Lesson Riders: The Undesirables at Your Barn

“Lesson riders are the obvious second class citizens of any elite barn and it is made clear to us both in subtle and very obvious ways.” This reader submission discusses the hierarchy in riding and makes clear the barriers to entry in our sport.

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I recently had a bizarre experience at the barn where my daughter rides horses. The barn manager, with whom we have been friendly in the past, recently forgot who I was. This was particularly notable, as just a week before the forgetting, I had had a forty-minute conversation with her.

But, there it was – she had forgotten I existed. (It wasn’t love, it wasn’t hate – it was just indifference.)

Actually, it felt a lot more active than indifference. Because on the night of the forgetting, the barn manager was making a concerted effort to avoid eye contact with me. We were in the same area for an hour during my daughter’s lesson and she had to work to not see me.

So what had changed – with this woman who was steering her face to look just past me at every opportunity? A week prior to this uncomfortable night, I had told the barn manager that my husband and I could only afford to spend t$10,000 a year on my daughter’s riding expenses. She rides at a barn with a large lesson program, as well as a large competitive team and several national champions.

My daughter, the barn manager, and I had talked in the past about my daughter’s goals. My daughter would like to ride in college. She needs to increase her jump height to be competitive for college teams. We have never been able to afford to lease a horse and were hoping this barn would have options for lesson riders like her.

During our conversation, the barn manager was cheerful and interested, friendly and supportive. But, after I emailed her our $10,000 budget, she never responded. And she forgot who I was.

Unfortunately, while this is the most extreme example of it, my daughter and I have a lot of experience being The Undesirables at the barn, due to not being able to afford a lease. Lesson riders are the obvious second class citizens of any elite barn and it is made clear to us both in subtle and very obvious ways.

For those who may not know, I’d like to describe the uncomfortable spot I’m in, as the parent of a talented, motivated rider, who cannot afford to lease a horse. I’d also like to argue for change in the sport, to support riders like my daughter, and so many others.

We live in a large metropolitan area and full leases average $40,000 a year. Even a half lease is far outside our budget – we spend $10,000 on lessons and one to two shows a year.

A quick side note to mention this – the median American household income is $67,500. My husband and I each have graduate degrees and make six-figure salaries. Our household income is in the top 5% in our state. I have raised my children to be very aware of their privilege, relative to their classmates at school, and to the vast majority of people in our nation and world. In that context particularly, our $10,000 budget for our daughter’s sport is enormous, and would sound excessive to most outside of the equestrian bubble.

But in certain parts of the riding world, $10,000 a year is nothing.  And never was I more aware of that, when the barn manager decided to forget who I was.

So, my question is this: is there room for my daughter in the equestrian world? Is there room for a family that easily pays our bills, but does not have a trust fund or an extra fifty or two hundred thousand dollars lying around each year?

More specifically, could barn owners and managers consider options between the lesson program and half-leasing? Horses are extremely expensive to maintain and it is fair to expect lesson riders to share in that expense. Instead of ruling out all families who cannot afford a lease, could barn owners consider more creative options to share the expense of horse ownership? More working student options, possibly even higher lesson fees for those riders who want to increase height?

My daughter loves your sport. She loves the horses, the people, the barn, and the hard work. She is just like so many other riders who want to work hard and are being shut out early. Isn’t it time to open this sport beyond the extremely wealthy?