Lesson Barns: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

I’ve noticed a number of threads about entry points into horses, and general discussions about lesson quality/policies/horses, so I thought I’d open up a more general thread discuss lesson barn experiences.

I think of a lesson barn as a barn where students can use a school horse regularly in a lesson (sometimes half-lease a horse to be ridden in both lessons and outside of lessons for a day or two), often purchasing a package. Sometimes there’s a white board, and the student doesn’t know what horse he or she will ride until that day. Usually the more experienced kids tack up and sometimes catch their own horses, and ideally lessons are at a regular time, and are grouped according to ability. There may be greener horses for more experienced riders, jumping and non-jumping lessons, various age and ability groups, and so forth.

I say all of this ideally, because as a horseless adult, I must confess that my best experiences came from finding a horse to lease or an owner couldn’t ride regularly and getting outside trainers for private lessons.

Some of the lesson barns I took lessons at (especially the ones without boarders or very few boarders) were chaotically run, had horses that often weren’t sound or well-trained enough to do their jobs, had care that was pretty sketchy and often made me feel guilty for riding there, and the lessons were so packed with riders of very different levels of ability it was hard to get instruction or even just ride around the ring (in other words, you might be “stuck” between a stopped pony and a jump standard during the precious few minutes when you were supposed to canter).

This is actually not shade, btw, because I know how insanely difficult lesson barns are to run (and make a profit from) and to keep lessons horses sound and not sour. I also know that because some of them attract riders who are very casual, they get people who take few lessons and go, or moms who come late with kids, and other things that can make scheduling a nightmare.

So, what are your experiences? Did you ride (or run) a lesson barn? Did you enjoy it? Do they still exist in your area? What would you advise someone to look for in a lesson barn? Should/Can/Do they still exist and will they in the next decade?

I got my start at a lesson barn, and rode at a few before purchasing as a kid. I’ve ridden at a couple as an adult as well, while my horse was lame. There’s definitely a spectrum, and I don’t see the same type of programs I rode in anymore.

My first ever barn was basically in my neighborhood, and had at least 5 school ponies and horses for dead beginners and nothing jumped over 18”. I do remember there was a string of 2’-2’3” horses passed from leaser to leaser. We attended the local unrated shows at the local barns, all on school horses leased for the day. Even the littlest knew how to brush, hoof pick, and clean tack afterwards. As we got more experience we were expected to catch and tack up, get ourselves to the ring on time, and untack, hose off, and put away.

Second barn as a kid was exactly the same but allowed lesson horses to jump higher - looking back I think these were owned by people trading occasional lesson use for a cut in board. There were also a handful of half leases available. This place taught us how to clip for shows, lunge, pull manes, do polo and standing wraps, and basic first aid like soaking and wrapping for abscesses. We were expected to be reasonably self sufficient but there was always an adult around to catch us doing anything particularly dumb; though my trainer at the time encouraged some of the feral tendencies we had (she taught us how to climb up the front legs to get on from the ground tackless, jump random things in the barnyard, etc).

As an adult I don’t see the same type of “horsemanship” lessons going on. I’ve boarded and helped out at programs catering to the new rider, though most of them have phased out their lesson horses in favor of lease/own only. I taught a lot of genuinely curious kids and parents how to pull manes/clip legs/standing wrap/etc. They wanted to know what I was doing and were willing to learn - no one had taken the time to teach them. I think it’s a time thing - my first barn didn’t reschedule lessons due to weather, you’d have an “inside” lesson and learn things like that instead. And the parents were okay with this!

I’d love to see more of these programs - I think they’re accessible to the average person, and teach a lot of skills that give independence and the ability to realize you’re being taken advantage of. For example, no “meds” line for me - I know what my horse gets and why. And I’m probably doing it myself.


I got my start at a lesson barn 30+ years ago.

Now I live in a small city (250,000 people) and I think we maybe have 1-2 lesson barns left in the whole area. They are completely full. One is saddle seat, the other is basic hunter/jumper. So many have closed (or sold/retired most of their lesson horses) in recent years.

Lesson barns are a dying breed. I fear there will soon be none left. I think it’s become impossible to run a good, safe academy program and break even financially…and that doesn’t even touch on the irksome nature of dealing with non-horsey parents. There’s just no real incentive anymore.


I had no lessons as a kid.

