Welcome to the Horsey Life 101 Series. In this category of posts, I’ll be focusing on the things that you may face as a midlife woman getting into horses and riding for the first time. There are a lot of things to consider, so lets jump in!
It can be a bit overwhelming if you don’t know where to start. You know you want to ride. Or drive. Or at least be around horses. But what do you imagine that to look like?
I’ll go over 5 questions that will help you think about your ideal Horsey Life. Working through them should help the next step of the journey become at least a bit more clear, Most of these decisions can be taken one at a time, and over a long period of time, but it’s a good idea to look at the list and think a little bit about where you’d like to be in your Horsey Life in 5 years or so, so let’s get started!
The 5 Questions
Do you want to:
- Ride, drive, or just be around horses?
- Hang out with a horsey friend or take lessons?
- Ride English or Western?
- Buy a horse?
- Keep the horse at home or in a boarding barn?
So let’s start at the top of the list.
Question 1. Do you want to ride, drive, or just be around horses?
You don’t have to make a decision right away, but the answer to this question will inform all the ones that follow, so do give it some thought. If you can’t decide, get some exposure to different scenarios. If you have horsey friends, hang out for a bit to get a feel for what parts of the experience seem like you could picture yourself enjoying.
If you don’t have access to horses through friends or acquaintances, visit the local feed or tack store, look at the ads on the bulletin boards. If you find an ad for a farm that looks like a promising place to visit, ask the folks who work at the store for their opinion. While they’re not likely to badmouth anyone (nor should they), they may at least be able to give you pointers on good barns to visit. You can also ask local 4-H or United States Pony Club leaders. Those good people are vested in the safety, education, and well-being of horse people, regardless of their age.
Question 2. Do you want to hang out with horsey friends or take regular lessons?
This doesn’t have to be an either-or question. In many cases, you can create a nice mix of the two, so let’s take a quick look at the pros and cons of each.
Hanging out with your horsey friends – Pros
- You can get started in a more casual, and possibly more comfortable, situation. Knowing and trusting the person who’s helping you out can allay normal fears that can arise when working with an animal who weighs around 1,000 pounds.
- Your friend’s schedule may be more flexible, and if you see each other frequently enough, chances are good that you’ve already begun having some horse time.
- It’s likely to cost less to shadow your friend, at least in the beginning. I’m not saying you should take advantage of your friend’s willingness to help, and I’m certainly not saying that riding lessons aren’t well worth the investment, but spending a little time around horses in a casual setting isn’t likely to cost you more than taking your friend out to lunch or getting her a gift card from the feed store.
- You can ask questions and not feel stupid. I’m a firm believer that the only stupid questions are the ones that go unasked, but I understand how embarrassing it can be to ask something you imagine is completely obvious to others. Friends can make take the edge off that self-consciousness we feel when we’re in the spotlight.
Hanging out with your horsey friends – Cons
- You don’t want to risk a good friendship. If her horse happened to bite your hand accidentally when you fed him a carrot, will it feel weird? (Your friendship, not the bite. They can hurt like hell, but they’re not usually especially weird)
- You don’t want to feel like you’re taking advantage of your friend. As noted above, a thoughtful gift or two is very appropriate.
- You don’t like the way your friend handles her horse. If she’s overly aggressive with her horse or he doesn’t look well cared for, that’s going to be uncomfortable for you. And on top of that, if you think her rough treatment is the norm, you may decide you don’t really want to be involved with horses after all.
- Your friend promises to call and set up a time for you to come to visit her horse, but she never does. Again, this can make things awkward.
Taking riding lessons – Pros
- The person teaching you should be a competent professional who has the safety of you and the horse as her first priority. (Note the word “should”. Just because someone sets up shop as a riding instructor does not mean they are qualified to teach.)
- You can count on a regular schedule for your weekly lesson. Most teaching barns have hours that align with people who come to ride after work and on weekends.
- You’ll have the opportunity to be exposed to different horses and riders. Even if you ride the same horse every week, being around the barn and having the chance to watch other people with their horses can teach you a lot. And The other riders at the barn are usually happy to answer a few questions and brag on their horses.
Taking riding lessons – Cons
- I hate to say it, but there are unscrupulous horse people out there. I’ve been in the horse business for decades, and while I know the vast majority of hard-working trainers and instructors are as honest and caring as the day is long, there are outliers. If the atmosphere in the barn is uncomfortable, people aren’t friendly, and horses pin their ears back when you walk past their stalls, take that as an indication that you should check out a couple of other barns as well.
- A lot of barns cater to kids. I love teaching kids and have taught hundreds over the years, but if you’re looking for a quiet, relaxing place to learn and your only available time for lessons is Saturday morning, you may find that you’re heavily outnumbered by munchkins.
