By Sarah Evers Conrad
A good lesson horse is worth its weight in gold. Once you find a good horse for your lesson program, then you need to hang on to that horse, keep up on all necessary health care, and make sure he stays healthy and happy. Good horses are the cornerstone to a lesson barn’s program. After all, the horses are what help lesson barns make money. And good horses are what bring riding students/customers back, in addition to quality instruction. The first thing to do when looking for a good lesson horse is to think about what type of horse you need. Ask yourself:
- Does the horse need to be bigger or smaller? If only adults will be riding the horse, then a bigger horse may be needed. If it will be mostly young children, you may want to look for a smaller horse or a pony. A larger horse that is a good lesson horse can be used for children, but some children may find a larger horse intimidating.
- What level lesson horse do I need? If you need a horse for beginners, see the list below. If you need a more advanced lesson horse, then the requirements will be different, and you will need to evaluate the horse’s ability to take a rider to the next level.
- What will I be doing with the lesson horse? Will it be used to teach riders that will become hunter/jumpers, dressage riders, western pleasure, reiners, etc.? If so, then the horse should be suited for that discipline in their temperament and conformation and should understand the basic training of that discipline or have the ability to be taught quickly.
- What will I do with the horse if he suddenly becomes unusable as a lesson horse? It’s always good to think about the options for a horse once they no longer suit the original purpose for which you purchased him. What type of second, or third, or fourth career would the horse be suited to if they are no longer a lesson horse? What retirement options would suit that horse, and what can you provide?
- What possible resale value will the horse have if you no longer need it? While most instructors, and horse owners, look at the horse as it should be viewed, a living creature to be loved on and cherished, there is also the practical side of a horse purchase for an equine business. Each horse is also an investment and hopefully an asset to your lesson program. If you find yourself needing to sell the horse, then how will that affect your bottom line and can you re-coop any costs from the original purchase? We always want the horse to go to a good home if the barn decides to sell him. Think about what options are possible for any horse you purchase.
Many good lesson horses have similar qualities. These are the key qualities that every lesson horse should have, especially those that deal with beginners.
- Forgiving. Lesson horses deal with riders who often do not know what they are doing. If a rider gives an incorrect cue, will the horse forgive the mistake and still keep the rider safe? While most riders are not trying to harm a horse when they learn, inadvertent kicks and tugs on the mouth or a rider who is off balance will happen to the lesson horse. If a horse is kicked or has a rider that accidentally yanks on the mouth, will that horse remain calm? This is the type of horse you want while you are teaching your beginning students how to ride correctly.
- Patience. If a rider gives opposing cues, such as a cue to walk on while also telling the horse to stop, will the horse wait for the rider to figure it out? Many great lesson horses will wait until a rider gives the correct cue, or something close to it before rewarding the rider with the correct action, thus teaching the rider what cue gets the desired results.
- Manners and Quietness. You will want a calm and quiet lesson horse that can deal with the chaos of group lessons and the rush of getting students to tack up their horses and mounted. The lesson horse should always be well-behaved. Horse people call this bomb-proof. Obviously a horse that flips out at the sight of a flag or an umbrella will not make a good lesson horse at that time. Perhaps that horse just needs some training. However, with horse training there are no guaranteed results, so it is best to find a horse that already has ground manners and manners while mounted.
- No vices. You don’t want a horse that weaves in the stall, usually out of frustration or boredom, if the horse will be stabled part of the day awaiting lessons. Obviously you don’t want a horse that tends to bite, bolt, kick other horses, shy, or that does any other negative actions. Most vices can be dangerous, and paired with inexperienced riders, this can be a recipe for disaster.
- Good Health. You will want a healthy horse…one that is not prone to heaves or tying up or other chronic health conditions. If your lesson horse is prone to an illness, then you are losing money on that horse if he cannot be used in lessons, and you will also need to spend money on veterinary costs to get the horse past the illness. One way to ensure that a horse is healthy at the time of purchase is to have a veterinarian do a pre-purchase exam. Many experienced horsemen and horsewomen will not purchase without having a pre-purchase exam done.
- Soundness. You want to make sure your lesson horse can handle being ridden daily or sometimes multiple times in one day. Ask about his past issues and whether he has had regular farrier care. Has he had any leg or hoof issues? The pre-purchase exam can also find any hoof or soundness issues.
- Good conformation. Try to find the soundest, most conformationally correct horse you can. A horse with good conformation will be able to handle his job and the day-to-day of a lesson barn. A horse with conformation issues may become prone to injury or soreness, which is the last thing you want with a lesson horse. In addition, if the lesson horse is to be a show horse, you don’t want him being dinged for conformation faults, causing your student to not do as well in the show ring.
- Age and Experience. Typically, older horses make good lesson horses. The lesson horse needs to have some life experience and have been presented with different situations so that they are dependable in all situations. Many people purchasing a horse look for younger horses, but with a horse that will be used for lessons, there is nothing wrong with purchasing a 15-year-old or older horse. Of course, if a horse is in his 20s, he could still be a good lesson horse, but you should be prepared for the horse to near retirement at any point. That is hard to predict, however.
- Flexible and Versatile. The horse that can be versatile and be ridden both English and western, and possibly other disciplines, makes him more valuable. Regarding flexibility, we aren’t talking about how far the horse can stretch in one direction. A flexible horse can adapt to any rider, regardless of the riding style, riding ability, experience level, etc.
- Dependable and Trustworthy. You need to be able to trust all of your lesson horses. You won’t see a trustworthy, dependable horse acting naughty and trying to get away with things, even if they are paired with an inexperienced rider. A dependable horse will take care of the rider, have common sense, a kind attitude, and be willing to please.
While there is no such thing as a perfect horse, a good lesson horse is usually a bit of a saint. So many take so much, try so hard, and love and are loved by many. Many riders progress past lessons and on to either own their own horse, compete in horse shows or in intercollegiate competition, specialize in a particular breed or discipline, etc. Yet, despite moving on, most riders who have taken lessons remember their favorite horses. For me, it was Jazzy, Imperial, Buckley, Bobby, Slick, and Bullet. Once a rider moves on, the lesson horse continues on, showing up every day to teach another round of students. These are the horses to find and hold on to.
CHA would love to hear what made your favorite lesson horse great. Feel free to share that horse’s name and why you loved him or her. We look forward to hearing your stories.
Sarah Evers Conrad is currently the Digital Content Editor at Horse Illustrated and Young Rider magazines. She also owns All In Stride Marketing. She is an award-winning equestrian journalist with a background in magazine publishing, feature writing, news and event coverage, editing, digital marketing, social media, and website management. Conrad has been published in equine publications such as The Horse, Blood-Horse, Equestrian, Arabian Horse Life, USDF Connection, the American Quarter Horse Journal, Paint Horse Journal, Off-Track Thoroughbred, Stable Management, Camp Business magazine, Lexington Family magazine, and HorsesDaily.com and DressageDaily.com. She is also the current editor for the Certified Horsemanship Association’s official publication, The Instructor magazine. Conrad has also edited several books, including CHA’s “The Equine Professional Manual—The Art of Teaching Riding.” Learn more at www.equestrianjournalist.com.