Being Responsible for the Horses we Love.
Sometimes it means not having them at all.
April 2008
Last week I received 5 separate requests for horse board. One lady wanted to move her horse closer to
home, two were concerned with the level of care her horse was getting and weren't able to get useful
training assistance at their location, one person with two horses was moving to the area and looking for a
home for his horse, and the fifth person was in the process of buying a horse and needed a place to keep it.
I also receive numerous emails and calls about riding lessons, mostly those for children.

We were full at the time, so I wasn't able to help any of these people, but I tried to do my best to
recommend an alternative location for these people.

It does make me worried though, that there is a shortage of quality and affordable riding facilities. We have
seen area barns changing hands and going private or semi private. We have seen board and lesson rates
skyrocket. Is this is sign that riding is soon going to be an activity exclusive for the wealthy or those that
already live on farms?

The love of horses tends to hit most girls at some stage of their life. Some outgrow or loose interest, but for
others it becomes a passion and their rooms are soon full of plastic horses and horse posters. Parents then
feel pressure to help their child participate in the sport of riding, but very often the parents themselves don't
have the experience or knowledge of how to find a suitable riding stable. Their first step is usually to ask if
any friends know of riding stables, followed by looking in the phone book or on the Internet for riding
academies.

Most make their selection based on: location, price, and availability. A few will make the smart decision to
do a site visit of the location prior to committing to lessons. A site visit when you don't know what to look
for isn't all that helpful though is it? Most will look for obvious safety issues, but when it comes to the more
specific risk factors most parents don't know what to look for.

Many parents also seem to assume that if the riding business is successful and has other students, then it
must be ok. Sadly this is often not the case.

I won't get into the various selection criteria for a riding stable in this article, my concern is more for how
this lack of knowledge on the side of the students and their parents puts the horses at risk, and therefore
puts the students at risk.

Most people signing up for lessons will need to ride a lesson horse. A lesson horse's life is not an easy one,
with a variety of riders trying to find their balance and learn skills and the expense of that horse. Lesson
horses typically work more often than your average show horse, and at some barns lesson horses are
worked by 2-4 riders in the same day!

This may not seem like a lot as most of us would love to have a 4 hour work day, but carrying around a
novice rider and having them get on and off is hard on the horses back, as well as mentally difficult as the
horse has to deal with the mixed signals the beginners give unintentionally. Most beginners are rough with
their hands and legs as well. Often lesson saddles are economical, and aren't fitted as well as a show
horse's saddle would be (good saddles are expensive).

Sadly I was recently told about a barn that teaches only 4 days a week, but on Saturdays they have 9
hours worth of lessons! For a horse to work lightly during the week, and then hard on one day is very
difficult for them, and can lead to lameness issues more so than in a horse that works regularly. Parents and
students should take note of how often the horses they are learning on are working.

Many lesson barns, typically ones that cater to beginners, will use old, unsound horses. The lame ones
can't go too fast or bolt, and they are cheap to buy! Sadly though, these horses are in chronic pain and the
repetitiveness of lessons can be very hard on them. As well, often these programs won't give horses the
time off or care they need.

Another big issue is the quality of feed and care that these horses get. Making money with horses isn’t
that easy, and some barns cut corners in care, vaccinations, deworming, and proper feeding routines.

Many people would be surprised to know that there aren't any regulations with regards to how lesson
horses are treated, other than the ASPCA in extreme cases.

We were at a lesson barn last summer looking at a horse for a client. These horses were being used in
lessons there, but were owned by someone I know who had lent her horses out. I had seen pictures of the
mare from a few years back so I was not expecting this:
The horse to the left is in the prime of
her life age wise, but is skin and bones,
lacking condition and with no spark in
her eyes. If you look closely at her left
front leg you can see an intreated injury
and untrimmed hooves. She was being
used in lessons in this condition!
Aside from being painfully thin for a horse being worked in a lesson program, her feet were in bad shape,
and she had an untreated injury on a front leg, which she had obviously been favouring as her hoof growth
reflected this. Kids were riding this horse! After her owner realized the shape she was in she removed her
from the premises and we helped get her back in shape. Some proper feeding and farrier care got her back
in good shape in a short time. We also got her teeth done to find she has a back tooth that was so sharp it
had caused sores on her cheek!

This was not the only horse at this location to look like this and it made us sad and angry. It also made me
wonder about the parents who take their kids there for lessons. Do they not see the ribs on this horse? Do
they not notice the gelding that is moving stiffly because it is lame on both front legs? Or do they see it and
look the other way as this is an affordable, convenient place, with instructors the kids seem to like? But
what life lesson is that teaching the kids that horses are a tool to be used, but not loved? That compassion
for a living being is secondary to your pleasure?

I also wonder about the stables that use 3 and 4 year old horses in lessons. These young horses aren't
mentally ready to deal with the stresses of being a lesson horse, and can become sour and unpredictable
later in life as a result. In fact our insurance policy doesn't allow us to use lesson horses under 5 years of
age for any experience level of rider. Something I would think would be common sense, but from what I
see isn't. Young horses are cheap, and stables can use the lesson kids to put miles on them before they are
sold as child proof.

Sooner or later most horse lovers want a horse of their own. For many this isn't feasible so riding lesson
horses or leasing a horse is the closest they get, but for others horse ownership eventually becomes a
reality. At our barn, we have about as many horse owners as we do leasers and once a week students.
Each option gives exposure to horses; horse ownership is not something to jump in to.

With the growth in the Edmonton area, it is costing more and more for us to provide board; property taxes
have gone up, shipping costs for shavings and hay are increased, hay prices are likely going to increase
soon too. We aren't the cheapest place in town, but we are about mid range, and quite affordable for what
we offer.

What seems to be happening in the area though is that boarding stables are changing hands quite rapidly.
Some become private or semi private requiring existing boarders to find somewhere new to go. Quality and
type of care can also change drastically, as can rates. What some people are finding, is that they have to
drive further to find somewhere for their horse, or they have to sacrifice a comfort they were formerly used
to.

Where the big problem lies though, is with the people who buy a horse or horses based on being able to
afford or commute to one particular barn. What happens if the stable gets bought out, increases rates or if
the care changes drastically?

There was a local economy barn (that thank goodness is no longer in business near here), that offered very
affordable rates, a great location and reasonable facilities. I know that there were people who bought a
horse they could ill afford simply because this place was so cheap. For some people this worked fine as
their horses were low maintenance, easy keepers. For others though, their horses did not fair well. They
lost weight rapidly due to the poor management.

Now to me, the obvious thing to do would be to get your horse out of there. The problem was this place
was so convenient and affordable that to move their horse would have been a struggle, so the skinny horses
stayed and got worse. Did the owners not see the weight loss? Did they believe the barn owners that it was
the horse's fault? Or was it just that moving the horse, would mean paying more for board?
The horse on the left quickly when down in condition when
moved to a "cheap" stable with poor management. It didn't
take long for him to get back into nice shape as shown in the
picture below. Note, that the picture to the left was taken at
his new home that helped put weight on him, not at the place
that near starved him.
To the left is a young horse being underfed. The ribs showing, thin
neck, protruding hips and bloated belly all show that this horse is
not getting his nutritional needs. If this had kept up, his long term
development may have been compromised, luckily his owner took
action and moved him, and he soon filled out at can be seen below:
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