So God Made a Lesson Horse.

Before riders are jumping 3’6″ and riding Prix de St-Georges, before they are working horses that cost a year at Yale, before they are showing for weeks in Florida and New York and California, equestrians must ride a lesson horse. Every single horseback rider on the face of this earth has that one pony ride, that one led ride around an arena or on a hot walker or through a pasture that hooked them on this sport. Every rider can attest their passion for riding to that one old horse who had the patience of a saint and carried children as though they were faberge eggs.

Riders competing at the top level can turn horses with their legs and their seat. They can ask a horse to extend their canter stride to fourteen feet and collect it down to nine. They can lift the horse into a proper frame so his motion comes from his hind end and he is in the rider’s hands so they are both using their bodies properly. They can see distances from multiple strides away, memorize complicated tests and sequences of movements, execute just about anything on the back of a horse. But before that, they learned on a lesson horse.

Riding school owners and trainers desire a horse who can walk, trot, canter, maybe even jump. They want a horse who can handle unbalanced and unsure riders but is still fun enough for a confident rider. They seek a horse who has lead changes and perfect knees. Often times, these horses are far out of budget. So instead, they buy a lesson horse. These are your broken show horses, retired racehorses, greenies who show no real promise, or simply old souls who are looking for some hay and a roof over their heads.

Each and every one of these horses is a gem in its own special way.

Imagine you’re a sturdy, reliable Appendix horse. You’ve just been bought by a riding school on the edge of the suburbs. Stepping off the trailer, you find your stall with fresh, clean shavings and fresh hay. “This is nice,” you think. “I like my new home.” Then, 4 o’clock rolls around. The lesson kids show up. They shout excitedly about the new horse at the barn and how gorgeous she is and oh look at her stockings and I want to groom her and they dart under your legs and yank some forelock out as they roughly slide a halter on over your head and you’re being dragged out of your stall and surrounded on all sides by a mini-van load of girls clad in pastel breeches and paddock boots and suddenly there’s brushes everywhere and they’re trying to pick two of your feet at once and fighting over who gets to ride you in the lesson today and they haven’t even talked to the trainer yet about if you’re an appropriate horse to ride and it’s not even 4:15. Bless every lesson horse who can handle the poking, the prodding, the nose picking, the hair being brushed backwards, the tail being pulled, the ears folded under the crown piece, the saddle on the neck or on the croup, the girth too tight or too loose, the polo wraps done wrong, and the splint boots on the wrong legs. These half-ton animals can handle all that before they even walk to the arena without harming a hair on a child’s head.

Have you stopped imagining? Start again. You’re tacked mostly correctly by one of the lesson kids and she’s leading you to the arena for her 4:30 lesson. She is smiling up at you from beneath the brim of her pink helmet, her braids bouncing with each step. The trainer helps her redo your lavender polo wraps (thank goodness) before she leads you to the mounting block and scrambles aboard. You march to the rail as told. “I want a circle in every corner,” the trainer says. As you reach the first corner, you expect inside leg to outside rein contact, as the trainer did when she tried you at the sale barn. Instead, the child pulls harshly on the inside rein so the bit slides all the way to the left side of your mouth and she does the typical pony kick on your right side. She turns you in a circle with a 12-inch diameter and pulls you back to the rail by pulling the bit all the way to the right side of your mouth. “Bigger circles, Sophie,” the trainer shouts. You haven’t even started trotting yet. The other horses in the arena face similar fates. Not a single one has protested. You don’t either! Why? Because lesson horses are a special kind of soft-hearted.

An honest horse is one who is clear about his intentions in regards to jumping a fence. Horses must carry their own weight and the rider. A good lesson horse will still take you over a fence even if you sit on his back, pull in his mouth, lay on his neck, spur him in the flanks, sit down in the air, see the long spot, chip in, don’t see a distance at all, get left behind, or have an incredible lack of impulsion. A trained show horse expects his rider to know what she is doing. But these riders had to learn on the back of some horse. And the lucky horses that teach this are the lesson horses. They’ve taught dozens of riders how to do it right so that they can abandon these horses and move on to the fancier show horses.

The most important thing that lesson horses teach is that a rider must have love. She must love this sport and she must love her mount. Riders hear everything from “it’s not a real sport” to “that new saddle will be $4499 plus shipping and handling” and still they love every second they spend around horses. This sport taxes riders physically, emotionally, financially, and chronologically. Despite a bad lesson or a high farrier bill or a partner complaining about how much time is spent at the barn, the lesson horse is always there to accept a carrot and offer a nuzzle. Lesson horses are loved by many, many riders and families. These animals possess a heart filled with love and a soul to feel everything we feel… Surely, heartbreak is something they experience too. As many children have loved these lesson horses, they have all moved on. They’ve moved up to a bigger horse, acquired a horse of their own, left barns, or stopped riding altogether. Heartbroken, they must move on to love another. No matter how much hurt they feel, they always love. Always.

