When I was in elementary school, we had a writing prompt asking about what our favorite thing to do was and why. I said riding horses because I could tell the horses what to do and be in charge. Boy do I roll my eyes at my younger self!

I had my very first riding lesson three days after my eighth birthday. It was early January and bitterly cold, but I was bundled up and so excited to finally be allowed to ride. Eight was the age that this particular lesson barn allowed students to begin. It was a local stable where one of the other kids at my daycare rode. Knowing what I know now, I cringe to think about some of the things that went on at this barn, and it was a short-lived experience for me — I think I only took lessons there for about a year and a half before I found the New Jersey version of Pine Hollow (but with far better horsemanship). 

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Just a 90’s baby cowgirling around at a pony party. (Please note I now ALWAYS ride with a helmet, promise)

Reading about Lisa’s first riding lesson in the Book 1 blog triggered memories of my first few lessons. I’m a firm believer in setting up students for success, and a lunge line is, in my opinion, a big part of safely beginning the journey of horseback riding. Poor Lisa got thrown into a crazy situation where she really didn’t know what she was doing. Patch ran away with her in her test ride (good thing she managed to stick with him) and then in her lesson she was with far too many people at too many different levels. She was not set up for success. Boy is that relatable to my first few lesson experiences!

I didn’t know what I didn’t know, so I was blinded by excitement at the prospect of riding horses. The barn had an array of mostly pintos with names like Seneca, Tequila, Cerveza… I think you’ll see the theme here. My very first ride was on Seneca, a lovely, chunky black and white paint who I now estimate was around 15 hands or so. I can’t say I remember exactly what happened on my first lesson, but I do know I was put in a group lesson just like Lisa was. I spent a few minutes with the instructor walking me around in a western saddle on this tolerant horse and I was in heaven. I ended up trotting a little that first day, but I was on the outside track, not a lunge. At least the instructor was close by, if memory serves.

This barn did group lessons much the same as Max seems to have set them up at Pine Hollow. There were anywhere from four to ten people of varying abilities riding in a lesson at once. We went around the outside track at the walk, then the trot, then we’d all come into the center of the arena and we’d split into groups to canter. I don’t know how long it was before I learned to canter, but for quite some time, my lessons consisted of walking and trotting around the outside track in both directions and then standing in the middle of the arena while everyone else went out in their canter groups, a few laps each direction.

This barn used tack in an unusual way–the lessons were a mix of horses outfitted in western tack, English tack, and what they called “half and half.” We started learning to ride in western tack, then went to half and half so we could use a western bridle, holding onto the reins in one hand, holding onto the front of the English saddle with the other. Then finally when we were good enough, we switched to fully English if that was our desire. Is that not how everyone learns, or…? 

At the time I didn’t know better and I had a blast. I regularly rode Seneca, Tequila, and a few other alcohol themed horses with a Summer and Autumn thrown in for good measure, and got stronger at my trot before eventually learning to canter. I don’t remember ever being on a lunge line and was happy to mosey on the outside track, learning to stop the horses from running into the middle of the arena every chance they got. Ah, the magic of beginner lesson horses! There was more than one occasion we all had to stop because someone (me) was being run away with, but that’s neither here nor there. 

When I finally learned to canter, it went a lot like Lisa’s first ride. We had a new pony at the barn called Jeep. She was an adorable grey, and looking back she was quite quarter horsey but could have been anything. She was spunky and I couldn’t believe my luck when they told me I got to ride her. I’d cantered a few times at this point thanks to my trusty alcoholic ponies, and was ready to conquer a ride on Jeep. When I asked the pony to canter, she took off bucking and off I flew, eating dirt for the first, second, third time. This theme continued over my subsequent rides on the mare, and I thought it was me who was doing a bad job. In reality, she was likely a horribly inappropriate pony to be putting beginners on, and our instructor probably shouldn’t have been chasing us around the arena with a shillelagh. I’m pretty sure there was grown-up juice in his water bottles while he was teaching. 

Side note: I just had an epiphany about why I was, a few years later, terrified to canter this lovely mare called Junebug at my next barn. She was another grey quarter horse type, and was the most comfortable thing you’d ever sit on. The first few times I rode her I absolutely refused to canter and my trainer could not figure out why, and to be honest neither could I. I rode the other horses with beginner confidence and was unafraid to canter them, but now I’m almost positive I was scared because she was a grey mare, just like Jeep. Memory is a funny thing, isn’t it? 

Eventually a woman took over our lessons and I began to actually learn something about riding. Soon after this, I signed up for a summer camp at Briarwood Farm, which was everything a lesson barn should be and everything my first riding stable was not. There, I learned from true horsemen and horsewomen not only how to ride, but how to care for these amazing animals. I also learned how to tack up finally, something that I was not permitted to learn in my year and a half at the other stable. I loved my first week at summer camp so much that my mom signed me up for a second week. I then started lessons there while I was still riding at the first stable, which only lasted a few weeks and I was finally where I was meant to be, in an English saddle on wonderful school horses riding under instructors I still admire to this day. 

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2004 Alyssa riding Moon at a show at Briarwood a few years after moving out of the crazy barn. Did I mention I have no pictures from that first barn because they didn’t allow parents to watch lessons? Totally normal, it’s fine.

I don’t often think of my first riding stable, mainly because I remained at Briarwood for nearly ten years and I attribute my entire riding foundation to them. I think I’ve also repressed some memories from my first riding experiences, which I can’t blame myself for as I look back with horror at the circumstances. But for all that it lacked, it gave me my start. Sometimes learning how to do things the wrong way is just as important as learning how to do them the correct way. In my experience, as soon as I saw what riding could be and what true horsemanship was, there was no turning back and I strove to learn and absorb as much about these animals as I possibly could. I was a true barn rat and loved every second of it. 

What about you? How did you get your start? Was it similar to Lisa’s experience or to mine, or did you have a more idyllic introduction to the equine world?

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