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Horse riding lessons

My girl (now almost 15) wants to learn how to ride a horse, and she also wants to learn how to take care of horses. I have very little experience with horses, and I know some of y'all do, so what do I look for to find a place that will give good lessons? What should tell me to hop back in the car and look elsewhere?


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Jul. 1st, 2010 11:47 am (UTC)
Is there a particular discipline/sport she'd like to pursue, or does she just want to be around horses?

Assuming the latter, I think your best best place to start is Pony Club: http://www.ponyclub.org/ Not all club will have access to trainers and facilities with school horses (and not every club is going to be well-organized and -run), but they're veryvery dedicated to horsemanship as well as riding (and to a well-rounded education), and even if you guys don't want to jump in with both feet, your local PC should have some ideas about good local options for lessons and instructors.

Beyond that, I'll just cut/paste from an email I sent a friend last fall who was looking for lessons for herself:

...my rule of thumb is that it's better to have good instruction in the wrong discipline than bad instruction in the right one. I disagree with folks who say that all the disciplines are basically the same thing, but still, good basics are good basics and the body control and horse sense will translate pretty comfortably, and I figure that doing things well is more fun and safer than doing them badly.

_That_ said, I do have a pro-eventing bias, for all sorts of reasons but starting with the fact that it tends to encourage a user-friendly do-the-best-you-can-with-what-you-have we're-all-in-it-together philosophy. As a group, eventers are the friendliest, most down-to-earth, most helpful horsepeople I've met (and if you don't want to jump, some of them are quite good at the dressage--others, of course, not so much). [ETA: I forget where you live, but here is the USEA site: http://useventing.com/ and if you locate your state on the map on this page: http://useventing.com/competitions.php?section=calendar you can try Googling "USEA Area # whatever" and see if your area has a good website with resources...some do, some don't. If you want to remind me where you live, I can put feelers out and see if anyone I know has any suggestions in any discipline.]

Word of mouth is a good way to find good programs; some of them advertise, others, not so much. It may be worth finding some tack shops, if you can, and not just looking at the posted ads but chatting with the staff to see if they have any recommendations. Horsepeople tend to know other horsepeople, and tend to like nothing more than talking about what they know. ;)

I tend to feel like I get more from seeing the place, watching some lessons, observing the people and horses, etc., than I do from an extensive phone interview, so my bias is towards asking if I can set up a time to come by the barn, get the tour and then watch a couple of lessons. I would do that once or twice before setting up my own lesson--if I'm going to hit red flags, I want to do it before I'm up on one of their horses. But asking for references--a couple of students and/or boarders who might be willing to discuss the place in email or own the phone--is worth doing.

For you, I would be looking for some place with a strong lesson program and with more than one or two school horses--which isn't to say that I'd rule out an instructor who teaches only a couple of people or who doesn't have an extensive school horse string, if all else seems go; there are some great trainers like that; I'd just be trying to steer clear of a barn where the lesson folks are clearly second-class citizens; that's no fun and there's no need for it--and I'd be looking for someone who regularly teaches adult beginners. Just like any other kind of teacher, there are some that are great with kids but less good with the particular issues that adults tend to have (and it can get a little bit lonely being the only adult in a barn full of pre-teens!). (That said, I do like having kids around to keep everything in perspective--adult-only places can get a little too serious for their own good, IMO--and I think it's a good sign in general if they have kids around and those kids are well-behaved--but that's a personal-taste thing.)
Jul. 1st, 2010 11:48 am (UTC)
[ETA: This email was for an adult beginner; obviously in your case you're looking for somebody used to working with teens. And I would say that a low-drama barn where the kids are kept happy and busy is going to be a priority. *g*]

I would be looking, in your area, for someplace with an indoor arena, so you're not at the mercy of the weather. (But I'd want an outdoor, too, to avoid the hot-house flower effect.) Not every barn is going to have trail access--it's a plus, the lack thereof is neutral to me.

Instructor certification is one of those controversial subjects in the horse world. I don't know about WI; in MA, all instructors are required to have a state certification. Then there are a variety of other programs--the eventing world has the ICP (Instructor Certification Program), frex--that are optional and of varying degrees of quality. I've ridden in some ICP workshops and I think it's a decent program and in general, I figure that it's a good sign if someone is willing to put in the time/money/energy to get themselves educated and certified, but there are plenty of awful instructors out there with certifications, too--it's no guarantee of quality--and plenty of excellent ones with no specific credentials. It's still very much a field where apprenticeships and similar are the best source of education. So I'm willing to consider a certification a tentative plus, but not a stamp of approval, if that makes any sense.

I would be looking for a barn that uses adult instructors, though. A lot of places have teenaged working students and they can be awesome, awesome riders and some of them are veryvery knowledgeable, but I tend to think they ought not be teaching without supervision. Riding with somebody in their twenties is fine by me, but kids routinely teaching the lessons? Not, I think, generally a good sign.

