I’ve had several people ask about how to start a therapeutic riding program – where to start and get help. While I have never done this myself, I’ve taken business classes and collected resources. So I have some recommendations, and I am sure a few of you readers have some advice to share!
How to Start a Therapeutic Riding Program
1. See if it’s what you really want to do.
Volunteer at a Program
If you have never done anything with therapeutic riding before, volunteer at a program – or several!!! This way you can see how programs run and if it’s what you expected. By experiencing several different programs, you discover how you will want (and not want) to run yours.
You can find a center near you by googling “therapeutic riding center nearby”, or by using PATH Intl’s “find a center” page. I recommend you make sure the instructors are PATH Intl Certified,because if you decide to get certified yourself you can study under them.
Consider the Pros and Cons of Running a Business
You may envision yourself teaching all day, but running a business involves behind-the-scenes management too. Are you up for it?
- Control of your own destiny
- Visibly make a difference
- Opportunity to reach your full potential
- Opportunity to make profit
- Do what you enjoy
- Uncertainty of income
- Risk losing your entire investment
- Long hours and hard work
- Until business is established: long hours and hard work, often without pay, lower quality of life, high stress level
- Complete responsibility
You will essentially be an entrepreneur: starting a business yourself. Are you that type of person?
- Intense obsessive interest that spurs passion.
- Willing to take the initiative.
- Optimistic and confident.
- Self reliant, takes responsibility.
- Will work long hours.
- Future oriented, dreams big and makes plans.
- Organizational skills of people and resources.
- Values achievement over money.
- Knowledgable, learns about the field.
- Humility, willingness to learn and change.
2. Educate yourself.
I would definitely recommend getting certified. Then you know all the safety standards, have some credit, and can get support through PATH Intl. If you’re not sure whether you should get certified or not, read my post “Should I Get Certified”. If you want to get certified, read about the process at my post “How to Get Certified“.
Read the PATH Intl. Standards
Whether you get certified or not, the PATH Intl Standards is a great resource for the safety recommendations when running a therapeutic riding program, most of which you will want to implement to start a safe program.
Learn About Business Management
So many people start programs because they love helping kids with disabilities ride horses, yet have very little business experience, which is why so many programs fall apart when they get bigger. It’s common in the whole non-profit industry, not just TR. And the truth is, doing what you love (instructing) is only half of it – the other half is RUNNING A BUSINESS. So, please learn how to run a business. Gain skills in administration, program planning, and people management. Here are some recommendations:
- Take classes in business management and entrepreneurship. Check out your local community college or continued education program.
- Read or listen up. There are links to resources throughout this post.
- Work, intern, or shadow in a management position at your current job or at the program you are volunteering at.
- Business Planning for EAAT (recorded webinar)
- Strategic Planning for EAAT (recorded webinar)
- Small Centers, Big Dreams (recorded 2015 conference session video)
- The Right Team, Right Now (recorded 2014 conference session video)
- Capacity Building: Growing Time, Treasure and Talent at Your Center (recorded 2015 conference session video)
- When to Build? Capital Campaigns and Building Fundraising Capacity (recorded 2014 conference session video)
3. Get a mentor.
Don’t try to do it all on your own – why try to reinvent the wheel? Many centers help each other out with advice and resources, and some will even mentor you throughout the process. Ask a nearby barn or a PATH Intl Mentor if they will help you. Find PATH Intl Mentors on their website. Ask your regional representatives if they have ideas. Some states have a very supportive network that help new start up programs.
4. Create a business plan.
Business plans are the best!!! A business plan is a guide for your business that outlines your goals and how you will get there, like a road map. It details how you plan to achieve these goals, and in doing so you discover whether your plan is even viable – and if it’s not viable, then you can change it so it is.
Why make a business plan
- IT IS YOUR BEST POSSIBLE ASSURANCE AGAINST FAILURE. Because you are planning for everything.
- It helps you make smart decisions to help your business succeed.
- It teaches you about the field and how your business fits in.
- It is a tool to attract capital and startup funding. Many lenders, investors, and grants won’t even look at you if you don’t have it.
- It is a systematic evaluation of the whole idea. It highlights things you may need to change or reconsider to make your venture more likely to succeed.
- It is a tool to evaluate results. If your business is not progressing like you planned, you may need to make some changes to the business plan.