As an adult rerider I found a smaller jumper barn with mostly junior clients, a modest but competent presence on the local shows up to 2 foot 9, and about 5 pretty good lesson horses, often free lease retired local show horses from clients. I did private lessons in the morning twice a week and coach was a stickler for form. Very very useful. I did this for 5 years, was sidelined with an injury, and ended up focusing on my own horse at another barn. I think her horses did one lesson a day. She ran a really tight ship, no pasture pets, everythung shipshape. I’m not sure if she’s still teaching.

Right now my dressage coach has her own barn and lesson program, she also has a fluctuating string of 6 to 10 horses, and does either private or 2 person groups. Some juniors, a lot of adults. The place is a bit rustic and there’s no consistent show focus but she is also really good at correcting form in rider and horse. I have no idea how the finances work. She does tend to collect projects a bit.

Her students certainly learn to groom and tack and handle horses, it’s low key enough there’s room to hang around a bit.


Due to finances, I’m kind of a perpetual lesson student. (I’m also pretty busy and have multiple other hobbies, so just riding weekly is what fits into my schedule.) I’ve been riding for almost 30 years and have also had work-to-ride type arrangements (one of which was very long term through my teens and 20s), caught rides from friends, and at times been paid to exercise horses (I don’t show so I have no worries about amateur status). When I feel ready to stop jumping, I’ll probably no longer take lessons but look for a part-lease on something to trail ride once or twice a week.

There are still quite a few lesson barns in my area, mostly H/J or eventing based and probably some Western although I’m not as keyed into that demographic. Some are very good, some are about average, some I would never touch or recommend. The really bad ones do tend to go out of business before long. My own trainer has a nice variety of lesson horses/ponies and is good about retiring them or moving them on to an individual owner if they don’t seem happy or capable doing lessons anymore. (It helps that she has a massive network and often horses are borrowed from friends for a while and can go back to them later.) I see the special extra care they receive if needed like supplements, bodywork, special shoeing, etc

I’ve had a steady lesson time for many years. Groups are limited to 5 and usually end up being around 2-4 people. Most lessons have a few regulars and then another person or two who may be occasional or change times frequently. While there’s some variation in experience, typically the exercises can just be modified for a person or two (for example, poles on the ground next to the jump for someone who isn’t ready to jump, or they do a different course from everyone else if they aren’t ready for lines or rollbacks, trot into each line if they don’t feel ready to canter in, etc) But there are definitely not beginners mixed with people jumping 2’6" or anything like that. There’s a second trainer who does a lot of the real beginners on particular days/times.

There is not as much horsemanship type instruction as in the old days, although there are camps and special days for the younger students which center more on that type of learning. (And I’m sure if an adult student asked, someone would teach them a skill that they wanted to learn.)

The number of lesson barns is definitely decreasing over time. I certainly understand how expensive it can be to keep a lesson string and program running. I worry that the numbers will continue to decline, and I feel like this is just a continuation of the middle falling out of the horse world. If you need your own horse in order to lesson, lots of people may never get started. Some of us would have very reduced options for our ability to continue to ride. I also feel like there’s a great advantage to riding lots of different horses - I’ve ridden over 125 and each one has something to teach. That’s another thing to be lost if you just own and ride a single horse from the get-go.


I grew up at a lesson mill, and started my coaching career there. Looking back, it was a good program. Back then you could have up to 9 in a lesson. The classes were big, so not a lot of one on one attention, but the barn had clear levels and expectations of what you should learn at each level. They had 40+ horses, so something suitable for anyone, and riders typically rode the same horse two weeks in a row, before switching. Progress was slow (two years to get to jumping), but honestly? It was an inner city barn - not a lot of the riders were going to be getting horses any time soon, so the slow progress meant you always felt you were learning, but it took a long time to reach the limitations of the horses. Only the very first level included theory, but people who wanted to learn more could learn through the “barn rats” who were more than happy to mentor other people.

Currently trying to rebuild my own lesson horse string (four horses) - It’s a slow and expensive process.


@furlong47 I too would describe myself as a perpetual lesson student and half-leaser, and although of course it’s resulted in riding some horses that are less than ideal for me, I’ve definitely had to be adaptable at times (which, given I can be rather detail-obsessed is probably good for me).

I’ve definitely had the experience of a total beginner put in a large intermediate group lesson and been told to take care and watch myself. :grimacing: Not fun.

@Scribbler the point about running a tight ship is so important. I’ve ridden at lesson barns that picked up project horses cheap for the program-great in theory-and after a few rides, there they sat. Nothing particularly wrong with the horses, just either no one realistically had the time or skills to do the work. Or the horse was just a bit rougher than they realized.

