An Ode to Lesson Horses

Photo © Lauren Mauldin

By Jessica Shannon

There is a common saying in the horse world that states, “lesson horses are worth their weight in gold.” If Scrooge McDuck taught me anything, it’s that gold is heavy and worth diving into after you fill your vault with gold coins. “Parks and Recreation’s” Ron Swanson knew the importance of having his net worth in gold bars that he buried near a tree. Gold is heavy, priceless, and life-changing. I imagine every rider can name each lesson horse she rode and what they taught her.

My first lesson horse was Mouse, a charcoal gray gelding who changed gaits when he heard my trainer shout them out to her group of young beaming girls who could not believe how lucky they were to sit atop a horse. I absolutely thought he was following my aids, but he was listening to her as she sat on the fence. There is no way he felt my legs, as my tiny legs stuck almost straight out from his big barrel. But that didn’t matter. I was building confidence, learning to communicate with a horse, and falling head over hoof for riding. He taught me that my size did not define me. I was not the smallest kid in class anymore. I was a rider who became invincible because of Mouse. There is no telling how many little girls he ensured believed in themselves. 

Photo © Lauren Mauldin

Up until the last 10-15 years or so, every barn had a few lesson horses, if not more. People would arrive at their lessons, learn who they were riding, and tack up the horse while remembering what is unique about this horse, what happened the last time they rode them, and feel a mixture of joy and dread depending on the horse’s habits. There were honest lesson horses who always took care of the rider when they did not see a good distance. There were lesson horses who challenged you and held you accountable for your decisions while still keeping you safe. There was a lesson horse at my barn in high school that I was able to show when my own horse was recovering from surgery. He taught me to trust the horse and the importance of never looking down at the jump. 

It is rare to find lesson horses these days. The lack of lesson horses was a major factor in me riding intermittently after my first horse died while I was in graduate school. A barn might have one or two, and you had to hope the horse was still sound or happy to do his job. It has become too expensive for most barns to maintain lesson horses, which explains why it is increasingly difficult to find them. My barn has a long list of strengths and aspects that sets it apart from others, and one of them is that we have three full lesson horses and a partial lesson horse. 

We see numerous riders come to our barn for lessons, and they regain confidence after a bad fall, are trusted to grow with a green off-track thoroughbred, or work on their own equitation and softness. There are a solid handful or two of riders who have the ability to ride without owning or leasing a horse because of the great geldings we have at our barn. Those boys are waiting to be teachers every morning when they come in for breakfast.

Photo © Lauren Mauldin

All of us who learned to ride can likely name the lesson horses who changed us and taught us the most. Mouse, Harvest, Seven, Jackson, Gabby, and Ziggy taught me to sit deep, follow them over fences and never to jump ahead. One of them needed spurs and all the leg strength of Thor. Another only needed for you to breathe out and touch him for a transition. Others taught me how to see a distance. They taught me that showing a horse you respect and trust them means they will teach you while keeping you safe. Goose taught me to listen to when a horse may need a rest and may either be in pain and need retirement. Each one of them gave me confidence, built resiliency, increased critical thinking and listening skills, and gave me a safe space. 

Riders have grit. We are tough and empowered. The characteristics we build in the saddle and barn aisle appear in how we ask questions and lead in the classroom or in meetings. Each of us begged our parents to give us riding lessons for the love and fascination we had with horses, and none of us would be where we are without the faithful lesson horses in our lives. They are, without a doubt, worth their 1200 pounds in gold.

Jessica lives and rides in The Woodlands, TX area where she works in pastoral care. She enjoys writing, supporting Arsenal FC with abandon, and being an enthusiastic dog mom. Jessica is proud to bring along an adopted OTTB, Gunner, into the hunters. 

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