as the horse walks on uneven ground, the rider’s balance and positioning are challenged.
Now imagine enhancing the rider’s experience by incorporating “sensory stations.” For example, adding a basketball hoop station provides an opportunity for a rider to use upper body motor planning to catch and throw. A variety of ball sizes, textures and colors adds to the challenge. An even more complex, but relatively easy and inexpensive station, is a set of “noodles,” foam pipe insulators strung in multiple rows between two trees for the rider to swim though.
A sensory trail benefits riders on many levels and allows instructors to measure these benefits with clear-cut objectives. For instance, to improve bilateral coordination, ask the rider to independently steer to several activity stations. To enhance visual tracking, try to have the rider turn his or her head at least three out of four times prior to executing a turn. To develop better left/right discrimination, ask the rider to move in the requested direction four out of five times. See if the rider can maintain correct postural alignment for 80 percent of the time.
A sensory trail can also improve a rider’s language skills by increasing both expressive language and appropriate social interaction. Ask the rider to identify six objects on the trail.
The objective is to have the rider use three-word responses or tell a three-sentence story about one of the objects.
Location, Footing & Safety
A trail needn’t be extensive to be beneficial. By incorporating gradual slopes or inclines that don’t overly tax the horse or rider, you can challenge the student. Be sure to construct the trail in an area that will not spook the horses or distract riders.
Avoid busy roads, construction, barking dogs or pastured animals. For footing options, consider dirt, wood chips, gravel/stone or a combination throughout the trail to offer more sound variations. Check with local tree trimmers who will sometimes provide free wood chips.
Safety should always be in the forefront when establishing a trail and stations. Before you take riders out, let your horses experience the various stations repeatedly until they are comfortable with all aspects of the activity equipment. Some horses acclimate quickly while others never adjust to specific sensory stations. Respect their limitations and share that information with other instructors at your barn. Make sure activity items are properly secured so they don’t fall, which could startle the horse. Once your stations are established, be sure to introduce the horses to any new items added.
Always check the trail carefully on a regular basis for environmental concerns or changes including deer, bees, fallen branches, etc. Make sure the trails are free of debris, such as branches and roots and rocks. Check that higher branches are cleared so they don’t hit riders.
Creating Sensory Stations
The key to creating a sensory trail is to start small and add stations as time and creativity allow. Some creative options include a dog house decorated to look like a forest fairy’s retreat or painted trail name signs for color, shape and letter recognition that give riders’ optional path choices.
To challenge the rider’s balance, tone and endurance, place a log across the trail or build a plywood bridge for crossing that requires the rider to assume a half-seat or a two-point position. Riders may also enjoy listening to the clip-clop of hooves on the bridge. When incorporating sensory stations, keep in mind that the movement of the horse is a key benefit, so try to limit the number of stops and time taken at each station.
Many items can be found at garden stores or garage sales, such as hanging mobiles or chimes, small animal statues or painted rocks for riders to identify and count. An old mailbox on a post, for instance, provides an opportunity for the rider to open and close the box and check for mail. They can also pull out and explore the contents, which might include plastic eggs that open, hair clips for a horse’s mane or a tin containing a few inches of beans to fish through to find a hidden toy, etc. This develops fine motor skill, object recognition, tactile exploration and expressive language skills. To increase tactile discrimination, the rider can be asked to distinguish between beans and toys five out of five times.
Fortunately most station items are low cost and can be found at garage sales. Add more expensive items to a wish list to share with volunteers, local churches, schools and civic organizations.
For specific information on creating a sensory trail system, please contact Jeanna Pellino at High Hopes at (860) 434-1974.
About the Author: Jeanna Pellino is a NARHA Certified Advanced Level Instructor and Program Director at High Hopes Therapeutic Riding Inc. in Old Lyme, CT. The sensory trail at High Hopes was developed by Carolyn Jagielski, Kristin Elliott Leas and Christopher Coyle.
Go to conferences and local meetings where you can meet all types of people. Go to shows as a participant or just as an observer and talk to people including the vendors. Volunteering at local 4-H or pony clubs can also lead you to potential clients. “You want to stay clear of anything negative,” she warns, “and don’t gossip or say anything about anyone or their horses because you never know who they know.” Bruce has found some of his clients using advertisements. Before placing an advertisement, Bruce says to carefully plan what you want it to say. The advertisement should specify all or any services that are being offered. You should highlight your strengths and any other important details that a prospective client may need to know about your operation such as rates, discipline, and level of training and so on.
