School Days: Get an "A" in Horse-Hunting

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A riding school is only as good as the horses that are in it. And that’s the catch: many experienced trainers say there’s an art to buying and maintaining school horses, a.k.a., “schoolies.” This talent—a highly refined intuition of what makes a horse tick, especially for use in a rigorous lesson program—often seems like something that comes with longevity in the business. For those whose resumes are not long on riding school experience, we’ve assembled a group of experienced trainers with school-horse-shopping savvy to share their secrets. They just might save you time and money in your search for the right schoolies.

Horses are Staff

Versatility is key in a school horse, says Joanne Brooks of Wynbrook Farm in Vars, Ontario, Canada, near Ottawa, where she teaches hunter seat and basic dressage. She stables 14 school horses and she figures she’s worked with 50 in her career, keeping some well into their 30s.

Think multi-tasking: “We’re not a big show barn,” she says, “although we do quite a few local shows. The most important thing for our horses is that they be versatile, as well as safe and sound.”

Brooks says that “over years of doing this, you develop that sixth sense that tells you if they’ll have the brain to do the job.” She generally seeks out Quarter Horses or Quarter-Horse crosses as well as draft-horse crosses—“Those make good [school horses] if they’re not too big and clunky. Movement and conformation will indicate soundness. The mental part means they need to be forgiving and patient. When students make mistakes, I don’t want the horse to hold it against them.”

This trainer says she no longer goes to dealers: “I feel they have horses to sell for a reason. You don’t get the history or they don’t want to divulge it.”

Beating the bushes, Brooks answers ads in local equine publications and on the Internet. “Word of mouth is great, too, and I find that I develop my own local network of trainers and barn owners…others whose opinions I trust. It does take years.”

She’s not adverse to selecting horses lacking English training. She’ll initially assess temperament, bring the horse home, and then either she or an advanced student will work with it for 30 to 60 days.

“We’ll put the time in it to make sure it fits our school; if not, we can redirect the horse elsewhere,” explains Brooks, who says she makes sure the horse “can follow nose-to-tail without kicking. We’ll ride it like a student, jiggle around, use a super-long rein, go to the jumps and not always get the best distance. If we’re sure it’s forgiving and honest, it can start our lesson program, first with more advanced and intermediate students, then beginners…and finally, for the absolute test for a school horse, our day camps, where kids have no interest in being great riders.”

She advises strongly against “picking up horses off the meat wagon, paying nothing for them, then working them two to three times daily. Then trainers wonder why they bite and kick.” Brooks pays “top dollar” for her horses. They don’t go more than once a day, nor work more than five days a week.

They live as well as a show horse at her facility, she believes.

“These horses are our staff; if they don’t keep the customers happy, we won’t have customers.”

No Prima Donnas

Diversity is key to keeping Valerie Haworth’s horses happy at her Major Miracle Stables/Blue Moon Horsemanship in Lone Jack, Montana. There, this certified instructor teaches saddle seat, hunt seat, dressage, jumping, Western pleasure and riding, plus trail. Her string of six horses ranges in age from 8 to 28.

Sporting 30 years’ experience, Haworth says that all of her horses “have to show and work. I have quality horses that can compete and win, but aren’t prima donnas. They all do at least two things, like jump or drive or do trail courses.”

At peak times, the horses work up to eight hours, always with a 30-minute break and an hour for lunch. “They don’t get sour, and they are never abused. That’s the key to safety: an unhappy horse is a dangerous horse.” Haworth also keeps approximately 100 saddles to fit her horses and clients of differing sizes.

She likes to develop her lesson horses, and first assesses their eyes and expression before getting more involved. “I ask, ‘Do they like what they’re doing?’”

People bring likely school horses to her, but she knows “not every horse will be a lesson horse. They must be really friendly and have respect, not be pushy. The more aggressive horses won’t work for beginners. I need horses that won’t wig out, won’t lose their minds.”

She’s raised many of hers, with a breed line-up including Morgans, Arabians, Paints and Quarter Horses. “It doesn’t matter what breed: a good horse is a good horse,” says Haworth. For example, she uses an Arabian stallion for lessons and reports that he’s a saint.

Each of her horses lives in its own stall and comes inside at night; they’re fed three times daily, with round bales when turned out, and have one day off a week. “We always do a thorough warm-up and cool down. If it’s very cold, and it can be here, they get extra feed at night.”

Horses are dewormed six times a year and all wear front shoes. After a show day, they get the next day off, when their riders come to hand walk them and rub them down. They also enjoy a chiropractic treatment once annually, and hot oil treatments after being clipped.

She values her school horses so much and endeavors to treat them so well that Haworth says, “when I’m reincarnated, I want to come back as one of my horses.”

Haworth also watches her schoolies carefully at feeding time when horses are together, so that “a weaker little one gets his or her share. A working horse has to eat well.”

The Right Brain

At Willow South, LLC, in Alpharetta, Georgia, Tawn Edwards, also certified, teaches combined training and looks for “safe, mature horses. Or if they’re young, they have to have the right brain and can’t get crazy when a piece of paper flies off the ground. They need to pick up both leads and have balance, and mostly, they need to be sound.”

Most of her school string has “a slice of Quarter Horse in them somewhere.” She also likes Arabians or Arab-crosses. “You want the kids to be able to kick something around, to have to push: they get more confidence than if something is running away and they have to ‘water ski.’”

