So I'm starting riding lessons in a few weeks. I was around horses a very tiny bit when I was younger, and even though I have learned a lot about horses from reading, I just don't have any experience with them. Hence, lessons! So I know I want to lease a horse before I buy one, so that I can kind of get a feel for what it's like to have and care for a horse without actually owning one yet.
kudos for actually understanding how important this is.
How long in to my lessons or how else do I know I'm ready to lease a horse?
The answer to that will come to you as you learn. I'd suggest talking to the instructor about your interest in leasing down the line and ask her/him to also explain the intricacies of horsemanship (including daily care and routine maintenance). If you can get an instructor to let you help do chores (whether for reduced lesson fees OR for free, with no reduction in fees, you'll be learning a LOT about how to handle a horse, what it's like to meet the farrier or vet, how to tell if a horse is sick or just bored, the tedium of cleaning stalls and washing buckets...
How long do leases typically last for? Will I be responsible for vet and farrier care?
all of that should be spelled out in a lease agreement. Leases that I have done have gone month to month, with the understanding that it is a long-term lease if both parties wish it to be so. My current lease is a wonderful horse that I've quite fallen madly for, and so she is very likely moving with me as a long-term free lease. In some leases, in all the ones I've done, the owner is responsible for vet care unless *I* cause something through negligence (galloping through a gopher hole ridden field). One lease specified that I paid for half of the farrier bill. My current lease states that the owner pays for ALL vet and farrier bills. I only pay my lease fee. That last a while, until I decided I wanted to have her trimmed more regularly, so now I pay her farrier bill. :) When she moves up with me, I'll be responsible for ALL of her care: feed, tack, cleaning, vet, farrier, teeth, everything.
How can I protect myself legally when leasing a horse and what all should a lease agreement contain? Anything else I should know?
There are a lot of sample lease agreements out there. I would just have every expectation spelled out, including what you are and aren't allowed to do with the horse (barrel race, jump, long distance endurance, off-farm trails, road riding, bareback, double, etc.) You'll want to specify who is responsible for what elements of care (grooming, stall cleaning, tack cleaning), whether tack is included or not, what days or hours you're granted permission to ride, or what arrangement is agreed upon to determine such riding, whether you can visit off hours, etc.
The thing is about a lease: it's not your horse. You can't decide its feed or care. If you don't like the husbandry, you can't easily affect a change. Sometimes you can. Usually you can't. A lease can end abruptly, breaking your heart. A lease can also becomes your horse in truth, if you get lucky. What a lease does best, especially if it's one that gives you a real taste of horse "ownership," is show you whether real ownership is for you or not.