The topic of attracting new riders and keeping new riders comes up nearly every day on one or the other forums. Over coffee this morning LSEGH and I were batting this idea around and what makes or breaks as a first impression and some discussion as to what set me upon the road of giving up. Though I feel better in the sport now that I simply have my own goals separate from anyone and anything else, I will be the first to admit that I didn't find that connection I needed early on and wanted so badly. It has become much better over the six years or so of trying in that I do feel okay in the ride camp setting, do find familiar faces, do figure a few people know my name, and have settled into acceptance if not a true sense of inclusion. Please don't confuse my desire for connection with hand-holding. I just really looked for a camaraderie and acceptance that mostly never transpired. I have very outspoken thoughts concerning the sport. It has been suggested that this blog and being open with my feelings, hopes, desires, and disappointments was counter-intuitive to those goals. It has never been my desire to be off putting to others, merely to give an honest representation of how things have worked out for me as an individual with limited resources participating in the sport. So along that train of thought I will follow here with what my expectation was, and how that can be met for some other quiet introverted newbie, greenhorn, or a bean of the utmost greenest.
BE AN AMBASSADOR FOR THE SPORT
- Expectation # 1 to feel welcome: You see it everywhere, on blogs, on facebook, on ridecamp, here there and everywhere including our AERC website. We are a welcoming sport, a friendly sport, we are like one big happy family. For this to be a true statement to a newcomer to the sport someone at each and every ride needs to be an Ambassador for the sport. They need to know who those new people are, seek them out, and let them know they are available before, during, and after the ride. That person does not have to be a rider, could be the manager (who is way too busy), a volunteer with past experience, or the crew of another rider who will have some standing around time anyway to help that person get through this very first experience successfully with a sense of belonging by the time they are through. Stick a hat on their head or a t-shirt on their back that makes them easy to find. See me? I'm the welcome wagon. If you think you aren't the welcome wagon you need to adjust your thinker. We are all representatives for the sport. The happy or "grumpy" face we meet at that first introduction of the sport resonates with the new person. You are the mirror for the sport.
- Expectation # 2 to feel a part of things: There is going to be a ride meeting. Introduce this new person, let people know what distance they are riding, welcome them with a round of applause or some woo hoos! Throw a green bean t-shirt at them (or a bright green tail ribbon for the horse) and ask people to watch for the greenie . Point out who is riding slow and who is an ambassador for the sport. It isn't a babysitting session, but you can definitely point the way if you see the greenie looking distressed, lost, or just openly dumbfounded. That first ride experience is pivotal to attracting, keeping, and maintaining new riders. The first ride sets the tone for the future expectation of what this sport is. It is our job individually (not necessarily busy ride management) to assure that new riders do not fall through the cracks and feel like outsiders. You are the mirror of our sport.
- Expectation # 3 that my first LD, 50, or 100 memorable: Nothing will ever top my first 50 mile completion. Nothing ever, ever, ever...so says I at this moment in time. I have no memento of this first except for the personal satisfaction that I finally did it with the efforts of my trusty steed. I feel that a first of any kind needs recognition at the awards and it is kind of sad that a first timer to a 50 ( or a 100) totally misses the awards because they use the maximum time. Do not miss that very golden opportunity to award that first time anything. A memento of the event such as a first 50 key chain, or a first 100 bumper sticker, or...or...just some small low cost thing that signifies the hard work and effort you put into your discipline. There is a secondary effect as well, it makes people look at that newcomer, and perhaps remember their face or their name so when they show up next ride they have a sense of people knowing them. Just being called by your first name by someone goes a long way towards a sense of belonging. Heck, develop a collective cheer for the newest of the new, it's a freebie! You are the example of our excitement in this sport.
- Expectation # 4 Completions are as important as the top-ten: You will find this group to be on the level of competing for their own reasons, not seeking placement, really just in it for themselves and their horse, often a non-arabian horse. Just because they are that loner type person does not mean they do not matter. Develop a turtle award and give it out faithfully. Something as simple as a painted rock, a charm, a key chain, something with a little old turtle on it, and cheer for them just like you do for the winner. Or give a verbal best of breed mention or best non-arabian at the awards ceremony. Maybe there were a couple of Morgans, or Appys for fill in the blank. Make those people feel a part of things. Because our sport is supposed to be about not just winning, remember the motto To Finish is to Win? Make it real for those people in this collective part of our community. There are more of the latter than the former. To keep them coming back remember you are the face of who a mileage rider is.
- Expectation # 5 down on their luck riders want a shout out too: See how much I ask? How about that first rider to be pulled for lameness gets a rock with their name on it. Or the first metabolic pull gets a tube of electrolytes. Or a good luck charm for their bridle. Seems kind of silly does it not? But it lightens the disappointment of the pull, brings a smile, helps one to realize it's just a ride, and better luck next time. You are the face of this is tough, but let's do it until we get it right!
- Expectation # 6 is BE THE AMBASSADOR: Yes, you are that person. YOU. ARE. THAT. PERSON. If you've been to a number of rides you know the faces even if you don't know the names. Seek out the face that looks different. They are either new, or visiting from some other region and this is where you become an Ambassador for AERC. You introduce yourself, you say if you need anything I'm RIGHT HERE (pointing and gesturing at your rig/horse/campsite). If you know a problem area where people get tricked up on the trail, circle it on their maps and give hints how to recognize it and what to do if the ribbons are gone. In other words think about if you were there, riding for the first time ever, what would YOU WANT TO KNOW. You should be the ambassador.
- Expectation # 7 if you can't be a true ambassador you can do something else: Maybe you aren't a social butterfly... But you do have gifts and talents that can work to the good of making new people feel welcome. Maybe you are riding a new horse on its first 50, ask if the newbie too wants to follow along. Maybe you can paint a turtle, or stitch a turtle, or do leather work, or....something else that makes sweet awards. Maybe you have coffee and the newbie doesn't, bring them a cup and say have a great ride today! What a nice way to start the day! Perhaps you ride their breed, Morgan, Appaloosa, Tennessee Walker, etc. Drop in and say hey! This is what I have to do to keep my horse rolling, let me know if you have questions. Donate small new items to the ride manager that might make someone's ride memorable. It doesn't need to cost a lot. It connects you to new people and them to you. It speaks volumes that this is a great and welcoming sport, come on in...we want you here! All such little time expenditures that can make a new rider to the sport, or first time to the distance rider, or first time rider to a different region feel connected and that they belong here. It isn't hand-holding. It is good stewardship of the best thing we have and that is our collective membership.
- Expectation number #8 people want to be a part of something. If there is a regional club, it should be ALL OVER attracting, and keeping that new rider. A membership packet should be offered to them every time they enter a ride. The regional clubs should foster a culture of welcoming openness. Every new AERC member should not only receive an email welcoming them to the fold, but be followed up regionally with a new network of potential contacts in the sport. The regional club is the local face of AERC, it is the welcome wagon.