Horsing Around When 'Without Horse'
Never underestimate the simple concept of taking regular lessons to stay in the saddle if you find yourself without your own horse.
Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt/The Horse
How to stay involved when a horse isn't on the books
They say to write about what you know. And after an 11-year break from horse ownership, I am well-acquainted with how to stay involved with horses without having my own.
I sold my young Warmblood mare in 2004. It was a difficult decision: Mocha was my only homebred, and I loved her dearly, but we were not a good fit. She began another career, leaving a literal empty stall in my family’s barn and a figurative one in my life—I had been riding since before I could walk, had ridden and competed all the way through my childhood into my early 20s, and had never taken a hiatus.
Five hundred miles from my family and still fresh in my career meant being “without horse” was not the only novel situation at hand. Honestly, the break from the expenses was freeing during this season of adjustment! It allowed me to try some other hobbies and to travel and see more of the world than I would have, had I been tethered by horse-associated bills. But at the heart of it, I really, really missed the tactile experience of horses.
Thankfully, I live in horse country, so the opportunities to ride or be around horses were practically endless. I just had to seek them out.
Perhaps you or someone you know is taking time off from owning horses. Here are some ways I found to stay involved with horses during my hiatus, along with some insight from riders who are or have been in a similar boat.
Let it Be Known
Thankfully, the fish-out-of-water horseless feeling had barely set in before several people began saying, “Here, ride my horse!” Young and fearless, I was able to pilot green horses for friends who were looking to get miles on their mounts and who recognized the value of keeping horses in one’s life. Word-of-mouth was a powerful way of letting people in the horse community know that I was looking for opportunities to ride. And ride I did.
Lena Lopatina, a scientist and equestrian who lives in Los Alamos, New Mexico, has been riding others’ horses after her own horse died unexpectedly in 2013. “I have a friend whose husband works a lot, and they trusted me to keep his horse in shape when he wasn’t riding,” she says, “allowing me to take the horse trail riding, fox hunting, and to occasional jumping clinics.
“(Members of) our wonderful hunt, Caza Ladron, have been very happy to let me borrow guest horses a few times so I can go hunting during the season,” Lopatina says. “And definitely our (United States Pony Clubs, or USPC) Horsemasters group and local Pony Club, who offered me opportunities to ride members’ horses on various occasions.”
Never underestimate the simple concept of taking regular lessons to stay in the saddle. Says Lopatina, “The passing of my horse, while it was a heartbreaking experience, also allowed me to use extra time and extra resources toward more riding lessons, which is greatly improving my riding.”
Aside from joining Horsemasters, which is the adult membership option for USPC, and participating in the club’s clinics and other educational activities, Lopatina has taken hunter/jumper lessons regularly at nearby Invicta Farms for the past 3 ½ years. “I really enjoy the variety of tools I am learning while riding different horses,” she says. “I wouldn’t call this my ‘time off,’ because this is probably the most active riding part of my life. If I owned one horse—that would take a lot of time on its own.”
Lopatina says she keeps going back to the saying, “ ‘Most people don’t need a $40,000 horse, they need a $1,000 horse and $40,000 in lessons.’ So that’s what I’m doing. I’m just taking the time and money and spending them on extra lessons.
“The better you ride,” she adds, “the more people will offer, ask, and trust you with their horses.”
As far as working on my own skills, I took a few lessons from our city parks and recreation department when I first moved to this area. Over my horseless years, I also brushed up on my equitation with lessons at a combined training barn before taking trips that involved riding.
Pack Your Helmet and Half Chaps
This brings us to my next suggestion, which is one of my favorites: riding when you travel. Whether it was helping friends gather cattle in a surprise snowstorm on BLM land in Wyoming or enjoying an unguided ride around County Donegal on a brave Irish steed, I’ve found (or happened upon) ways to ride during trips both domestic and abroad.
If you are traveling on a nonhorse-centric trip and happen to be visiting horse-loving friends, express your interest ahead of time in riding on your trip. I’m grateful for some of the unique experiences I’ve had: From a beach ride off the coast of Oregon to a trail ride in the Wind River Range of Wyoming, there have been many opportunities off the beaten tourist path that involved horses.
As far as organized riding vacations, which I consider a prime way to immerse yourself in a region, I’ve taken two—one about a decade ago that was organized by a now-defunct equestrian travel agency, the other more recently by contacting the holiday outfitters themselves. Each had its advantages. For instance, I found that the private outfitters knew the region’s residents, the routes, the history, and their own horses. All the details were already taken care of so I could simply saddle up and enjoy a rich visual and cultural experience. Equitours.com is one example of a riding vacation company, and Horse Holiday Farm (horse-holiday-farm.com) is the private outfitter I mentioned.
A New Lease on (Horse) Life
Kelcie Griffith of Falmouth, Massachusetts, took a short break from owning horses after she retired her longtime hunter in college. She rode her trainer’s horses on the weekends through school and then faced a decision on how to keep riding regularly when she graduated and went out on her own in 2013.
