Unmounted lessons are an integral part of the learning process.

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With all the rain we’ve had in 2013, some parents have asked why we stress taking a barn lesson rather than taking the week off or rescheduling. As someone who has dedicated their life to the care of horses, your instructor has a unique perspective on the invaluable benefit of taking time to learn the care and management of a horse. Rainy days give us an hour of uninterrupted time to learn the countless tasks that allow a horse to actually be ridable. Modern life has made the horse solely dependent on our care, a clockwork routine that does not allow breaks or holidays.

In advanced work under saddle, the rider cannot progress up the ranks without first learning where the hock is located in the legs or where the horse’s neck is flexed: is it at the poll? If so, how much? Barn lessons lead to the advanced work under saddle that so many riders strive for over the years. Within the regular weekly lesson slots, rainy days give us a perfect opportunity to prepare for more advanced work in the saddle. That preparation occurs, of all places, on the ground.

Do we ever doubt a veterinarian’s knowledge or skill because they don’t ride a horse during diagnosis? Nope, it all takes place on the ground. Barn lessons are like feeding your inner vet for a fraction of the cost of vet school.

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Those who don’t personally own a horse seldom realize that 95 percent of the rider’s time is spent … not riding, but taking care of their horse. Care can mean many things: grooming, medical problem shooting, feeding, leading out to the paddock and back in, grazing, quiet time spent simply building a relationship with a horse, countless hours spent taking care of the tack and equipment. When Rachel Neese rode for Virginia Intermont College, she was expected to spend at least three hours in preparation for, participating, and finishing up for every one-hour ride.

Thinking of a lesson horse as a simply a riding horse is like, to use a human example, an employee who is never allowed to take a break or vacation unless they are sleeping. Think of how much your working life is improved by the relationships you’ve built with the people in your workplace and by the hours you have with your family when you’re not on the job. Think of all the hours you spent studying in college or learning your trade. Horses are a lot like us. No one likes working for the manager, the thankless task master, who fails to take our needs into consideration. Barn lessons allow the rider, by a minimal investment of time and resources, to understand what it is they’re managing when they’re back in the saddle. Hours on the ground are the surest path to more value for the lesson hours we spend riding.

When Sarah Boudreaux first started teaching at Bramblewood, she asked if she could sign up for a day of feeding and cleaning stalls. To understand the school horses and to better serve her students in the ring, she wanted to know the farm from the inside out. Her days routinely started at 6am with morning feeding and went straight through to 8 or 9pm when she was teaching a full schedule in the evenings. Whether it was raining or snowing, she had 24 stalls to clean and a wealth of new information to pass along to her students.

Here is Sarah’s perspective on unmounted lessons, straight from the experience of a rider who was once a weekly lesson student before buying her own horse, selling that horse, taking on a training project and organically becoming the valued equine professional that she now is:

I imagine that even most instructors don’t want to teach barn lessons. We know most students would ‘rather be riding’ and it’s hard to build enthusiasm to teach people who are half listening as they gaze at the sky, searching for any sign that the weather might break. Then the duct tape, tack soap and sponges come out, maybe someone brings a snack to share. There’s laughter as kids meet and talk to students who ride with other instructors. They ask good questions and help each other figure things out. Barn lessons are actually fun. Heightening the social experience of barn life.

Students who only come to the barn to ride can become fabulous riders but will never achieve true horsemanship. True horsemanship demands awareness. Awareness of the horse as a living breathing animal that needs time and attention, gets sick, hungry, worries, has friends, dies. Awareness of how your tack functions, how it is put together, how it’s use can help or hurt your riding experience. Awareness of the barn itself. The barn requires constant care. Boards must be replaced to prevent injury, water buckets and feed pans must be scrubbed; the list is endless.

The rider who comes ‘just to ride’ will be a functional rider but remain ignorant of all that is required to make that ride possible. They may never fully understand why the horses behave as they do or why certain choices are made for them. They are at greater risk of seeing the horse as machine and riding without understanding or empathy towards their partner.

Students who fully engage in barn lessons begin to become true partners with the barn and the horses. The heightened awareness creates a more observant rider. No longer do they grab a horse and march it to the cross ties for a quick brush but they walk with the horse and groom quickly but carefully, looking for signs of lameness, scratches or anything out of the ordinary. They know and understand the signs of illness as they walk through the barn. They might even take the initiative to empty and scrub a water bucket that doesn’t look quite right. The things that we discuss and do during a barn lesson helps the rider to become more confident and independent in their choices. They simply know better how and why things work.

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To sum it all up, before you make the decision to stay home and cozy on a rainy afternoon, understand that your rider might be missing out on some important life lessons and team building opportunities that can only really be gained through broadening their knowledge and skill on the ground with their horse. Your tires might get a little muddy down the driveway, but the horses are waiting in the barn to reveal their secrets.

Please know, we are always ready to reschedule in dangerous conditions or when a rider’s health would be negatively impacted by being out in the elements. For all the other days, have some grocery bags on hands to slip over muddy shoes as your rider gets into the car and chances are that rider will be beaming and filled with information to share that will go a long way toward helping them realize their goals in the saddle.

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