Spin Off: Lesson Programs, are school horses/easier intro programs even viable?

Lots of talk lately about the loss of beginner friendly lesson programs, specifically those with school horses. While I know the transition to owner and lease clients only is driven by finances (and let’s be honest, how many local trainers are swimming in cash?), I’m very sad to see that if I was a kid now, I’d never be able to start riding. I’m even having trouble finding places to ride as a semi-competent adult with a lame horse, if it wasn’t for generous people with their own animals.

On the other hand, in my local area, the moment people get wind that someone is teaching and has even half-sane lesson horses available, they are inundated with interest. Mostly from horseless AA’s and re-riders, but that’s my circle now so who knows about parents and kids. The barns I’ve been at with even a handful of school horses are in high demand, with people moving up the pipeline to lease/own, but that would never have bitten the bullet at first.

Clearly there is interest. And call me nostalgic for wanting to see more “average” kids like I was get into the sport (as average as someone whose parents paid for weekly lessons and eventually board at a small local barn can be). What I don’t know, is if these instructors without the AA-show-lease-or-own-only programs are staying afloat organically or just teaching to subsidize a horse collection.

So, let’s say 100% theoretically, I’m a trainer wanting to start a business, with a plan to have a handful of lesson/half lease horses to get kids started and adults back in the tack, and stick to the local/C shows that won’t require leaving for weeks on end. Let’s assume I’m good at it, am good a picking horses with a brain for the program and for clients, and that I know when it’s time to pass a client along to other programs if they outgrow me. Is this a Definite Failure? A business that only works if you’re using a facility paid for by family? A thing that would only work as a part of a larger program? Are there programs like this that ARE successful in your area?

Obviously many programs have moved away from this, but the ones I know of have changed to heavy A show schedules and higher level competitive clients. I’m wondering if there’s a viable niche for making the sport more accessible, bolstering local show circuits, and maybe creating lifelong riders that aren’t coming from the 1%.

Not to bump up my own thread, but insomnia kicked in and I did some number crunching in the wee hours of the morning.

Based on the going price of small square middle quality hay (~20/25lbs), labor, 2lbs alfalfa pellets and a ration balancer, mortgage + taxes on a small property (assuming a lease being closeish), and a healthy pad for basic insurance, and basic shoes, I came up with a Break Even number per lesson horse:

$1200 a month.

Now, obviously bulk discounts are a thing, but I didn’t account for farm equipment or shavings (personally use very little) so this number is likely to be low.

Just running with that number for now, that puts a horse working for 1 lesson, 5 days a week at $60/lesson just to break even. No profit, no taxes, no accounting for lease/purchase price of the horse itself.

So, I’m seeing why a business plan that has owners and leasers carrying some of the costs makes so much sense.

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Ha! In addition to your elegant cost breakdown, this is an underrated ability. I think many lesson programs underestimate the work it takes to get a horse functional in a program and the type of horses that are suitable for their riders, as well as often overestimate their own riding ability to retrain horses.

I’m thinking of one lesson program that picked up, for example, a pony that had only driven and a young-ish jumper pony that had been sitting in a field unridden for two years, versus perhaps paying a bit more for one horse with actual miles and more proven ability to do that job. Relying upon experienced kids to do the retraining, in exchange for lessons–while great for the kids in theory, it can be a wild card if that actually pans out, when relying upon older lesson students who volunteer, if they can actually do the job.

There’s also the issue of horses getting mentally fatigued, just going around in circles, doing very similar lessons over and over again, and not all lesson programs build in breaks. Students can get frustrated too, and leave, because of a lack of personal attention and poor instruction (as I did), and even if there is a waiting list, the student who comes in may have a different level of ability than the one who left. Horses and humans are very variable entities, and running an operation with an insanely tight margin can lead to losses very quickly.

