Where Have All the Riders Gone?

Where Have All the Riders Gone?

March 13, 2019

Is our sport in trouble?  There seem to be fewer riders out there.  At least, fewer of them are at the A shows.

Many years ago, when I was a junior hunter rider, our classes were huge, often 30 or more entries.  We were divided both by rider’s age and size of horse (small/larges). Of course, all juniors jumped 3’6”. Nowadays, junior hunters are divided often only by fence heights (3’3” and 3”6”).  At my recent show in northern California (which was during a vacation week for many schools), there were only 6 junior 3’6” hunters and 1 amateur owner 3’6” hunter (me). I was combined with the juniors to make 7 in the division. Everyone in the class was top notch, but that’s a small group.  What’s going on?  I don’t have the answers, but I do have some thoughts. 

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Certainly the cost of everything—horses, training, shows—is a factor in the decline.  As we all know, our sport is extremely expensive and has only  become more so.  Those without substantial means are virtually shut out of elite competitions unless they are extraordinarily talented and land a sponsor or have some other special circumstance.  And, when the economy is down, it clearly affects our choices—or at least those of us with a budget.  In tighter times, many equestrians are more careful with their horse expenses, especially shows.  Going to a A show adds up fast, as we all know. 

There are other reasons too for smaller attendance. One is that we have many more shows available to us. We have large circuits, often with the same schedules every week.  Many shows aren’t as special anymore. 

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Darby Bonomi, competing in a Hunter Classic at the Monterey National Horse Show circa 1981.  An event that was recognized for its prestige and quality of competition. PC: Katey Barrett

Gone are some of the creative classes that often made the show, such as tandem or pairs classes.  Often the unrated divisions go all on one day, in the back ring.  Let’s face it; shows are often lacking in joy.

The emergence of hunter derbies has brought back some of the specialness to showing, at least in the hunters.  Some shows offer several derbies at different fence heights so that riders of all levels can participate in the fun.

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Both professionals and amateurs of all levels have benefited from the inclusion of the hunter derby divisions. Above, Joey Pedroni competes over one of the beautiful fences that Northern California's Sonoma Horse Park is known for.

Riders get dressed up, ride in the big ring over a fun course with fancy jumps.  And, while everyone loves to watch the top riders compete in international derbies over impressive fences, some of the most popular classes at shows are the lower derbies.  At my local A circuit, the stands are packed for the 2’6” hunter derby, and the class often has 40 entries.  What does THAT tell us?

I think it tells us a few things. 

  • Riders want to ride their horses. They like watching the pros, but in the end, most of us are rider-owners, not just owners. We want to do it, not watch our trainers do it.
  • Riders want to feel special, no matter what height they jump. We spend endless time, money and energy to train and get to a show.  We don’t want to just go around and have it be done with.
  • Adult Amateurs—those riding 3’ and under—are the backbone of our sport.   These are the folks who can choose to spend their time and money in any fashion, and they’re choosing horses.  These are the folks who, despite long work days and other life commitments, make it to the barn with gusto.  These are the riders who support not only the shows, but also the barns.  Sure, they may not be the future of our sport, but they certainly are one of the foundations of the industry. 

So, where are all the riders?  They’re in the 2’6 (and under) rings!  Let’s support these riders and elevate their experience. If their numbers dwindle, we really will be in big trouble.



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D A R B Y B O N O M I Ph D
Sport and Performance Psychology and Family Consultation for Equestrians


For over 25 years, Darby Furth Bonomi, PhD has facilitated positive transformations in clients of all ages. As a practicing psychologist and consultant, Darby has worked with many people to achieve lasting change and establish the foundations for mental wellness.

Now in her primary role as a sport and performance coach and family consultant, Darby merges her life-long experience in the equestrian world—as a rider, parent of riders and owner—with her vast toolbox of psychological and coaching interventions to help riders of all levels and their families reclaim the joy in their sport, leading the way to improved performance and better health. She loves helping clients untangle the complicated situations that tend to arise when horses are added to families.

In addition to writing the wellness column for Street to Stable, Darby is a contributor to California Riding Magazine, along with publishing her own blog. She serves as an advisor to Giant Steps Therapeutic Equestrian Center and is on the Advisory Committee for the United States Equestrian Team Foundation.

A dynamic speaker and change maker, clients have sought out Darby to help improve their lives, both in and out of the saddle. She is devoted to making the equestrian world—and the world at large—a kinder, gentler and more respectful place.

Darby currently shows in the amateur owner hunters and equitation with her horses Little Wing and DaVinci, alongside her teenage daughters. She is married and has a college age son who steers clear of the barn. She lives in San Francisco.


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