Changes in the Equestrian Industry

My sister Angelika Schleese runs our European operations, which – although fairly young – is expanding rapidly. As part of our regular conversations and communications, we here in North America are of course kept abreast of what is going on over there, so that we can align our global strategies for expansion and continued growth. Recently she gave me an update on some statistics that she receives from an organization in Germany she subscribes to, which led me to thinking about how dynamically changes are happening pretty much all through the industry. I will share some of these numbers further on with you, but first I wanted to take a moment to reflect back on how much has changed in the past 30+ years we have been in business here.

When we arrived from Germany in 1986 (when I was honoured to be given the position of Official Saddler to the World Dressage Championships – held for the first time outside of Europe!) we found things much different in North America than what we were used to from back ‘home’. Saddles were treated, for the most part, as commodities – used, abused, replaced when broken, and not really formally ‘fitted’ to either horse or rider – except perhaps with pad after pad after shim. There seemed to be really no one around who could actually fit (or repair!) the saddles properly; beyond the occasional reflocking perhaps (and you wouldn’t believe some of the stuff we found in saddle panels!) It was not considered customary to even go out to the horse and do any kind of measurements before buying a saddle. For the most part, you bought a saddle and then tried to make it work. It either fit or it didn’t – and then pads and shims were added to the equation.

I remember one of the first jumping shows we went to at Sunnybrook Park in Toronto – featuring some of the top Canadian riders at the time. I was astonished to see how many keyhole pads, how many rubber pads, how many additional shims were being put under the so-called ‘close contact’ saddles (kind of ironic – as these pads tended to negate the whole concept…) Fit seemed to be a completely secondary consideration.

Before emigrating, I had traded my competitive event horse to a good friend who owned a tack shop in Germany for a starting inventory of 30 saddles – Kieffer, Passier and Stuebbens – but after these were sold, I began to build my own saddles. My first custom order came in 1987, and was the start of a huge and steep learning curve as far as design changes and anatomical fit requirements went. A few years later I began to concentrate on the apparent new demographic in the industry – women – and began working on saddles that accommodated the female anatomy (while making huge inroads on ensuring the horse’s conformation and biomechanics were absolutely taken into consideration).

It is gratifying to see how much has changed now – saddle fitting schools are gaining in importance in both Europe and in North America, and my ultimate goal is still to come to a commonality in the ‘language’ of saddle fit globally. Unfortunately, too much in this industry is still unregulated and it’s still often a case of buyer beware. We are happy to see how many of our former employees have been able to establish themselves in business all over North America – because at the end of the day – it still needs to be all for the good of the horse. Education continues to be a driving force, and even the Society of Master Saddlers in the UK has recognized the need for change in the traditions of its teachings – especially as far as saddle fitting is concerned!

The statistics support what we have long realized is the reality: the demographics in this market indicate that the riding population aged 50+ has grown by 10% in the last 5 years. (Maturing Female Baby Boomers are the largest part of not only our market share, but in general for the equine industry). The one huge positive from this is that this demographic has the most disposable income available – which benefits the equestrian industry as a whole, since the numbers indicate that this is spent on hobbies and sports (mainly golf and riding!)

The one consideration remains as a key topic of interest here – how can we promote the equestrian industry as a whole to the general public (and our riding friends) to ensure that it remains a viable option for funding to stay relevant? I think there is always more opportunity for collaborative and cooperative efforts within the industry; too many businesses and individuals seem to be jealously ‘guarding their territories’ instead of working together to share resources. Just my opinion – yours?

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