By Katherine O. Rizzo (first published in the June 2022 Equiery)

Chances are if you currently ride horses, your first ride was either through a family member or at a lesson stable. While many in Maryland’s horse industry come from families with deep equestrian roots, there are just as many whose roots do not include horses, and for those riders the lesson horse is where their journeys began.

Here in Maryland, there are well over 700 stables that offer some sort of lesson program, though not all of them offer lessons on what the industry calls “school horses” or “lesson horses.” These are horses either owned or leased by the lesson program for the purpose of teaching others. Often, these horses teach many riders during their careers and therefore touch the lives of many. Sadly, the term “lesson stable” sometimes conjures negative images in the general public, such as the suspicion that these lesson horses are overworked.

As both The Equiery’s Editor-In-Chief and the Center Administrator for Waredaca’s Pony Club in Laytonsville, I reached out to lesson stables all over the state to find out more about their programs and their horses. I asked questions such as how often each horse is used in a lesson and what types of lessons they do. Also, I gathered information on the general age of their lesson horse population and day-to-day care they receive.

The results were overwhelming in terms of destigmatizing the lesson horse and lesson stable reputation.

Lesson Horse Populations
The majority of the lesson program directors we spoke with stated their school herd population age ranges from four to 30 years old with an average age of 10-15 years old. Some programs such as Coexist Stables (Mt. Airy), En-Tice-Ment Stables (Harwood) and Waredaca (Laytonsville) stated they also have a few young horses that their instructors and more experienced riders train to become future lesson horses.

Deana Tice, owner, operator, and trainer of En-Tice-Ment said, “Our horses are an average age of 18 but we always have the younger horses learning to be those good teachers in the future. Those younger horses teach the students with years of experience too.”

At Waredaca, we recently adopted and purchased a few off-the-track Thoroughbreds to bring along for the program. I know there are some out there that would think OTTBs are not the best fit for a lesson program but for us, it has worked out very well. It has been amazing to watch how much our students have embraced these horses. They love hearing about their racing backgrounds and getting to work with them and being part of their new careers. And the horses love them in return and are learning to be quiet, patient teachers. It’s a win win in my opinion.

Most of the therapeutic programs I spoke with reported an older population with horses more in the 18-20 year old range. As Katy Santiff, program director of Chesapeake Therapeutic Riding pointed out, “We give useful horses a second and third career and a home for the rest of their lives. For many of them, they came to us because our program is light work, so it’s like a retirement job for them.” She added, “It’s probably 90% chill-laxing and 10% lesson time. They are loved.”

Great and Small Therapeutic Riding program director Paige Clark agreed, saying, “Many of our horses are on their second or sometimes third career and our lessons offer them a much slower pace with many of our lessons incorporating the walk and very light trotting.”

As expected, the workload of each individual lesson horse varies from program to program as well as varying within each program. On average, most lesson horses in the programs I spoke with work no more than four days a week and for no more than two lessons a day. Lesson lengths range from 30 minutes to an hour with some lessons being at the walk only while others walk, trot and canter and even jump.

Elizabeth Tonti stated that at Coexist, she has developed a spreadsheet that is updated daily to manage each horse’s individual workload. “We make sure that no horse is jumped more than once in a day and does no more than an additional 30 min flat ride the same day,” she said. “At the end of each week we can see if any particular horses are working more than others and adjust the schedule as needed.”

I use a similar spreadsheet for the horses at Waredaca keeping in mind that the workload varies for each horse based on that horse and what their specific needs are. The great thing about our lesson program is that we have riders from leadline “tiny tots” to mid-level jumpers so we can easily tailor a horse’s workload to what suits it best and adjust that schedule as the horse ages or if any limitations come up.

Christine Hryzak, program director at Full Moon Farm in Finksburg, pointed out that the regularity of a lesson horse’s daily workload offers physical and mental consistency. “They are in great shape not because they are being worked hard or overworked but because they are consistently given a routine,” she said. “The longevity of a school horse allows that horse to maintain a job when the rider grows bigger or beyond the horse’s ability.”

Roxy Baldwin, who manages Sweet Rock Stables’ program in Manchester said simply, “Horses benefit from exercise. It keeps them limber and healthy.”

Karen Altieri of Linden Farm in La Plata concurs with Baldwin, “Horses benefit from exercise as do humans. Even an older horse does better doing a few walk-trot classes to maintain their condition then a horse just being turned out and ignored.”

The Students
Hryzak remembered a quote she has heard passed around a lot in the horse world that stated, “Every horse should be loved by a little kid.” She adds to that, “Well, lesson horses are loved and adored by more than one person. These programs spread the love to a lot of horses.”

This love of the lesson horse is truly evident here in Maryland as seen by the volume of photos The Equiery received when it asked its readers to send in photos and stories of their favorite lesson horses and ponies. A few of these photos are printed on page 23 of this issue and more will be posted online throughout the month but the biggest take home message from the sharing of these stories truly is love.