Also, ask local feed and tack stores if it’s all right to hang a flyer on their bulletin board or to leave one on their counter.
Endurance race - Keeping clients is just as important as finding new ones The best way to keep clients involved, according to Rohnke-Kronsberg is to provide something extra that nobody else does.
Stacey hands out awards at her riding stable. Awards are handed out to students when goals are achieved. (CHA has great pins and badges for students.) She says this encourages students to reach for their next goal. Parents also vie for awards including attending the most number of their child’s lessons.
She also says that socializing outside of the barn atmosphere is also important. She’s thrown dances at the barn for teens and has taken families on picnics.
“It’s a good time together and not only do the families bond, but you continue to build your relationship with your clients” Stacey says. She also says it’s very important to be honest in your business and that you need to treat everyone the same, don’t play favorites. She says you should put policies in place, inform clients of your policies and then stick to them.
Bruce says that simply being friendly to people goes a long way. Even small things such as letting them know you are glad they came out to ride is important. He says that even if you don’t have the nicest or most expensive facilities it won’t matter, as long as you keep them tidy and well kept.
Rohnke-Kronsberg agrees. She says it’s important to keep a smile on your face at all times and be positive.
“People want to be around people who have a pleasant demeanor,” she says.
Hershey says that it’s also important to control the atmosphere inside of your barn. She says not to hire people who don’t want what you want and the same thing with clients.
If something’s not working it will affect people who are coming in or may already be there.
Many people ride horses because they enjoy the recreational activity.
One of the most important things to do that all four instructors advocated was to keep it fun. Whether this involves playing games on horseback during lessons, going out on day trail rides, or doing fun classes at horse shows, it’s important to make sure that riding time is enjoyable.
Rough trails - With an unstable economy, surviving becomes tougher each day If one looks at the horse industry from the outside, they might think those involved with the business have it easy. Prices of horses have dropped drastically. Today, anyone with five hundred dollars can probably find a decent animal. What they don’t know, however, is that the price of caring for that animal has skyrocketed like many other things since the economy took a turn for the worst.
Hershey says she makes it through the toughest of days with a positive mind, improving the slightest detail within her program even if it means just cleaning her tack. She says that for her, personally, it’s about holding onto the vision and her love for the animals. “Every business has a point where it seems to hit bottom and those with horses are no different,” she says. “But you always have a choice to quit or to somehow hang in there and make the next best step. I still don’t quite have this tough time figured out, but I have to stay with it.” Bruce says that when it gets rough it’s time to stop and take a hard look at every aspect of your business starting with your horses. You need to decide how necessary they are to your business. If they aren’t pulling their weight compared to what you’re investing in them then it might be best to let them go. They should be teaching at least three to five days a week.
Stacey found a way to cut costs with horses without selling them. If she finds herself in a situation where she has an extra horse or two, she’ll try to lease them to someone who is interested in having a horse, but may not be ready to buy one. “Everyone gets something out of the arrangement,” she says. “Depending on the agreement, you may no longer be responsible for the costs of that horse’s care, while the temporary handler doesn’t have to pay a monthly fee for the lease, but doesn’t have the complete burden of owning the animal.” Rohnke-Kronsberg recommends you should always be prepared for something to go wrong and should have a safety net in place. “You’re always going to have to pay rent, buy your food and so you should always have something to fall back on,” she says.
This can range from a savings account that’s been set aside for emergencies or using your set of skills in other avenues. For example, if you are an accountant and you love horses, you can work as financial advisor for a horse operation. Yet, if that barn should hit hard times and need to let you go, you aren’t completely out of work. Even if it takes some time to find another job in an equine-related avenue, there are other places for you to apply your skills.
Whether you are able to apply your skills somewhere else or not, Hershey says in order to continue instructing students, you may have to find another job and give lessons part time until you regain your footing. Perhaps one the most difficult problems when trying to survive in a tough economy are losing clients because they can no longer afford lessons. She warns that you must not be angry with a client and should be understanding because they are facing the same troubles you are only in different ways.
“People will come and go as they please, but you need to be understanding,” she advises. “You cannot blame them in any way. When I lost my clientele, I actually found a whole new one all because those who had left had mentioned me to their friends. You want to let anyone who leaves know that they can call you with anything. You want them to know that when they wish to return, you’ll be more than happy to have them back. You can’t hold grudges against them for leaving, ” Hershey says.
Bruce also says that if you are able to offer lessons in exchange for labor, such as cleaning stalls, it is a good way to show clients you care. Another option to keeping clients involved until they can afford lessons again is to let them brush a horse every so often to let them keep that contact with the animal.
