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Free Beginner Lessons – Wheeler Performance Horses Giving Back to the Industry

We often have to face some doom and gloom about the show horse industry: the numbers are down, major shows are being canceled, the horses can’t hold up, it’s too expensive, beginners aren’t interested anymore, etc. 

The concern over these issues has resulted in some drastic measures by major breed associations looking to redefine the “amateur” rider in hopes of expanding interest in areas with sparse lesson programs or where top trainers don’t offer entry-level lessons.

But, as Mr. Rogers reminded us, when things seem dismal or sad, look for the helpers to change your perspective. Jenn Wheeler of Wheeler Performance Horses decided to be one of those helpers, and it’s people like her looking to reignite the passion for our industry, one beginner at a time.

According to Wheeler, “We’ve always tried to allow time for beginner lessons, but over the years, it became tough to make time for lessons outside our show string. We had an intense program with goals to win at the highest levels, and our lesson program dwindled in favor of our clients who wanted to travel to major shows…and win.”

While Wheeler loved the challenge of her clients’ lofty goals and the thrill of the significant victories, she couldn’t help but feel like something was missing.

“Clients come and go, and you get into this repetitive cycle of showing, buying new horses, working with new clients, pushing to win, and never being home. So, as much as I loved it, I felt like I was losing myself a bit, and I couldn’t put my finger on what was missing because we were experiencing great success objectively.”

This Christmas season, after conversations with friends about the lack of beginners in our industry, Wheeler decided to do something unprecedented: she went to social media. She began offering beginner lessons on her top retired show horses to her local community kids…for FREE.

Wheeler was overwhelmed by the response of local parents and kids. She figured she’d get a handful of kids interested, but her phone began ringing off the hook with parents who were willing to let their kids give it a try when they felt like there was nothing to lose.

In the two weeks since Christmas, Wheeler had over two dozen new beginners come to her barn to take lessons!

“These kids are just wide-eyed with wonder when they see a horse. And they giggle when they jog for the first time. And their questions are non-stop. And it is genuinely so much fun working with them! It reminded me of myself when I was their age and why I started showing horses in the first place.”

It wasn’t long before Wheeler discovered precisely what she had been missing. “I was missing my passion, love for the animals, and excitement to be around horses every day,” she explains. 

“My customers start with a genuine love for horses, but then that seems to fade when they begin to compete and get caught up with the wins and the trophies. Of course, they still love horses, but the pressure to win and the comparisons to others take away the joy of being with their horse doing what they love.” 

Wheeler entered the horse industry through her local 4-H program and she is concerned that 4-H and open shows are disappearing. “I don’t think it’s for lack of interest; it’s because there is a disconnect between 4-H and top breed shows. They are seen now as totally separate, but they aren’t. There needs to be a bridge of quality instruction between local open shows and a real training barn where kids can get quality, safe, next-level instruction on next-level animals.”

Wheeler’s experience offering free public lessons gave her the answer to the industry’s current difficulty: “The only way to expand our industry is to open the door.” 

All the families that came to Wheeler Performance Horses to take free lessons want to keep coming back, and they’re bringing their friends! As a result, Wheeler’s social media engagement has dramatically expanded, word-of-mouth in her community is at an all-time high, and she’s gained new paying customers.

Indeed, these free lessons have turned into packages where families now pay for regular classes for their kids. “There seems to be an order of operations for most people in our industry. Exposure turns into lessons. Lessons turn into leases. Leases turn into show interest. And that turns into a kid wanting their own horse,” Wheeler says.

“I think when you allow people to enter our industry with no commitment and no strings attached, they’re more likely to try it out. For example, if you tell a parent the cost of a horse up front, the answer is a hard no. But if you allow their child to start with little financial risk, they can see their child’s passion for the sport and are far more likely to invest.”

As is often the case when doing something for others without expecting anything in return, the returns were more than imagined. “When I started this idea, I wanted to help our community and industry attract new riders. I never anticipated what it would give to me. I legitimately love teaching these kids! I found what I’d been missing: my passion for being at the barn, which is the reason I became a trainer in the first place.”

By opening up her lesson program, Wheeler was able to help her community explore the sport, build passion in new riders, give her retired show horses some exercise, revitalize her passion for the sport, and build new contacts and new clients for her business. “There was truly no downside to it!” she exclaims.

She adds, “I’m able to give lessons from the back of a show horse in training, which allows me to demonstrate the skills I’m trying to teach and also helps so I don’t lose time or money by offering my lessons. So it’s a win-win!”

Wheeler concludes, “I want other trainers who have lost their spark and feel like the industry isn’t what it used to be to know that the answer is so simple – make yourself available to entry-level and young riders. They will inspire you, build your client base, and, ultimately, help save our industry.”

About the Author:  Megan Rechberg has been riding horses on and off since sixth grade. She works as a full-time mom to son Jackson and daughter Sterling, a part-time litigation attorney, and social media manager for up-and-coming APHA stallions. She will be showing her yearling APHA SmoreThanA PrettyFace under the guidance of Double A Performance Horses in 2023.