We shout out to the horses that started the journey.
The Horse Nation editorial staff comes from all walks of equestrian life: eventing, dressage, western, polo; professional and amateur; horse owner or horse borrower; competitor or hobbyist. No matter where our equestrian life has taken us, however, each of us has a lesson horse (or several) in particular that stand out in our memories, whether we were the teacher or the student.
As a riding instructor some of the best lesson horses I’ve encountered over the years shared one thing in common: they were mares.
Maternal instinct ran especially strong in Bint Sweet Girl, who was for several years my go-to lesson pony for pint-sized beginners. A once-flashy show pony, by the time our paths crossed she was pushing 30, a sway in her back and her mane and tail ribboned with silver. But she was still going strong, happy to “jump” crossrails and game up for the occasional schooling show.
She was everything you could ask for in a lesson horse: patient, forgiving, trustworthy, kind and always looking for ways to help the tiny human on her back, slowing down when they lost their balance and doing her darnedest to interpret mixed signals. If an older kid was going through a rough patch confidence-wise, I knew I could stick them on Bint for a lesson or two while they got their groove back.
When she finally passed, at age 36, a wave of grief passed through the local equestrian community. It was astonishing how many people knew her, had ridden her, had stories about her life. We read a poem over her grave and released a red balloon into the sky, watching it disappear into the sapphire horizon with teary eyes, sad but grateful to have spent a moment under this special pony’s wing.
I was seven years old and taking lessons at a barn in suburban Utah, and even though I loved horses and I loved my lessons, I was terrified to canter. All the other girls in my group lesson had already been cantering for weeks, and I just continued on with my fast trotting escapades. I don’t recall exactly how long it went on like that, but finally one day, my beloved lesson horse Comanche, an older flea-bitten gray, unilaterally decided to help me conquer my fears, and broke into the sweetest, smoothest, rocking horse canter. I can still feel his exact gait when I meditate on it, and the rush of adrenaline that started out as fear, and quickly turned to pure jubilant elation. Comanche made me brave, made me fall in love, and pretty much ruined my life with horse bills forever after.
Now after parting ways with my equine companion of three years, I’m back on the lesson horses while I look for my next eventing partner and I’m as grateful now for their forgiving hearts as I’ve ever been. You’re lucky if you ever meet a human being as generous and patient as a lesson horse, and those are just the souls I need in my barn life at the moment. What lesson horses gave me as a child was ignorant, untainted joy. What lesson horses give me as an adult is patience and stability in a whirlwind life. I’m forever grateful for both.
What is that aspect of human nature — especially in headstrong young people — that picks the least likely subject upon which to concentrate our affections? Knotty was certainly not the most lovable equine I would come across in an equestrian career that would eventually include guest ranching, collegiate coaching and recreational riding — and yet I remember season after season in my pre-teen and teenage years spent in some kind of mutual understanding of each other, hard-won over years of public humiliation, bribery in the form of gingersnaps and blindly stubborn persistence that could ultimately be defined as love.
Knotty was a blue-eyed cremello and dangerously clever: his stall latch included a bungee cord and a lead rope that had to be knotted in three different ways or he’d be running loose by morning. I rode him both hunt seat and western and had mastered the art of climbing up over his stall door, sitting momentarily in my saddle balanced on top, then sliding down into the stall itself to groom and tack him. If I forgot and opened the door before having him haltered or bridled and well in hand, he would bowl me right over and thunder to the nearest patch of grass. Despite suffering plenty of such physical abuses, I somehow only loved him more.
When I was old enough to be a camp assistant at my riding stable, I worked for free and was allowed to ride Knotty unsupervised on the trail system behind the barn. We spent many summers jumping logs bareback, Knotty teaching me those rare and less-quantifiable skills of trust, confidence and bravery.
Morgane Schmidt Gabriel
My initial foray into horses was sort of like jumping off the high dive before you’d learned to swim without your floaties; that is to say it was nearly instant and somewhat terrifying. Given the speed with which my family embraced horses and horse ownership, I didn’t spend much time on lesson horses so it wasn’t until I was an adult and actually teaching riding that I could really appreciate just what mythical creatures the good ones really are.
My go to lesson horse is Hes a Hollywood Jac (Woody), an AQHA gelding. You might recognize him from my comics: the slightly squat, awkwardly colored palomino with just the right amount of snark and more generosity than he’d ever admit. He’s been a master of many trades over his now 19 years: a champion reiner, 2nd/3rd level dressage horse, bareback and bridle-less mount, low jumper, trail horse and best friend. He’s also taught every type of rider — the smallest of small predators, timid adults, talented juniors, grandmothers, husbands, etc, and no matter what’s going on around him (tractors dragging, hail storms, 100 mph winds, loose horses, airplanes buzzing, dogs barking) or what the rider is doing on top of him, he’s always a gentleman. Of course that doesn’t mean he isn’t cheeky with me, but I’m fairly certain he knows I can handle it and we both enjoy the joke. No matter what I’ve asked of him over the years he’s never let me down and I can say with certainty that he is the best horse I’ve ever owned. I’m forever grateful to have had him in my life the last ten years– as both a mentor and friend– and I sincerely hope for many more.
