Learning to ride horses
December 27, 2006 11:29 AM   Subscribe

How do I learn to ride horses as an adult? What to look for in an instructor, school, and horse? I am in the DC area.

Over the last six months, I rode horses for the first time as an adult. All the rides were basically adult pony rides that are given to tourists (like me). They had super gentle horses that walked the same trails every day, so about all I had to do was sit and enjoy it. Most recently, another person on a trip gave me some hints so that I was able to enjoy riding at a trot and canter (the horse stopped galloping after a few steps because I think it figured out I had no idea what I was doing there).

Those rides, combined with the fact that the new Mrs. Procrastination comes from a family that has horses, make me want to learn to ride so I can join them. Their horses, however, are not ridden often so cannot be counted on to be kindly and gentle. I would like to learn to ride well enough so that I can go on basic trail rides with the relatively less-gentle horses.

I have googled and found some places around DC that offer lessons, but I don't know the difference between the styles they offer (english, western, and dressage). Any recommendations for specific places or styles? What do I need to know about horse body language? Is there anything I should be asking that I am not?

posted by procrastination to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (12 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
If you are seriously looking into leaning how to ride in a ring- jumping, showing etc, I would suggest english riding. if you are looking to get out onto a trail I would suggest western. I think it will be easier to find english style lessons though.
posted by brinkzilla at 11:45 AM on December 27, 2006

I took lessons at the Wheaton Park Stables a few years ago. It was ok. I would've liked more personal attention, but I could only afford group lessons. If you can afford private lessons, or semi-private lessons, that might be better. The horses were pretty mild. I wasn't thrilled with the facilities or the horses or the lessons, but wasn't horrified either. I quit because my life got too busy and expensive.

In general, though... do you want to impress Mrs. Procrastination and her family? If so, you might want to learn their kind of riding. That said, it might be hard to learn anything but English in the DC area. I never looked into anything else, but at least in my experience in the mid-atlantic and northeast, I've never seen actual lessons that were Western.

I think you should learn English because of the versatility and challenge of English style. I think it's harder than Western - for one thing, the saddle is smaller and more slippery, and the stirrups are less substantial - and you learn to run and jump, etc. But jumping is so much fun, it's worth learning to do. I've never done dressage, but it seems kind of finicky to me. If you like attention to detail, maybe it's for you.

Definitely wear a helmet. I think they make you wear them these days. It's probably going to hurt like hell the first few times. Just deal with that. There won't be a lot of men in classes. Try to avoid being a jackass and upsetting anyone running the stable. And enjoy!
posted by Amizu at 11:50 AM on December 27, 2006

"English" can mean saddle seat equitation, hunter seat equitation, showjumping, dressage, or three-day eventing. Western is simpler: a saddle you'll recognize from cowboy movies, and competitive events such as barrel racing and roping. See Wikipedia on equitation for a good starting point. Probably for the needs you described, a few Western lessons will do you fine. Have fun and keep your heels down!
posted by scratch at 11:54 AM on December 27, 2006

Oh, and in an instructor you want someone who's knowledgeable (obviously) but still able to nurture a beginner without rushing you. Most stables that offer lessons have so-called "school horses," and these animals are chosen with their purpose in mind. No reputable trainer will put a beginner on a horse that isn't a good teacher himself. Horse body language is not too hard to decipher: Ears pinned back (they swivel almost 360*) and eyes narrowed means the horse is mad about something, and that means you should give his or her rear legs a wide berth (good advice anyway), because horses can and will kick when provoked or frightened (or just ornery). They also can bite. They aren't aggressive animals, though, with the exception of uncut stallions, which a novice rider shouldn't be anywhere near in any case.
posted by scratch at 12:03 PM on December 27, 2006

There are countless theories about the best style (English vs Western) and countless theories about the best way to learn to ride. At your stage, don't worry about any of it. It is easier to go from English to Western later though, so I might suggest that you start English, but it really doesn't matter if your goal is just recreational trail riding.

A good stable close to DC is Giles Run - it's in Lorton just off of I-95 a few miles south of the beltway. My daughter has taken lessons for 4 years from the original owner of Giles Run, her son runs it now. They have an indoor ring - which is rather nice for riding lessons this time of year.

Disclaimer - I've never been on a horse, but I spend a Mercedes payment every month on my daughter's horse habit and I've learned something along the way!
posted by COD at 12:11 PM on December 27, 2006

It is a bit of a haul from DC proper, but when I was living there and coming back to riding as an adult, I rode at Linden Farm in La Plata, Maryland.

