Horseback Riding: Guidelines to Get Your Child Off to a Good Start
A positive first experience with horses and horseback riding is critical if a child is to develop into a successful horseperson. Over the years, I have watched lots of children get started with horses. Here are some guidelines to getting off on the right foot:
1) Five years old is the minimum age to start riding lessons. Children younger than five lack the maturity to benefit much from a riding lesson and are easily frightened. This doesn’t mean that children shouldn’t be exposed to horses at a younger age. Let them pet, groom, and generally be in the vicinity of horses, but you have to be very careful. Many young children are initially terrified by horses and I do mean terrified. Don’t force them. They get over it on their own, like flipping a switch. One day they won’t walk into the barn and a month later you have to keep them from running under the horses.
2) Don’t go out to grandpa and grandma’s farm and throw your kid up on old Dobbin, who hasn’t been ridden in three years. This is a recipe for disaster. Just because you are holding on to Dobbin doesn’t mean that he can’t get the kid off. He invariably does and that is the last time your kid wants to get on a horse. This is a very common scenario.
3) A summer riding camp is a great place to start. You want the kind of camp that is centered on horses, not one that just offers horseback riding as one of many activities. Try to find a camp where the kids spend time with the horses, not only riding, but also feeding, grooming, tacking-up, cooling-out, cleaning stalls, and learning the other duties of a good horseperson.
4) When summer camp is over, or if one isn’t available, sign-up for group lessons rather than private. Children have more fun in a group and they seem to gain courage from one another. Teaching a group allows the instructor to use games and little competitions during the lesson. If your child sticks with it, there will be a time for private lessons. In the beginning, stick with group lessons.
5) At some point, every rider is going to fall off. I know that I have stressed the importance of keeping your child’s experience with horses positive and not scaring your child, but they are going to come off, no matter what is done to prevent it, and it is going to scare them. It is absolutely imperative that they brush away the tears, face their fear, and get back on the horse. If they walk away, they may never get back in the saddle. Learning to put fear aside and climb back on may be the most important life lesson that horseback riding has to teach. What you don’t want is for your child to fall off the very first time they sit on a horse. Let them have some positive experiences early on and they are much more likely to climb back in the saddle when the inevitable happens.
6) Don’t buy a pony until your child has spent some time taking riding lessons. Owning a pony requires a high level of commitment from the child and the parents. Ponies need to be cared for daily and ridden several times a week to be at their best. Until a child has taken lessons once or twice a week for a year or two and demonstrated the desire to do more, there is little benefit in owning a pony, but considerable expense. Stables geared toward teaching beginners will have a string of lesson horses and ponies suitable for inexperienced riders. Your child will also benefit from riding several different horses. Every horse is different and part of riding well is being able to adapt.
Follow the above guidelines, keep it fun and positive, and you will have your child off to a good start learning the art of horseback riding.
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