The life of a lesson horse is never easy. Not every horse will fit the bill. But those that do deserve canonization. It takes a special horse to work and work and work for so many years and accept meager treatment thanks in return. Thank your lesson horse because he lives for that.


I dedicate this post to all the lesson horses in my life, and Lord have there been many, but it most especially goes out to Buttercup. She is the epitome of lesson horse. This sweet mare taught probably hundreds of people to ride. She worked into her twenties, even with cushings, and never once complained. She made riders really work but she was a patient and forgiving teacher. She left this life March 21, 2012, after a short but well deserved retirement. When someone says lesson horse, she is who comes to my mind. Bless Buttercup for the thousands of hours she spent marching around the arena without complaint. God has a special reward for horses as wonderful as you.

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62 thoughts on “So God Made a Lesson Horse.

    • I do not look at this as God Bless the lesson horse, I work with children and absolutely NO child would be allowed to do this to any horse of mine. Instead they Learn the basics of horsemanship First and how to treat a horse. The horses’s welfare is first and foremost at my barn. The relationship of child to horse is first and foremost. Think about it. This isn’t a cute article nor does it teach any child good horsemanship skills. Horses the world over are getting abused as far as I’m concerned this is just another story of bad horsemanship

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      • I think the idea Kelsey was trying to convey is the fact that children will be children, no matter what you teach them or how carefully. Because of this, they need a kind and patient horse that will tolerate a few mistakes. By no means do I think that she was trying to support any sort of abuse to horses. I’ve been riding for many years, and I know that exceptional lesson horses are just as important as superb trainers for teaching a child to ride.

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        • Newbies will be newbies, including adults. We all make mistakes when we’re trying new things, whether it’s with horses, a new job, a baby, whatever — no matter how closely supervised we are, we will err, and learn, along the way. If we’re lucky, we have patient school horses, bosses (and resilient children) who will help show us the way. Thanks, Kelsey, this is a great post and reminds me how much I owe to those forgiving souls who continue to teach me to ride — my trainers, of course, but also the school horses that they so carefully choose for me and all of their students.

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      • Dee, I had a reaction close to yours. “Where is the barn manager/ass’t trainer/senior girl rider who should be in the barn to protect the horses, teach the girls in pink breeches, and keep ALL as safe as possible?” AND I hear the love she has for Bittercup & those loyal souls who ARE the ones we learn on. It’s a balance.

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      • Dee, you are such a downer. First off its God MADE a lesson horse….second of all , people like you are too snooty to understand the whole meaning of this article!! Go scream at some poor kid who is doing their best to ride, you’re just rude !!!!

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      • I think if you think that while learning to ride you wouldn’t or didn’t make similar and sometimes far worse mistakes with no intention to be abusive then you are deluded!!
        Patience on the part of our school horses is a virtue that allows us to safely learn to ride without hitting the ground as many times as we perhaps deserve.

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  1. Kahlua was my special lesson horse. He was so patient and kind, smooth to ride and would jump anything put in front of him, no matter how badly I screwed up the distance. He got me hooked on eventing and we spent many days cantering and galloping around the cross country course, up and down banks, in and out of water, over ditches and stone walls. He was a rave horse who I would take on trail rides and he would calmly pass people on ATVs and dirt bikes without batting an eyelash. I ended up leasing him from my trainer before I got a horse of my own, and I loved every minute I spent with him.

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    • Kailua has to be close to 30 now, and last I heard, he is still alive and carting beginners around tiny hunter-jumper courses, like the saint he is.

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    • My special horse was Holiday Springs, a retired mid-level jumper who taught so many kids the thrill of soaring. He would jump anything in front of him and you had to be careful – if you aimed him at the rail, he would jump that also. We had 5 turn out paddocks side by side with 5′ fences all around. When he got bored during turn out, he would jump from paddock to paddock just for the heck of it – never out of the paddock, just back and forth between. When turned out in the hunt field, he would do a course all by himself just for the pure joy of it. We got him at 14 years old and he was our lesson horse until he was 27 years old. We tried to retire him, but he just got cranky. He loved kids and his job. He died many years ago, but I still think about him often, wishing he was still here. What a gem!

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  2. Pingback: Article on lesson horses | Golden Spike Farm's Plog

  3. Hi ladies, I run a blog called The Legal Equestrian and came across your post on Twitter. I just wanted to say how well-written and spot on it is. I’ve shared it to both my social sites (Facebook.com/TheLegalEquestrian & Twitter.com/legaleq). Thank you for recognizing those horses that have the hardest but most rewarding job in this industry. I definitely teared up as I read this.