Regular sources are important. Edwards buys many of her schoolies from her mother’s 70-horse barn located in Keeseville, New York. “I’ll pick out the slowpokes,” she says. Her mom, Julie, a former grand-prix dressage competitor, runs a summer camp and riding program, so both mother and daughter are highly skilled at selecting appropriate schoolies.

Another source for Edwards is Fairplay Horse and Mule Company in Winston, Georgia (www.fairplayhorse.com): Edwards spotted a flashy Paint “that cantered figure-eights in the pen and did perfect flying changes across the diagonal when they tried to catch it.” The horse has become a vital member of her school barn.

Edwards found another gem at Wal-Mart—one of the more unlikely sources, and a reminder that the search for good schoolies leads just about anywhere. A clerk at the local store observed Edwards’ breeches and told her about a Warmblood she needed to sell. The result??An excellent schooling horse purchase.

Out in Salida, Colo., Julie Goodnight of Goodnight Training Stables, Inc., also works as program director for the Certified Horsemanship Association. A trainer for 25 years, she keeps 10 school horses for use in her Western and English training programs. As a result, most of her horses “have to do both. School horses need to fulfill as many functions as possible,” says Goodnight.

One good source for her are clients and friends. “A lot of the horses do find me,” says Goodnight. “For example, I get them from people who may have a good horse but aren’t using it, but they want it to be used. They may not be in a position to keep the horse unless they lease it.” For Goodnight, leasing means that she puts the horse in her schooling program in return for taking on full responsibility, medically and maintenance-wise, for the horse. In the past, she has expended cash when leasing from an outfitter, for example.

When implementing a full-care lease, she counsels, “It should be in writing, the terms of the lease and the owner’s access clearly stated.”

Regarding breeds, she has “one of everything—temperament, soundness and durability are the biggest factors.” Goodnight, too, puts horses through an evaluation program and dismisses any horse with red-flag soundness issues: “We’re talking about a work animal here.”

In seminars she teaches on buying schoolies, Goodnight recommends geldings over mares because “mares form bonded relationships with riders, and in school, riders constantly change. That’s overwhelming for a mare, who can get sour.”

Age is a critical factor, too: “The best school horses are 15 or older, which, coincidentally, is when they decline in value.”

Bomb-proof, Great Trait

“Most of them I found through friends,” says Connie Sparks of Epona Equestrian Center in Belgrade, Montana. With 25 years’ experience, she currently keeps nine school horses. She has Thoroughbreds, Arabians, Ponies of America and Quarter Horses. “They have to be able to put up with a whole lot of stuff,” says certified trainer Sparks, whose horses work about ten hours per week.

“I don’t choose a horse that doesn’t listen. He must be mannerly, not nervous.” Her average age is 18 years. She looks for those “older horses that have been there and done that and been to lots of shows: In other words, bomb-proof.”

She will consider a horse that’s marginally compromised, say, with arthritis, and make maintenance a priority. “We’ll give him supplements to help. I have one that’s 26 and tough as nails.”

Acquiring the horse when he was 16, Sparks puts “tiny little kids on him” and at home, “he’s lazy and they have to carry a crop. But go to a show and he comes alive, looking more like he’s five or 10. He gets all puffed up, like ‘Here I am! Let’s go! Hang on kid, I’m ready.’ ”

Sparks and her fellow trainers are proof positive that plenty of school horses are waiting in the wings, and that networking and doing simple research are two proven methods of finding them.

And don’t stop at appearances; the “ugly” horse may also turn out to be the most valuable member of your string. Asking plenty of questions and being creative may well lead you to the school horses of your—and your customers’—lesson dreams.

Finding Salvation in School

Last fall, when certified trainer Cindy Gidlewski of Brusett, Montana, was invited to a wedding in her former home state, Pennsylvania, something nudged her into going. Now, she’s glad she did, not because she caught the bouquet, but because she resolved a potentially tragic situation—in the nicker of time.

In May 1998, Gidlewski sold her favorite hunter, a then 14-year-old Thoroughbred named Double Exchange, when she moved west. She’d had the horse as a foal, and had won plenty on him.

“I thought I’d found the perfect retirement home for him, since he’s ‘a hothouse flower,’” recounts Gidlewski. She felt that he wouldn’t adapt to the Montana ranch, being used to a warm stall, so she sent him to a trainer in Pennsylvania for lesson use. It seemed perfect.

Then a customer bought him. When the horse subsequently pulled a suspensory ligament—traditionally requiring an extended lay-up—the owner gave the horse away rather than endure his recuperation.

When Gidlewski, with 30 years’ teaching to her credit, attended the East Coast nuptials, she visited her former equine pal, only to find him almost totally emaciated, “probably three weeks away from death,” she says. Ironically, he shared a pen with a fat and happy horse. Gidlewski reclaimed her horse and brought him back to Montana.

Her elder equine, now 19, recharged in her company and loving care. One optimistic day, she offered him to Connie Sparks (profiled in our main story) as a schoolie. The horse worked beginner lessons at the walk and trot, and amazingly, began cantering cross-rails.

Now, he’s loving his life and being loved by many. Double Exchange is one more lesson for schoolie-seekers:?you can find good mounts anywhere, once you know what you’re looking for. —SS