I’m in my early 30s. I started riding at a lesson barn that was more of your backyard operation. There were very few at this barn who owned/leased. The horses were a revolving group of off-season summer camp horses, ancient beasts who should have been retired 10 years earlier, rescues from pony ride wheels, that sort of thing. The good (well-behaved) ones stayed and did multiple lessons a day every day until they died. I learned the basics of riding while there, but I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

It wasn’t until the assistant trainer at that place opened her own farm (and I went with her) that I learned how a lesson barn should be run. I’m still with that “assistant” trainer 16 years later.

She has a string of about 8-10 lesson horses and probably about the same number of boarders (most of whom also take lessons from her). It is extremely rare that one of her horses has to work more than once a day and if they do, it’s usually two walk/trot only kids. A few of her lesson horses are capable of jumping 2’3"-2’6", but they really excel at the flat-crossrails job. Her lesson horses have a home with her for life and get treated like royalty. Kids have the opportunity to go to local shows with the lesson horses and only pay a “pony usage” fee for that day. She often does group lessons with the younger/less experienced kids, but the groups are carefully arranged by her with very similar ability levels sharing a lesson. Most boarder lessons are private, but she’s happy to accommodate if a few of us ammy ladies want to lesson together for fun.

When I was coming up through her program I learned everything I could. Part of it was my being a horse-crazy kid who wanted to be able to do everything, but a good part of it was her wanting to educate me and give me the tools I’d need as a horsewoman. She was and is very old school- I absorbed everything she taught me like a sponge. I think the opportunities for her to provide hands-on training/education to the younger generation have all but dried up due to several factors. I think part of it is the fact that the “barn rat” is a dying breed; I’d spend all day at the barn every day I could from age 12 on, so the opportunities to observe lessons/first aid/barn management were all around me all the time. Kids these days (did I really just say that??) are so busy/overcommitted that’s it’s all they can do to show up 15 minutes before their lesson and dip out 15 min after. A lot of kids don’t have any interest in learning to wrap a foot or pick a stall. Part of it too is that my trainer is now a mother of two and runs an infinitely busier business than she did when I was in my teens. I feel very fortunate that I got to learn all that I did from her.

So anyway, I think quality lesson barns do still exist, though they are rare.


@Grey_Dove032016 what an amazing woman your trainer sounds like, and what a fabulous program. I think that’s the ideal we all dreamed of, as horse-crazy kids, at least those of us without horses at home.


I started lessons at a mid-range lesson barn - meaning they had a decent string of lesson horses so it wasn’t quite a backyard operation, but it wasn’t overly well run either. I already knew how to groom and tack up (my mom is a horse person too) and generally every one was self sufficient getting ready while our horses were tied to the fence outside. Lessons were pretty loosely organized. Lots of people at different levels riding together out in the jump ring (that was a grass area with jumps and a hard packed path around). I was more dressage focused so at some point I just moved to going to work alone in the sand ring. The instructor was a skilled rider, but couldn’t overly convert that to good instruction. I learned the basics of dressage as she had a higher level eventer horse a friend of hers let semi-retire there and I rode him, but there were holes in my education for sure. Eventually the farm had to be sold and she couldn’t find another facility to teach out of so it was closed down.

I then moved to a breeding facility that was also a boarding and lesson barn. More lesson horses (the mares that didn’t catch that year), more coaches, and much more organized. All the instructors had strong german riding background so focusing on the basics. Lesson horses were assigned based on skills and I never felt like I was poking around on a beginner horse or anything. Riding different horses often taught you new skills and I definitely learned to have a good seat as the instructors expected nothing less. I learned how to tell if a saddle fit, wrap legs, do first-aid, and more detailed horse care (like how to give medication). To be honest I think I didn’t progressed a tonne until I wanted to start showing - then I was seen as more of a “serious” student. Didn’t love that part of things, but oh well. Getting lessons there gave me a good base.

Once I moved away for school, I cycled through a bunch of lesson barns trying to find a good match. Tried some backyard programs, which were terrible - one of which set my riding back really badly - and finally found one that was a long drive, but had upper level horses to ride. It was well organized and an excellent place, but only going weekly didn’t get me very far. Eventually I moved again and found a great half lease with a great instructor (where I am now with my own horse).

As a dressage rider, it can be hard as there are less barns available that focus on dressage and have lesson horses available.


This has been my big problem in my area! Most dressage barns expect you to own your own horse, and leases can be hard to find. I theory, I know, it’s possible to go to a hunter-jumper barn and just take a flat lesson, but most of the instructors teach their lessons so kids are going over crossrails even before cantering and don’t really know or want to teach a lesson on the flat.


