Produced through a partnership between STRIDER & Eventing Nation, these Behind-the-Scenes Spotlights feature conversations with equestrian organizers to explore the origins of their horse shows and clinics, some challenges of equestrian activity management, and the communities that make it all happen.
Good horsemanship, quality knowledge and an emphasis on community access has long been the core foundation for programming at Wheatland Farm, a fully inclusive equestrian program based in Purcellville, VA.
You might be familiar with Wheatland’s Farm’s success in eventing and dressage, as it’s home to CCI3* Event rider & Prix St. Georges dressage rider Anthony Forest. Or you may have attended one of Wheatland Farm’s regularly scheduled clinics with Olympic rider Boyd Martin and top dressage rider Silva Martin, which are open to riders and auditors from across Area II and beyond.
What you may not be aware of is how Wheatland Farm has integrated their traditional training with its popular and ever-growing therapeutic riding program that draws on experts from across the top levels of the sport.
The team at STRIDER recently caught up with Muriel and Anthony Forrest of the Faith & Family Foundation at Wheatland Farm to learn how they were expanding community access to equestrian sport.
“We have really great coaches and mentors who have provided some incredible guidance [to the therapeutic riding program]. Will Connell [USEF Director of Sport], Michel Assouline [Head of Para-Equestrian Dressage Coach Development and High-Performance Consultant] and Olympic eventer Boyd Martin, who teaches clinics here regularly and has been a tremendous mentor to Anthony Forest, have been instrumental,” Executive Director Muriel Forrest explained to STRIDER.
As a USEF/USPEA Para-dressage Center for Excellence, Wheatland Farm makes connections with horses possible for any and all. In addition to being one of only four all-inclusive Pony Clubs in the United States, Wheatland hosted the final observation event before the 2018 WEG for the U.S. Para-Dressage team.
“We have to find a way to overcome the horse world seeming a bit like a closed-shop. To keep our sport growing you need to invite a new generation of kids and adult amateurs who are just trying out horses. They might feel intimidated, but those barriers are broken down slightly if they can go on the web, browse a good website, and click-to-access information,” says Muriel Forrest.
“Horses really are the great unifier […] Disability tends to be isolating, but when you put a kid on a horse that levels the playing field. From the onset we knew that this facility and program had to make it possible for our riders to do whatever they wanted to do. Here they have access to top quality horses and coaches, even if they are purely using the horse as a treatment modality.”
“It has taken years to develop the infrastructure, develop a training program and really create a rubric for this process whereby children with severe disabilities, moderate disabilities, and able-bodied children are all together.”
Once their therapeutic program was established, the Forrests and their team set about making it as available to those interested as possible. Soft marketing through social media channels such as Facebook and Instagram (their goat Peanut has quite a following!) has complimented their investment in research of the best digital tools to accelerate the success of Wheatland Farm’s initiatives. The program has grown tremendously thanks in part to dedication of time to learn and implement the most effective uses of these tools.
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“We know that responsiveness is a key to customer retention, so we added Podium on our website to make our team available 24/7 to answer questions that interested parties text us. It saves us from having to share our phone numbers and enables us to set a clear boundary but gives people immediate access to the information they need.”
“Clinics have also been huge for us,” adds Anthony Forrest, “and the community access with STRIDER has made a huge difference. All of our information can be accessed by riders or auditors through a single link that I can easily share on Facebook. It’s great how easy it is for a rider or auditor to send a note to an organizer as well. Some people have reached out needing accommodation — requesting to bring a service animal or maybe needing handicapped parking or access to the auditor seating area.
“I can receive those notes as they discretely book online and respond anonymously without people reaching out to my phone directly. That privacy and safety is important for everyone, and thankfully our center is unique in that we do have the ability to accommodate everyone.”
In addition to participant safety, data privacy has driven some of Wheatland Farm’s tech adoption.
“We have over 100 kids participating each week which means we have to retain a lot of information in a secure way — we use SalesForce, whose CRM allows us to do just that,” says Muriel. “Technology has enabled us to quickly gather data from riders and get them scheduled for a farm visit and free rider assessment within 24 hours.”
“Technology is incredibly helpful as it enables people working in the horse industry to set professional limits. You want to address people’s concerns but set a really clear boundary. Some key aspects of that are to start with a good interactive website where people can really learn about you, then have a quick way for people to sign up for something.”
Access to new experiences changes mindsets. In support of expanding access throughout the community, STRIDER and Strides for Equality Equestrians (SEE) are developing a novel initiative to support broader diversity of involvement in the horse world in 2022. Stay tuned for additional information on STRIDER about how you can support your local therapeutic riding program, compete as a para-athlete, explore a career in horses other than as a professional rider, or contribute to rehabilitation success with a prison equine program.