“I did not want to give up riding, and I didn’t want to just limit myself to one day a week with a lesson,” she says, “so that’s why I decided to go with a lease.” Griffith signed a contract for a half lease of an Appendix Quarter Horse at her trainer’s barn, which allowed her to ride the gelding a few days a week in exchange for paying half of his expenses—shoes, veterinary bills, supplements, etc.
“I would go after work and ride him or ride him on the weekends,” Griffith says, adding that she also enjoyed being involved with his care, including grooming, bathing, and even stall-cleaning.
Different regions, disciplines, barns, and owners use varying lease structures and contract types. Prior to beginning your search for a horse to lease, Griffith recommends figuring out what your goals are for that horse and what your price range is. “I kind of got lucky that I’d been riding this horse for lessons when I came home from school,” she says. “Maybe see if there is something on-property, because that’s less expense than if you have to ship (a horse in). I know leases can range from a free lease to a couple grand a year. And I’d say, honestly, just try (the horse). You don’t want to spend a bunch of money on a horse that won’t be a good fit.”
Then there are hands-on opportunities that allow you to help horses or horse people without necessarily being in the irons. Early in my time here in Lexington, I had volunteered teaching riding lessons to members of the Lexington Mounted Police. I schooled the occasional horse that was being considered for the unit or that I needed to understand a bit better for more effective teaching. After a long break from this role, I picked it up again last year and found the time back around horses and teaching very satisfying.
There are many opportunities to volunteer in the horse community, whether it be serving as a side walker at a handicapped riding facility (visit pathintl.org to find facilities near you) or helping out with chores at an equine rehoming facility. (The staff of TheHorse.com took a day and helped out the Kentucky Equine Humane Center last year with some spring cleaning!) My parents volunteer regularly at a riding center for injured veterans: Mom helps with the horses, and Dad helps with the meals.
You can also volunteer with youth organizations such as 4-H and USPC, and you can be a scribe for a dressage show or reining event. Consider helping out as a ring or gate steward at a local show or setting up camp beside a cross-country jump and recording riders coming through—something our news editor, Erica Larson, does regularly.
You might even be able to lend a hand at a local barn. Griffith recalls a fellow horsewoman who “just wanted to be at the barn” and inquired about helping clean stalls: “She just wanted to be around horses. She didn’t have to ride, but sometimes that can be a perk of helping out.”
Hack Around, Spectate, or Tour
Maybe you’re not ready to sign up for a commitment of more than just a few hours around horses here and there. That’s okay. As King Solomon (and The Byrds!) said, “to everything there is a season.” Anndy Cosby, a mom and teacher based in Lexington, rode all through childhood at her family’s South Carolina horse farm and until recently hadn’t ridden consistently for eight years due to graduate school and other commitments.
“Back in March, a coworker of my husband invited me out to ride with her,” Cosby says. “I rode once a week on the weekends until school let out, and then I rode a few times a week all summer. It’s been wonderful to get back in the saddle, and I hope to be able to ride most weekends until the weather gets too bad,” she says. “I also take my 3-year-old daughter out there, and she rides with me at the end of my ride. She loves it, so we’re looking forward to riding lessons in two years.”
Cosby also goes to horse shows to watch grand prixs, hunter derbies, and events such as the Rolex Kentucky 3-Day Event. “My husband and I also make a point to go to Keeneland for every race meet,” she says. “My mom and I also went to a few different events when the World Equestrian Games were here in 2010.” Her mom, an avid horsewoman, sends Cosby local and national horse magazines so she can keep up with show results and the horse happenings in her hometown.
Visiting museums—the International Museum of The Horse, in Lexington, and the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, in Saratoga, New York, come to mind—are other ways to enjoy horses.
How Can I Live …?
The horse ownership bug bit me again about a year ago, so I’m back in the literal saddle and enjoying my very own red horse, converting him from a racehorse to an eventer. Griffith also upped her commitment to riding, purchasing a green mare from a dressage barn that she’s preparing for a hunter/jumper career.
Meanwhile, Lopatina is truly enjoying her “horseless” season and the opportunities it’s affording her. “People ask me, ‘How do you live without a horse?’ and, you know, I’m so blessed with all those people (who are helping me learn to be a versatile rider).
“I actually am really happy with what I do, and I think that some people aren’t aware that it’s another way to live a horse life. And I think, especially for beginners, it seems like it’s not that bad of an arrangement. It’s working very well for me, and I still get to kiss horses’ faces.”
About the Author
Stephanie L. Church, Editor-in-Chief, received a B.A. in Journalism and Equestrian Studies from Averett College in Danville, Virginia. A Pony Club and 4-H graduate, her background is in eventing, and she is schooling her recently retired Thoroughbred racehorse, Happy, toward a career in that discipline. She also enjoys traveling, photography, cycling, and cooking in her free time.
POLL: Managing Working Horses