I often refer true beginners- both kids and adults- to therapeutic riding programs for their first year or so of basic w/t/c lessons. Not all therapy barns will offer able bodied riding lessons, but at least in my area, I’ve found that most do.

It’s, by design, a safe environment. The horses are of a suitable temperament. The vibe is supportive and non-competitive. Volunteer opportunities with the therapeutic clients emphasize safe horsemanship and skills from the ground. Some of the therapeutic barns may take students to local shows, so there’s a chance you might get to be part of the barn crew in a show environment.

Depending on the skills and ambitions of the individual rider, I’ve seen some kids “move on” from the lesson program at a therapy barn pretty quickly, within a matter of months (often to go someplace that will get them going in jumping). On the other hand, I’ve seen adults happily continue on there with a weekly lesson and some bonus horse time for years. We do still have “regular” lesson barns in my area, but if you are an adult re-rider who doesn’t care about showing yet still wants to have safe, structured time in the saddle learning skills, then lessons through a therapy program could be a good option. And the income and likely willingness to chip in with some volunteer hours can be beneficial to the therapy program as well.

(All of this stated with the caveat that of course not all therapeutic riding programs are created equal, in terms of instruction or available horses, just like any kind of equestrian enterprise. It’s generally a safe bet to engage with a therapeutic program certified by PATH Intl. High quality therapeutic riding programs are teaching riding skills, not just giving pony rides or playing games for fun.)


I’m so grateful to her for all she taught me and continues to teach me. For the vast majority of the time I’ve been with her I haven’t owned my own horse. I’ve leased here and there, but in the between times she’s always gone out of her way to find rides for me, even if it was “just” tuning up her lesson horses. She even helped me work out a plan that allowed me to purchase my first-ever horse (a flip), including discounted board and show fees.

On the other hand, I did take a few lessons at a separate barn during a time (COVID) my trainer had no spare horses and I was between horses myself. There was exactly one horse I could ride at the temporary barn- the lessons were geared mostly to small kids, which meant the lesson mounts were mostly ponies. I’m 5’6", slender, and a strong rider, but I understand why the trainer wouldn’t want adults taking lessons on her aged ponies. The fact that I could only ride the one horse meant that if that horse had a lesson, or was off for some reason, I was SOL. Most of the people there either owned or leased. This trainer also lumped lesson students in together- I was in lessons with kids who were just learning how to canter. Again, I understand why her program was/is structured the way it is (aside from maybe the ability level of group lessons), but it was a bit of a let down after the program I was used to. I suppose this is what the more “modern” lesson program looks like now.

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Competing commitments is definitely contributing to fewer barn rats. But I also feel like there’s a few other things.

Fewer trainers can (or are willing) to take the time to teach off the horse. They have to stay so busy to make sure they make enough money to break even or succeed. Training individuals is a giant time suck - especially when you’re starting at the bottom. Kids require a ton of supervision.

It takes a lot of work/trade hours to equate to a free lesson when lessons are $60 each. It takes an extra horse crazy devoted kid and a very supportive parent to shuffle them to the barn multiple times a week in order to get their work hours in.

Horses are so much more expensive that the demographic of riders has changed. Totally just my opinion but there aren’t as many kids who need to work off their lessons, because they didn’t get involved in horses in the first place. Most lesson barns only do packages. I’ve seen everything from monthly to the entire school year. Its hard to right a lump sum check each month when the kid could play soccer for the year for the same cost as one month riding.

It’s also a catch 22 - if the parents can’t comfortably afford it and the trainer doesn’t already have a solid work/trade program then the kid never gets involved with horses in the first place.

And there’s SafeSport. We are so much more aware of the issues that can happen when adults and children are alone together than we were in the 90s. Kids require a lot more parent attention/additional supervision than when you could just drop them off at 7am and pick them up 2 days later after the show.


I do think so @Grey_Dove032016 that your “emergency barn” is more common --at least in my experience. I’m not even sure if it’s really “the best way,” because it doesn’t create a conducive environment to encourage kids to stick with it, but I think because running a lesson barn isn’t attractive to many instructors because of the profit margin/type of customer in most areas, a lot of the people who do run them tend to be older, not ride themselves, cater to kids or very beginner adults, and have older horses who are more like pets than who really respond to a rider’s aids (even an intermediate rider’s) with multiple health issues.

