Learning on School Horses

Early Days of Eventing with Duchess Early Days of Eventing with Duchess

In the world of horses, there are two kinds of people: those who are born into it, and those who are not. I am what I refer to as a “first generation rider,” meaning that I got into horses on my own, not by virtue of my parents.

While I’m sure there are exceptions, the story usually goes as such: Those with parents who owned, trained, or rode horses in their former, childless lives, probably learned to ride on their own ponies in their back yards or at local boarding farms. The rest of us learned to ride on school horses. As a first-generation rider, I learned on the latter.

I found horses when I was five years old, despite growing up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. At the time, my dad was an English professor at the University of Maryland and my mom was a graphic designer for National Geographic.

While we were by no means “city slickers,” horses were still a foreign concept to this suburban family and were, I’m sure, no part of the life my parents imagined me living. Nevertheless, an innocent trip to a family friend’s farm changed all of that, sparking the beginning of a whirlwind romance with horses, a sport, and ultimately, a way of life.

It all began on my family’s annual summer vacation to visit my grandparents in Massachusetts. Although we normally spent our days at the beach (or when it rained, at the dreaded antique shops), on this particular day my grandpa brought us to meet his friend, Vicki, and her horses at her small, backyard farm.

As an introverted only child, I was happier to play with my dog than with my friends. My love of animals carried over into all species, and I was immediately taken by these gentle giants. After introducing me to Bud, a 20 (maybe 30)-something-year-old Appaloosa with no teeth and all the patience of an old plug, Vicki strapped a helmet to my head and hoisted me into the saddle. Little did my parents know that this casual ride around a dusty arena would prove life-altering.

I returned from vacation that summer knowing I wanted to take lessons. Fortunately, I hail from Maryland, where lesson barns are a dime a dozen. Some quick research on my parents’ part brought us to Reddemeade, a large lesson and boarding facility located in Silver Spring, Maryland. On Saturday mornings they offered a free introductory lesson, and after my second time on a horse I was hooked.

My dad signed me up for weekly lessons which I approached with gusto. And while I’m sure it’s hard for parents to put much stock in the “commitments” of their five-year-olds, as children tend to be impulsive and fickle, my parents, nonetheless, encouraged me to pursue my interests, never baulking at the financial commitment that my riding hobby would require.

We weren’t “Ralph Lauren rich” in the way that many non-horse people imagine horse people to be, though we would have been considered upper-middle class. This did not mean, however, that my parents immediately ran out to buy me a pony. In fact, it would be six years until I would get a horse to call my own.

It quickly became evident to my parents that riding did not just require a financial commitment, but an overall commitment to a new lifestyle. By the time I hit seven, I was regularly competing Reddemeade’s lesson horses at local dressage and hunter shows. By eight I had started eventing.

This, of course, required more lessons and more time spent at the barn (so much so that my dad eventually started lessons, as well). In addition to my regular weekday lesson, I was earning my second weekly lesson through Reddemeade’s working student program. It was at this point that I officially achieved “barn rat” status.

At eight years old, my two best friends and I essentially lived at Reddemeade. We groomed, tacked, hot-walked, pulled manes, swept, raked, scrubbed, hosed, dusted, and helped feed. There is that important step between becoming a rider and becoming a horse(wo)man that is necessary for all riders to take if they wish to succeed in this sport.

Fortunately, lesson barns like Reddemeade give kids who have not grown up around horses the opportunity to take this step. As a kid who grew up in the suburbs of D.C., who didn’t have the luxury of walking out the back door to ride her own pony every day, my time spent working and generally existing around Reddemeade was pivotal to my education as a horsewomen.

I learned horsemanship from working around the barn, but I learned to ride from the backs of Reddemeade’s diverse collection of school horses. Given such a variety of mounts to learn on meant I was constantly having to adapt to horses of different shapes, sizes, personality types, and athletic abilities.

And while many of the instructors indulged their students by regularly assigning them to their favorite horses, my instructor, Steve, took great pleasure in matching us with the hardest school horses, arguing that we would never really learn to ride if we were never challenged (I think he also just liked to torture us).

