When it comes to horse (and rider) welfare, the “dreams of the youth” aren’t to be taken lightly. According to one Swedish researcher, professionals and scientists can learn a lot about developing more ideal riding schools tomorrow by listening to the young  horse riders of today.

Young people make up the majority of participants in riding schools, and they also tend to be highly aware of issues affecting both horses and humans in those schools. Concerned with topics such as inclusion, fairness, and wellbeing for all, they “have some really great ideas” that are worth discussing and implementing, to help equestrian sport evolve in a positive direction, said Gabriella Thorell, PhD, head education teacher in the Swedish Equestrian Center of Sport, Education, and Research in Strömsholm, Sweden.

“Young horse riders perceive many things as good in their riding schools, but they also see room for improvement, especially with regard to teaching styles, horse welfare, and inclusion for all riders,” Thorell said, based on her team’s investigative research working with focus groups of riding school students aged 15-23 across Sweden. Thorell presented her group’s work at the 14th Conference of the International Society for Equitation Science (ISES) in Rome, Italy.

Specifically, the focal group participants want all riders of all backgrounds to feel included and have access to equitation activities, regardless of age, riding level, gender, ethnicity, disabilities, or social economic situation, she said. And they expressed a desire to see the social atmosphere in riding schools “characterized by security and fellowship”—with a positive ambiance that doesn’t include judgement or bullying among riders.

They hope to see the image of the sport evolve outside of riding schools also, so that boys can feel more encouraged to participate. “About 90% of young riders are girls, and it’s seen essentially as a feminine sport,” Thorell said. “They want boys to be able to participate as well, without the risk of getting bullied at school for getting involved in a ‘girls’ sport.”

As far as the horses are concerned, young people would like riding center facilities to evolve so that horses can have stalls leading to large outdoor paddocks, or otherwise live in “active stables” (such as HIT). And they would encourage local governments to invest more in public riding schools to help update and modernize the facilities.

Finally, young riders would appreciate an improvement in riding instruction, suggesting that coaches should receive better training in pedagogical skills, as well as social skills. “They voiced a concern about certain riding instructors who don’t seem to know how to relate to the students, indicating that these teachers know how to ride but not how to teach or interact with people,” she said. “They’d also like to have more individual lessons with coaching and feedback, and take advantage of modern technology in their courses, like working with video clips to analyze their development.”

In Sweden, horseback riding is one of the country’s most popular sports, and overseeing its future development should involve listening to its young participants, according to Thorell. “Young horse riders have clear and constructive thoughts about future riding schools, and about how they perceive and experience equitation,” she said. “Meeting young people’s perception is way to contribute to riding school movement in the future.”