Whether you choose to close your business and sell off your horses is only a decision you can make. It will be a hard decision and will depend upon many factors. Ultimately it will come down to what you feel is right for yourself and where you are at that current point in time. If you want to network with others in the horse industry about this issue and others, please contact CHA at office@CHA-ahse.org and we will get you involved in our Networking Program.
Young Children Are Coming out of the Woodwork
By Jennifer Willey
I will bet I am not alone in getting inquiries from a very large number of people interested in lessons for children younger than 8. In the inquiries I get for riding lessons, I probably receive double the number for children under the age of 7 even! Having riders younger than 8 (or so) puts us at a great disadvantage. We are often not dealing with an individual who is emotionally, physically or mentally able to take on the art of riding a horse. No matter how easy we make it for them, it will be difficult! Taking in very young children for standard riding lessons is not a good idea for a variety of reasons: The kids’ limbs are too short to really have any effect upon the horse.
Their attention spans are too short to expect them to follow a sequence (Ask, Tell, Command).
They are too young to understand that what they do affects the horse.
Even a half hour on a horse can be too long for this age group.
They are not really safe on the ground next to any horse.
It is tough in this industry, and especially in this economy, to turn down business of any kind. We all want to be in a place where we can pick and choose our clients but, for the most part, we can’t. I have developed a course of action and response for these inquiries that sometimes generates business and always gives out correct information. Think of these people as your future clients (and we know the future comes ALL TOO quickly).
On the initial inquiry, I explain that if a child is too small to ride a bicycle without training wheels, than they are too small to ride independently.
When I equate riding a bike to riding a horse, and then explain riding horses is much more difficult, the parent’s expectations start to journey back to reality pretty quickly.
Next, I offer lead line lessons to any students ages 4 to 7. Let’s all not forget the cost of your time when you schedule lead line lessons. While they are easy enough, you should be charging a standard lesson rate. They are lessons, not pony rides.
I highly suggest doing these lessons using one great horse, back to back at 15-25 minute intervals. Make sure to make it a lesson, keep in mind this is your future customer and the futures comes quickly! These lessons are also a great way to fill any potential “down time” you might have.
There are special circumstances with children ages 6 to 8 where they may be ready for some actual riding lessons. Every time you get an inquiry for this age group, explain the bicycle rule and then also offer to do an evaluation lesson.
During this evaluation lesson, you are gauging: Interest – How interested or “horse crazy” the child is.
Motor Skills – Ability to hear a direction and perform what they hear.
Attention Span – Ability to pay attention to the instructor and also to remember what was taught earlier in the lesson. They may not remember from lesson to lesson right away and that is okay.
Make sure to explain these criteria to the parent and also require the parent be present for the entire lesson. It is important we teach our students’ parents the requirements of horseback riding along with the student.
When the parent is required to stay, they will pay attention. If the parent says they cannot stay, then it is not important enough to them to start lessons.
After your evaluation lesson, you can make a recommendation to the parent. You have many options and all are dependent upon what you find during the evaluation ride.
You can choose to: Re-evaluate in six-month intervals to look for when the student is ready.
Offer lead line only lessons until the student is ready.
Offer private lessons with half the time spent grooming and the other half spent in the saddle.
Offer a semi-private or group lessons to those that are really ready.
One thing to keep in mind when teaching and evaluating this young age is the future of their riding. This is not an age group that tolerates high levels of challenge well. If the student spends most of the lesson frustrated, that is how they will remember their ride. You could, by accident, turn them off of riding forever simply due to challenging them too much. If the child really is not ready to ride, you WILL challenge them too much. You can’t help this.
Some safety guidelines for these evaluations and lessons: Helmets and boots should be required. You can choose to supply a helmet or offer the customer to bring their own. Remember, bicycle helmets and ski helmets are not appropriate for horseback riding.
The horse chosen should be of the utmost gentle complacency. You need a horse that is happy to sleep during a lesson and you want a horse with no “look” to them. Quiet, quiet, quiet…these are great lessons for horses that are nearing retirement.
Trotting is not appropriate for an evaluation lesson for this age group.
The parent MUST be present during the lesson.
If you choose to use a mounting block to help the child groom, stay at their side so as not to accidentally get knocked off the block! Even your best horse can make this mistake.
Teaching leading to this age group can be precarious. Use good judgment.
About the Author: Jennifer Willey is a certified Master Assistant Clinic Instructor and was CHA Instructor of the Year in 2007. She teaches in Minnesota.