Q: I’m just starting out in the sport and want to compete seriously, but I’m getting lots of mixed advice. Do I need to own my own horse in order to be successful at the rated level? 

A: As a trainer, I don’t really have superb lesson horses that could compete at the higher levels successfully. But I do lease a lot of great horses to and for my clients.

Leasing gives pretty much the same kind of experience as owning, except you don’t have the huge up-front expense, and you don’t have to worry about owning and paying on a horse into their retirement. But you can ride daily, and show when you and your trainer feel it’s time. You can also treat and enjoy that horse like it’s your own.

As a trainer, I don’t know how you would ever get good enough to ride at a top show without lots of time in the tack. For me, you can’t do that without owning or leasing.

Riding is not like soccer, where you can practice any day of the week. You need a horse to participate in the practice. So, with that in mind, I’d have to say, do you have to own? No. But if you don’t own, then you do have to lease (and in my experience, a full lease, not a sharing, partial-lease arrangement—that never works well for anyone!).

There are, of course, exceptions to these thoughts: some people get opportunities to use horses as part of an exchange or barter. But I don’t think you can exclusively ride in a lesson program without a horse of your own, and expect to have the skills to compete at top shows. For me, as a trainer, I would say it’s either not allowed or not going to happen!

As a judge, I still don’t see how you can show at the rated level without an owned or leased horse.  But since I can’t know the background of each rider that walks into my ring, I can’t really comment further than that.

As a mom, I would say there’s no possible way. At times, I’ve had the thought in my head that my daughter can just ride what’s given to her, as she’s a trainer’s kid that has ridden her whole life. But doing that never worked in reality.

For one thing, you lack the love and emotion that seeing the horse you own every day gives you. For me, that’s the main reason to do this sport. The connection you have with your own horse, the responsibility for caring for him/her, and the bonds of love you develop are always what keeps you coming back for more. It’s also what makes you want to be better, and that’s something you can only get from a horse that’s your very own.

Maybe it’s something that can’t be described until you get to that point, but then you realize it all. Can you get good riding once/twice/three times a week in a lesson situation or using someone else’s horse? Yes. Do you get the whole riding experience that defines why we really do this sport? No.

From a mom’s perspective, I would (and will) bend over backward always and forever to see that smile that comes over my kid’s face when she looks at her own horse or pony. The drive and compassion that a four-legged animal can give your child—you can’t replace that with anything!

Dana Hart-Callanan is a successful hunter, jumper and equitation coach, an ‘R’ judge, and a sales broker. In this column, she answers common questions about A-level sport. Send your questions to news@horsenetwork.com for consideration in a future column.