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COVER STORY : Ticket to Ride : Those who like to saddle up without the burden of big expenses can often arrange to do stable chores in exchange for time on the trails or taking lessons.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As the cock crows at Carousel Farms in Chatsworth, Lisa Weinstein already is pampering horses.

She bathes and brushes their bodies, applies fly repellent and conditions their hoofs. She walks them, feeds them, strokes them. She bandages their legs and ensures they are comfortable at night in their stalls.

Weinstein, 29, is not a hired groom but an equestrian student who spends about 30 hours a week currying and caring for horses at the three-acre facility. Yet for all her labor, she does not receive a dime.

Weinstein works to ride.

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“I’m a single mom, so, obviously, I don’t have a lot of money,” said Weinstein, who lives in Woodland Hills and works as a secretary. “If I didn’t have this arrangement, there is no way I’d be able to pay for all of this.”

The payoff for Weinstein is free riding lessons for herself and her 4-year-old daughter, Kasey. The deal also includes free board, regular shoeing and basic veterinary care for her horse, Rocky. The package is worth about $800 a month.

Weinstein, unable to afford pricey horse-related expenses, is among a throng of equestrian enthusiasts who hoof the bill by working at stables--grooming, feeding, even shoveling you-know-what. It’s a dirty job, but a herd of horse lovers are eager to do it. In fact, so-called work-ride arrangements are as old as the hitching post and--at many stables--as informal as a weekend ride.

“It’s part of the whole riding tradition,” said Zsu Zsu Illes, a trainer at Stoney Point Riding Center in Chatsworth and a former working student at the stable. “I would imagine that as long as there have been riding lessons, there have been work-ride programs.”

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At Stoney Point, children in beginning classes earn credit toward riding lessons in exchange for doing minor chores. Just a short gallop away, Stephanie Haney, 19, earns her and her horse’s keep as one of two working students at Chatsworth’s Sleepy Stables. “Basically, I groom to ride,” she said. “I don’t have a lot of money, and I have to support my horse.”

The philosophy has become a structured program at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center in Burbank, where 28 students log an average of 20 hours a week as part of the Traditional Equitation School’s working student program. Another 22 working students are enrolled in the school’s sister program at Hansen Dam Equestrian Center in Lake View Terrace.

Trainer Patricia Kinnaman, the school’s owner, created the working student program in 1986. The idea was born largely from her own experience while growing up in the state of Washington.

“I was raised in an environment where I was very horse crazy, but my parents could not afford a horse,” said Kinnaman, who now owns more than 70 horses. “So, I worked at a local barn and the couple that owned the facility took an interest in me and let me do whatever it took to ride a horse. When I moved to L.A., I decided I wanted to share that.”

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Kinnaman’s students must work eight hours to participate in a one-hour group lesson that would cost $30. Students also receive discounts at Kinnaman’s saddlery store at the center and admittance to equestrian seminars that typically cost $25.

The program does not offer boarding, and all horses used are owned by Kinnaman. The program is geared toward students who do not own a horse and cannot afford to buy one.

Enrollment isn’t automatic. Students are given an entry evaluation and must serve a three-month apprenticeship before gaining benefits as a working student. Their weekly hours are recorded on time cards.

“I want to be sure they care for the animal as much as I do,” Kinnaman said. “I want them to believe in true horsemanship and to be the satellites of what I believe in.”

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For equestrian students going solo, a monthly price tag of $1,000 is not uncommon, Kinnaman said. “When you buy a horse, the initial investment is nothing. It’s the upkeep that costs,” Kinnaman said.

Yet not everyone in Kinnaman’s program fits the description of starving student. Her pupils include attorneys and accountants who simply love to spend their spare time around horses. Jan Kuebler, who recently was laid off from her job as an office manager in a Los Angeles publishing firm, joined the program five years ago because she always wanted to learn about horses.

“I wanted to do it all,” Kuebler said. “But then, of course, it comes time to balance the checkbook at the end of the month.”

