Isn’t money the worst? I know we need it for the economy and to live and all those things, but my god, does it suck to feel like your dreams are constrained by silly pieces of paper we’ve deemed to hold a particular value. Personally, I don’t have a money tree growing anywhere on my property. Trust me, I’ve looked. For years. Alas, it doesn’t exist, but my aspirations still do.
Growing up, I had access to a couple of trainers, but all of them were on a quid pro quo basis. Not coming from an equestrian family means that the steep price of horse care can overwhelm a budget, much less trying to work in lessoning and clinics on top of the cost of living. That’s okay. Especially now as a semi-adult, I’m in awe of my parents for somehow making it work for me to pursue something I loved so much at such a young age – mainly when that meant I told them I was going to buy a foal… At 14… And somehow pay for her??
One of the questions I get asked the most about continuing your education on a budget or with limited access to a trainer. I’m here to say it can be done IF you work hard and you utilize every single one of your resources with your horse.
Working Student and Exercise Riding Positions
Doesn’t being a working student sound glamorous? Ponies and barn chores from sun up to sun down, lessons, maybe living on the property and bringing your own horse, possibly moving states… Lies. As the average adult amateur, we are not the target audience for working student positions. Young riders whose aspirations are to become a young professional are really the most attractive employees for these types of positions. You have to consider the pay (or lack of it), the relocation, the time commitment, and on top of all of that, the trainer you will be working under. Typically, as a working student, you have access to a trainer as you are grooming, tacking up, hacking, warming up/cooling down clients’ horses. You might school those horses, clinic on them, show them. You might help ride the sales horses. If you have your own horse that the trainer allows you to bring, your work will typically pay off board, feed, and lessons. You’ll also be doing the barn work, such as cleaning stalls, tack, general upkeep, etc., so it is not a position for the faint of heart or those who do not like manual labor. That being said, it can be a remarkably fulfilling and educational experience, especially if you find the right trainer. Just be sure to fully vet the position by talking to the trainer, getting exact specifications of your required work, talk to formed working students or other assistant trainers. Do your due diligence. I have been a version of a working student, and while it was completely exhausting, I found it very rewarding. However, it’s really on a case by case basis.
As for exercise riders… I don’t really know what else to call them. It’s those sort of flimsy, informal relationships where you’re helping a breeder or farm owner by working their horses and lessoning with a trainer of their choice while in return, your payment is all the riding and lessoning. This was my arrangement as a teenager for a small sport horse Arab breeding stable. They were a senior couple, and while they had a live-in working student, she couldn’t manage ALL the horses. I catch rode a horse of theirs at a clinic, and they liked me enough to offer to let me ride a small string. I went out 3-4 days a week, first thing in the morning, and usually rode four horses. Two were just maintenance and conditioning work to keep them comfortable in their age, and two were still in some type of training. I occasionally rode with the trainer than came to their barn. There was an offer of a show here and there at their expense to get the horses out and about. These can be incredibly beneficial relationships to get your name out there, build connections with trainers, and ride a vast variety of horses.
Online and Video Sources
Contrary to popular belief, there are decent resources available online, depending upon how you learn best. One option is dressagetodayonline.com, which offers high quality videos on a wide variety of topics, from saddle fitting, clinic series, different ages and breeds. On top of that, there’s a 30- day free trial. Another option is dressagepro.com, a European website that offers various training modules. An additional option is dressage-academy.com, which offers training from a wide variety of trainers with movement specific training or levels and tests. To be fair, none of these types of things can truly replicate the real life feel and reactions of a horse, but if you’re looking to expand your repertoire of knowledge and possible helpful exercises, these could be beneficial supplemental material.
Honestly, my favorite supplemental material was just plain and simple YouTube. The USDF’s channgel, USDFORG, is fabulous. You can find tons of videos you can use to help train your eye on what to look for, and maybe even more importantly, what to avoid. What I typically did was go through each level, each test, and search for videos posted by riders that included their overall score. I would pull up the test and try to judge it myself – scoring each movement as if I was in the judge box – then do the magic dressage math to see how close I was. What was even better was videos riders posted with each movement scored and with the comment. Almost invaluable when beginning to train your eye to see things critically and correctly. The great variety of tests, new and old, and horses of a wide variety of breeds and ages, make this a highly underutilized tool. If you’re interested but don’t know where to start, either drop a comment here or contact me on Instagram. I can share a good starting list. For the moment, I’ll attach a couple links below
Training Level: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3ki19i5sYeY
First Level: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HCNc4OHbZ10
Second Level: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NTe_o9oKhKI&t=119s
Third Level: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dk3vX_wedw4
Fourth Level: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UFrGp_uOO_A
Utilize Your Local Club
FIND YOUR LOCAL DRESSAGE CLUB AND LOVE THEM LIKE THEY GAVE YOU THE MOON because they will. For the small membership price of $45-$75 (it varies on age and region), you get access to a wealth of information. Most clubs, like my “alma mater,” ADA, aka the Alamo Dressage Association, put together a treasure trove of educational seminars and almost always need volunteers. They typically will put on all types of clinics that you can pay to ride in or pay to audit. People ask “but why should I pay to audit? I’m not riding.” Here’s the answer: you are still gaining education material and exercises that you would not have access to otherwise. Contrary to popular belief, being an upper-level trainer is not an exorbitantly wealthy lifestyle. Maybe their facilities are nice, but you, by paying your audit fee, are helping the club or stable that brought in these trainers for clinics make back some of the capital they have to invest, which included per diem, travel costs, working their tails off coaching for one-two days straight, facility rental if the host doesn’t own the property. At the end of the day, you are learning from someone you would otherwise not have access to, and it’s like a form of intellectual piracy. You will utilize the exercises you see, take notes, ask questions, and so many other things that far outweigh the price of auditing for a weekend. But what if money so tight that you can’t spare auditor fees? I’ve got a solution – volunteer!!
