In early-2016, I started calling around St. Louis horse facilities in search of weekend riding lessons. I had hung up my riding hat and rust breeches in the ’80s and hadn’t done any serious riding since. To be clear, I wasn’t looking for a show barn — at the time, I thought a few rides on my days off would provide some closure from my old horse days. (I was way wrong on that point, but that’s a topic for another post.)
I ended up at Mechlin Farm mostly because they returned my first phone call. Others did not. I did no research and asked very few questions other than, “what should I wear to my lesson?”
I share all this because it’s exactly the wrong way to choose a show barn, or to find a trainer who can help you reach even the most modest of riding goals.
I lucked out by landing at Mechlin Farm, but things could have easily gone a different direction for me. And the same is true for any rider of any age — particularly those who are just getting into the sport.
Thinking about my own process, I posed this question to our barn community: what do you look for when choosing a show barn? If you need a barn where you or your child can improve riding and horsemanship skills, make friends, and generally have a positive experience, there’s no simple answer to that question. Important factors to consider fall into the buckets of communication style, level of instruction, quality of horse care, features of the facility and community dynamic.
It’s tough work running a horse facility. Often, the horse care, riding and lessons consume all of the trainer’s time — leaving little room for communication outside of the arena. But as a paying student (or parent of a paying student), you need a direct line of communication to someone. That could be phone, text, email or Facebook Messenger. The method doesn’t matter, as long as it’s reliable. If you want to schedule a lesson, for example, you need a clear and repeatable process for doing so. Anything less is a recipe for frustration.
Ask your prospective trainers about the process for scheduling lessons and communicating with barn staff.
Level of Instruction
The level of instruction, of course, is critical. Horse riding is an expensive sport, and no one wants to spend their cash on subpar instruction. The trouble is, it’s challenging for riding newbies to evaluate the quality of instruction. The best strategy is to observe several lessons, taking note of the coaching style and the complexity of the exercises.
Effective coaches are more than instructors. Sure, they educate — but they also motivate and build confidence. The very best of them can adjust their style so each student gets challenged appropriately. A nine-year-old who’s just starting out, for example, shouldn’t get the same lesson as a seasoned junior. Watch as many lessons as you can to get a sense of how individualized the instruction is.
Exercises and courses
Take stock of what’s being asked of riders and their horses, both on the flat and over fences. Is the flat work treated as a discipline itself (or, is it just the warm-up for jumping)? How are the jumps set for lessons? Are there enough jumps available to set a show-style course? How often are the courses changed?
Horses to ride
If you don’t have a horse to ride, the barn should be able to supply one for you. On this point, you’ll have to ask the trainer about the horses available to ride. New riders need a horse or pony that’s safe. But as skills improve, you’ll want a more sophisticated mount. The best facilities can support some rider development with lesson horses, until you’re ready to invest in your own.
Happy, Healthy Horses
Be thorough about checking out the horses. Even if you’re new to riding, you can easily evaluate how healthy the horses look. They should be not too skinny and not too fat, with shiny coats and toned muscles. You should see horses wearing appropriate protective gear —for example, leg gear when they’re turned out, blankets when it’s cold and fly gear when the flies are on patrol.
Horse care team and protocols
Show barns often have a recommended, or even required, horse care team. Find out what the rules and processes are for vets, farriers, dentists, chiropractors, etc. If you already have a horse, you’ll need to know how things will change at the new barn. Will the staff arrange for your horse’s vaccinations, for example, or should you manage that? Can you use your own farrier? Even if you don’t yet own a horse, understanding the care protocols upfront preps you for what’s involved if you do become a horse owner.
Quality footing is critical to a show horse’s long-term health. Go take a walk through the riding arenas. Does the ground feel too hard or too soft? Ask the trainer how often they water and drag the arenas. A careless attitude about footing is not OK. We ask a lot of our jumping horses, and we owe them at least a quality surface for their training.
Horse training facilities should meet the needs of horses and riders as well family and friends. Show horses need paddock space for turn out, and decent-sized indoor stalls. Riders need riding arenas, a tack room, cross ties and wash racks. Family and friends need a public bathroom, plus indoor spaces when the weather is bad. Think about what other facility needs you might have, both as a rider and as an observer. For me personally, nice-to-haves include a refrigerator to stash my Vitamin Water on hot summer days, Wi-Fi and a place to plug in my laptop and charge my phone.
Last but not least, consider the barn family and how they might contribute to your development as a rider. Are there other riders, or parents of riders, that you can relate to? Does the community generally seem supportive?
Over the past couple years, I’ve learned that horse riding, for me anyway, is not a weekends-only activity. I spend a lot of time with my trainers and fellow Mechlin Farm riders. If I didn’t like this group, the whole experience just wouldn’t be the same. Whether you’re riding or your kid is, find a crew you can hang with — life is way too short to do it any other way.
What do you look for in a show barn? Leave a comment and let us know!