Lesson Horse Health

Keeping school horses happy and healthy

A good lesson horse is a valuable member of any riding program, safely carrying and patiently teaching newbies of all ages. To keep these schoolmasters happy and healthy, we must take into account factors unique to their situation, from carrying different riders to sharing saddlery.

Harry Werner, VMD, founder of Werner Equine, in North Granby, Connecticut, has been honored with International Equine Veterinarian Hall of Fame induction and the American Association of Equine Practitioners Distinguished Life Member Award for his work, and has seen a lot of lesson horses over the years among his patient population. He says not all riding programs are equal in terms of horse welfare.

“In my experience, there’s a tremendous amount of variability in lesson horse life and care. There are programs in which you look at the lesson horses and think they lucked out; unfortunately, that’s not universal,” he says, explaining that much of this is due to school horses tending to be more of a commodity than privately owned horses. “It doesn’t mean that they aren’t still animals that people love and care for, but they have to go to work or there is income loss.”

No Cutting Corners

While economics might be a driver, avoiding the “penny-wise, pound-foolish” temptation is key to school horse health and your bottom line, explains Paula Pierce, MBA, equestrian center director at Mount Holyoke College, in South Hadley, Massachusetts. This operation houses nearly 60 horses, 40 of which are school horses either owned or leased by the college. The students ride these horses in Intercollegiate Horse Show Association (IHSA), Intercollegiate Dressage Association (IDA), and Interscholastic Equestrian Association (IEA, for area middle and secondary school riders) events.

“We are of the mindset if you put an investment in up front, it will pay for itself in the long run, which has served us well,” she says. “For example, while not standard to many riding schools, we will do joint injections once or twice a year for a horse that needs it, going with the theory that it’s less expensive to put money into the current employee than to find a new one.”

Lesson Horse Health

Investing in school horse health also involves time, in the form of daily wellness checks and rest days as needed, says Carolien Munsters, MSc, PhD, owner of Moxie Sport Analysis and Coaching and researcher at Utrecht University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, in the Netherlands. She says findings from her team’s 2009 research in Holland indicated many riding schools fail to check their school horses’ health daily the way owners of privately owned sport horses do.

In addition, Munsters’ team found sport horses were more likely to receive veterinary treatment and time off than lesson horses. “We found that riding school owners considered their horses fit enough to ‘work’ in a riding lesson, although veterinarian advice suggested that horses needed a resting period,” Munsters says. “These observations may suggest that riding school owners have a different perception of the welfare of horses and how to handle and treat injuries. This was also supported by the fact that horses requiring a resting period for a longer time due to injury were in many cases (almost 55% of them) already in the preceding weeks diagnosed with a small injury with no training break. This suggests if horses are not treated/rested well for seemingly minor injuries, a greater chance for injuries occurs later.”

TLC Goes a Long Way

Riding school managers can overcome those economic forces, however, with careful management, says Pierce. “We try to be very precise with treatments and certainly don’t do them on a blanket basis; we’ll invest in the diagnosis of a problem before just throwing medication or supplements in a wild guess,” she says. “That said, if a horse needs something in particular, we will do it: We maintain the horses that need it on a joint supplement, or B vitamins for a horse that needs to chill out. We have two exceptional farriers and, if necessary, we’ll do corrective shoeing on a horse—it all pays for itself in the long run.”

Corinne Lettau, founder and CEO of Denver Equestrians, in Littleton, Colorado, says the school’s 25 hunt seat and Western lesson horses receive corticosteroid joint injections, Adequan (polysulfated glycosaminoglycan), and Legend (hyaluronate sodium)—all used to help alleviate joint pain and ­lameness—as needed. Lettau’s horse-care protocol might also include Regu-Mate (altrenogest, to suppress estrus in mares) and chiropractic.

By employing appropriate veterinary diagnostics and therapy, Werner says riding schools can avoid the tendency to turn to non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to mask an issue. “While this is financially driven, in the long run it’s not in the best interest of the horse,” he says.

The Lesson Horse Lifestyle

Meeting Their Needs

Slow and steady might be the hallmark of both the school horse’s personality and his lifestyle. Lesson horses tend to work more hours per day than sport horses, but their workloads and resultant needs are quite different.

“School horses have a somewhat unique lifestyle in that they tend to work a lot at lower levels, as opposed to a high-performance horse that will work from half an hour to an hour a day at a high level,” says Pierce, whose mounts tend to carry riders twice a day, with the rare third lesson a day for walk-trot horses. “You need to feed for the long haul, which we have found works well with higher-fat feeds,” she says. “At one point we stopped using the higher-fat grain due to cost, but we came back to it.”

While tack specific to each horse might be cost-prohibitive for most large riding schools, proper fitting and planning are crucial to ensuring each horse is comfortable. At Denver Equestrians a saddle fitter assesses each horse in several saddles in both youth and adult sizes. A grid on the tack room door outlines which saddles fit which horses. Mount Holyoke also employs a numbered system detailing which saddle fits which horse, with the occasional valuable school horse having a custom-fit saddle. Werner warns that tack not appropriately fit to the horse might contribute to trauma, both physically and in the form of stress. 

Daily turnout and regular days off help Denver Equestrians and Mount Holyoke horses maintain physical and mental well-being.

The Right Horse for the Job

Not every horse is cut out to be a lesson horse. “There are horses that make great school horses, and horses that don’t,” says Pierce. “It takes a special kind of horse to be able to tolerate a different rider twice a day, every day. I have met plenty of horses that don’t want that job.”

For this reason she’s instituted a 30-day trial for donation horses. “I always tell the donors that the 30-day trial is as much for the horse to tell us if it wants to be a school horse as it is for us to decide whether we want the horse,” she says. “It’s a challenging lifestyle. Some of them like it and do it well, and some don’t.”

The Takeaway

Possibly the greatest hurdle to keeping school horses healthy, says Werner, is the reality of money. “I see a ‘second tier’ level of attention that is almost invariably financially driven,” he says. “In my experience, there’s a tendency for lesson horses to be second priority to boarder horses and competition horses regarding the thorough fulfillment of health and welfare needs. The reality of many programs is the balance sheet, which often brings a compromise to some degree on health care needs. I understand the rationale of that cost containment, but in the long run it may be false economy.”

Simply putting in the expected level of care from the start benefits both the horse and the business. “Perform a daily health check on all riding school horses, and if they have a seemingly minor injury, treat it accurately and rest the horse if necessary,” says Munsters, explaining this reduces the risk of injuries worsening, which could lead to extended time off for the horse in the long run. “Evaluate horses and their health for the long term and not the short term,” she says.

Pierce advises riding program managers to avoid the temptation to cut costs, for the benefit of not only each individual horse but also the business or nonprofit as a whole: “Our experience has been that if you make an investment in the horse’s care, you spend less in the long run,” she says. “Our program has become known as a great place to be a school horse. If you take care of your school horses, word gets out and people want to donate or place horses in your program.”

Our sources agree that a good riding school should employ a thoughtful approach to both the present and the future. “Whether you already have a lesson program or are planning to begin one, I encourage you to have the long-term vision to recognize the essential contribution of the lesson horse to your business by fulfilling for that horse its health care and welfare needs in an appropriate and timely manner,” says Werner. “Work with a veterinarian to establish a program, including early detection and treatment” of any injuries or illness.