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  4. I have rode tons of lesson horses. I have only really “cliked” with 4. Halahan was the first love of my life. Being the first lesson horse I rode, I had to fall in love with him. R.I.P. big boy.
    Angel was the second, and probably my favorite. She would jump ANYTHING and picked up the correct lead every time. I miss her. (I switched barns)
    Then there was the wonderful Maybelline. A 13.2 hh pony, she was quick, smart, bossy, hilarious, and of course an amazing jumper.
    Currently I am riding a 27 year old Appy. (Definitely doesn’t act. More like a 14 year old. Perfect health!) He is one of the best horses I have ever rode! He jumps and caters like a dream and even does flying changes!
    Thank you to all lesson horses!

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  5. I knew Buttercup when she was still Hope’s best friend and pasture mate at Zion Farms. Every time we would fetch the horses for camp I made sure to split an apple from breakfast with her and Hope. She took care of every rider and never once offered to bite while the girth was being tightened. I only rode her once when we did a temporary horse swap for camp. While my horse is still a babysitter horse, she had nothing on Buttercup when it came to tolerating the kicking and yanking on her mouth.

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  6. BUTTERS!! I was shocked to see her sweet face 🙂 I knew her when I was a camp counselor at Zion Farms and then also was there when she moved to Huntcliff. Is that where you knew her? She truly was the epitome of the best lesson horse (and camp horse!). She was so well loved.

    I have always felt this way about camp horses. I have worked at a few camps over the years and so many of the horses were barely ridden all winter and then spent their entire summers working. To me, those horses are worth so much more than most higher priced show horses. They are definitely worth their weight in gold.

    Very well written!

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  7. Rapps Hunter April Fox Seamus Willy who became my first owned, Champ who also became mine. These are but a few of the many Lesson Horses I have had… Every one taught me new things new ways funny sides to riding and kept me humble. Just the other day Wally my newest Lesson horse gave me a true dressage canter. I thrilled on him like a child thanked him and got all ears without a break in stride. Today I went to him and he was not feeling well. Walked tried trot found lame stopped and tended him like he was mine. I’ll be out to t-Touch him tomorrow. Why? Because he’s MY Lesson Horse and his owner my trainer cares for her horses safety and comfort all the time in every way. I’m blessed!

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  8. Love the article and love the lesson horses we get v to learn on. The ones my daughter rides also are therapeutic horses.
    My one issue is the picture at the bottom. Any trainer worth their weight would xlead by example and never be on horse back with our a helmet. Her students will see this and note that once they think they are good enough they don’t need s helmet either.

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  9. Thank you, Kelsey, for putting into beautiful words the specialness of a lesson horse. They are priceless and it is on their backs that dreams are made and chased after. Sincere condolences on the loss of your precious Buttercup.

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  10. We have a saint of a mare named Cassie at our barn. She packed me around many years ago, as well as every child and many adults that have come through our barn. Many hundreds of riders have been on her (including my mom). Cassie is of an undetermined age, but was over 20 when she showed up over 10 years ago. She’s well over 30 now and still carries around our tiny beginners. She is patient, kind and generous. She’s started showing signs of slowing down recently and we’re considering retirement, though we know it will likely be brief (as she thrives on work and starts to show her age quickly when laid up). She is irreplaceable and the dearest horse you could ever encounter and we cannot imagine what we will do without her.

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  11. Fantastic piece! When we recently lost my version of Buttercup (we called him Abu), I was comforted by oodles of now-teenage and full-grown girls, who rode him when they were only kids and teens. It’s incredible what an impression a horse can leave. We are forever grateful for them, and what they do!

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  12. Excellent post Kelsey! Couldn’t agree more that lesson horses deserve a special place in our hearts.

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  13. This article was well written and spoke to my soul. Thank you to the lesson horses that taught me to love and handle horses for their many dedicated hours and hoping that all the lesson horses will be given good homes. We bought one of our lesson horses and gave him a home for life. This touched my heart greatly thank you again for reminding all of us horse people about those lessons.

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  14. Pingback: So God Made a Lesson Horse | HORSE NATION

  15. I purchased a lesson pony from a camp last year (1 year ago tomorrow). When I first offered to purchase him in November I was told he was “too valuable” (he was bomb proof and patient and kind) and was not for sale. When I purchased him he had a body condition score of 1(he was 300-400 pounds underweight). It was 5 degrees F and he stood in a shed with no water, food or blanket.

    He taught many children to love horses, and to ride. He was the perfect example of all that is great about lesson horses. A group of us came together to work on rescuing him. He got stronger, but ultimately long term health problems caught up with him. He died in May.

    I have a Facebook page (Moochie the Pony) where his story is shared. I am writing here because we have started a scholarship in his name for ARIA testing. Please visit the Facebook page or email me at “moochiethepony@gmail.com” for more details.

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  16. This made me bawl my eyes out as I remember all the lesson horses I ever rode or was a barn crew helping the beginner learn in lessons or horse camps. Such a beautifully written article! God bless all those horses that can tolerate being lesson horses as most can’t. They are worse MORE than their weight in gold!

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