Business plans can protect you from failure, because most failure comes from not planning thoroughly.
Why most small businesses fail
- Manager’s incompetence or inexperience
- Limited resources
- Lack of financial stability
- Lack of differentiation from others in the market
- Doesn’t seek legal and accounting help from the start
- Lacks skills and knowledge
(These lists are from the small business class I took at DeVry/Keller University.)
As you can see, many of the reasons small businesses fail could have been avoided by making a business plan, which would have pointed out these issues long before they started. Of course, there’s always the unexpected, but at least you can minimize it.
Resources for business plans:
- Resources listed above in this post
- My blog post of an example business plan outline for a veterans program
- PATH Intl 2014 Conference Handout The Business Plan
- PATH Intl Standards – for paperwork templates, admin and barn set up
- PATH Intl. How to Start an EAAT Center/Program Book which can be purchased here
- Essentials of Entrepreneurship and Small Business Management, 8th Edition 8th Edition by Norman M. Scarborough, Jeffrey R. Cornwall – this was the textbook for the class I took and was GREAT. This links to the most recent edition, previous ones are much cheaper. I think this is the version I had.
- Business Planning Guide by Small Business BC
- Business plan resources at SBA.gov
- Business plan outline by Dick Stevenson
- Help for starting a business at SBA.gov
- Business planning tool at SBA.gov
- Business plan step by step guide at entrepreneur.com
- Elements of a business plan at entrepreneur.com
Additional Business Plan Considerations
Here are some additional considerations for the therapeutic riding program business plan that may not be mentioned in regular business plans. This is also a good list for taking stock of your resources to determine whether you are even able to start a program.
- Whether to become a PATH Intl. Certified Instructors or not
- Whether to become a PATH Intl. Accredited Center or not
- Whether to be a Non-profit or For-profit (LLC or Sole Proprietor)
- For-profit = make money by selling a product directly to the customer (no access to grants and donations). Fees must be able to pay for services, preferably with a profit. Concerns are cash flow, financing, employees, and marketing.
- Non-profit = make money from a variety of sources separate from the customer (grants, tax-deductible donations, etc). Concerns are the board, fundraising, volunteers, public relations, and staffing.
- talk to your accountant or lawyer
- talk to other directors of each kind about their experiences.
- What state licenses you need
- What insurance you need
- What forms and signs you need – some states require specific warning signage and forms regarding equine liability
- Facilities – own, lease, or partner with an established public or TR program; safety, accessibility, bathrooms, seating, stalls, turnout, shelter; whether it allows year round or seasonal programs
- Equipment – mounting blocks, ramps, cones, poles, buckets, balls, toys, helmets, safety stirrups, gait belts
- Horses – do you have them? How will you get them? How will you train them?
- Owning – can cost more, have to find homes when they’re done with their job
- Leasing – less overhead, goes back to the original owner when they’re one with their job, owner may be able to take the horse away whenever they want
- Instructors – just you? Hire more? Requirements?
- Start up Costs & Continued Funding
- Marketing – website, booths at equestrian events and volunteer fairs
- Connections/Networking – meet with local equine groups and community members to gain support for your program
- For non-profits: Grants, Sponsorships, Host special events, Donations and discounts
- For for-profits: outside individuals can start a non-profit scholarship fund that accepts donations and pays the fees for accepted riders
- Fundraising ideas from a PATH Conference Seminar
- Rider recruitment – school leaders, doctor and therapy offices and practitioners, booths, flyers at supply stores, host and open house
- Volunteer recruitment – are there enough capable volunteers in the area? (strong enough, fit enough, etc.) flyers at churches, schools, community centers; booth at volunteer fairs; friends and family; post an ad in the newspaper or local volunteer websites
- Your capabilities – are you more a teacher than a manager? Can you handle running a business? Are you able to hire the right people or find the right volunteers to help you do the things you can’t do?
5. Get started!
Now that you have a plan, you should see what your first steps are. I’m not much help here, but I’d think it would be registering your business or non-profit. I would also say finding the right people and gathering them around you to help!
6. Start small then expand as able.
The Life Cycle of a Business
- Start Up
- Rapid Growth
- Grow, Sustain, or Decline
Start small and be smart. Maybe grow, or maybe don’t. When it’s time to grow, educate yourself, because growing is a very different thing than starting up a business. Some people are best at starting businesses, some people are best at growing them, and some people can do both. Know yourself and your limits. Maybe your program grows and you go back to teaching, letting someone with more business experience take over. Or maybe you stay small and within the limits of how much you can handle. Of course, you should have already thought about this in your business plan when you dreamed about the future, and determined exit strategies!
