My AERC ride debut was way back in...2007. I'm going on my eighth year in the sport with a whopping 375 combined miles, 14 competitive rides, 1 over-time, 1 rider option. Not much of a ride record that, but even so I like the sport well enough that I've retained membership all but maybe one of those years. Though I am a naturally competitive person, the long range goals of AERC are more problematic for me than helpful. My personal circumstances are such that 2-4 rides a year will likely be the most I ever do, so is there really a place for me in the AERC? There was a period of time that was short-lived that I would have said no, that my little square peg would never fit the AERC round hole. There just wasn't the economic support to finance it (there still isn't). I did not have the connections to build upon to feel welcome. But I came through that, renewed, and have moved forward with the feeling that if there is to be significant AERC growth then the sport has to be a place for everyone. What do I mean when I say everyone? I mean that the part-time riders need to be valued in the same way that full-time riders are valued. But they ride so many miles! You don't! Yeah, that is true. But our AERC dues are annually the same. I don't have the numbers to support it, but I'd expect we are a fair representation of the membership.
If we are to have growth the new people coming into the sport need to be respected, nurtured, and given the opportunity to learn what it takes to develop their horsemanship skills to successfully ride endurance. I've run across so many experienced people that are so busy trying to avoid the train wreck that they alienate the new rider in the process. We need to correct that through education, not through social media. Social media is great for networking and finding people, but the boot needs to drop there, so the Green Beans among us can find real mentors, real riding partners, and real experiences. Maybe they will learn, maybe they will stay.
If we are to have growth new people coming into the sport need access to their local endurance riding clubs. The click mentality directly opposes that growth. If a new person joins a regional club, welcome them, invite them to ride, put them on a team as a tie-breaking rider, pull them in so that a sense of belonging is fostered. Maybe they will develop friendships, maybe they will stay.
If we are to have growth the new people coming in may want to ride the horse they have. It may never break the sound barrier with speed, it might keep the vet standing there to the very last minute...but that rider should get a smile when they cross the finish. The meal and awards should not be over before the maximum ride time has elapsed. So many firsts are not recognized for this reason, and those firsts are pivotal experiences for that rider. If the importance of that first is recognized maybe they will stay.
If we are to have growth the new people coming into the sport need competitive opportunities. A chance to make the expense of those few rides they might be able to do each year mean something. A reason to turn two rides into three, or three into four. There reasons may come from self-paced goals, regional clubs, or a Green Bean venue. But is of the utmost importance that there be a tasty carrot on a stick, a reason to ride (we have horses we can ride anyway), something tangible to shoot for. If we offer possibilities, maybe they will stay.
All of this new blood in endurance riding is an exciting time. At the end of the day we want to see a viable AERC, a growth in membership, and more importantly a retention of those new members coming in. Treat them right. Recognize there is more than one way to get something done, and that your way may not be their way. Teach them the mechanics of doing the job, let them take some knocks (but keep the horses safe), let loose with a waaaaa hoo at the end of every person's ride, recognize their firsts, give incremental goals to strive for, remember their first name, make them feel welcome. If we do all this, maybe they will stay.