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Finding A Good Lesson Barn
Good lesson barns are sometimes hard to find. It is particularly challenging for the majority of people who need to find one - beginners who know little or nothing about horses, or who are looking for lessons for a child. Parents, in particular, may be bewildered by the options and worried about who they are trusting with their child's safety.
Knowing what to look for is a challenge, but hopefully the following tips will help.
Decide on your style
Before you even start looking for a barn, you need to decide what kind of riding you want to do. This may be in part geographically dependent - it's a lot harder to find an English barn in, say, Denver, than it is in Maryland.
If you or your child already know exactly what kind of riding you want to do, you can start at a specialist show barn. If you are not sure, then you should find a general barn, many of which specialize in teaching beginners. If in doubt, most riders find it easier to transition from English to Western than vice versa. If you are not sure which you want to do, it's best to find an English barn if possible.
Make A List
Now it's time to make a list of barns that fulfill your needs and are easy to get to. The internet is a good source. Some regions may also have an advertising-supported equine newspaper that can be found at tack stores and, in rural areas, feed stores. These newspapers often have advertisements for all of the local barns.
Make a short list of the ones that appear suitable. This list will be your starting point. Take into account the things that matter to you - show record, for example, is only important if your ultimate goal is showing.
Visit Each Barn
Yes. I really mean it. Never hand a penny over to a lesson barn without a site visit. Call them first and check their opening hours. Go at a time when lessons are happening. If they insist on an appointment - take them off the list, they likely have something to hide. Reputable barns are happy to have you visit.
Once there, do a site inspection and check the following:
1. Are there working fire extinguishers in the barn? Extinguishers should be located at doors and every fifty feet in large barns. A sprinkler system is an extra bonus.
2. Are the fences and barn in good condition? Horses should never be turned out in barbed wire. Horse fencing should be solid post and rail or the tape kind of electric fencing. Stalls should be free of sharp edges that can injure a horse.
3. Do the horses look healthy and happy? Although a novice can't determine details of care, the horses should:
a. Be neither too thin (ribs and hips showing) or too fat (withers hidden in fat, overall obese appearance). One thin horse, if there's a good reason for it is not a reason to pass, but if all of the horses are underweight, leave right away. Some older horses may have apparently protruding hips as a result of scoliosis ('sway back', particularly common in mares that have been bred multiple times).
b. Have shiny coats. Note that old horses tend to have duller coats and a lot of horses used for beginners are older. But a shiny, fine coat is a sign of health. It also means the horse is being groomed regularly, although if a horse is caked with mud it can mean it was just brought in from the pasture. Horses should not still be filthy when they are tacked up. Some barns only groom horses when they are about to work, but mud on a tacked up horse may indicate that there is mud under the tack, which can result in sores.
c. Respond to people in the aisle with pricked ears and signs of interest. A good number of the horses should poke their heads out to say hi, unless they are all behind grills.
4. Is the barn clean and tidy? Stalls should be mostly free of manure and the barn should not stink of ammonia. Grooming kits and cleaning equipment should not be left lying around in the aisles. Saddles should be on racks, on horses or propped up against the wall, pommel or horn down. Tack should be clean and in good repair.
5. Is the arena in good condition? The footing should be even and although a little bit of a rut in the corners probably just indicates that it needs to be raked, large holes and the like are a bad sign. Is there a mounting block? Reputable barns generally do teach riders to mount from the ground, but expect blocks to be used routinely as it's better on the horse's back and the rider's hips as well as prolonging the life of the saddle.
Watch a lesson
Actually, watch more than one lesson. Take into account the following:
1. Are riders wearing helmets? (I know helmets are not traditional in western riding, but they really are a good idea).
2. Is the instructor appropriately dressed? Flip flops are a bad idea around horses, for example. Instructors should lead by example and wear long pants, comfortable closed-toe shoes and helmets if they ride.
3. Does the instructor have a teaching style that suits you? A large barn may have several instructors, of course, so not getting on with one of them may not be a disaster. However, barns also tend to have a 'barn style'.
4. Are all the riders in the group of the same or a very similar level of ability? Beginners should ride with beginners and experienced riders with experienced riders.
5. Is abusive behavior such as beating horses happening? Hint, one smack when a horse is naughty is not beating. Turning a crop over and hitting it five or six times is generally considered excessive. Beginners should not be wearing spurs.
If you follow these guidelines you should find the right lesson barn. Of course, if the barn turns out to be wrong, don't be afraid to leave.
If you see extreme abuse, then don't be afraid to report it, or it will never be stopped. Fortunately, that is rare and the vast majority of barns are good places that treat horses and students well.