Lastly, check out my blog post about Program Sustainability Concepts and the presentation it’s based on, which I highly recommend watching if you’re starting a program!
Readers who have started your own programs – please share anything you’d like to add! What helped you most? Where did you find support?
Note: This is not professional advice, this is a blog. I am not liable for what you do with or how you use this information. The activities explained in this blog may not be fit for every rider, riding instructor, or riding center depending on their current condition and resources. Use your best personal judgement!
This is a really great list of what to think about. I just started my own program in November and my biggest advice would be to look for your friends and family for advice! I didn’t know if it was possible to start my own program. I had no barn, no horses and no business experience but I started talking to people I thought could help me, my dad has started numerous businesses and helped me write a business plan BEFORE I approached any possible barns. I chatted with friends in the horse world and found the barn I teach at through a friend of a friend. I found someone to help me proof read my website content, my dad helped me build a WordPress website and set up email accounts and such. I found a lawyer friend to help me with liability waivers and such. When you go looking for insurance they will want to see your liability waivers and your barn rules. As a mid-twenty year old with no savings I didn’t have much funding to start a program but I have a big network of horse friends, I asked for old saddle pads, cheaper saddles and extra girths to build my stash. However, very important, I purchased all NEW helmets. Make sure to be very careful about ASTM standards. I lease horses and borrow a trailer because the horses don’t live at the barn I teach at. I pretty much begged, borrowed and considered stealing (ok, not really) to get myself going. I talked to everyone I could think of that could help me and reached out to new and unexpected places.
Next thing, START SMALL. No matter how prepared you think you are there will be hiccups in a new program. I suggest you start small while you work out all the nitty gritty that even the best business plans don’t account for. I started with one horse, two students and two volunteers. In the past eight months I have grown to four students and six volunteers. It might not seem like much but that is four hours of teaching and while you make think you can teach for eight hours a day, no problem, I mean you sit at a desk job for eight hours. Wrong! 8 hours of actual lessons is a LOT of work. You’re on your feet, mind constantly on guard preparing for accidents or meltdowns and then the horses, they can’t work that long or volunteers, good luck finding a volunteer that wants to spend eight hours side walking. Plus, if you are teaching eight hours a day, when do you run the business? You have to pay bills, write lesson plans, complete rider assessments, respond to phone calls and emails, balance financials and a million other things. Also, if you start small and say teach once or twice a week you can hold down a part time job that has a guaranteed income. I currently work 4 days a week at a desk and 1 day a week teaching. Hoping to take that second day leap soon.
I could write a book. It’s been a huge learning curve but hearing a non-verbal rider speak for the first time, making eye contact with an autistic child for the first time, seeing them kiss and hug their horse and watching the parents release a weeks worth of stress makes it all worth it! You just have to be committed to the long haul.
I think it’s also important to identify and make sure there is a population that needs your services! Sounds silly, but I’ve heard of multiple programs failing because the specific population they wanted to serve didn’t really exist in their area. If nothing else, be confident that you can create a demand for your services- bummer to do all that work and not have the people that want to participate!
This is a great outline of what it takes to start a program! Thank you!!
I started a program eight years ago and we have been very successful but it has been more work than I had ever imagined. My goal from the beginning was to build a program that I could hand off to a staff and step away from. I know that I can do a lot of things but I am the master of nothing and I want the program to thrive beyond my expertise. As we head into our eight year I am very tired and I would like to spend more quality time with my family. This is turning into the biggest challenge yet. We are slowly getting staff in place that will do a good job at keeping the standard up that I have set from the beginning. What I have found is that the staffing piece has been the hardest thing for me, I am not very comfortable being a supervisor! (The things that we learn about ourselves is incredible!) I believe that at this point we have a program that has enough people invested in it that it will continue to thrive regardless of my involvement so I am very grateful for that. Every time I am in class and see the faces of our riders it is all worth it but anyone starting a program needs to realize that this has to be a labor of love, it is not an easy road!! Thank you again for the great advice in this blog, I hope it will help people have realistic expectations of a very worthwhile journey!