Taking the Reins: Learn to Ride a Horse

Learning to ride a horse is not as hard as you might think. Here are tips on how and where to get started.

One of Marcia House’s prized possessions is a photo of herself at age four, dressed in a cowgirl outfit and perched on a pony.

“I’ve been crazy about horses since I first knew what they were,” says House, cofounder of Fairfax4Horses, a nonprofit that raises money to build public equestrian facilities in Fairfax County, and vice president of the Northern Virginia Coalition of Equestrian Organizations.

House, who grew up in Arlington, teaches at the barn near Manassas where she boards her horses, Chessie and Poncho.

We asked House how to take up horseback riding and why horses make good pets—even though they can’t live in the house with us.

What would people be surprised to know about horses?

They’re more intelligent than people give them credit for. They can’t sleep in our bed, but there’s a bond that forms. They’re loyal and generous. They want very little—food, water, shelter, and to be treated kindly—and for that, they give you the best of their abilities.

In our jumping days, if I made a mistake, Chessie would compensate for my error and go over anyway. She turned 30 in April, and she’s still going.

What kind of personality do horses have?

Some horses are very social. Others are aloof; others are fearful. The fourth personality type is a challenger—these horses need to be boss. My horses are social. Chessie will nicker when she sees me or hears my voice. Poncho has fallen asleep with his head on my shoulder. He loves it when you whisper in his ear.

If you want to ride, should you buy a horse?

I tell people not to even consider buying one until they have been riding for three to four years. When you’re a beginner, you want a Steady Eddie. They’re content to cart you around as you learn how to balance. As your skill goes up, you’re going to want a horse that’s able to do more.

How much does it cost to maintain a horse?

If you have a horse that’s healthy and doesn’t require loads of trips to the vet, it will cost between $5,000 and $6,000 to board it each year. Insurance runs about $500 to $600.

Is riding good for you?

Horseback riding develops coordination and balance. It’s a great stress reliever—it requires concentration, so it’s easy to leave work and home behind.

Where can people take lessons?

Montgomery County has six facilities offering trails and lessons on public parkland, including the Potomac Horse Center and Meadowbrook Riding Stables in Chevy Chase. In DC, Rock Creek Park Horse Center offers lessons. In Virginia, a large barn is Woodlawn Stables in Alexandria.

What if you want to ride for a day?

Shenandoah National Park and Rock Creek Park Horse Center offer guided trail rides. Prices average $30 to $40 an hour.

When should kids start to ride?

Eight is the standard starting age for kids to take lessons—they have the hand-eye coordination then. Kids who are really athletic can start a little earlier.

Should kids start in group or private lessons?

It depends on the child. If you ride privately with an instructor, you will learn faster. But kids have fun in groups. If you choose a private instructor, be sure he or she carries a liability policy.

How much do lessons cost?

Most people start off with one hourlong lesson a week. Group lessons run $35 to $40 an hour; private lessons run $50 to $75. Semiprivate lessons average $45.

Some people are nervous to ride. Is it dangerous?

I don’t think it’s more dangerous than any other sport—you can get hurt playing baseball. The more you learn and the more sensible you are, the less likely you are to get hurt.

It’s important to be dressed properly—a riding helmet and riding boots with a low, flat heel and flat sole. There are riding vests to protect the chest and upper back.

This article is from the June 2008 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from the issue, click here.

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