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Riding course or saddle?

From: Annette

Dear Jessica, I am grateful to you for the information I find every week in my "in" box, and I am always amazed by the breadth and depth of your knowledge and compassion. My ambition is to be like you. I love to ride, but there is so much more to horsemanship than riding that I think I could survive not riding if my life could still revolve around horses. But that said, I need to ask for your advice on a matter to do with riding as well as horsemanship!

For some time, I have been planning to take a holiday that would revolve around horses and learning more about horses and improving my riding. I had been planning to go on holiday with a friend from work, and we have spent most of our lunch hours for the last year in discussing our various options. Sadly for me but happily for her, my friend has fallen in love and will be getting married soon, and we will not be taking our holiday together. Now I feel unsure about whether I should still do this, but it's something I want very much indeed. Fiona and I had narrowed our choices down to three possibilities, two with the focus on dressage and one with the focus on jumping (I am more interested in dressage, Fiona is more interested in jumping), but now that it appears I will be going alone, I am having a difficult time deciding what to do. What I want is not so much a relaxing holiday but the chance to go on a sort of mini-course for five days or a week. I would want to ride, of course, and I would dearly love to focus on dressage and also do some jumping, but I don't know whether that is possible. I want to find a course that will offer me more than just riding lessons - one with courses or at least lectures to help me learn. I have found several trainers who advertise such courses, but now I have another problem to make my life more complicated still!

Some years ago, I spent my annual holiday riding with another friend, Sylvie, who owned several horses and was kind enough to let me spend my holiday riding one of her horses. It was the most wonderful holiday of my life. Now she has sold her horses and is selling her saddles. She has a very nice saddle that she would be willing to sell to me. It is the one I used when I rode her horses, and it was very comfortable, I remember it fondly. I would love to own a saddle, it would make me feel much more serious about my chances of becoming a good rider. Don't most good riders own their saddles? I am sure they do. Sylvie will sell me the saddle at a good price, it works out to less than $1,000 U.S., but now comes my problem. I can't afford both the saddle and the riding course. The course I most want to go on would cost a little more than the saddle, not much more, for four days. The course is for only ten riders at a time. (There is a two-day course for only four riders, which would be even more wonderful, but it costs twice as much so sadly that one is out of my reach.) We would ride in lessons twice a day and have two hours of lectures also. I have no idea how to compare the worth of this experience with the worth of Sylvie's saddle. Please help me make sense of my thinking on this matter! I need to decide within the next few weeks as after that, Sylvie will advertise her saddle for sale and I am quite certain that someone will buy it immediately. Also, if I am to go on the four-day course during the summer, I need to sign up soon as it is limited to only ten riders at a time. Please give me the benefit of your wisdom and perspective.


Hi Annette!

First, on a personal note:

Your question is of particular interest to me at this time, as I have just begun accepting a very few riders (one or two at a time, with their own horses) for short, intensive one-, two-- and three-day non-residential courses at my new farm. The farm is still very much a "work in progress", with minimal facilities for horses and riding, and I hadn't intended bringing in any riders for another two or three years, but it seems that there are a few dedicated, brave souls who are eager to haul their horses in for the privilege of taking their riding lessons in a grass field and having their lectures at the dining room table. ;-) Because it's early days, I would like to ask a favour of you and of any other readers who have been on such "short courses" - I would very much like to know which aspects of the experience you found most worthwhile and most compelling - and which (if any) you found to be disappointing. In both cases, I should like to know the reasons. (You don't have to name names.)

And now, on to your question!

I think it would make good sense for you to sit down with a pencil and two sheets of notepaper. Call one "riding course", the other "saddle", draw a vertical line down the center of each sheet, and list the reasons FOR and AGAINST. Don't try to be all-knowing, don't try to assign relative values to the reasons, just list every single thought that comes into your head.

I think that you need to separate your wish to go on a course from your long, happy anticipation of the holiday you had planned to take with Fiona. Similarly, you need to separate your wish to own a saddle from your happy memories of your wonderful holiday with Sylvie and her horses. That will make it easier for you to decide based on what you MAY do rather than on what you wish you could do or what you remember enjoying.

Before you select any riding course, be sure that you know as much as possible about it. Obviously the caliber of the instructor is what will matter most, but don't forget to look at the bigger picture. Sometimes residential courses, like working student positions, can be made infinitely less enjoyable by the quality of the meals and accomodations - if any. I well remember the plight of one friend of mine who (together with several other riders on the same course) contracted pneumonia after spending two weeks sleeping in an unheated caravan and eating practically nothing - students on his "working student course" were expected to find their own meals, but their working hours generally kept them occupied from sun-up til well past shop-closing time. This would not be a problem for a four-day course like the one you describe, as you would need to be on the premises only four hours each day, but it would still be a good idea for you to find out how much your food and lodging (if not included in the price) are likely to cost you.

I'm not sure how "limited" the course is if there are ten riders involved. I would tend to classify such lessons as "large group lessons". Obviously there is no problem having ten or twenty or thirty people attending a lecture, but in a one-hour lesson that is shared by ten riders, I would wonder just how much individual attention any single rider could expect. You might find that the two-day course with only four riders sharing lessons works out to be more worthwhile even if it costs a good bit more.

