At the end of February 2020, the oldest versatile stock horse association in the country, Stock Horse of Texas (SHTX), held their first show of the year in Bryan, Texas. Just a few weeks later, the entire state of Texas shut down due to COVID-19. As soon as that happened, SHTX Executive Director Jill Dunkel sprang into action. She knew she had to find a way to keep people riding.
“Our people are goal-oriented,” she said. “When there’s a show coming up, they’ve got something to practice for. We wanted to give them a reason and a purpose to keep going with their horse.” And so Dunkel and her staff launched an online program, sending out weekly videos from trainers featuring different skills to work on each week.
Education has always been at the root of SHTX. Since it was founded in 1996, the organization has been living up to its motto to “help people ride a better horse,” serving as an avenue and entry point to bring people into the horse industry—and fall in love with it. “We’re able to bring people in, pair them with knowledgeable people, and get them started on their journey,” Dunkel explained.
When the pandemic hit, Dunkel found a way to give members a reason and a purpose to keep going with their horses. “Everything was in so much chaos and we were all struggling mentally and with isolation—there’s a connection with people and their horses,” she said. “We felt like that healthy connection was more important than ever, and if we could keep people horseback and give them a reason to get outside and breathe some fresh air, when horse shows opened things back up, they would be ready.”
Judging by the hundreds of smiling, socially distanced folks excitedly air-hugging at SHTX’s first show back in Hamilton, Texas this June, they were definitely ready. “The show was huge.” Dunkel said. “Phenomenal. I think COVID made us all slow down a little bit, made us think about how we really want to be spending our time. People went back to things they really enjoyed.”
Plus, there’s added participation incentives, thanks to Horse Industry Escrow Account (HIEA) funds—a result of HB 2463 that legislators passed in the 86th legislative session. SHTX members who come to the majority of this year's shows are eligible to win one of nine $1000 prizes they can use toward things like entry fees, new saddles, or even to encourage them to breed their stock. In March, $9,000 was paid in incentives and at the Stock Horse World Show last October, where $6000 was paid out to some of the highest ranking “Texas Triple Threat” riders—Texas riders whose horse is bred in Texas, with a Texas owner.
“For us, it’s one more reason for people to load their horse into a trailer and come to the show and enjoy their horse,” Dunkel explained. Of course, getting folks and their horses back out to shows across the state doesn’t just help SHTX—it helps put money back into the local businesses of places like Bryan, Hamilton, and other small towns that were hit hard by the pandemic. And for the families who are part of the SHTX community who are struggling financially, or may still be suffering pandemic-related job loss, the incentives gave them a way to stay connected to something they love. “For them,” Dunkel explained, “the possibility of being able to put something back in their pocket is really important.”
Above all, SHTX wants to get—and keep—as many people riding as they can. For those on the fence, the HIEA funding can tip the scales. “If they needed another little nudge,” Dunkel said, “The incentives really help.” And sometimes a nudge is all it takes for SHTX to be able to do what it does best: turn another Texan into a lifetime rider.