For many Texans, riding a horse is a rite of passage. Growing up in Cypress, I started riding at 8 years old and progressed to showing horses in places like Waco, Seguin, Fort Worth, and Houston by the time I was 10. My passion for horseback riding has stayed with me all these years later, but for many, the opportunity to learn how to ride never presents itself.
Whether for access reasons—multi-acre barns typically aren’t sitting in the middle of major cities—or financial reasons, many children don’t get a chance to become an equestrian. But it’s never too late to throw your leg over the saddle and go for a horseback ride.
Fortunately, there are facilities and horseback-riding instructors around the state who are skilled in various disciplines to fit every budget. And while there isn’t one central database that keeps track of all the best ranches, barns, retreats, and horse camps near you, there are handy resources available.
A quick search for equestrian Facebook groups in your area is a start. You can ask members for recommendations on where to take lessons or sign up for an educational horse camp.
Word of mouth is also something to consider; you might find someone within a few degrees of your circle of friends who can provide information about group trail rides or weekend horseback riding retreats. That’s actually how I came across 31-year-old Alyssa Osgood Kenney, who has been teaching students and training horses since opening AO Performance Horses in Friendswood in 2014. Kenney teaches an array of disciplines, including Western pleasure, ranch riding, and English.
Kenney works with people of all ages and experience levels, and she’s enjoyed watching many of her students evolve into self-assured, award-winning riders. “It’s much more than sitting in a saddle and learning how to ride,” she says. “Riding teaches people self-confidence, responsibility, and how to be independent. I’ve seen so many people grow and become confident and hardworking because of being around horses.”
I took lessons with Kenney last year after hearing about her program. Like most experienced instructors, she begins with the fundamental lesson of dealing with livestock: safety first.
“I always tell [students] that anything that has teeth can and will bite, and that’s my biggest concern, and walking behind them, which you shouldn’t do,” she says. “You can never forget that they’re animals, no matter how much you love them.”
Another beginning topic is how to ready a horse for the ride, which involves grooming and saddling. Students learn how to handle a horse straight from the pasture into the arena and back into the stall once they’ve gotten the lay of the land.
From there, Kenney lets riders settle into the saddle and learn how to guide their horses around with appropriate physical and verbal cues. She’ll meet students at their level while challenging them along the way. For beginners, that might be learning how to guide a horse around using their body and not relying on neck reining or tugging hard at the bit. More experienced riders might learn techniques for a lead change or mastering a horsemanship or equitation pattern for a horse show, such as the upcoming Houston Livestock Show, which many of Kenney’s students are participating in.
“In the beginning, especially, I want riders to feel comfortable in the saddle, get in rhythm with the horse, and not to brace against their body,” she says. “From there it’s learning how to stop the horse and how to guide them. They need to know wherever they point their hand and their body is where that horse is going to go. Those are the basics.”
Whether a novice or accomplished rider, there’s always room to learn and develop skills that carry over in other areas. Eleven-year-old Riley Sprang is a student in Kenney’s program and has been riding horses for almost six years. Her mother, Penny Sprang, says that in the time since her daughter has been in the saddle, she’s seen her skills grow, along with her wisdom.
“She’s young, so she wants to know it right away and right now, but she’s learning how to be more patient and to listen and to trust the process,” Penny says. “That’s a big deal for a girl her age.”
Becky Davis, 52, commutes from Austin to Friendswood once a week to ride her award-winning horse, Hank, who is stalled at Kenney’s barn. She appreciates Kenney’s guidance to get out of her comfort zone. “Whenever I say I can’t do something, she reminds me that I can, and she believes in you more than you’d ever believe in yourself,” Davis says.
When it comes to learning how to ride, that kind of instruction and support can make all the difference and make horseback riding a lifelong pursuit.
Looking for a horseback riding instructor, barn, summer camp, or ranch near you? Here are a few places that can teach you good riding skills.
Lazo Performance Horses
Sabine Lazo, owner of Lazo Performance Horses, has won world titles in classes like showmanship, Western pleasure, and hunter under saddle (a fancy term for English riding). And while she is an undeniable pro at the sport, many of her students are just starting out. Lazo offers one-hour beginner lessons for $40.
Sugar and Spice Ranch
Need a weekend with the girls or a summer camp for your daughter? Leigh McCourt’s Hill Country ranch is a relaxing getaway focused on celebrating anything and everything equine. The ranch’s week-long camps cost $2,399 for mothers and daughters and $1,199 for individual young girls. Students learn everything from picking hooves, bathing, saddling, and riding. The facility also offers a $630 package for a 3-day riding adventure.
Debi Jones Performance Horses
Based in Lamar County, Debbie Jones teaches lessons for $45 an hour in disciplines like Western pleasure, trail, and English. You’ll see her horses and clients competing in shows put on by the American Quarter Horse Association, American Paint Horse Association, and other breed organizations.
Riverbend Equestrian Center
For those adventurous riders who want to learn about jumping, Riverbend Equestrian Center offers lessons for $50 an hour. Sandra Vingas, trainer and horseback riding instructor at the facility, teaches students of all ages six days a week on everything they need to know before taking that first big leap over a jump.
Lone Star Ranch
Whether you want to go on a scenic, sunset group trail ride, or need personalized, one-on-one lessons, Lone Star Ranch has something for everyone. Its $125 group trail rides are a great experience, but if you want to keep learning, the $90 hour-long lessons are the way to go. The working ranch also offers private parties and an after-school riding program.
Steve Archer Quarter Horses
Known for his immersive reining lessons, Steve Archer offers lessons are $75 an hour, and he teaches students all there is to know about riding Western. For Yellowstone fans who want to know how to ride a reining horse like they do on the mega-popular show, Archer is your man.