Every recreational pursuit from golf, to tennis, to sailing has been waiting with bated breath for the retirement of the Baby Boomer generation. Economists assured us that as this group (the largest generation in history) retired, they would while away their sunset years spending their money like drunken sailors on a three-day shore leave. Instead, they’ve proven to be even cheaper than their parents.
Rather than buying boats or joining lawn bowling clubs, they’ve taken to mall walking, snow shoeing, hunting for the best $2.99 breakfast with free coffee refills and pouring over their grocery receipts looking for errors to be outraged at. Then they sit around complaining about the government, going to Rolling Stones concerts and reminding us how they stopped the Vietnam War. I often counter that Baby Boomers also assassinated Martin Luther King, JKF and institutionalized Apartheid – then I thank them for the national debt. I’m really not all that popular with my parent’s friends.
The equine industry was also hoping to get its share of those retirement packages. And even though there were many proven, serviceable breeds of horses out there that would have been perfectly constructed and tempered for someone over 60 to have a pleasant and safe day of riding, economists (and their friends the demographers) insisted that the Boomers would be looking for something over-priced and under-tested. A visit to any hunt club would have shown us many Clydesdale crosses that can ferry a fragile octogenarian across hill and vale at a reasonable price. But instead, we scoured the planet, looking for fringe breeds that no one had ever heard of – the more exotic the locale, the better. While the offspring of a Mennonite Percheron, which broke into the buggy horse paddock one night, would be absolutely perfect for a retired person’s mount, it can’t touch the romance of some long forgotten (preferably hypoallergenic) breed from rural Kazakhstan.
But as a general statement, they aren’t buying either one. And the few that did take the trip to Europe to buy a $50,000 steed aren’t doing anything but petting it, because they’re too terrified to ride it. And legitimately so, because most of them are only three years old and more inbred than a European Monarch – not traits that lead to a good day in the saddle for a brittle beginner. Many of these breeds are advertised as “smooth and spirited” – sort of the equine equivalent of a Ferrari, but I wouldn’t want my mother trying to handle one of those either.
Ironically, they usually end up paying for lessons on the aforementioned mongrel draft cross, in hopes that they’ll eventually be able to ride the expensive one. The upside of that situation is that my wife and daughter get to ride some pretty nice horses, just to “keep them fit.”
Don’t get me wrong, I’m impressed by anyone over 60 who’s willing to hop on the back of any horse. I’m a long way from retirement, but I’ve been a little skittish ever since I broke a rib when a Standardbred I was riding jumped six feet sideways for no apparent reason. At an age that many would be worrying about falling in the tub and breaking a hip, the ones who climb into the saddle have my respect. I don’t see too many of that crowd “grinding a rail” down at the skate park behind the arena – and I’m not sure that it’s any more dangerous.
Perhaps this is why the fastest growing segment of pleasure driving is retired folks in sequined shirts being dragged around in wee carts by miniatures. Certainly safe enough, but it’s kind of like watching the Shriners drive around in those little cars at parades. You’re not really sure whether to laugh, or cry, or what; so you just smile and wave and hope they throw you candy – and also hope that they aren’t crushed by a marching band.
So, the Baby Boomers are retiring, but the expected recreational boon has so far turned out to be mostly a bust. Partially because the RRSPs that they were counting on have lost half their value (thanks again economists), and partially that many of them are still working as a result. But, as they finally leave the work force, there will certainly be opportunities for the horse world to get their share. My advice would be to concentrate on marketing things that have historically appealed to that generation – things that are cheap, safe, and popular before 1975.