Thursday, October 30, 2014

So You Want to Become an Equestrian: Riding Lessons

If you are new to horses, you'll see this sentiment again and again on the internet, as well as here on my blog; if you are new to the world of horses, take some lessons.

In my previous post, I mention the adage "You don't need a $35,000 horse, you need a $1,000 horse and $34,000 in lessons" and once again this is so, so true. Finding the right sport, instructor and program can, however, be a challenge. Here's my insight:

1. Decide what you are interested in. Sounds simple, right? Know yourself, and your preferences - if you're nervous at first, even if you want to learn to jump later, taking some lessons in a western saddle,  which to many feels more secure with a horn to hang on to, might help you build your confidence. I, as a young kid, fell in love with jumping horses, and while I didn't know it yet, I was actually watching the sport I'd end up in, three day eventing. Choosing western or English as a riding style is the first step to looking at places to take lessons. Some barns do offer both, so be aware of that, as well.

2. Scope out the local riding lesson scene. I would read reviews, and look at a few barns that offer the style of riding you prefer at the moment, even if their lessons turn out to be too expensive for you. Taking tours and talking to the owner or trainer about their program is also a good step at this point. I would search for a program that offers 45 minute - 1 hour lessons with a set instructor in a private or group setting. I would also look for a program that offers horsemanship training (see #3) and has a trainer that you feel comfortable with. I would also look at the horses and facility. The horses should be well cared for with no ribs showing, and shouldn't be upset or sour towards people. The barn setting is up to you - as a parent, a viewing lounge with heat may be a great asset to a program, while other barns may not have an indoor arena at all. I've ridden at barns with great facilities but sub par care and teaching, and I've also ridden at older barns without indoor arenas that have offered great instruction, but facing down winter weather outside as a new rider may be more of a challenge than you would like to take on.

3. Find out what the program entails. I would suggest a program that offers horse care knowledge as well as riding - one where you learn to groom and tack your horse, as well as ride it - as this will give you a stronger base in horses as a whole, and will help prepare you for being more involved in the future if you choose.

4. Be prepared. Check with the lesson barn as to if they offer boots or helmets for the first few rides; if you are going to take lessons regularly for more than a few weeks, I would suggest searching for affordable boots and helmets all of your own. Here's my tips (for English riders, sorry, Western folks!)

Boots - paddock boots are the short boots you can find with a zipper or lace up option. They come in leather and synthetics in a range of prices - I would suggest finding a pair you find comfortable. Brands like Ariat are reliable classics, while Dublin may be a good budget brand. For a new rider, tall boots ARE NOT NECESSARY and won't be a good investment until you are riding very regularly or showing, as you will build leg muscle and outgrow your boots.

If you find yourself wanting extra grip, the tall boot look or just another layer over the stirrup leathers, try an inexpensive pair of half chaps. Half chaps come in fun colors for kids and can also be washable which is a great asset. Don't ride in fashion "riding boots" or anything with a zipper on the inside of your leg - this can be very painful and could easily damage the tack you are using, or open the door to other problems, like your toe going through the stirrup because you don't have enough of a heel on your boots (tennis shoes also have this problem).

Helmets - helmets come in a range of prices, but should be properly fitted by a professional until you or your rider knows what feels right. There are many stylish budget models that won't put you out too much money should you lose interest. Helmets should be snug and shouldn't move or bounce on the head - but a too-small helmet will give you a headache! Brands do make helmets for different shaped heads, as well. I have a more oval head, and prefer helmets that reflect that shape as they fit laterally on my temples without being too small front to back.

Breeches - breeches are a great investment in comfort for riding versus jeans, and can be found in many styles and colors, and some are quite affordable. They come in basic knee patch styles, and as you advance you may grow a preference for full seat breeches, which have grippy material on your seat as well as down the inside of your legs.

Tack/saddles - some of you will want to begin your collection of horse stuff NOW. While a halter and lead rope in a generic size may be useful, buying grooming tools isn't a good investment because you shouldn't use them on more than one horse to prevent spread of skin gunks like fungus between horses. Saddles are similar, and should be fit to the horse they will be used on and won't fit several different lesson horses well. Ask your trainer if you are looking at purchasing a saddle to get their honest opinion; if they can help you find a saddle that will fit YOU better than a lesson saddle and will not cause their horses discomfort, you may be in business. Other items should also be bought and used at your trainer's discretion - including treats, as some horses can't have a lot of sugar or extra calories.

