Why Lesson Programs?

Lately I’ve noticed a shift in local equestrian programs where the “lesson program” is becoming less and less prominent.  Obviously clients are still taking lessons, trainers are still training, but the days of operations having a whole string of lesson horses, and days full of lessons are waning.  When our facility hosts local shows, it’s obviously what programs in the area still host the full lesson program experience, with their half dozen lesson ponies and bombproof geldings, versus the smaller groups of client/owners.


Bombproof hony – not a schoolie

My own trainer has been scaling back her lesson program in favor of really spending time with the clients she already maintains, many of which are showing or traveling on a regular basis.  She isn’t concerned at all about the change in process for her riders.  Most of her clients have owned before (like me) or already own a horse in her facility.  And while I understand time is money, and she needs more time, seeing the lesson program get smaller provokes a lot of feels from me.

As I’ve mentioned, I was a lesson kid and barn rat for years before I took on a “real horse” lease.  And now, I’m right back in that world of being a catch rider and lesson kid.  This is close to my heart, in my mind a vital step in the journey of horseback riding as a whole.  I just wonder how trainers are recruiting and gathering new riders without watching those people coming up through the lesson horse program.  Perhaps just my area fits into this need due to the variety of options, or the influence of our culture?  I’m not sure.

I feel like there is so much learned from riding many different horses, and having lessons on a consistent basis.  Not to mention the risk for a parent, or an adult re-rider based on whether they decide to continue in the sport and the sample size of time they’ve really spent with horses.  It was mentioned that if you want to run a successful lesson programs now, you have to teach all the time, every day – all day, to make the economics work.

Maybe I’m just witnessing a very small niche of the area doing this, but I had to ask.  What are you seeing in your area?  Are the big lesson programs still thriving?


My favorite grey schoolmaster


34 thoughts on “Why Lesson Programs?

  1. My trainer similarly down to one lesson horse, focusing more on having horses in training then simple lessons. I kinda get it, horses, board, property are all stupid expensive out here. She wasnt getting eniugh lessons to make the extra expense of more horses worth it.
    It makes lessoning now that much harder although i kuckily have friends who share their ponies with me, and i know its likely turned a few clients away as lesson horse doesnt really jump anymore.

  2. Super interesting topic! We have a mix at our barn. But for the english riders, versus western, its mostly private lessons on client’s horses. I totally remember the days of working for lessons, and getting lucky to ride a horse daily, but those days seem gone here too.

  3. My boarding barn has a very large lesson horse/pony string with lessons going 6 days a week and lots of day camps throughout the summer. There are also several lesson times dedicated to boarders only. Trainer and barn manager split up teaching nights plus there is a third person who teaches one night per week. I think that it requires multiple instructors to really make that size of a lesson program sustainable. In the winter it can actually be hard to ride at certain times indoors because you can end up with 6-7 people on lesson horses/ponies then a few boarders come in and it’s packed. Add in the fact your are bound to have some who can’t steer well and it’s a bit crazy!

      • My barn is one of the biggest but there is a community of English barns in the area and most have a decent sized lesson program. Lots of variety from schooling shows all the way to some A shows but lots of B & C level since the local association does those and my trainer is the president. Directly next door is a more upscale HJ barn that offers lessons all the way up to winters in Florida and I can think of 3-4 other HJ barns within a 30 minute drive that do A & B shows in the area. I’ve noticed also a lot of the area barns (not mine though) seem to now be affiliated with college equestrian teams who then train out of those barns. Really interesting and I would guess that is a good way to finance your school horses.

  4. i haven’t necessarily seen the same trend of diminishing lesson program size or participation – the barns i’ve been involved with still seem to have big programs (tho yes, the schedules are INSANE). i have seen some particular sects (esp actually among the natural horsemanship contingent at isabel’s old barn) that encouraged folks new to horses to immediately buy their own for that full immersion and relationship building effect. personally tho, i tend to agree that there’s so much to be learned from riding a wide variety of horses and getting a lot of different types of experiences before committing to ownership.

    • Totally agree – there is so much more to these animals than taking a few rides and deciding you want in. I’m really interested to see if maybe it’s just a local demographic that I’m seeing change. I’m a bit jealous, your area seems to be teeming with lots of really nice programs.

  5. It’s not just your area, it’s almost everywhere. Every so often I have somebody approach me asking if I know a place their kid can get started on lessons, and any more it’s a struggle to think of suggestions. Most trainers are doing what yours is, concentrating on the clients they already have, or only taking on people that already have their own horse. I think in recent years it has gotten more expensive to keep a horse than whatever income that horse might produce by being used in lessons.

    • Very good point! Obviously the horse industry isn’t always budget friendly, and I’m sure that applies to the trainers too. Such a big difference from when I was younger and there were many more programs to choose from for lessons!

  6. Very glad that we still have a thriving lesson program at our barn! It isn’t huge, but I absolutely love our up and coming barn rats. Some of the lesson kids eventually get their own pony and move into the more training/competition side of things, some take lessons for years and grow up the ranks with the school horses (we have some super fun ones at a variety of levels). I can see the appeal of focusing just on your “competition string” of riders from a financial perspective but I agree with you that these riders have to come from somewhere. I certainly would’t still be in this sport if it wasn’t for the lesson program I grew up riding in.

    • Yay barn rats! And so much truth – if I hadn’t taken lessons for years I would never be the rider or horseperson I am today. I hope that lesson programs like yours continue to thrive and produce more up and comers!