- Good instruction is priceless, but it does come at a cost. Weekly lessons can add up, but so can weekly yoga classes or daily lattes (not that I have anything against either yoga or lattes, but you do need to figure extra money into your budget for your lessons).
OK – that’s question 2, let’s move on.
Question 3: Do you want to ride English or Western?
A good part of the answer to this question may come down to availability. You may be in an area where most of the people who ride do trail rides, and a dressage barn can’t be found within a hundred miles. You may have one really great barn within commuting distance that teaches adults, and they teach English.
To be honest – the tack you use matters far less than the quality of the instruction you receive. I’ve always taught balanced seat riding. I help riders find the correct balanced position that allows both the rider and horse to be more comfortable and effective.
A balanced beginner is far less burden to a horse than someone who’s ridden for years but sits heavy and is stiff or unyielding. I’ve ridden and taught Hunt Seat, Dressage, Stock Seat, and Side Saddle (and bareback 🙂 – my core position changes very little regardless, and a good instructor will help you develop the same position of balance.
My advice is that in the beginning at least, look for an instructor that comes well recommended, or whom you’ve watched teach. If you like the instructor and the horses and facility are well cared for, you’re in a good place regardless of whether or not there’s a horn on the front of the saddle. Next question!
4. Do you want to buy a horse?
This is… putting the cart before the horse a bit, but it doesn’t hurt to be thinking about your eventual goals. If you’re already convinced that horse ownership is in your future, you’ll want to be learning about more than just the riding end of things. If you’re planning on owning a horse, there are a lot of things to take into consideration, like your budget, the amount of time you have, and the accessibility of a suitable facility, either at home or a boarding barn.
There are several steps you can (and should) take before handing over that check to buy your first horse. Some form of basic horse care instruction, whether via a friend or a professional is crucial.
If you find that you are considering purchasing a horse, see if you can take a part lease on a horse where you take your lessons. Leasing a horse is a bit like horse ownership with training wheels – you get the feel of it but haven’t committed to the scary part yet. This is as far as many women take the experience. For various reasons full ownership isn’t practical or desired, but they’re afforded more interaction with a horse than just a weekly lesson, so let that idea be in the back of your mind as you start your journey to a Horsey Life.
Time for the last question!
5. Do you want to keep the horse at home or at a boarding barn?
We’ve jumped the queue a bit again, but if you are considering horse ownership, begin thinking about the logistics. If you’re on a quarter of an acre in the ‘burbs, you’re not likely to be able to keep your horse at home, but even having a house in the country doesn’t automatically mean that you should have your horse in your backyard.
Some things to consider about your horse’s living arrangements should you decide to keep him at home:
Horses need to be cared for 7 days a week, 365 days a year (366 in a Leap Year). If you travel frequently or work long hours, you’ll need to figure out who’s going to take care of the horse when you’re not able to.
Zoning laws, cranky neighbors, and insurance companies can also affect your choice. Check and double-check your local ordinances and insurance policy. Horses can be considered an “attractive nuisance”, which means if your neighbor’s kid crawls under the fence and into your paddock and gets stepped on, you may be held responsible. According to Equine Insurance Specialists, LLC, “Unlike the typical rule that there is generally no duty to protect trespassers, the “attractive nuisance” doctrine provides that a landowner will be liable for harm caused by artificial conditions of the land that are highly dangerous to trespassing children.” What this roughly translates to is that little kids can’t grasp the fact that that pretty horse has big teeth and huge feet. The horse, in effect, could be seen as the reason the little rugrat crawled under your fence in the first place.
“Unlike the typical rule that there is generally no duty to protect trespassers, the “attractive nuisance” doctrine provides that a landowner will be liable for harm caused by artificial conditions of the land that are highly dangerous to trespassing children.” Equine Insurance Specialists, LLC.
If all of that is manageable, having your horse at home can be a dream come true. It’s wonderful to look out the window and see your horse. It’s wonderful to be able to skip the drive to get to the boarding barn. And if you keep your horse at home, you can go out and feed him in your PJs whenever you want.
I know I’ve thrown a lot of big-picture questions at you in this post. As I said earlier, you don’t need to figure them out all at once or in a certain time frame. While you shouldn’t rush any decision about such a big part of your life, it can be helpful to set up a framework to make some decisions eventually.
It’s all too easy to get mired down in the details and let “paralysis by analysis” take over. The focus becomes thinking about the decision rather than actually making it.
So set your mind free to dream a bit – you’re taking your first step toward something you’ve waited your whole life for – beginning your own Horsey Life.