Sometimes courses are overseen by the head instructor, who also offers lectures, but the group lessons are taught by other instructors. This can work well if the instructors are good and the groups are small; it can work badly if the instructors are not so good, and/or if the class is not subdivided according to abilities and interests, but simply handed over to the other instructors. Find out who will be doing the teaching, and find out BEFORE you sign up for the course - that way, you can eliminate one possible cause of disappointment. Find out the daily schedule, as well - some people are invigorated by the thought of getting up very early to ride in a lesson at seven or eight in the morning; others, who perhaps don't feel fully conscious or functional until nine or ten in the morning, are horrified by the very thought. Some people enjoy lectures in the early afternoon - others tend to nod off, no matter how fascinating the subject or how animated the speaker. The better you know yourself, the better will be your ability to make a good choice.

Now, let me address the question of "riding course or saddle?". If you had a horse of your own, did NOT have a good saddle for it, and knew that Sylvie's saddle fit your horse well and was comfortable for you, then I would say "Consider the saddle as a reasonable alternative to the course." But you don't have a horse - and you have no way of knowing whether you would ever be able to use this saddle. Most riding courses subdivide rather neatly into those that provide horses and saddles, and those that cater to riders who bring their OWN horses and saddles. Some riding holiday organizers do allow riders to bring their own personal saddles, but those saddles will be used ONLY if they actually fit the horses assigned to the riders. All of this makes perfect sense, but it does rather go against the idea of buying your own saddle "just in case". There are too many "if" factors involved; it's not clear that you would get any benefit from owning the saddle. It's rather like purchasing a set of horse shoes - something that would be of no use without a horse, and would quite possibly not prove to be a good fit for the horse you eventually find yourself riding - or, someday, owning.

Yes, many riders DO own their own saddles, but most of them get their horses first! As you'll see if you read through the relevant material in the HORSE-SENSE archives, there are two sides to a saddle, and the one that fits the HORSE is the first priority. It's a rare, lucky rider who buys a saddle first, THEN buys a horse, and finds that the horse is comfortable and goes well in the saddle she already owns. Many riders, even with the horse in their barn and a good understanding of saddle-fitting, go through months of what they call "saddle-fitting hell" on their way to finding the right saddle for their horse and their needs.

So... I would advise against the purchase of the saddle. I think your idea of investing in your education is much better, and will give you more joy and more lasting results. One thing you might want to do, though, is go back to the very beginning in terms of choosing a course. You and Fiona were planning to do this together, which means that on your way to selecting your "top three" course possibilities, you eliminated all of the courses that didn't suit you or that didn't suit her. Now that you're planning to go alone, you won't have the benefit of Fiona's company, but - this could be a "plus" - you won't be as limited in your choice of courses. Why not take another look at the courses that interested YOU most? Then choose your personal "top three", and then contact the organizers and ask for additional information. You may find yourself enrolled in, and enjoying, a course that's quite different to the ones you and Fiona had chosen together. While you are collecting information, be sure to verify that any brochure you have reflects the current situation in terms of instructors and facilities. Otherwise, you may arrive at the venue to discover significant changes, for good (Hurrah, they've added an indoor school!) or for bad (Oh dear, there's a block of flats where the cross-country course used to be!). Sometimes, when an establishment's "glory days" involved the presence of one particular instructor, that instructor continues to appear in brochures even years after s/he resigns and moves elsewhere. Be sure that your information is up-to-date.

Keep the quality of the instruction uppermost in your mind and #1 on your priority list - I cannot say this too often! If your choice is between top-quality dressage instruction with no jumping, or average-quality dressage AND jumping instruction, be aware of the long-term implications of the choice you will make. Select the option that will give you the best opportunity to develop your skills and knowledge. If you truly want to study both aspects of riding, why not go on a good dressage course THIS year, and perhaps go on a good combined-training course or jumping course next year or the year after that? For someone like yourself who has a real interest in riding and horsemanship, education is a life-long occupation. (Some horsemen would say that the study of horsemanship requires MORE than one lifetime, and I would tend to agree.) If you're going on a course to LEARN, you need to seek out the best possible instruction, whether it's for one day or seven. At the end of the day, it's what you take away in your HEAD that matters most, because that's what will endure. Unlike a saddle, good instruction and good information will serve you for a lifetime. You'll be able to take your improved riding skills and greater understanding of horses, and use these things forever. Unlike a saddle, it can be modified, added to, and used with every horse you ride, for the rest of your life.

The budget issue is common to most riders, heaven knows. Everyone - everyone I know, at any rate - is working within a budget. As usual, it's a matter of setting priorities and not feeling deprived because you can't have it all. Someone like yourself will choose to invest in education - which may mean staying in cheap lodgings and eating inexpensively during (and perhaps before and after!) the course. For you, it will be worth it. For someone else, someone looking for the "relaxing holiday" that doesn't interest YOU, the ideal holiday experience might involve a few restful nights at a reasonably posh hotel in a small town, or at a not-very-posh hotel in a big city with more options for shopping and entertainment. The cost would be the same. If it's any comfort, I know some people who would think you utterly mad for wanting to spend money so that you could immerse yourself in the study of riding and horsemanship for a few days, getting up early and working hard each day.... but those same people don't hesitate to spend an insane amount of money - the very amount you cited for the course or saddle - on the purchase of two or three pairs of new SHOES, which I personally think marks THEM as utterly mad. ;-) Don't feel that you need to answer to anyone else for your choice in this matter. It's YOUR holiday, YOUR money, and YOUR life - get all the information, decide what means most to you, and do that. If your heart and brain are both engaged, you won't go wrong.


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