Since riding is an expensive hobby, I had to come up with some creative ways to get my horse fix once I started college and the free-flowing babbling brook of cash slowed to a trickle that didn't babble cheerily anymore, but rather said, "Get a job." The startup cost to begin riding is high, but I was lucky that I already had the stuff I needed--boots, breeches, a helmet, and even some nonessentials like show clothes, a groom kit, and a bareback pad for the old Thoroughbred I free-leased in high school while his owner was away at school herself.
However, the problem still remained. How was I going to ride in college? Here's what I came up with.
Go to a college with an on-campus stable: I figured this would be the easiest solution, and it was one of the biggest factors in my college search. Unfortunately, I ended up not being terribly comfortable with my college's equestrian club (not IHSA). Four of their eight horses were lame during the entire first (and only) semester I was a member of the club, so each lesson was comprised of two horses and four students. We had to switch in the middle, which put a damper on each lesson because that wasn't what I signed up for. And although I wasn't sure if it preventable, something just didn't feel right to me about half of their horses being lame. The club had a barn management system so that several people shared responsibility for various aspects, which sounds good on paper but I think there were cracks in the system. I have never seen any other farm of eight horses that had multiple barn managers, and there must be a reason for that.
Maybe riding on campus can work at colleges that have the right facilities and management--mine didn't. On-campus equestrian clubs are cheaper than taking regular lessons or leasing, but they can come with other costs and you do have to do your homework.
Unfortunately, all of my other options require the use of a car or the use of a horsey friend with a car. If you know of one, put it in the comments, but I'm sure the farms that are reachable by public transport are few and far between.
Volunteer: I lived close to home so I could borrow the car and head up to a local horse rescue on weekends and breaks-- Gentle Giants. It has grown a lot (from 30ish horses to 2009 to 60ish spread across two farms today), and making relationships at a small farm is always a better way to get riding opportunities than a big one (more on that later). Plus volunteering makes you feel good!
I was lucky that I had worked with green (and spoiled--that's an entire post right there) horses before, so after helping with the imperative stuff like feeding and daily chores, I had plenty of opportunity to ride and train horses for their future adopters.
The first horse I ever started from scratch--Tucker at Gentle Giants
This is where the seven years of lessons really paid off--I had developed enough of what I like to call "a sense of adventure" (others might call "a death wish," but hey, that's their prerogative) that I am now the proud recipient of Gentle Giants' inaugural Most Creative Spectacular Dismounts volunteer award. I was just happy to ride anything, whether it was an ex-racehorse or a Haflinger with iffy steering (that would be Chopper, who became one of my favorites and is in my profile picture).
However, if you aren't yet at a level where you can help polish a green-broke horse:
Take lessons: I realize this goes slightly against my original idea of "riding on the cheap" but hear me out. Green+ green= black and blue, and no matter how badly you want to ride, it's not worth misrepresenting your actual ability to a rescue. First of all, you'll look like an idiot because you can't really fake knowing how to ride well. We've seen some attempts at the rescue...from an entire family showing up in shiny, obviously unused Western gear to a prospective adopter who couldn't halter a horse any better than he could a handsaw. Secondly, getting hurt is bad and could keep you from riding ever.
So get a part-time job, save up some money, and take lessons with a good trainer for as long as you can afford to. I think the key is to take lessons at a SMALL BARN. 20 horses or fewer. A large barn is less personal, you won't learn as much, and you will probably actually have fewer opportunities to ride, which leads me to my next point...
Put in some hours mucking and cleaning: Once you have established a relationship with your instructor and maybe even some boarders at the farm, start offering your services. You might be able to work out a deal where you can work off an extra ride a week or even a lesson by doing barn chores, and I've found that this is a much more common agreement at small barns where everyone knows each other. Being nice and introducing yourself to everyone helps too--no one will know you're looking for more opportunities to ride if you don't tell them. Also, talk to boarders who travel for business or go on vacation--they might want someone to exercise their horse(s) while they are away.
Free lease: There are a lot of horse owners who need someone to keep their husband horse in shape, who overhorsed themselves and need help, or who want someone to ride their kid's horse while he or she is away at school. Try to find these people on craigslist, DreamHorse, equine.com, or your local equine publication if your area has one (The Equiery is good for the MD/PA/VA area). If you've made some friends at that barn where you were taking lessons or you have a trainer who will come with you, it's always best to hunt in a pack when horse shopping.
So there's my first stab at this huge topic. I figured I'd start with general ideas and see where that leads us. As always--comments and ideas for future posts are welcome.