Amanda Uechi Ronan
Growing up in a very small town with no local trainers or boarding stables, I was denied a Pony Club childhood. Instead I spent countless hours with my main man, Aggie, and, although I had the opportunity for a catch ride now and then, it wasn’t until college that I worked with my first true lesson horse.
Fresh off a lifetime of experience in western AQHA events, I decided I was going to give Eventing a try after watching the Rolex 4* on TV. After discussing it with my farrier — At length, because a farrier’s secondary role is life coach, right? — he gave me the number for a trainer twenty miles away named Terri Adams. I called and had a lesson scheduled the very next day. Spoiler Alert: It didn’t go well and I hurt everywhere. English disciplines use different muscles than western disciplines, FYI. Regardless, I was in love with a new sport and a new horse. His name was Cody and he was the first Thoroughbred I ever rode. He would only go well if my approach felt confident and he hated his mouth touched over a jump, which consequently made my legs and seat very strong.
Over the course of several years — two of which I worked as a full time working student for Terri — Cody and the rest of the herd at Seahorse Sport Horses taught me everything I know about jumping. Cody passed away suddenly from colic one day and when I received the call from Terri, I cried as if I’d lost a best friend, which I guess I did. The relationship with a lesson horse is a fragile one. We love them and allow them into our hearts knowing they aren’t really ours to keep, but maybe that’s part of their beauty. They can touch countless lives and be that “one special horse” over and over again.
Everyone loves to ride Jag. He’s willing, smart and fast. The kids who are allowed to ride him love Jag because he will canter at a squeeze and turn tight around a barrel at mach speed. I loved Jag because he carried me to a higher level of riding with the patience and kindness of a seasoned schooling horse.
Jag taught me to feel his “engine” gearing up for a higher speed. He taught me to be less fearful of his launch into a canter. He was patient as I learned how to bend him. He kept me safe while I trusted to let go of his mouth. He endured me learning to “feel his diagonal.” Jag engaged out on the trail and seemed to enjoy our meanders away from the arena.
I have been moved to another horse that is more finely tuned and knows a lot of goodies. I am having fun working to catch up with him. Yet, I see Jag saddled for someone else and my heart reaches to him. He’s so pretty and patient and quiet. Even though I would miss him, as a thank you for hours of being a wonderful schooling horse, I wish some kind person would give him a “forever home” where he could ride for fun instead of work. He’s earned it.
I was in my second year of college at Indiana University as a music performance major; I played the tuba. IU had probably the best tuba program in the nation, so the competition around me was superior. I was a good player, but not naturally talented, and I was sick and tired of my teacher telling me how bad I was. I was burnt out and seriously reconsidering what the hell I was doing with my life. I decided to take a weekend off, rented a horse at a local dude ranch and got hooked on horses.
I dropped out of college and moved back in with mom. In the best move I ever made, I sold my tuba and bought a truck, trailer and my first horse “Dylan.” (Yes, a tuba may look funny, but those suckers are EXPENSIVE).
When I went to look at Dylan, he bucked me off on my first ride (I bought him anyway.) He was what you consider green broke, and I was greener than a march hare. He was a 9-year-old horse but a two-week-old gelding. You could saddle him up and plow rein him around, but that was all he knew. He didn’t know how to pick his hooves up to be cleaned, and had probably never seen a farrier. His front feet looked like two big frying pans, and he had to paddle when he walked so they wouldn’t knock into each other. He was a monster about bucking and kicking and I would sometimes cry when no one was watching, or when he would pin me in the corner of the stall and try and kick my head off.
Thankfully, I decided to take lessons and I learned a lot. Things got easier, and Dylan got better. With lessons, I realized you don’t train a horse like you’d train your household dog. Now Dylan could give me his “paw”, take a bow and also not buck me off. Progress.
While he’s not the conventional “lesson horse” per se, he taught me persistence and patience: I still have Dylan to this day. He just celebrated his 24th birthday on April 6th. Over the years he has taken hundreds of my friends and family for a ride, and has been a complete gentleman for all of them. He’s been with me almost half my life, through good times and bad. He’s been my rock, a shoulder to cry on and a listening ear. He’s helped me train numerous horses and mules since he’s so rock solid. He’s the one I’ve put people on that are trying to get over their own fears and insecurities. He has taught me to be responsible, a hard-worker, and to never give up on your dreams.
Go lesson horses. Go riding.