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Boarder's horse being used for lessons

From: Debra

Hi Jessica,

My 5-yr-old Morgan mare is boarded and in half-training at a nearby stable. She is half-leased by a girl in 4-H and they get along well. The arrangement is that I have one day to ride (my lesson day), the lessee has three days and the mare is in training the rest of the week. Recently, at a barn potluck, I discovered that my trainer has been using my mare as a lesson horse for another student of hers. Although she had remarked once that the girl had had "a couple" lessons on my mare, it appears that this is more of a regular thing than she let on.

There are two things that bother me. I wasn't asked if it would be okay for my mare to be used as this girl's lesson horse. I would hate to make this girl sad by putting the nix on her riding my horse (she is obviously smitten with her), but it seems there was some courtesy lacking here. Is it right for our trainer to be making money off a horse that the lessee and I are paying her to board? Am I within my rights to ask for a discount for me or the lessee on our board? I'm not sure which day of the week these lessons take place on. If they take place on a training day, is this really training for my mare?

Thanks for your advice.


Hi Debbie! Sometimes it can work out well to have a boarder's horse used in a barn's lesson program, but when this is done, it needs to be official, formal, and involve a contract that specifies the conditions of use, the compensation, etc. Under NO circumstances is it acceptable for the barn owner or resident instructor or anyone else to TAKE a boarder's horse and use it in a lesson program without the horse-owner's permission. If the horse is being leased or part-leased, that makes no difference, because the owner would still need to be consulted, and the final decision would be made by the owner. This goes well beyond the question of courtesy - this barn-owner has acted badly and very unprofessionally.

YOU aren't completely off the hook here, either - when the barn owner said to you that she'd used your mare for "a couple of lessons", that may have been her way of testing the waters and finding out how you felt about this practice. Since you didn't react one way or the other, she probably took that to mean that you didn't care. She is still in the wrong, there's no doubt about that, but do keep in mind that at that moment, you should have said "What?" or "Why didn't you ask me?" or "Please don't ever do that again" or "I don't mind if you use my mare for lessons, but we'll need to draw up a new contract or change the terms of our boarding contract." You're the horse's owner. It's your responsibility to speak up for your horse - and to keep track of what is being done with the horse, when, how, and by whom.

The answers to your questions, in order, are NO, YES, and NO, ALMOST CERTAINLY NOT. You can find out the answer to the last one by watching the lesson - and by watching your mare's training sessions. You should be involved in those in any case, since the mare is being trained for you to ride. You should know when the sessions are, how long they are, and what goes on during those sessions. Somewhere in your training contract, it should specify matters like what the horse will do and who will be riding the horse - and if the horse is simply being used as a lesson horse, then no, that's not training, unless you specifically asked that the horse be trained to be a lesson horse. I somehow doubt that.

What you've described is a real betrayal of trust. I've seen it happen at many barns over the years, and in too many cases, the horse's owner didn't act until something bad happened to the horse. In one case, the owner of an elderly mare with a respiratory problem had given permission for her mare to be used in occasional lessons, but specified that the riders be small and lightweight, and that the lessons be only at walk and trot, and that the mare not be used in the extremely dusty indoor arena. Even when the mare became dead lame and developed a bad case of heaves, the owner didn't realize what was going on, until the night she dropped by the barn late, on her way home from an out-of-town conference, and found her mare in the dusty indoor arena, being cantered and jumped in a lesson... by a very large and heavy rider. In another case, a worried parent showed up for a lesson and asked some pointed questions - and found out that it was the barn-owner's practicex to give the children "lessons" on the just-off-the-track Thoroughbreds she was supposed to be "training". It wasn't good for the horses or for the children, but it was good for her income. ;-)

Those are not the sorts of surprises that horse-owners (or parents) enjoy, so unless you can sit down with this barn-owner and hammer out the terms of a contract that will be agreeable to both of you (and, one hopes, in the best interest of the horse), and unless you can then verify, on a daily basis, that the terms of the contract are being respected, your best move may be, in fact, to move. There's no reason you couldn't continue your part-lease somewhere else, if you are fond of the young girl who is riding your mare.

I'm afraid that something like this would cause me to remove my horse from the barn the next day, even if I were only boarding the horse at the facility. If I had actually been trusting this person to train my horse, I would probably take the horse away immediately, and not even wait for the next day. I would then look for a place run by someone trustworthy, preferably a barn where my young horse could have a day or two of turnout each week, with no riding. Being ridden every day in lessons is hard work even for a fully-trained and physically-mature animal, and this is a very young, green mare.

Whatever you decide to do, please make it your permanent habit to be aware of your horse's riding schedule, training schedule, and living conditions, no matter where she is kept and no matter whom is riding or handling her. She can't protect herself or speak up in her own defense. Those things are your responsibility.


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