The tougher of these horses included Jake, an old, retired racehorse who was notoriously lazy. No amount of kicking could convince Jake to trot (let alone canter), especially if you were anything short of five feet tall. There was Nikki, a cheeky mare with a dirty stop that could land you in the dirt before you even realized what had happened.

There was Sam, another mare, who terrorized her junior riders by galloping countless laps around the arena while her passengers either cried and clung to her mane or bailed.

I had a long-standing love affair with a flighty Thoroughbred mare named Madge who taught me the foundations of an independent seat and a light hand.

And then there was Duchess, the horse who I completed and won my first event on at eight years old. She was reliable when given the right ride, but would tell on you when you dropped your eye to a fence (looking at this list now, I can see where my affinity for opinionated alpha mares might have come from).

Then there were the saints, like Rojo and Cheyenne—the point-and-shoot types who always came home from the local shows with blue ribbons. Horses like these are staples in any lesson program and are the horses every kid fights over. They play the role of teacher, coach, teammate, babysitter, and friend all at once.

Their gentle natures and willingness to forgive instill trust and confidence, and their unwavering tolerance allows even the greenest riders to learn from their mistakes without paying for them. But no matter their personalities, all school horses have a lesson to teach their students, and what those lessons are manifest in countless ways.

First Show with Belle

First Show with Belle

After four years of riding lesson horses with my instructors, I was finally ready to graduate to the next step. I had several school friends who had their own horses and I wanted desperately to have one, too. As a little kid in a lesson barn, I didn’t encounter many other kids my age who had their own horses.

But at school I realized that other kids my age did actually have their own. And they got to play with them, groom them, ride them, and compete them whenever they wanted. Commence begging parents for horse.

While I’m sure finances played a big role in why my parents didn’t jump to buy me a horse, I think the bigger reason was that they wanted me to prove myself. My parents saw more value in instilling in me responsibility and a solid work ethic than they did in keeping up with the Jones’ and buying me a horse of my own.

They also may have taken into account the fact that I was nearing those critical adolescent years in which horse-crazy little girls decide to either stick to riding for life or to abandon it for shopping, parties, and boys. At nine, however, I did not understand or appreciate any of this and thought it was, like, totally unfair.

Finally, we came to an agreement: I would join EquiShare. If I enjoyed it and could commit to it for at least a year, we could look into a lease.

EquiShare is a leasing program developed by the former owner of Reddemeade which “offers all the pleasures of riding without the obligations of owning” (www.reddemeade.com). Members can sign up for as many horses, in as many time slots, on as many days of the week as they would like. And although using the horses in lessons is certainly an option, EquiShare is unique in that it also allows members to ride independently.

This program was incredibly valuable to me as a rider for two reasons. First, while owning and riding one horse can be beneficial, it can also be restrictive. With EquiShare I was given unlimited access to a group of 10-15 horses.

This meant that I continued to be exposed to horses of all skill levels and backgrounds. Some horses were seasoned schoolmasters who had retired from upper-level competition, whereas others were still fairly green. Second, the program allowed me to explore and develop my riding skills on my own. In addition to weekly dressage and jumping lessons, my friends and I spent a lot of time galloping around Reddemeade’s cross-country course and exploring miles of surrounding trails.

This introduction to riding encouraged active, effective riding, developed problem solving skills, and instilled in me a sense of confidence and independence. While never done recklessly, the riding I did as kid (both in lessons and on my own) constantly presented me with new challenges, tested my skills, and pushed me outside of my comfort zone.

After two years in EquiShare I finally graduated to a lease—a horse named Kodak. A year later my parents bought me my first horse, Valentyno, who would take me to a one-star by the time I was 15.

As a little kid, I didn’t necessarily appreciate, or even recognize, what lesson horses had to offer me (especially after rides that ended in grass-stained pants, in tears, or in both). But now, at 25, with 20+ years of experience riding an assortment of horses—from racehorses to eventers, from young to old, from green to advanced— I understand why learning on a variety of horses was so valuable and I am thankful that I was given the chance to do so. My instructors may have conducted the lessons, but it was the school horses who taught them.

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