The Cost of Things: Staying Sane By Riding Horses In NYC
The first time I was introduced to a horse, I was small enough that it could have knocked me over with a tail swish. My grandfather was a farmer, and though he didn’t have horses himself anymore when I was born, there were a few pastured next door. Most of the horses in that valley were working animals, and rarely ridden, but there is a photo of my grandparents, early in their marriage, with my grandma perched on the back of a draft horse and my grandpa a few steps behind, holding a plow.
Twenty-odd years years later, I’m still obsessed. I’m not likely to farm anytime soon, but my fantasy life looks something like Kathy Sierra’s, with a mix of riding, writing, and bill-paying work. If local news were still a thing, I could live somewhere with both more open space and a critical mass of media jobs. That world is basically gone now, though, so for years I’ve been finding ways to ride late at night after work or on weekends, at small local barns where I could train inexpensively. In DC, where I used to live, this was doable. Then I moved to New York for a job and a relationship.
There’s a stereotype that riding is only for the very wealthy, and that can be true. But my experience has been the opposite. Nearly all of the professional riders and trainers that I know personally are not wealthy or anywhere close to it. Most would be considered working or middle class. Even high-level competitive riders, because of the screwy economics of investing in a large, easily-spooked animal that could at any point get sick or injured, cobble together several jobs, like teaching younger riders and raising animals, in order to keep a reliable stream of income. Mr. Castleface Foxhunter and the Saudi Arabian money that flow into horse sports exist, certainly, but they’re a relative minority.
That said, it’s more expensive here than it is anywhere. Cities are bad places to ride! Big pieces of cheap land are near-impossible to come by, and barns need a lot of it, both for pasture and stalls. If you plan to ride seriously, your barn also needs to have multiple riding rings, at least one indoors for wintertime, because riding in snow can be dangerous. Then there are the obvious expenses: the horses themselves, and feed, and vets, and trainers, etc. Plus, because of the space constraints, these places are nearly all in Long Island, New Jersey, or upstate New York, which adds a hefty transportation cost.
I’ve tried to talk myself out of wanting to ride. There are lots of reasons not to! It fucks up your back and your knees. There’s a lot of manure. If you plan to compete, the outfits you have to buy look nuts. And horses are 1000-lb morons with brains the size of a toddler’s. A horse genuinely believes that a flapping plastic bag is here to cause its immediate demise and it will leave you in the dust to save itself. People only stopped dying on horseback very recently, when serious jumpers started wearing airbag vests. If I were sensible I would give it up and go to brunch instead.
Unfortunately, horses are the best animals that humans interact with regularly. (Don’t email me, cat people.) We have co-evolved with horses and dogs to a greater extent than any animal we don’t use primarily as food. They are social in all the ways that we are, taking immediate likes and dislikes to specific individuals and maintaining complex relationships with each other and with us. Most importantly, horses are both gorgeous and hilariously stupid-awkward. If you’ve ever watched one try to get up from a fully supine position, you know what I mean. They connect me to my personal and collective past and I think without them I would die a sad, slow, urban death.
I’m very fortunate that I’ve been able to figure out a way to make it work. For years, I couldn’t afford to ride, and now that I’ve advanced sufficiently in my career that it’s possible to go regularly, it’s the last thing I’m willing to give up.
Here’s how I do it, after some experimenting. It’s still not cheap, but it’s a lot cheaper than I first thought.
Attempt 1: New Jersey, group lesson
If there were public transportation to this barn, I would have continued to go there forever, because I like the instructor and the horses are the most athletic. It’s only accessible via car, which for me means Zipcar. I did this a couple times, trying to find a shorter route, but it only makes sense if you are carpooling, because the transit costs more than the lesson itself.
One-hour lesson, group: $75
GW Bridge Toll: $13
Time: 5 hours, including walk to Zipcar lot
SUBTOTAL: $160.83/week, $482.49/month
Attempt 2: Long Island, private lesson
Trying to cut the transportation side of the cost, I switched to a barn that accessible from the Long Island Railroad. But this instructor didn’t have a group lesson on the weekends, which meant I had to pay a higher private lesson fee.
One-hour lesson, private: $90
LIRR off-peak round-trip ticket: $25.50
One-time administrative fee: $10
Time: 5 hours, including subway to Atlantic Terminal
SUBTOTAL: $115.50/week, $345/month + $10
I used to pay $150 total for four weeks of lessons in the DC suburbs. Paying almost that much for a single lesson was and is bananas. So I got creative. My trainer had introduced me to another woman who lives in Brooklyn. If we were to take a group lesson, our cost would go down from $90 to $65 each, while we’d still be getting the same length of riding time. Plus, I figured we could talk on the long train ride. Not only was she open to this idea, she had just started carpooling with a third Brooklynite who was taking a lesson right after hers, and invited me to join. They are from North Carolina and Boston, respectively, and are wonderful fellow horsey people.
Attempt 3: Long Island, group lesson
One-hour lesson, group: $65
Carpool: the occasional $20 for gas
One-time administrative fee: $0 (already paid)
Time: 6 hours, including subway to pick-up point
SUBTOTAL: $65/week plus the odd $20, $212/month
The last is the longest option, time-wise, but I’m no longer irritating the riders of the LIRR with my manure-flecked boots, and it’s far and away the lowest cost.* So this is the one that wins, and what I’ll keep doing.
Finally, the one-time costs for schooling gear. Only a few pieces are truly essential, and most will last you for ages, unless you fall on your helmet, in which case you must, must, must replace it. (This happens to me about once a year.)
Here’s what I spent:
Schooling helmet: $69.99
Paddock boots, purchased on eBay: $37
Half-chaps, also eBay: $44.99
2 pairs of breeches, one insulated for cold weather: $119
A high-impact sports bra, on sale: $34
SUBTOTAL: $304.98, amortized conservatively over 2 years: $12.71/month
I got lucky with the eBay finds. I’m pretty sure the paddock boots are technically child-sized, but are made as well as the adult ones. With regular conditioning I expect them and the chaps to last for another 3-4 years, but I rounded down since the other stuff will need replacing sooner.
GRAND TOTAL: $233.71/month
It’s not a small number, so I cut back in other ways. Nearly all my travel involves visiting friends and family, so my vacation budget is small. I don’t eat out much. My laptop is in its fourth year and wheezing along just fine most of the time. To me, it seems like a small price to pay for something that gives me so much happiness and gets me out of the city, reliably, almost every week. And I definitely don’t mind heading out to a barn instead of brunch on a Saturday morning. Brunch here sucks.
*There’s another workaround that some stables will offer, which is to be a working student: you do a certain amount of grooming, mucking, turnout, and maintenance to cover the costs of your lessons. Unfortunately, I don’t live close enough for the scheduling to work.
Xarissa Holdaway is a writer and the deputy editor for digital at Charlie Rose. She’s also on Twitter.