@Always_WIP I agree, and while the dressage barn where I ride has genuine working students (students who do horse care, exercise, train, but don’t muck stalls/landscaping work), many barns IMHO find it easier just to charge additional money for services rather than teach clients how to do the care themselves. And clients (kids and adults) are commuting from longer distances to barns as well as have more commitments. As well as Safe Sport, I also think there is just more awareness about safety (sexual and otherwise) that can make parents wary to just leave kids at the barn. Sometimes (but not always of course) better barns have the means to hire help, while barns willing to trade lessons for labor or hire kids are just desperate, and not necessarily where you’d want to leave a kid to learn.

To clarify, I wasn’t really referring to a work/trade situation- my parents paid for me to take lessons and go to the occasional show as I was growing up. They were extremely supportive in terms of driving me to lessons (usually 1x a week) in the school year and pretty much every week day in the summers. The barn wasn’t super close to where we lived, so it was either tack up/cool out quickly or stay for the whole day so they could actually get things done. It was an easy decision for me! I definitely understand how a work/trade situation would be less feasible these days.

I do agree with your points about how the rider demographic has changed over the years- it’s unfortunate, but true that a lot of parents are just being priced out.

I hadn’t even factored in SafeSport as it came around after I was an adult- a positive development for sure. I was regularly left for barn sleepovers or show weekends like you mentioned.

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I run a small lesson program with four school horses plus two personal horses. I focus on kids and my lesson program is not show-oriented, although I take a few kids to local fun shows maybe a half dozen times per year.

Every week I wonder if I’ll be able to continue because of the high cost of maintaining the horses. I own my farm, but feed and hay and veterinary costs and general maintenance (lumber and fuel oh my!!) are climbing at a rate faster than the competitive cost of lessons. It’s very discouraging.

I love the kids and I love my little lesson horse band, most of whom I’ve trained myself since that’s the only way that’s affordable for me. The cost of a good lesson horse or pony is also through the roof! But I’d probably make more money if I took my ability to make up horses and channeled that into buying and selling prospects instead of teaching.

The lesson barns where I grew up riding, with 20-30 school horses and huge programs, are no longer in existence. The ones I know of now that still operate on that model are either struggling or price themselves in such a way that only well-off families can afford it.

I don’t know how kids will get into riding ten or twenty years from now.


I feel the same way, more and more. Even wealthy parents who can afford to lease or buy right off…that’s not always the best way to enter the sport. From the sport’s perspective as well as the kid’s.

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I think we can’t underestimate just how much sticker shock there is with riding. Those of us that have done it for awhile or as kids know what to expect, but what about the non horsey parents that have a kid who is interested?

A few years back I was looking for a new barn to lease. I don’t own, so I was looking for a place with school horses and leasing options. One place had a singular lesson horse, so they wanted everyone to move to at least partial leasing within a few months of starting. Partial leasing was a split of all expenses so it came to $700+ a month. It was fair, they weren’t price gouging or anything.

But I deeply question the sustainability of our sport. What middle income parent is going to look at $300+ for a single month of lessons for their child? In order for barns to maintain the limited school horses they have they of course set limits. So even $300 /month means your kid won’t go off site ( shows/clinics), can’t ride by themselves, only rides once a week and likely can’t jump over 2’3. To do that you need to at least double that monthly amount (some exceptions permitted).

Other hobbies and sports? The kids can practice at home. They can practice with their friends for free. There’s no third party in the middle that is a necessary gatekeeper to the activity.

If I was a non horsey parent of average to upper average income it would be really hard to sign my kid up for a sport that even the bare minimum is $300+ a month and they have no practice time or access to it without a lot of additional money.

Those of us with horse experience can find a way to get horse time at a discount, even if we might need to be flexible about how we get that time and where we get that time. But there’s not a lot of barns that are going to be interested in a work trade with stranger who is completely unfamiliar with horses. And that of course assumes that the person has the luxury of extra time to even do the work trade.


There are many sports that many parents spent quite a bit on. There is sticker shock with all of them.
Sure, some sports like soccer might be done with friends but most others not so much.

Costs are pretty high for a lot of sports and parents pay for them. They may not be as high as riding but they are in the same ball park. Ice skating and hockey are the big ones that are dangerous similar to riding and $$ due to ice rink fees. Swimming- you need to have an indoor pool to swim year round. Those dance competitions and outfits that are worn once get pretty expensive. Even baseball- not many places you can practice hitting in a normal neighborhood.

I’ve said this before but the lesson barns in our area have waiting lists with hundreds of kids. The problem is the lack of barns a reasonable distance from where they live.

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