The Riding School: A column about the people who teach us to ride

This week, The Instructor sings the praises lesson-barn working students, whom she describes as “the grease in the wheels” of her lesson operation.

From The Instructor:

I grew up riding at a lesson barn in California, and while they had some boarders and a show team, the bread and butter of the place (as it is at the barn where I now teach) was the once-a-week lesson student. It was (and is) mostly kids and some adults getting their start, learning the ropes through riding a wide assortment of horses in group lessons stacked back to back: 3:00, 4:00, 5:00… you get the idea.

We’d arrive half an hour before our lesson, eagerly crowding around the office door to see what horse we were riding that day (this being California in the ‘70s, nobody really rode ponies. The barn had a couple of half-broke Shetlands, but they weren’t for lessons; in the summers, we’d just get on them bareback with a halter and ride them around until they got bored of us and scraped us off by running the ring’s racetrack style rail. Oh, the days before lawsuits….). Then came the major hurdle of the day: tacking up.

You see, I’m short. I always have been. I’m 5’2” on a good day as an adult and I was a pipsqueak as an 8-year-old lesson student. So I would have to come up with some way to get a saddle up on that 16-hh lesson horse, who really wasn’t that interested in co-operating. I tried getting my non-horsey mother to help me, but after the third time she put the saddle on backwards, I gave up on that plan. You would think they would have a step stool or a crate, but I guess we were supposed to be scrappier than that. I finally perfected a technique of climbing the pipe corral rails, looping one arm through the top rail to hold on, and tossing the saddle with the other arm onto that day’s mount. It worked like a charm, as long as the horse didn’t move. No wonder the school tack never looked all that great.

Nowadays, we’d never turn the small children loose to try to wrestle tack onto their mounts unassisted, more for the horse’s sake than anything else. So how do I manage to get four horses to the ring in a timely manner while I’m teaching stacked up group lessons on a Sunday?

My working student.

I have been blessed over the years that I have been an instructor to have had a series of delightful young women who, for the price of lesson, have been my assistant for long days in the barn. They carefully and supportively explain grooming and tacking up to both the little and the big. They make sure that small children aren’t eaten by Dragonbreath and ensure that the adults who think they know what they are doing don’t come to the ring with the bridle on backwards (It’s happened!). They run alongside trusty Lightning when I have lost my mojo, whispering encouragement to tiny riders to “up, down, up, down.” They sweep the barn aisle, again and again and again. They are the grease in the wheels of the lesson operation.

Lesson barn working students, I sing your praises.

And, to make sure they feel happy and rewarded, I always give them a little extra. They get privates when everyone else has a group. They get to ride that nicer horse. Sometimes, they get to ride my horse. They get first pick of the hand-me-downs, discounts at the horse shows, books to read, and, when they are older, college and life advice. I do everything I can to make them feel special and appreciated, because without them, my schedule would grind to a halt.

So thanks to all the lesson barn working students. It may not be glamorous, but it makes a big difference in the lives of the instructors you work for and the students whose learning you support.

Illustration: Wylie, age 10

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