Every riding instructor knows the horrible feeling of having a group of students in an arena and all the horses are behaving when all of a sudden, you notice that one horse is giving the rider a hard time. School horses are our trusted business partners who work hard for us on a routine basis, and as their partners we need to always be looking out for their well being to prevent school horse burnout.
Choose Partners Wisely
To make it fair for these horses, start by making sure you’ve picked the right horse for the job. Michelle Schmerzler, president of New Canaan Mounted Troop (NCMT) in New Canaan, Conn., a facility with 28 school horses and around 120 kids, has a well thought-out process for making sure they get the right horse. If the horse is located nearby, one of the professionals on staff will go ride the horse. If it is quiet, has a good temperament, and is easy to work around, it moves to step two:?an onsite trial.
All horses undergo a 30-day trial before they are accepted into the NCMT program. The horse must show an ability to work in large groups of horses, safely carry a variety of riders, hold up to being ridden six days a week, and remain safe and calm to work around. If it doesn’t pass any one of the tests, it is returned to the owner.
When Jennifer Shannon, owner of Cornerstone Farm Inc, in Longmont, Colo., needs a new school horse, she looks for one that can be an “everyone” horse as far as size and temperament go. Shannon has been in the business long enough that, she says, “I already know most of the horses that are offered to me.”
Tailor Workload to Worker
Once you have the right horses, keeping them going means tailoring the workload to each individual horse. Schmerzler has many horses of different levels in her program, and she keeps them at their appropriate levels. Beginner horses do not have to do advanced lessons, and intermediate and advanced horses stay in their respective levels as well.
It also helps to add certain aspects to lessons that are there just for the horses, such as a good warm-up, frequent walk breaks, and teaching posting trot before the sitting trot, to make sure the rider is balanced first. These steps are for the horses as well as the riders.
Since unbalanced riders place a burden on horses, Lowell Gordon, school director of the Traditional Equitation School (TES) in Burbank, Calif., uses a riding simulator (mechanical horse) for beginners or when introducing riders to new concepts. Saving the horses is essential for TES, where 30 to 35 horses handle about 60 riders a day, and between 400 and 500 a week.
Another way TES spares its horses:?students are not introduced to the sitting trot until they are considered “advanced beginner” and can post and 2-point without stirrups (this protects the horses backs). Similarly, in Shannon’s hunter/jumper program, her staff is careful to keep the lessons mostly flat, and mostly trot, with canter and a few repetitions over jumps at the end. Course work is only done every now and then. She also limits her school horses to two-foot jumps and under. Gordon also “insists that the students bring treats for the horses to ‘butter them up’ as much as possible.”
Another clear way to prevent burnout is to ban the use of crops or spurs, as is the rule at Cornerstone Farm. These tools definitely have their place, but when used improperly can make horses dull and cranky.
It’s also important to make sure that your horses carry their most suitable weight. TES draws the line for all students at 195 pounds. NCMT has different limits for the different sizes in its barn. For example, a 13h pony will be capped at 110 to 120 pounds, and smaller ponies carry less.
Gordon adds, “The age of the horse also effects what kind of riders are allowed to ride certain horses.” Older horses are given lighter weight loads. In addition, “The up-downer horses that can tune out the rest of the world and keep plugging along need to be protected,” she says.
When it comes to weight limits, Shannon takes into account not only the size of the horse but the build as well. “An 18-year-old, tall, lean thoroughbred will suffer more back issues” than a shorter, wider quarter horse type, she says, because of the narrower build. “If you tax a horse by putting a heavier rider on the horse, you accelerate its decline,” she adds.
Keeping your school horses comfortable is a large part of preventing burnout. Horses are born athletes, but in the wild they would never work at the collected trot or canter, they don’t run barrels, and they are not constantly asking themselves to rock back on their haunches. With all that we are asking of horses, we have to make accommodations.
To maintain her horses’ physical comfort, Shannon, whose smaller-scale operation has between five and 10 school horses, starts with their feet. All horses get shoes all year round, even in the slower winter months. They all get routine vet care, and in summer she will give joint supplements, a Legend series or an occasional joint injection for her big performers. She will also trade lessons for massages and chiropractics when the horses need it as a way to keep things affordable.
Schmerzler will “spare little expense when it comes to their health.” That can include a long list of items, from shoes to chiropractics and joint injections. Whatever the horses need, they get. She is lucky to be able to budget on a yearly basis solely for the purpose of maintenance for the horses.
Gordon had a different take on maintenance: she doesn’t believe in it. No joint injections or supplements for her charges. Her notion is that if they aren’t holding up at TES, then she finds them a better-fitting home, with someone known to her and her staff.
After taking into account weight limits, maintenance, and how to keep lessons from overtaxing the horses, it’s important to think about when they actually get a break! At least one day a week is pretty standard for most school horses. Cornerstone Farm has one day a week where no lessons are taught, so every horse has that day off. Shannon and her staff have no planned breaks, but give the horses breaks on an as-needed basis.
When do horses need a break??If a horse is showing signs of sourness when being tacked up or going to the arena, those are clear signals, Shannon says. If a horse ever starts to look sore, off, or lame, it isn’t ridden until the problem has been fixed.
Schmerzler also schedules in “horse vacation weeks” at NCMT, “typically between Christmas and New Years, one before and one after camp is finished” and the regular school-year program starts. This way every horse has at least a week off.
Gordon has the horses at TES leave for their vacations—they get up to a month vacation on pasture. “Older horses lose muscle and fitness,” she points out, when they have too much time off, so they get shorter, but more frequent, breaks.
Putting the horse first can take a lot of self-control. This is a business, after all, and you need to get the maximum use of each animal. But without the horses, there is no business. “It’s too easy to be lazy in your choice of horses,” warns Gordon. Proactive steps may force you to alter your lesson plan, but that’s better than asking a horse to do something it shouldn’t. This way, every horse gets out as often as it comfortably can, and no one gets overworked or out of hand.