It doesn’t matter if you’re showing on the A-circuit or just taking a weekly lesson – horseback riding is expensive.
And unfortunately, babysitting or your first job probably can’t support your horsey habit entirely.
But you don’t have to spend money to get more horse time in your life – something I bet your parents would love to hear. There are plenty of ways to log riding hours, take care of rescue horses, and introduce the awesomeness of horses to people who wouldn’t be able to ride otherwise. And you can do it all for free.
No, it’s not too good to be true. Equine nonprofits depend on volunteers to keep their doors open, and you’ll take home priceless experiences in return for your time and effort. Here’s a guide to finding your perfect horsey volunteer opportunity.
Choosing an Opportunity
You might want to volunteer with specific goals in mind. Maybe you want to work with children, or maybe you want to build trust and bonds with abused horses.
Just don’t let what you think you want to do stop you from getting out there and trying something new!
If you want to ride
When Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds are done on the racetrack, they often go on to have awesome careers as lesson or show horses. But it takes a lot of work to get to that point.
OTTB and other racehorse rehabilitation barns have volunteers with riding experience help retrain these horses so they can move on to new careers. You may have to pick out a few stalls along the way.
But by getting off experienced show horses and getting on something green, you’ll come back as a much stronger rider.
Most of these facilities won’t let you ride right off the bat, and some may not even let you ride at all. Always check with an individual barn to see what your responsibilities would be.
If you want to help horses
These facilities are often overloaded and understaffed and need all the help they can get. Volunteers help feed, maintain and otherwise rehabilitate rescue horses.
Since they’re coming from a rough background, it takes a lot of time to build trust with these animals. You may be able to form a strong bond with a specific horse – or a few – as you work toward finding them a forever home.
These horses may even work their way back into the arena so volunteers may get to help with this process. Some barns are more focused on riding than others, so always check in to see what your responsibilities would be at a specific barn.
If you want to help people
You already know all the awesome things riding brings to your life: bonding with animals, building confidence, and countless other skills. But not everyone has those same opportunities.
A lot of kids grow up unable to afford to riding. That’s why lots of barns, especially those in cities, have built programs to get kids involved with horses. Without a supportive family or the money to get into other activities, these kids are simply more likely to get in trouble. Regular riding lessons give them structure and responsibilities to help keep them busy.
At the same time, some barns are devoted to helping people with mental and physical disabilities learn important life skills through riding. Equi-Star Therapeutic Riding Center in Burt, New York has riders of all ages and crafts individualized lessons and exercises to help riders get real-world results.
Some programs have a riding facility of their own; others are run through regular lesson barns. But since so many of these kids ride on scholarships, they depend on volunteers to keep lessons going. You’ll not only get to spend time tacking up horses and doing chores.
At many facilities, like Equi-Star, volunteers get to help with lessons. Equi-Star volunteers consistently work and bond with riders, helping them communicate with their horses and with the people around them.
Over weeks, months, and years, riders defy their mental and physical disabilities – and volunteers are essential to make it happen.
How to find a volunteer opportunity
Google is your best friend when it comes to finding equine volunteering opportunities. Use keywords like “equine volunteering,” “horse rescue,” “equine sanctuary,” or “therapeutic horseback riding” to get the exact results you’re looking for.
Sometimes these businesses are small and not well listed on Google. Facebook searches can also help, especially if a barn has an out-of-date website.
You also probably have plenty of connections in your local horse community. Use them! Think back – maybe someone has mentioned a local rescue, and you can reach out to ask them more about it.
Even if you’ve never heard of an equine nonprofit in your area, that doesn’t mean no one knows about them. Bring it up with your trainer, with fellow barnmates as you’re tacking up, or even during a quiet moment in the stands or office at a horse show.
Always keep your eyes peeled. A horsey Facebook friend might share a post from a local nonprofit. It could be a call for volunteers, an open house, or simply an update that can help you get your foot in the door.
How to get started
So you’ve found what looks like the perfect opportunity. Now it’s time to get started!
If you heard about a program through word of mouth, get online and look up a phone number. If you found it online, you’re one step ahead of the game.
Notice we mentioned finding a phone number, not email address. Unless a barn requests you send an email, pick up the phone. Sure, it’s a little more intimidating. But you know horse people are always on the move and may not have internet at the barn, so a phone call is your best bet.
Talk openly and honestly about your riding and horse care experience. It’ll help a facility give you an opportunity where you can make the biggest difference.
Just don’t worry that you don’t have experience – some places will take volunteers who’ve never even sat on a horse.
And of course, remember that volunteering doesn’t have to be a replacement for riding. Even if you’re schooling and showing every day, a day off can be good for you and your horse. But a day off from horses altogether? There’s no medical evidence that says that’s necessary.