Karen Briggs, the instructor there is a really wonderful teacher and the farm holds special adults-only lessons. She did a great job improving my seat and my overall horsemanship after several years away from riding.

If I recall correctly, prices are pretty reasonable. I think I paid something like $30 for a 60 minute lesson and $40 for a jumping lesson. They go to shows in the region too.

I think it's great that you're learning to ride! It's a wonderful hobby. My e-mail's in my profile if you have any questions about barns in DC or riding in general.
posted by fancypants at 12:16 PM on December 27, 2006

If you want to really learn how to ride, and not just stay on, and if you are dedicated, learn to ride in the English style. Saddle-seat equiatation will be enough; you don't need to learn how to take jumps or whatnot. But you will learn how to stay on, and you will learn how to ride much more effectively than if you simply learn how to ride Western.

At least, this is my experience. I was taught how to ride in a Western saddle, but soon found out that I didn't know crap about riding. I learned how to ride in an English saddle and it transformed my experience with horses. My mother had essentially the same experience. Learning saddle-seat equitation made me a 100% better rider.

Instructors should have lots of other students. You should like your instructor, because you are going to have to trust him/her to pair you with a horse that you can get along with and that will both teach you and treat you well. You can't learn how to ride on a crappy horse. The instructor should ask you questions about your goals and should understand your level of experience. Finally, some people may disagree with me, but your instructor should be concerned that you learn how to saddle and bridle your own horse, and that you learn how to move around them and be comfortable with them. There are many, many schools of thought in how people should interact with horses -- so be sure you are comfortable with how this person expects you to treat the animal and interact with it. Horses are predictable, trainable, intelligent animals and if you treat the one you're on correctly and with respect, he will be your partner. That is the goal, really - to be able to partner with the horse in such a way that you both have fun, so that the horse looks forward to seeing you, and you look forward to seeing it.

Relax and have fun. These are the most wonderful animals you will ever have a chance to work with, at least in my opinion. It is an extremely rewarding passtime.
posted by Medieval Maven at 12:16 PM on December 27, 2006

Err, yea, I'm going to second or third the opinions above. My gf owns a boarding stable and most of the boarders ride English saddles and either jump or do dressage. I've had a few pony rides around on several of the horses and it's a reasonably pleasant experience.

You definitely want to get comfortable around a variety of horses. Feeding 'em, taking 'em out to pastures, cleaning stalls, and all that other barn stuff every day has given me a decent understanding of 'em. If you have the time, volunteer to work at a barn a day or two a week. The barn owner will love you and you'll learn a lot in a very short time ;-)
posted by jdfan at 1:01 PM on December 27, 2006

If you are mainly going to be trail riding, just learn Western. It is easier for a beginner because you have to worry less about balance, and it gives you an extra knob to hold on to if you need it.

I learned to ride Western when I first learned how to ride horses, but then I wanted to try ring riding and jumping, so I took English lessons. I have to say that now that I have learned to ride in an English saddle, I prefer it because it feels like you've got more of a connection with the horse, and also more control with the horse.

I think Western riding gave me good experience though with regards to being comfortable on a horse and learning the basics of working with a horse.
posted by tastybrains at 1:09 PM on December 27, 2006

Ditto on what jdfan said. My grandfather raised horses and learning to care for them was part of the deal for me learning how to ride. The package is the best route to go; putting the horse's needs before your own will teach you a lot.

I'd also vote for learning English. I think it just plain gives you a better feel for the horse, both in the reins and in your knees. However, most trail riding places I've been to only rent out Western saddles.

If you plan on going trail riding in different places, learn to ride on several horses so you can learn to adapt to different gaits, body sizes, personalities, etc. I grew up riding Paso Finos exclusively (they have a very smooth gait) and found it a bit painful to adapt to other breeds.
posted by Sangre Azul at 1:26 PM on December 27, 2006

My dear bride, the horse woman, suggests:

"That person should go to Horse Sense and browse through the stuff there, particularly this section.

They should also read "Riding for the Rest of Us: A Practical Guide for Adult Riders " by Jessica Jahiel."
posted by maxwelton at 2:13 PM on December 27, 2006

Learn English style first; the learning curve from English to Western is much shorter (and flatter) than the other way 'round.

When you call a stable that offers adult lessons, don't be afraid to ask to watch a couple of lessons before you commit. Any good stable, and good instructor, will be happy to have you come observe first.
posted by rtha at 5:22 PM on December 27, 2006

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