5. Have fun! Learning to ride can be a lot of fun, and open the doors to a passion that can stay with you your whole life. Enjoy, and learn!

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

New Horse Ownership Challenges

So, as I warn you guys over and over again, this blog is basically my personal mouthpiece on horse ownership and horses in general. I've been riding and caring for horses for 15 years, and apparently that makes me an expert. Recently, as we've had some boarder turn over in my barn, I've been witness to some really interesting... theories... on horse ownership. This is also known as someone went and bought a horse, and they don't even know how to put a halter on, much less ride or handle a 1,000+ lb animal safely.

There is a saying in horses that most people don't need a $25,000 horse - they need a $1,000 horse and $24,000 in lessons.

And I agree.

I took lessons at a variety of stables from the age of 8 - 16, when we finally purchased my first horse. At the point of that purchase, I had taken said horse from a skinny abused horse no one wanted to ride and had  done all of her retraining to make her one of the nicer horses at the barn. Find a trainer you like, you can trust and who runs a good facility - I'll lay out some tips for choosing a lesson barn in another post. If you are a green, or new rider looking at buying a horse, or have just purchased one, I'll ask you to think this decisions through really well.

Horses live for 25+ years in most cases, and as long as they are yours under ownership, they are your responsibility. This means you need to account for many years of the following:

- Boarding costs or daily checks if the horse is on your property.

Many horses can live comfortably in a field with shelter, hay/weed-free pasture and fresh water, but others may need a stall to protect them from the elements. Trees do not count as acceptable shelter in my opinion.

- Hay, water and, usually, some type of feed.

Horses have base nutritional needs that often cannot be met on pasture or hay alone. Ration balancers are available to give the horse the nutrition they need, or there is a variety of horse feed brands and types for horses who do not gain or maintain weight as well as others. Horses also need fresh, clean water, a fiber source like hay or pasture and most feeds will suggest offering your horse a source of salt for their consumption.

- Routine and emergency vet care

Horses need vaccinations each year, and also require a coggins test to be out and about with other horses at shows or in parks for trail rides. This prevents them from passing dangerous diseases to other horses and prevents them from becoming ill or dying because of one of those illnesses. Horses also need their teeth floated periodically to ensure that they can eat, chew and wear a bit comfortably for riding. If their teeth do not get ground down, horses can die of starvation because they cannot chew and process food. Teeth grow the horses's whole lives, but do sometimes slow down in older age - this is usually a yearly expense, with normal routine vet visits being twice a year. Emergency care should also be accounted for if your horse becomes injured or ill.

- Farrier work and other maintenance

Horses hooves also grow their entire lives, and need to be trimmed by a qualified farrier approximately every 6-8 weeks. Horses spend 90% of their lives standing or walking on those hooves, so they need to be kept at a comfortable length to prevent injury and ensure the horse is comfortable. Some horses may need shoes, while others do not, but shoes do present other potential issues and raise the cost, so unless your horse needs them due to excess wear on their feet, or soreness when ridden, try to stick with a bare foot. Other maintenance includes deworming every 8 weeks or as needed per your vet's assessment, hoof picking and generally looking the horse over for injuries and illness. Some horses have sensitive skin and develop fungus or other skin ailments which will need treatment and care, while others may pick up injuries in their pastures that can be attended to by their owner.

Horses may also need a winter blanket when temps turn cold, if they are skinny or don't grow enough hair to stay warm. Horses can be susceptible to cold winds, rain or heavy wet snow, all of which can compromise their ability to stay warm, even if an outdoor shelter/windbreak is provided. If you ride them in the winter, it's your job to ensure that the hair your saddle and bridle smooshes down is fluffed back up, and your horse is returned to his paddock or pasture dry and well prepared to protect himself from the elements. Many breeds are not endowed with acceptable winter coats for Minnesota winters, and my personal horses require several different weights of blanket to battle the temps.

- Lessons, tack, etc.

