The horse is a powerful animal, and riding one can be an immensely gratifying experience. Mastering skills that allow you to manage a horse is a long-term process. But regardless of your skill level, knowing the basics about horses and horsemanship will make the experience a safer one for you, other riders, and the horse.
Origins of the Horse
The modern-day horse, known by the Latin name Equus caballus, is much larger than its predecessors. It evolved into its present-day form in three stages.
About 58 million years ago, the first horselike animal, Eohippus (also known as Hyracotherium), appeared. Doglike in appearance, it stood only 12″ high at the withers (highest point of the shoulders) and had four toes on the forefeet and three on its hind feet. Eohippus lived in forested, swampy environments in North America.
Mesohippus, which first appeared during the Oligocene Epoch (34–24 million years ago), stood 24″ high at the withers and had three toes on all four feet, the third toe being the largest and most hooflike. Its evenly shaped teeth were adapted for grazing in its new, grassy environment.
Equus caballus, the modern-day horse, has only one toe on each foot. For unknown reasons, Equus caballus died out in North America. Before complete extinction, though, some of the Equus population crossed the Bering Strait between Alaska and Siberia and were later domesticated and refined in Europe and Asia. Spaniards returned the Equus caballus to North America on ships in the 16th century.
Basic Horse Terminology
Horses are categorized by age and sex as follows:
- Foal: A male or female horse less than 1 year old
- Yearling: A male or female horse 1–2 years old
- Colt: A male horse less than 4 years old
- Filly: A female horse less than 4 years old
- Stallion: A fertile, adult male horse
- Gelding: A castrated male horse, typically an adult
- Mare: An adult female horse
Before you saddle a horse and ride, there are many factors to consider. Not all barns or riding centers are alike, and neither are the instructors and stable managers who work there. Your first task is to locate a barn and decide on the style of riding that’s best for you. To find a stable or barn that best fits your needs:
- Ask friends, neighbors, and colleagues if they have any equine riding center experience and can make a recommendation.
- Contact your local USDA cooperative extension office and ask for a recommendation.
- Contact a local, regional, or national equine organization for advice or a list of certified instructors teaching in your area.
- Visit potential riding centers for firsthand observation of instructor-student interaction and the general care and disposition of the horses.
Above all, trust your gut instinct when selecting a barn or a riding center.
The following organizations are good resources for obtaining a list of recommended or certified riding instructors in your area:
- 4-H: The largest U.S.–based youth development organization, 4-H offers many equine-related learning experiences for children. See youth.gov/federal-links/national-4-h-headquarters.
- American Riding Instructors Association: Teaches adults and children and also certifies horse-riding instructors. See www.riding-instructor.com.
- American Youth Horse Council: Promotes the youth horse industry, providing educational materials and spotlighting the relationship a young rider can have with a horse. See www.ayhc.com.
- Certified Horsemanship Association: Focuses on safety by training and certifying instructors, and inspecting and accrediting equine facilities. See www.cha-ahse.org.
- United States Pony Club: Offers classes in equine sports and horse management to equestrians 21 years of age and younger. See www.ponyclub.org.
Questions to Ask
Here are some questions to ask centers and instructors:
- What ages and abilities do you teach? (Not all centers have the same focus. Some specialize in teaching children; others concentrate on adults and advanced competitive riders.)
- What style of riding do you teach? (English and Western are the most popular styles, but certain centers teach more specialized disciplines such as dressage, jumping, and rodeo.)
- Are your students there for pleasure riding or competitive training?
- How many students are in a lesson?
- Are parents invited to stay and watch?
- Does a lesson include grooming, tacking (outfitting the horse with equipment), and cool-down, or only riding?
- How long is a typical lesson?
- Do I need to arrive early for my lesson to prepare my horse?
- Are your instructors certified? If so, in what areas? (Not all certified instructors are excellent instructors, and some uncertified instructors are outstanding.)
- Is your facility insured?
- Is there year-round riding at your facility?
- Do you have indoor riding facilities for inclement-weather days?
- Am I guaranteed a lesson each week?
- Will I be charged if I need to cancel a lesson? How much notice must I give?
- Will I have the same instructor each week?
- Once I reach a certain level of competency, will practice times be made available to me?
- Do you lease space to horse owners? If so, will they be riding in the ring at the same time as I am? (This can be both intimidating and dangerous, depending on the skill of the riders involved.)