Rob Lawrence Jacobs says he’s always felt an affinity for horses, but that they intimidated him early on as a child. It wasn’t until he chose equestrian as his summer activity at Christian camp in sixth grade that he felt the horse bug firmly take root.
It’s this memory of the gangly boy taking his first riding lesson that comes to mind when Rob reflects on his path to where he is now. “I think about the concept of access, and what it did for me,” he says. “I had the opportunity much later on to go down to Wellington to ride, and I’ll never forget what that exposure did for my riding. It’s something I wish more kids would have the opportunity to do — and some never get the chance to experience horses at all.”
This thought, turning over in his mind, occupied Rob as he navigated life as a horse professional. He’d grown up in suburban Maryland and says he’s fortunate to have had parents who were willing to learn about horses and spring for his first riding lessons. After earning his MBA in 2017, Rob began to expand his worldview. Here he was with a growing coaching and training business — but it felt like something might be missing.
“Around 2018, I began to feel a shift, both mentally and from a business perspective,” he recalled. “I felt that I no longer wanted to be in a position in which I had to make decisions around equestrian sport as they pertain to finances and profit.”
It was tough to achieve a balance, Rob says. He uses the example of having clients with horses they wanted to show, but that perhaps weren’t fully ready. “At that point, nothing will go wrong if they do show, and that means I paid my bills,” he said. “I often found that there would be decisions that would be great business decisions, but not necessarily great for a particular horse or for that particular time. And I decided that wasn’t what I wanted to do anymore.”
"I wanted to create something where people didn’t have to say no due to finances. More riders should have access to quality instruction and safe equipment.”
In the nearly-canonized book, The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, author Stephen R. Covey writes about the concept of “self-transcendence” and the achievement of fulfillment and happiness through service to others. A closer examination of some of the most successful people in the world reveals that much of their focus is on service to others or philanthropy. As Rob experienced this shift in mentality, his new mission emerged clearly: use his love of teaching and his belief that access and exposure can have a lasting impact on someone's life to create opportunities for others.
And so, The Robert Lawrence House of Opportunity was born.
“I remember being a kid and having to sit clinics out,” Rob said. “We had a certain number of shows or clinics we could do each year, and that was it. And so many don’t have even the budget for that. I wanted to create something where people didn’t have to say no due to finances. More riders should have access to quality instruction and safe equipment.”
Rob’s passion for teaching and having a real impact is evident in his voice as he describes his work. His years of experience competing through college in the IHSA as well as professionally on the hunter circuits lent themselves well to coaching, and those who have learned from him say he leaves a lasting impression. He has been one of the participating coaches for the USHJA Gochman Family Grant, which was founded in order to help bridge the gap for young riders with financial limitations. And so it felt natural that Rob now gravitated toward the concept of creating opportunity for those who may not otherwise have it.
Rob created a nonprofit centering on the concept of “Opportunity Clinics”. His first Opportunity Clinic in North Carolina, provided for free or for a voluntary donation, attracted local riders eager to learn. One student even walked from a neighboring farm, grateful for the opportunity to learn somewhere nearby since they did not have their own truck and trailer. He also recalls riders who say they just didn’t have access to quality instruction in their area. It didn’t take long for Rob to realize he’d found a niche. Since that first clinic, Rob’s schedule has been filled with Opportunity Clinics. Pre-pandemic, he traversed the country, going wherever he was needed, wherever he could help.
Rob also, with the help of a good friend in the business of consigning tack and apparel, created the “From the Community, To the Community” equipment cooperative that provides donated gently used options for riders who may not have the means for new things. The system operates on an informal honor system, and Rob says he doesn’t worry about people taking advantage. “I tend to believe that things come around for people,” he says. To him, the positives outweigh any risks. Safe equipment, he says, should be something every rider has access to.
When you venture beyond the boundaries of traditionally equestrian parts of the country — pockets of Florida, up and down the Eastern seaboard, a few smatterings in the middle and a few on the West coast — there are entire communities of riders who just want what Rob brings them: opportunity and access.
I asked Rob for his perspective on how the equestrian industry needed to evolve in order to welcome more diverse groups of people. His answer was thoughtful: “I think a lot of it is going into different communities. I think it’s a little two-fold — when a young trainer typically starts up shop their goal is to be successful and be able to remain in business. So they’re likely to go where there is money, where there are more affluent groups of people. And everything else has to sort of take the back burner.”
It’s a struggle for a horse professional. “I get that because I’m a business brain,” Rob said. “But on the flip side, there are so many groups of people that could be excluded when an equestrian business does that. So that’s a little too why I think it’s important for me to do the opposite and look where there is a different demographic and look where there is a need and try to go there.”
But not every professional is ready to shutter their business and enter the nonprofit world — which begs the question, how can those who are interested help move the needle? Does it have to be all or nothing?
“I’ve reached out to a lot of my contacts and many of them are happy to donate a few hours of their time to a clinic when there is a need,” Rob said. He says the support for the Opportunity Clinics has been overwhelming, and he’s beginning to see a bigger version of his dream in which more trainers are getting involved around the country. “Trainers who want to give back and volunteer could grow something like that in their area. That’s sort of the direction I’d like to go in next year.”
“Even if I can only have a positive impact on one person, I’m not going to stop because it feels like it isn’t large enough. Most things start small. Most change comes in small ways first.”
It’s easy to feel that an idea isn’t big enough, or that the number of people who are impacted will be too insignificant. It’s intimidating to stand at the bottom of a mountain looking up. But Rob says he started there too — and some days he still feels that pressure, that feeling of “am I doing enough to help?”. He’s helped himself move past this fear by remembering that one’s circle of influence can only grow.
“Every year, we try to have as much of a positive impact on as many people as we can,” Rob said. “Even if I can only have a positive impact on one person, I’m not going to stop because it feels like it isn’t large enough. Most things start small. Most change comes in small ways first.”
If you’d like to collaborate with Rob to bring more access to quality instruction to more riders, visit the Robert Lawrence House of Opportunity website here.
Feature photo by Open Hands Farm. First inset photo by Natalie Kimball. Second inset photo by Heidi Bee Photography.
Written by Sally Spickard
Sally Spickard caught the horse bug at a young age and can still remember her first trip to the Kentucky Three-Day Event, which subsequently afflicted her with the eventing bug. Sally spends her days in San Diego, California and thoroughly enjoys her career telling the stories of our sport and assisting clients with their digital marketing needs.