If you're a new rider, a few lessons AT THE LEAST should be in your budget. While some riders pride themselves on doing all of their training themselves, lessons will help you learn to ride your horse as well as maintain basic care and handling of your horse. Most people ride with tack, which needs to be properly fitted and in good repair. Seriously - find a trainer, and have them assist you when going through the process. Illfitting tack can lead to behavior issues, bucking, rearing and other dangerous behaviors, even if your horse is a saint. Many students take their trainer with them when purchasing the horse, as well, to ensure the animal is appropriate for your needs. While I LOVE spewing horsey information on the internet, I am a bear at the barn and do not appreciate being guilted into helping some weeping new horse owner whose horse got a little pushy or did something naughty. Get the help you need, but don't expect it to be given without a price in most cases.

Then you get into things like transportation, shows or trail riding passes, emergency vet bills, etc. etc. etc....

Now that I've done the fear tactics, I can tell you horses are amazing. They are rewarding, and help define you as a person. They are my four legged children and best friends. We have the most wonderful adventures together, and together, my horses give me wings to fly and do the sport I love. Horse people are often just as fantastic as their horses. Horses save lives and are fantastic therapists for all - having them in your life is a gift.

Just think about how much you want them in your life, and if you can afford it, first. 

Review: Ariat Brossard Tall Boot

These boots are the best on the market, hands down.

Follow up - Almost 1 year later: I popped these boots on for a chilly morning clinic about a month ago, where many of these photos came from. After riding in my Ariat Breeze Half chaps and Mountain Horse show boots all spring and summer, these boots felt a little lose in the calf. I probably have also lost some weight, and was wearing a few less layers than usual. The ankle is also a bit of a shock after being in a tight ankled boot for so long, but they were comfortable. I will probably want to use some saddle tight especially on my smooth jumping saddle (pictured) but again, I think with some muscle increase (I know I've lost muscle in my lower leg... it swings like crazy all of the sudden) I'll be tighter in the tack. 

Insulation: Thinsulate is the best you can buy - not too warm that your foot will sweat, but has kept my frostbitten-in-the-past toes warm in Minnesota's Artic Vortex -20+ degrees with windchill cold with wool socks and a toe warmer. In warmer areas, I anticipate these will be warm without being too warm. They are insulated all the way up the leg.

Fit: Foot is spacious - I wear a 9 in the Heritage Paddocks and a 9.5 in these boots. My older pair of Ariat winter boots (10 years old and still kicking - not water proof above the ankle but still great boots) are the same foot size and I found the toe to be more spacious in these, which I like. I like being able to move my toes and the space provides more area for the heat to build up. I wear mine with one or two layers of socks - smartwool alone or with a coolmax liner sock, and have been using toe warmers. I wear a M (14 1/2 - 15 1/2) in the Ariat Breeze half chaps and these boots were snug on first zipping but are comfortable and stay up nicely. They do seem to have stretched slightly so there may be some leeway.

Height: These boots are shorter than my usual taste in tall boots but have not caught on my saddle flaps in short, medium or dressage length stirrups. The heel does seem slightly higher than usual for boots, but they are not uncomfortable.

Materials, Aesthetics: The materials are quality and should last for a long time. I like that they are suede and leather, not synthetic, which has cracked on me in the past. The leather foot is water proof and there is a membrane in the foot which crosses the zipper around the ankle - sometimes the zipper catches here, but usually I just change the angle (put my heel down) and the zipper glides smoothly. The ankle is flexible and I am able to wear spurs and use them with finesse because I can feel and move my ankles. Inside calf is grey suede, which I believe I will rub smooth in the future but don't foresee it degrading or developing holes. Some of the nylon parts (outside of ankle, top) is a slightly purple hued grey, but the boots are not PURPLE as they look in some pictures. Zipper is quality and doesn't catch except sometimes around the ankle membrane, which is easily resolved. These boots are waterproof but I wish the zipper was wholly waterproof as I've stepped in some deep drifts and felt a bit damp because the snow was above the waterproof membrane.

I did think they looked a bit clunky on others, but love them as they are warm and not clompy/heavy/oppressive to wear on the ground or in the tack. The round toe still allows for a narrow profile and I have never had concerns that these boots will catch in my stirrups as other brands have. I was dragged in another brand of winter boots several years ago after they turned and wedged in my stirrup after a fall. I have never felt these boots get stuck or wedged, but still ride in break away stirrups in winter as a preventative. Comfortable on the ground and to ride in, I am recommending them to anyone who hates cold feet but wants to ride or work through the winter