Find your local USDF affiliated club here: https://www.usdf.org/clubs/list.asp?TypePass=GMO
Volunteering Your Time For Your Education
Volunteering through your local club in positions like the gatekeeper, scorer, runner, or the most highly coveted of positions, scribe, will provide you with a tremendous amount of priceless experience. If you can’t afford to audit, ask if you can volunteer throughout the day with set up/tear down for your audit fee. All you have to do is volunteer your time and hard work. I became very close with the board of trustees of ADA and as soon as I was old enough, began to run and gatekeep. Gatekeeping is fascinating as you are also responsible for equipment checks after riders under the supervision of the Technical Delegate (TD). It’s an important responsibility, and it should be taken very seriously. If you’re able to work all day, you get to watch the rides and, even more importantly, the warm-ups. Plus, if you’re as loony as me, you’ll be watching the rides, scoring them yourself, approximating a total % in your head, and be able to check the scores later in the day to see how right/wrong you are. Most clubs have long time scorers, but it’s never a bad idea to volunteer. I was voluntold (similarly to my first experience scribing) into scoring a show, and it’s a fascinating opportunity to learn about what goes on behind the scenes.
You will quickly learn this very valuable lesson: don’t judge a rider by the way they praise their horse after a test, judge them by how they treat their animal when they think no one is looking. You’ll find the best and worst examples of horsemanship right in that warm-up arena.
However, the ultimate and highly coveted volunteer position is the scribe. You are LITERALLY the judge’s left or right hand, trying to translate their comments into those tiny boxes for riders to learn from in a shorthand that all dressage riders should know, as well as keep on top of adding the numerical scores, and managing who is coming in, having the correct test, and informing the judge of any changes, small or material, in what is going on. There is nothing better than listening to a judge, asking questions between riders, seeing what they see from that box at C, and my personal favorite, having lunch with them and picking their brain. It’s eye-opening and will change the way you ride and train. Get practice with this at schooling competitions to begin with, and then volunteer weeks or even months in advance to secure your spot at recognized competitions. If you get the opportunity to but haven’t done it before and are unsure of the shorthand mentioned above, either attend a scribing clinic if provided or reach out to me. It’s not too complicated. You just have to work fast!
Budgeting For Lessons and Side Hustles
Okay. Some facts. Did you know the average American eats nearly $250 of take-out or drive through meals a month? That’s close to $63 per week! What about subscription services? Somewhere between $80-$115 a month. What about coffee? At Starbucks, specifically. One thousand and one hundred dollars ($1,100) a YEAR. Convenience is a huge factor, I think all of us can agree on that, but that’s an exorbitant amount of money spent on unnecessary things.
When you’re budgeting for the month, really sit down and think about how much of your hard-earned money (or your student loans) you are spending on things you could actually live without. If you don’t have a budget, it’s a vital skill, and you absolutely should be doing it, no matter how old you are or what stage of your life you are in. If riding is your passion and you are determined to continue your education, you must make sacrifices in less essential areas of your life to provide for a paramount purpose. So, sit down and REALLY think. What are you wasting money on? Where can you make cuts to save even small amounts of cash you could set aside? You’re in charge of your finances. And if you’re on the younger side and want to help contribute horsey expenses your family may pay for? Maybe you work a mostly full-time job but struggle to make room in your pocket book for lesson money? This is for you.
Maybe you are living on the edge. You walk the razor line of making sure your horses have a place to stay. There’s nowhere else you can make cuts in your budget. Pick. Up. Odd. Jobs. And. Set. Up. A. Separate. Banking. Account. For. Those. Wages. One you don’t have access to very easily! Direct deposit is your friend! Your time is worth a little $$. Become a dog walker or watch people’s animals. Offer to clean tack or clean stalls or farm sit. If you can, babysit. If you’re old enough, look for small weekend jobs you can pick up and afford. They don’t have to be glamorous. They don’t have to be things you want to add to your resume later in life. Don’t be embarrassed if it’s in the service industry. You’re sacrificing your time and hard work to benefit an essential part of your life! No one should never make you feel lesser than because of that. Consider tutoring in an academic subject you’re good at, reading and editing people’s papers for a little cash, online customer service for companies like Amazon, Apple, Hilton, and many others, data entry, even plasma donation.
Depending on which one of my trainers (both FEI riders) I see, I usually pay $65-$85 per lesson. If you can budget tightly and add a little side hustle, you can make lessons at least two times a month happen. You can do it, you just have to recognize where you are a spendthrift. Have you ever heard that old adage “people don’t need a $30,000 horse, they need a $1,000 horse and $29,000 worth of lessons”? Nothing has ever been more accurate. Focus on making what matters to you, your horse, and making your riding career happen.
Hopefully, this is helpful to all of those who asked and all of those who wonder about it on a daily basis. Until next time, my dears!