Pony rides can be a great way to give your young guests a memorable farm experience at your venue while adding revenue to your bottom line. In addition to the revenue pony rides bring in, they can also be a great marketing tool as they make a great photo opportunity for parents to share with family & friends on social media.
This all sounds like a no-brainer right? Before you add this to your list of offerings, you need to be aware of the risks and the things you must do to mitigate those risks.
Know Your Pony
This is probably the biggest key to a safe and successful execution of pony rides. Don’t just find a friend that owns a horse and expect things to work out fine. It is imperative that you find a horse that is well-broken and thoroughly kid and noise tested. We have had great success by finding youth camps that have trail ride horses and renting their most kid-proof trail ride horse from them. There is no better kid-testing around than a summer camp trail ride horse that sees a dozen kids of all ages per day. I know as I was on staff at a horse camp for nearly 10 summers.
I suggest you approach the camp with a clear proposal of what you need, hold harmless agreements, and even a sponsorship opportunity where they can promote their camp at your venue. We will typically ask for 2 or 3. That gives you the ability to run more at once during busy times, gives you a backup if one becomes hurt, and allows you to have one in your petting area if desired.
Now that you have the perfect kid-tested pony to use, it is time to find the right person to handle your pony rides. I am a big proponent of rotating your staff around to all the activities to keep them from getting bored but pony rides are not an area you can just stick any staff member on. I believe that everyone giving pony rides must have horse experience.
You want someone that can handle themselves confidently around horses so that if something does go wrong they are not running for the hills but helping the rider dismount safely. They need to understand warning signs of a horse getting a bad attitude such as ears laid back or trail thrashing. They need to anticipate things that could spook the horse and be ready to act. They need to know how to safely lead the horse to keep from getting stepped on. They need to know how to adjust stirrups to the proper length, or fit a helmet if they are being used, safe mounting and dismounting of the riders, and more.
This will be one of your higher risk areas so it is important that you staff it correctly – similar to your hayrides. Set your standards and stick with them no matter how busy you get. You will likely need to pay this position a little more but the amount of revenue that pony rides can generate will far offset the additional payroll cost.
Insurance & Laws
As with everything you add to your venue, be sure to contact your insurance company to find out the impact to your insurance costs. In my experience in that states that I have operated in, it had little or no impact on my insurance costs but that will not be the case with all carriers and in all states.
Also, be sure to check into any local or state regulations around pony rides. That youth camp can be a great source for this information as they will know if helmets are a state law, etc.
Pony Ride Area
This is one that is often overlooked. Even though you now have qualified staff leading a well-broken kid-proofed pony, you still need to pay close attention to your pony ride area.
Confined Area – It is very important that your pony ride area be confined to a relatively small area within a fence or other barrier. Even the best of ponies may decide to take off if stung by a bee. Having your pony rides in a confined area help not only with an issue with a pony running off but also with keeping the public out. This can be an actual fence or even something like large round or square bales. If you construct a fence here are some things to consider:
May seem obvious but don’t use barbed wire. Barbed wire will keep the pony in but is a safety risk to the public
Don’t use T-Posts if you can help it. Someone falling off a taller pony or horse will risk impalement.
If you use wooden rails, put the boards to the inside of the arena. This may not be as pretty as having the rails on the outside of the posts but will save knee injuries from riders getting their knees caught on or banged off posts.
Small Area - Keep you pony ride area somewhat small. We typically like somewhere around a 40’ X 80’ area max. The smaller the area, the less opportunity for a spooked horse to get out of reach.
Area Clear of Hazards – Many of us like to use old farm implements and other things as decoration. I like the idea of getting the public to see how farming used to be executed but your pony ride is not the place to do this. Keep your pony ride area clear of anything that can be fallen onto. Keep it free from signs, boulders, farm implements, and anything else.
Loading Platform - This is something you should strongly consider. A ramp or stairs with a railing that will make the mounting and dismounting process safer. Be sure to offset the railing back from the end of the platform a foot or so to avoid knees getting knocked during the process.
Daily Bee Check – If you are in an area that has bee problems, along with having your staff check your playground each day for bee & wasp nests, have them check your pony area as well.
Water & Fly Spray – Keep your pony hydrated by keeping a watering bucket or trough available for him. Also, if you are in an area with horse flies or other biting insects, be sure to keep your pony happier by applying a good fly spray.
What should I charge?
You will see other venues charge anywhere from $2 - $5 for a ride. Rides are typically very brief (2 laps around your small area). Here are some tips:
I would recommend selling tickets rather than having your pony ride operator having to deal with taking $$ and making change. This will keep the lines down and keep your staff member focused on safe pony rides.
Be upfront with the length of the pony ride. If it is 2 laps, make that abundantly clear where they purchase the tickets and at the pony ride area. Customers are much happier when they have the right expectations.
Post your Pony ride hours of operation. Unless you have multiple ponies, you should not expect or ask your pony to give rides for 10 straight hours. Be sure to rotate your ponies and/or limit your hours of operation. Make these hours very clear at your check-in, website and social media. Another case where we want customers to have the right expectations.
We all know that one of our best marketing tool is social media pics shared by our guests. Train your staff to encourage parents and give them that opportunity to take photos at a certain point in each ride.
Pony rides can be a great addition to most venues if the proper process and safety precautions are in place. It is a great way for kids to have an even more memorable time at your venue while adding some great revenue to your bottom line. This is one of those areas that is important to give special attention to all areas to ensure the safety of your young guests. If you don’t have experience with horses, hire someone who does. One year we hired a family that owned a horse farm that gave trail rides and horsemanship lessons. They provided the horses and the staff and we paid them accordingly. Giddy up!