When you're at the barn, hopefully you'll get a tour and you can just look around and get a feel for the vibe. Fancy facilities are by no means a must and it's a barn, so there's going to be dirt, but you want neat--clear aisles without a lot of stuff underfoot, some reasonable level of organization, etc.--and safe--secure-looking fencing, tack that isn't all dried-out and cracking, etc. Tons of manure in the stalls and a strong smell of ammonia is a bad sign (but a few piles, no big deal). Available water is a must. I feel pretty strongly that turnout is good for horses and in [recipient's area], it should be fairly available; there should be some sort of shelter in the paddocks/pastures if horses are out in all weather.

[ETA: You're not in SoCal, are you? In SoCal, turnout is generally nonexistent, so this is less of a gauge.]
Jul. 1st, 2010 11:48 am (UTC)
Lesson horses should certainly be healthy-looking. Bright eyes, good-looking and -feeling coats (probably shaggy this time of year), hooves that aren't cracking and chipped, basic interest in what's going on. Doesn't bother me at all to see a shadow of rib on a fit horse, but protruding hipbones or clearly visible ribs in an otherwise unhealthy-looking critter, obviously not a good idea. Similarly, super-fat isn't great. Dirt and mud doesn't faze me--hurrah for a horse getting turned out!--but obviously that should be knocked off before the horse is ridden. A patch of white hairs on an otherwise dark horse on the withers/back tends to be a sign of an ill-fitting saddle. One or two horses wouldn't bother me--you don't know where the horses came from, some are hard to fit, etc.--but everything in the barn would be an issue.

Similarly, a lot of lesson horses are going to be older, which is good--if they're putting beginners on green four-year-olds, that's a bad, bad sign in my book; I want a range of horses for a variety of riders, yes, but generally erring on the side of safe and rideable; that's more conducive to building confidence and skill--and they can come from all sorts of backgrounds. It doesn't necessarily bother me to see one or two horses out of a barn that look a little rough, or grumpy, or that may move a touch unevenly; there are a lot of horses out there that are servicably sound and enjoy their jobs and do them well but that wouldn't pass muster in the show ring. But most of the horses, most of the time, should seem cheerful and willing and capable.

It's a judgment call thing, yes? If Old Paint looks a little scruffy and takes a bad step now and again but his ears are up and he goes and does and the instructor clearly values him--and that's another thing to watch, do the staff interact with the horses (and people!) in a way that seems kind and fair?--and when you ask about him, they say he's twenty-five and they've had him for ten years and he does one or two walk-trot lessons a day with smaller riders and it helps his arthritis for him to keep moving and everything else in the barn look great, that's fine by me. If he's got his ears pinned and his muzzle wrinkled and he keeps trying to stop and the rider and staff don't seem to have any concern for him and the limping gets worse as the lesson goes on? That's not.

Honestly, that's my basic rule: I want to see everyone improve over the course of a lesson. I picked my current barn when I went to a jump clinic and it was the first time they were jumping outdoors that year and some of the horses were high as kites--but every single horse/rider pair got better from start to finish that day. I was sold. Also, I liked the instructor's style and the general vibe, which is very much a personal thing, and being able to tell whether or not you'll click is another reason to go watch some lessons.

(Oh! I would steer clear of places that throw beginners into group lessons in the first couple of weeks. Obviously your case may be different, depending on how quickly things come back to you. But starting a beginner on a longe line is a good sign, and so is making sure they have one-on-one focused attention until they can confidently, comfortably, and consistently at least walk and trot on their own. Otherwise you can end up with a whole lot of chaos.

(I'm also partial to places that run group lessons more like a series of simultaneous privates--instructor works with one student, then another--than the ones that run factory-style: "And now we will all trot!" The latter is more common in hunter barns than dressage places and in some places is just kind of how it's done, and you can get a good education that way, but having had the other approach, I find that I prefer it.)
Jul. 1st, 2010 11:49 am (UTC)

Other safety issues, they should make you sign a waiver, and should require that you wear an ATSM/SEI-certified helmet (often they'll have a few loaners you can use for the first lesson or two) and boots with a heel. Some great instructors, especially in dressage and the western disciplines, will opt not to wear a helmet themselves and won't require it of adult students. This doesn't mean they aren't great instructors, but I think it's a stupid practice and I like your brain too much to want to see it crunched. Wear the helmet.

If people are constantly falling off and/or getting hurt: bad sign. Falling is part of riding. It happens. But it shouldn't happen veryvery often. Similarly, if a lot of the horses are acting up without extenuating circumstances (see above re: that first outdoor jump clinic of the year), I would steer clear. Learning to ride a tough horse is a worthy skill, but it's not one that a new or newly-returned rider needs right off the bat and if the horses aren't basically well-trained, I would worry about the riders. (Though again, if there's a boarder riding through on a green baby or an advanced student on a rehab case and everything else looks good, that's okay.)

Oof. I'm sure I am forgetting things, but I've already written you a novel here, so I'll just leave it at that and pester you later if I come up with other stuff. Good luck! Feel free to ask if any questions come up, etc., and I look forward to hearing how it works out. :)
Jul. 1st, 2010 04:03 pm (UTC)
Thanks so much! We're in southern Indiana now so a lot applies. I don't think she knows which sport or discipline is for her, but this will certainly help us find a good place.
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