“As people are looking to retire their horses or send them to their next jobs, a lesson barn should be their first thought,” Tice said. “Nowhere else will a horse get so much love from so many different people.”
Santiff added, “They get pampered by staff and volunteers and they are adored by our students.”

Tonti shared a story about one of their horses named Bear who they tried to retire from the program due to his elderly status. “He stopped eating. He missed the kids and just refused to eat so we put him back into a few simple short walk lessons and he is back to his happy self again.” She added, “Horses must have a job or their life spans shorten. They get depressed sitting around doing nothing.”

Care & Stability
In addition to love and an adoring fan club, lesson horses have eyes on them multiple times a day. “The bigger barns have more people with more knowledge to care for the horses and watch over them,” Tice said, adding, “Instructors are watching over every ride they do to make sure the rider is doing what they should and the horse is comfortable and sound.”

“Each of our horse’s workloads, happiness and soundness are closely monitored and communicated amongst our team to ensure that they are receiving the best quality care,” Clark said. “Each horse has his own saddle that is professionally fit to them and adjusted every six months as well as their own scheduled schooler who helps them to properly use their bodies in order to better serve them in their therapeutic riding lessons.”
Lesson stables also offer stability for a horse that may end up with multiple owners during its life span.

“There is a METS [Maryland Equine Transition Service] statistic that the average horse changes ownership seven times,” said Jane Seigler, who owned and operated Reddemeade for 27 years. “They get shifted around like children in a foster situation, expected to adapt to new living situations, new cultures, new expectations, new family and friends. That thought to me is heartbreaking for a species that is so herd bound and has kept me from selling almost any horse in my personal custody and care.” Even though Seigler no longer owns Reddmeade, many of the lesson horses she once owned return to her to live out their days at her farm in Laytonsville.

I strongly agree with Seigler as I’ve seen most lesson horses stay in one location for the majority of their lives. As a rider outgrows that particular horse, there are other riders coming up the levels to fill that void so that the horse isn’t moving from location to location and owner to owner. In a lot of ways, it is a far less stressful lifestyle for a horse.

Altieri added, “The school horse is often a horse that just does not have the athletic ability to do what their owners want. In the school environment, that lack is no detriment and offers a job to horses who might otherwise be abandoned or sent to kill barns.”

Benefiting the Industry
There is no doubt that the lesson horse is “the bread and butter of the horse industry,” as Tonti stated, and many in the industry agree.

Candy Cole of High Ridge Farm in Manchester said, “There’s no horse like a lesson horse and without beginner horses to intermediate horses, we don’t have professional riders that go on to become jockeys, trail riders, eventers, rodeo… they all started out on a lesson horse or pony.” Cole added, “They are the backbone of the industry whether they are three or 33; what they teach will be memories that last forever.”

“A visit to a happy riding school or academy where the horses are friendly and not overworked and all look attractive in a field or in their stalls is often the first introduction to children and potential owners,” Altieri said. “It is the first step in a lifelong passion. That is what keeps the horse industry alive in Maryland.”
Lesson stables also offer a way to get people into the industry that may not be able to afford their own horses.

“Lesson horses are important to our industry because it makes the horse industry inclusive to those who cannot afford a horse of their own and do not have the experience to own their own horse,” Clark added. “Without lesson horses, we make it extremely difficult for beginner riders to find a place to safely learn to ride.”

I was one of those kids without a horse of my own and with parents who didn’t ride. I grew up riding at Waredaca and now I run their pony club, have horses of my own, train for others and actively compete. Thus I’m pouring tons of money and time into Maryland’s horse industry while gaining a lot from it as well!

“For the industry to grow and flourish, the lesson horse needs to be thought of as the backbone of the industry and given all the credit,” Tice said. “We also need to respect the lesson barns that care for them. Don’t forget, most riders started out on the lesson horse.”

Tips from program directors on questions to ask before donating/lending your horse to a lesson stable.

  • What is the average workload for a lesson horse in that program and what type of lessons are offered (ie – jumping, flat only, therapeutic, etc)
  • What general health/wellness checks and attention is being administered to lesson horses?
  • Who is the person responsible for monitoring the health of the lesson horses?
  • What additional health/wellness resources does the program have at its disposal (ie – equine chiropractors, trainers, saddle fitters, etc)
  • What emergency medical care is available for lesson horses?
  • What is the turn out situation for the lesson horses?
  • What feed, forage and supplement options does the facility offer?
  • What happens to the horse when it can no longer be usable by the program?
  • Are there other donors or references that a horse owner can speak with?
  • Is tack for the lesson horses regularly checked by professionals?
  • What are the program owner’s end of life options for horses in the program?
  • Be sure to visit the program before donating/lending your horse to see first hand where your horse will be living. Watch some lessons too!