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I am a professional instructor of over 5 years now, and spent over 20 in the industry taking lessons, leasing, riding in general… I used to “rent” beginner safe horses to use, but even then, my expenses were too high to entertain any kind of discounts. Often I was running in deficit because of the costs of owning my own horses and running a business with high overhead in a lower income area… The horses that I rented really needed retired as well. Most of them older, broken down, with physically limiting injuries or diseases. Because they couldn’t be “schooled” in the traditional sense by me or another professional due to these limiting factors, we dealt with behavior that was undesirable for beginner riders, but not deemed “unsafe.” Rooting on the bridle, pulling the reins out of the riders hands, stopping, flushing into the center of the ring and stopping, general steering issues, not responding to leg aids etc.

Overall, the lack of good horses in the area for immediate use, high overhead costs, and lack of clientele who actually could pay for lessons at the going rate to stay afloat, made me close down, change my entire business model, and switch to mobile lessons only for riders with their own horses, or lease horses. I couldn’t find experienced horsemen/women to even ride my horses for free! Everyone wants to be paid for something now. The days of working students, or working for “free rides” is LONG over. So I sold back the other horse I had, kept my last “baby” who is now 5 years old and a pretty solid citizen, and went on teaching others who wanted something different than going around the rail walk/trot/canter, on patterns etc. I focus now on safety, equitation, biomechanics/anatomy of both horse and rider, and teach advocation for the horse over anything else. I don’t fit in that cookie cutter mold of a H/J, WP or AA rider anymore. I tailor my program to each rider specifically, their horses needs and abilities, and we strive towards proper movement, balance, confidence and horsemanship.

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I know of only a few stables that give beginner non-owners/leasers a chance to take lessons and get into horses.

Some are backyard type places with limited horses and openings and the horses and instruction is very variable.

Perhaps the most viable model is from the very big stables. Yes, they have the “programs” and the top level showing. But they also have school horses and additional instructors who do not go to those big shows and teach on the school horses. I know at one place they do push for you to “move up” and lease or own and do bigger shows, but I also know adults that have taken lessons there for years on school horses very happily.

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The current programs I’ve seen with lesson horses that advertise that fact are big, multi trainer operations, and they have quite the demand. Or, they’re one person with 3 of their own horses offering lessons for spending money. After crunching numbers I can see how the lesson horses are just an investment in the program as a whole, not the foundation, or they’re being subsidized by the owner.

This was not the case 20 years ago in my area. But, I can see how it’s now the only way to stay profitable without some other windfall (a friend runs her program on her mother’s property - and her mother charges her nothing. Not sure mom even gets much of the profit either, just the property value as a working farm). Just, discouraging, for the future of our local level sport.

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We have a few barns in the PDX metro that have lesson horses, half lease horses/lease horses and they are packed! Lesson horses of good quality cost the trainer $$ and they must be carefully utilized to bring any money into a program. I’ve watched my trainer balance lessons vs leases on her three lesson horses and I can do the math. Trainer does make $$ but not every month. Half leases on amateur-owned horses are a better bet financially, but to hook and keep the beginner kids and adults, a set of quality lesson horses seems to be a necessity.

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This is so interesting to read, because it sounds like the few lesson barns that are thriving are those which have a clear purpose (to get kids eventually moving on to leasing or owning), with structured programs of advancement, and which are run like businesses.

The ones where I ended up honestly really weren’t–even though the owners complained they weren’t making money, many times the horses were those they sentimentally loved but really weren’t great riding horses (or 100% sound), and the overstuffed lessons were held quite literally as the barn owners/instructors were on and off their cellphones doing other things to run the barn.

Also, quite often, the people giving the lessons no longer rode. At one barn there was a sort of “breeding program,” supposedly to bring in additional income, although (so far as I know) most of the foals were never sold. Plus random camps and such in the madness.

I went 20 years having my own horses, so I wasn’t keeping an eye on lesson-horse-based programs. Thus can’t compare.

But it’s now been 20 years past that and during COVID. I was riding lesson horses for 5 years prior to COVID, some very nice horses actually. Then that barn moved (program still going) and I went to another barn with even more lesson horses that does an Interscholastic program, middle and high school, and there was considerable competition for those mounts. Then I moved away, (they still have their program going strong, which includes summer camps where kids can get their start. In fact, they only have a few adult riders.)