  7. Lesson programs are absolutely abundant in South Africa, especially with the introduction of SANESA schools league, where multiple riders can compete on the same pony – allowing kids to be competitive despite not owning or even leasing a horse.
    From a coach’s perspective, it’s far preferable to teach riders on their own ponies in terms of finances. Then somebody else is footing the vet bill. Teaching on schoolies pays well until one of them goes lame or gets sick or decides to lose its mind, which, with horses, is not an infrequent occurrence.
    That said, the lesson program is undoubtedly the best way for a rider to be introduced to the sport. I don’t let my clients buy until they’ve been in a lesson program for a solid year without extended breaks. It’s how I screen them for commitment to the sport, thus commitment to taking care of a horse (and, admittedly, the ability to pay their bills on time).
    I was in a lesson program as a very small child, but after that, I had my own pony in my preteens and teens and hardly any real lessons and it still holds me back. My kids with their own ponies are required to lesson at least twice a week, and very competitive kids are encouraged to lesson four times a week – twice on their own and twice on schoolies or catch rides. Otherwise you produce a rider who is very good at riding one particular horse.

    • Yeah schoolies can be very expensive – they are still horses at the end of the day and we know all about how fragile they can be. So, so interesting that you encourage catching riding – even for owners. I think it’d be a fantastic way to teach, but I don’t feel I hear it very often.

  8. I think lesson programs are dying all over the place. It was actually part of what inspired us to buy horses when we moved to CA. We could not find a decent lesson program that didn’t require us to lease/own our own horses. It’s sad bc I was also a barn rat and think kids should get to do that. In fact, I think that barn rat life and riding all sorts of horses made me the rider that I am. But from a modern day liability perspective, I would never let kids do what I did as a kid. My husband and I have looked at buying a few different large equestrian property and the sellers were trying to tell us how we could start or continue a lesson program and I was like, yeah no. Do not want. It’s so sad that I feel that way given how much lessons meant to me as a kid and that I taught riding for 5 years and loved it, but I think it’s very different now and I don’t want to be a part of it anymore. Maybe once I’m back on the east coast and not stuck dealing with CA liability issues, I’ll change my mind.

    • I hadn’t even though of state liability issues- very good point. The lesson programs dying really is so sad for me. I know that people probably all have great reasoning-but it seems learning to ride is very different now. Curious what types of riders will come out of it.

  9. Now that I don’t have my own horse, I’m struggling to find an acceptable lesson program. We still have the places that shove everyone on a horse in a big group and you ride for your hour, but programs with nice horses and quality instruction are practically non-existent.

  10. I too grew up in a run-of-the-mill lesson program! In my area, I know of a few similar programs with lesson horses and summer camps, but they are definitely out-numbered in the hunter/jumper realm by the bigger show barns catering to horse owning or leasing clients who travel and show regularly. However, my view might be a little bit skewed as we only attend rated shows.

    • That’s interesting too! I feel like this is the first time I’ve noticed the heavy swing towards clients/showing/traveling versus your big operations with schoolies. Really interested to see what it looks like come next summer and the local (lower rated) shows get going. Will there be less people interested?

  11. I’m not super far from you – in Columbia, MO – and I’ve definitely noticed that when our barn ((CEC)) goes to shows, we basically dominate them. We bring 5-20 people to every show, and everyone else brings 1-5. No barns that I know of in the area that have a lesson program like ours; of the 50 horses at the barn, at least half are either owned by Kris or half leased by her to be used in the program. And her days are incredibly full – so much so that she’s had to add 3 additional assistant trainers in the last year. It kind of appears that the lack of local lesson programs has actually been incredibly beneficial to our barn – the fact that she does still offer lessons and has a wide variety of horses available has almost certainly contributed to the success of CEC. But it definitely seems like the bulk of trainers in the area are mostly mobile, traveling to more privately owned facilities to give lessons, and offering lessons on their own properties primarily only to those who own their own horses.

  12. My barn has probably the biggest lesson program in the area, and a lot of it is because the other barns around us are slowly losing interest/the client base. BM seems to get new students in waves from when they leave other barns because they’re not getting the experience they’re looking for (something more than w/t/c, jump this X, you’re done). BM teaches almost non-stop during the week. Boarders usually get their privates in the mornings, and then after a break she’s usually there teaching from 1:30-8:30.

    • What a workload! I’m guessing that between the finance aspect and the schedule lots of trainers are just leaning away from that. Huge kudos to your trainer for keeping her operation going and keeping it interesting!

  13. Here in NJ, the governor basically killed the racing industry by outlawing gambling outside of Atlantic City. This had a trickle down effect that made the cost of horse keeping sky rocket for the rest of us. Having a whole string of lesson horses is pretty much cost-prohibitive right now unless you’re grandfathered in to an existing program. Sadly, the “lesson programs” are fewer and farther between. Luckily, with the state as densely populated and horse-y as it is, there are still several around, but not like they were when I was a kid. I know of a handful of really good ones that still exist, but most of the big programs with bombproof horses seems questionable to me these days 😦

  14. I think it’s declining a bit. More people own than just lesson. My trainers have more lesson horses than students at the moment. A total shame because I agree that lesson horse programs are kind of a right of passage. When I see a lesson kid ride the same horse over and over it makes me feel like they can only communicate with one horse.

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