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!

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