Where I moved to, I had trouble finding saddle time because so many of the programs were full full full, and that (I was told) was because of COVID. It was an outdoor activity kids could do when so many team sports were nixed, and so became a more popular option. Add to that the fact that I don’t show anymore, so I’m not a profit center for the trainers. I was offered a couple different horse leases, but couldn’t find a spot in lesson programs because of the competition by young riders. The three English programs I talked with still are full, and the western program I know if, ditto. (I don’t need lessons per se, so finally I settled on half leases and that has worked out fine. But most barns have a no jumping policy unless you are in lessons, so I’m unable to jump at the moment, which is what I’d really like to keep doing. I’m willing to pay for the privilege, but can’t find room on the horse’s schedule.)

I tried to find a trainer for my granddaughter but her schedule is spotty for making it to my area. She’s been to summer camps, but none of the local barns were interested in her as an occasional student (even though she was in their demographic and likely to do some showing) because she wouldn’t be “regular” in her schedule.

I think there’s a limitation on the # of good horses available. At least 3 of the 5 English barns I’ve mentioned pick up good horses when they find them. They also use private horses (with, I assume, some kind of break in the boarding rate). They have mostly highish standards, and if a horse goes ring sour, they move him on or turn him out. Not all are 100% sound – several horses are only walk-trot starter ponies: My granddaughter began riding on a few of those. They only jump 6 inches to a foot in normal practice so the horses aren’t over stressed (because they jump daily at most of these places), but the teacher is teaching lines, corners, approaches, striding, etc., anyway, not “height”. Height only comes into play a couple weeks before competitions and/or for the serious competition riders who are leasing.

I’ve found most of the horses to be relatively well trained if dull to the aids, which is only to be expected when teaching youngsters. [The dressage horses I’ve ridden have been finer tuned, but I didn’t want to just ride dressage, so didn’t stick with that. There was more saddle room on the dressage-only horses, during the time I was looking.]

Not picking on you @fivestrideline but you have hit what part of the problem is…lesson horses used to be worked hard. In general most of our horses don’t do very much work, on one hand this is a good thing as a 15 year old horse is no longer old. On the other hand, it makes it almost impossible to make a living with a working horse.
A barn running two lessons and a trail ride, 6 days a week, per horse might manage to make enough money to perhaps even give each horse a few weeks off each year in addition to an income…just. The expectation would be moving the horses on if they became ring sour or developed expensive health issues. The successful lesson barn in my area has been on this model for decades, I think some horses may do even more work. They are all well kept, turned out every night in big fields, tie stalls during the day. But there are definitely no sentimental attachments, there can’t be.
edit for grammar

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I remember reading that some (not all, but some) horse camps used to routinely sell many of the horses at the end of the season, to lighten the load of care during the winter. That would be unacceptable today, to say nothing of the fact that, with steady Eddie school horses so scarce, replenishing the stock would be unfeasible!

There’s a huge lesson program in my area that serves as a feeder into a show program. You could feasibly start there as a little lesson kiddo and ride up the Grand Prix without changing barns. I think they have 30+ horses in the school program, plus a similar amount in the show program/private boarders. It’s PHENOMENALLY busy. I went for a 7 am lesson with one of the head trainers/owners and was put on a pretty nice former 1.20m horse and asked her if it was always so busy and she was like “oh, this is nothing.” Think horse show level of bustling, but at a private barn on a weekday morning… 3 or 4 rings with multiple lessons happening in each ring, plus boarders flatting.

I would definitely be curious how many lessons each horse does per week, I think they make it work through sheer volume. The lesson was above average for a first lesson in the area but I literally could not get in touch to schedule a second lesson despite multiple attempts. It all just felt very impersonal and kind of like a factory, too. Not really my thing. I have since heard from my vet that their horses are very poorly maintained and breaking down constantly… which based on the overall vibe, makes sense to me.

