The Lesson Horse
by Nikki Alvin-Smith
The lesson horse is that most valuable of beasts and finding the most useful lesson critter is not an easy task. While you may not mind some minor soundness maintenance issues, the temperament and overall health and soundness of the horse is paramount. It must be decently trained and extremely tolerant of rider error.
Where can you locate such a talent?
Your Own Backyard
A great place to start is with a horse you already know inside and out. Those will be the horses that board at your facility; your own competition horse that may be due for retirement or may simply appreciate a schoolmaster status. Many of your boarders will outgrow their mounts. Children may become too tall for their pony or horse, and adults and children may outgrow the ability curve of their horse for a particular discipline. Their horses may become slightly unsound for the purpose in their discipline or the horse’s age may hinder his abilities to shine in the competitive arena. When you offer a lesson home for their horse these owners know, you have an advantage over other prospective buyers. It saves the boarder time, marketing dollars and emotional heartache. Be fair and offer a decent price to facilitate them purchasing a new mount.
Look Inside and Outside
Horses that may no longer work as a top-level competitor in one discipline may excel in a new discipline with a different ‘ask’ in their abilities. For example, a showjumper may be tired of fences but do perfectly well at lower level dressage. It is therefore a great idea to look inside and outside of your chosen discipline.
If you are prepared to put some work on the lesson horse yourself, to train it toward your student market, it is often possible to retrain a horse fairly quickly if you select a horse with the right temperament.
Auctions, Sales and Transition Organizations
There are a myriad of associations and organizations that offer horses ‘in transition’ the opportunity to find a new home. While rescues may require ‘forever’ commitments (which in this author’s opinion is an unreasonable ask), the opportunity to find a good horse from transition partners is a great way to find an inexpensive horse and at the same time do a good turn for the horse.
Many organizations offer a ‘return’ program if the horse does not work out. Many will partner with you as a training barn if you take horses in and work on them to improve their abilities under saddle so that they may be re-homed. Foster arrangements give you an additional opportunity to review the horse for suitability for your own lesson use as well as a first look at what is available. Some foster programs also include some form of compensation for the costs associated with the horse’s keep and welfare. A newcomer to this arena is The Right Horse, a privately funded initiative that partners with others such as New Vocations, etc. to help horses in transition. Change is always happening in the horse world so be sure to check out all your options and find one that works best for you.
Horses that find themselves in need of a new home are not always unsound or renegade horses. Horses find themselves abandoned for a variety of reasons: Divorce or death in the family; financial downfalls; owner’s inability to ride the horse; poor horse management either in care or training.
How Can You Afford Lesson Horses?
An alternative to buying a horse outright or adopting a horse for a small fee, is to lease or half lease a horse. This horse may currently be in your own yard or it maybe at a neighboring barn or on the open market on offer. This gives you the opportunity to earn dollars from lessons on the horse to cover the lease expenses as you go along.
You can also work a half lease arrangement on your farm with one of your students to take on half the expenses of the horse’s keep. By allowing this one student to ride the horse 50% of the time it may also be helpful in keeping the horse tuned up for lesson students if the rider has the ability. You may still garner lesson dollars from the leasing student which aids in funding the cost of the lesson horse overall.
Be sure to detail any arrangements in writing so that both sides are clear on their duties financially and otherwise.
How Do You Choose a Good Lesson Horse?
It is important to always try the horse under saddle yourself in multiple environments if this is possible. A horse that may be quiet at home in a quiet arena may become a different horse to ride in a busy schooling arena. A horse that shows decent soundness and a great attitude is top of the list. A horse that is too hot or too sensitive in nature will quickly become undone with neophyte or nervous riders.
If possible take a student of lesser abilities to try the horse after you have deemed it safe. This will clearly demonstrate the horse’s responses to a rider that exemplifies your average student.
A pre-purchase exam is always a good idea. You want to make an informed decision on the horse and this knowledge is important in gauging the expected longevity and usefulness of the horse for your purpose, and also the type of expenses you may expect to encounter both on arrival and down the road. A trial period can sometimes be arranged. It doesn’t hurt to ask.
A good lesson horse will pay dividends in your business. Do not be shy to pay the going rate for a good horse. The initial expense will be rewarded in not just lesson dollars earned, but sincere progress and happiness of your students.
A great lesson horse helps to teach the students alongside you. It will not only keep your students coming back for more lessons, but will also become a dear friend to all who meet it even as they progress on to different horses or a horse of their own, (which hopefully they board at your farm).
The relationship between a lesson horse and its students can set the stage for the rest of the student’s life with horses. It may ignite a lifelong passion for everything equine. Your initial choice of horse together with its training and retuning from time to time, and your respect for its care and happiness, affects all that come and ride in your lesson program. The right choice in a lesson horse can give to others the gift of a lifetime. Now, that’s something to be excited about!
About the author: Nikki Alvin-Smith is an international Grand Prix dressage trainer/clinician who has competed in Europe at the Grand Prix level earning scores of over 72%. Together with her husband Paul, who is also a Grand Prix rider, they operate a private horse breeding/training farm in Stamford, NY.