Do you think taking riding lessons on school horses is an option of last resort? A learning method that's inferior to owning or leasing your own horse? Something strictly for kids and/or the greenest adult beginners?
Think again. Good school-horse programs have much to offer the serious rider in today's world, whose desire to ride may be strong but whose time, energy, and financial resources to do so may be limited. School horses provide learning with no strings attached: no board bills, no maintenance hassles, no guilt over missed days at the barn. Moreover, school horses--"packers" by definition--allow you to concentrate on yourself. They make it possible for you to nail the basics, such as position and balance, more quickly and solidly than you might on a less cooperative animal.
All things considered, riding school horses may in fact be an option of choice, whether you're a beginning/intermediate rider or you're returning to riding after a break. School horses are also a great way to keep a foot in the stirrup, so to speak, if you're going off to college, starting a family, building a career, or living through any other transitional period when ownership is out.
In this article, we'll lay out all the benefits of riding school horses. We'll also tell you how to find a good program and how to get the most out of your lessons (see the end of the article). In doing so, we'll be drawing on the expertise of Richard J. Scarlett, who operates a highly successful lesson-horse program at his Gwyn Meadows Farms, just north of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Spotlight On You
Riding in a good lesson-horse program benefits your learning in several ways:
1. No excuses.
How many times have you thought, in the midst of a harangue by your instructor, "Yeah, I could do that, if I could just get my horse to (fill in the blank). On a good lesson horse, you won't have that excuse, because your horse will do what your instructor asks (provided you do your part correctly).
"I won't use a horse that doesn't listen to aids," says Richard. "All my horses walk, trot, and canter obediently; and they won't balk, drop a shoulder, or run away when you ask them to jump. If there's a problem, I can be pretty sure it's coming from the rider. That makes it easier to isolate and correct riders' weaknesses."
2. Ride right. With your horse performing as he should, you're able to focus on the bread-and-butter of learning to ride: your own balance, position, and feel. You can concentrate on keeping your heels down and secure, your upper body properly angled, and your hands soft and expressive, without that feeling of "too much going on" to let you focus. Rather than worrying about getting your horse to and over the fence, you can zero in on what you're doing to and over it. And you won't be absorbing bad equitation habits from dealing with resistance, evasion, or downright disobedience.
"Many people come to me with problems from their past, and the lessons help to solve them," says Richard. "Once good basics are established, a rider can advance quickly in any discipline."
3. Build confidence. Knowing you're on a safe, tested, reliable horse clears your mind for learning. That's why a lesson-horse program is particularly good for timid riders. "A lot of adults are a little worried when they ride," says Richard. "There's no way to teach someone who's feeling fearful; so we work on their confidence first and go from there."
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This article originally appeared in Practical Horseman magazine, April 1999.