For Carol Derry, the decision to join the program four years ago had as much to do with her dissatisfaction with the legal profession as it did with her desire to ride. Derry eventually quit her job as an attorney and now works as an instructor at the school.

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“The working student program means you’re working for your lessons,” Derry said. “But I think you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who does it only for the lessons. They want to own their own horses someday and they want to know how to handle them and how to care for them.”

Still, as any horse lover will attest, equitation can be a costly affair.

“Then you have occasional vet bills,” said Barbara Vasilaros of Carousel Farms, who serves as Weinstein’s trainer. “And if you want to go to a horse show, you’ve got (the cost of) trailers and moving. You’ve got to have a lot of money.”

So too, it would seem, do trainers who agree to the deal. Kinnaman concedes the working student program is not a moneymaker for the school. And she says she could hire grooms to perform chores for less money than she gives away in the form of lessons.

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“My accountant has told me I’m crazy,” she said.

But she says her students provide added attention that the animals otherwise might not receive.

Vasilaros, who has employed working students for the past 20 years, said the trade-off usually translates into a win-win-win situation--for trainers, students and horses. But she’s not willing to take on just anyone as a working student.

“Some people say to me, ‘I will clean stalls to do this,’ ” Vasilaros said. “And when they say that, I know they want this really bad. I try to give everybody a fair chance.”

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Illes of Stoney Point spent months raking and shoveling before graduating to more important duties. The informal apprenticeship paid off, she said.

“I never felt like I was doing things I shouldn’t have to do,” Illes said. “I had to pay my dues until the lady I was working for had the feeling that I was reliable. When you think about it, in the horse world, it’s really the best way to learn. You can only learn so much from riding.”

Yet it was riding that motivated Weinstein to approach Vasilaros about a working for lessons--for her daughter’s benefit.

By noon, Weinstein is finished with chores and ready to assist Kasey in a lesson.

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“At this point, she has no fear of riding and that’s what I wanted,” Weinstein said. “The thing I wanted was for her to ride. In a lot of ways, this is the perfect job.”

Where and When

What: Traditional Equitation School.

Locations: Los Angeles Equestrian Center, 480 Riverside Drive, Burbank. Hansen Dam Equestrian Center, 11127 Orcas Ave., Lake View Terrace.

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Hours: 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Closed Monday. Schedule applies to both sites.

Call: (818) 569-3666 (Burbank) or (818) 899-1625 (Lake View Terrace).

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What: Carousel Farms.

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Location: 22101 Tulsa, St., Chatsworth.

Hours: 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.

Call: (818) 998-7845.

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What: Stoney Point Riding Center/Canyon Riding Club.

Location: 10861 Andora Ave., Chatsworth.

Hours: 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday, 2 to 9 p.m. Monday.

Call: (818) 709-2095.

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What: Sleepy Stables.

Location: 9617 Shoup Ave., Chatsworth.

Hours: 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday.

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Call: (818) 709-8210.

Adding Up the Costs

Prices vary from one equestrian facility to another. Here’s what to expect, based on estimates gathered from several area stables.

BOARD: Monthly board, which includes feeding and cleaning of the horse’s stall, ranges from about $250 to $400, depending on the facility, amount of feeding and the type of stall.

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TRAINING: $350 to $450 a month. Typically includes a trainer riding the horse as needed, as well as riding lessons, usually two or three per week. By the hour, solo lessons cost between $30 and $60. Group lessons, are about $30.

VETERINARY CARE: Routine vaccinations and basic examinations typically cost about $100 a year.

SHOEING: $65 to $100--and most horses need new shoes about every six weeks.

TACK: Includes saddles and bridles. Saddles range from $500 to $2,000. Bridles cost about $200.

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THE HORSE: One can be purchased for as little as $500, but for a good, healthy horse suitable for equestrian lessons, $3,500 to $5,000 is typical.


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