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On the subject of camp horses - when I worked for one, the riding staff got there a week or two before the rest of the crew to clean out the barn and get electric paddocks set up. We got horses two ways: leased for the summer from owners who just wanted them off the feed bill, and went down to a local sale barn/horse dealer with pastures FULL of all kinds of horses. I’m thinking it was a mix of Amish bred sales and a holding place for a local auction.

We got to play crash dummies, got on ANYTHING the dealer claimed was steerable and half-sane, and took them to camp by the truckload. We then had the rest of the time before campers got there to get a lot of horses who were either untrained but amenable or rusty and out of shape turned into kid-safe mounts.

I’m assuming most the horses went back to the sale barn/auction when camp was over because the barn shut down for the winter. This was 7ish years ago? So it’s still being run that way, but idk how available good horses are in the last couple years.

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There are economies of scale that make it possible, but also make it equally unappealing. As a boarder, I loathe barns that are always crawling with kids and having to dodge people who can’t steer while I’m trying to train.

I also think the demand is pretty low, even though it seems like those places are absolutely full up - they’re full up with once a weekers who will never turn into the lease/own client. I would say at the place I’m thinking of locally, maybe one in 20 of those students will ever do anything other than punch their card until they grow up and don’t like horses anymore. There’s a lot of pressure for kids to be “well rounded” eg do 1893742 different activities. Riding often loses out to those which are less expensive and less time consuming.

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Yes, that jives with what I heard of many camps! I can’t imagine it’s as easy to find even rough kid-safe mounts, nowadays, and plus kids tend to be less athletic than in the past and liability issue crop up more and more, too.

No wonder so many of us (me included) have so many wild and weird stories about the horses we rode when first learning. I’m sure you rode some interesting ones!

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It was certainly WILD. I have a lot of “buttons” now I can push - for example you’d be surprised the billion different ways horses are taught to pick up the canter. Outside leg not working? Try bending them to the rail and hard inside leg. I also have some fun defensive riding habits that were survival installations for sure :laughing:

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When I attended/worked at a Girl Scout camp with a riding program in the 90s, we got our horses from one of two local camp horse guys. They make their money leasing the horses to camps in the summer, then in the winter they care lease out as many as possible and the rest winter at pasture. We got many of the same horses back every year and lots of them went to the same winter home as well (I know of a few that also retired to their long term winter home). The camp horse guys did buy and sell some at auction, but the good ones stayed on.

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As of a few years ago, anyway, it seemed like most camps tried to care lease some of their horses over the winter. A few might end up sold to campers. A few camps had some means to overwinter horses, but most sent the rest to auctions. It was still a thing for dealers to bring a truckload of horses from “out west” to the camps in the spring.

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Your numbers are pretty correct- the break even rate of 4-5 lessons per week per lesson horse. You are missing a big factor in the income model- HORSE CAMP.

I have been running a successful lesson program for over 7 years, with the first 5 being a tenant and the last 2 on my own farm my husband and I bought. Which, by the way, my business paid half the down payment and pays a majority of the mortgage.

Back to the numbers. I have 8-10 lesson horses, and they all get 2 days off, and occasionally do 2 lessons in a day but typically one. So they are doing approximately 6 lessons per week on average. Most of my lesson horses eat very little and have simple shoe requirements, so that’s nice. But they all are stalled during the day and out at night or vice versa, so the labor is high.

The biggest income producer is the summer pony camp and my year round weekend activities. There is no shortage of 5-12 year olds who want that introductory experience. Better yet, the horse’s work for an introductory Girl Scout or similar lesson is very easy on them, physically. Having my lesson students work these camps also keeps them engaged, gives them a little money for themselves, and teaches them horse management skills.

Other ways I produce extra income in my business- annual student shows just for my students with a judge and ribbons, horsemanship classes teaching ground skills, occasional local unrated shows, etc.

I love this dialogue. You are describing my exact business, which I put my whole heart into and am proud that it has been successful financially as well.

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my instructor has a knack for stumbling upon really green horses with good brains that she gets for pretty much free, and then trains them for the lesson program.

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