Children and the Benefits of Horseback Riding
Your child is begging for horseback riding lessons. They're not cheap, these lessons, and you want to know just what your kid is going to get out of it besides some quality time with a pony named Tinker Bell, Socks, Hobbit, or some similarly cutesy name. It’s a fair question. I can’t point you to a controlled study that rigorously demonstrates the benefits of learning to ride; there doesn't seem to be any such thing. I can, however, provide anecdotal evidence from my own experience and the experiences of others that the benefits of learning to ride are several and multifaceted.
Riding a horse requires the application of balance, coordination, forethought, empathy, and the control of one’s own emotions. Advancing as a rider is a matter of developing and improving in these five areas.
To someone who doesn’t ride, balance is probably the most obviously needed of the five skills. First-timers on a horse tend to teeter from one side of the horse to another, while accomplished riders adjust their balance subconsciously.
Riding well requires far more coordination than most people realize. It is the ability of the rider to coordinate the movement of her hands, legs, seat, and torso with each other and with the movement of the horse that allows for complex movements like a turn-on-the-haunches, or a jump over an obstacle.
Forethought and empathy go hand in hand. A big part of developing as a rider is learning to empathize with the horse, to understand how it feels and to look ahead and anticipate how the horse will react to its surroundings. Is that shadow up ahead going to spook my horse? Is this horse a leader, or a follower, should I ride in front or behind? Will this horse quicken as I take him toward the barn, or slow down as I turn him away? Also, as the speed increases, a rider must think farther and farther ahead as she anticipates turns and adjusts for variations in terrain and surroundings.
Learning to control one’s emotions and act confidently in the face of fear and uncertainty is essential to a rider’s advancement. One of the first things that a young rider learns is that, if the rider acts scared, so will the horse. Horses are very sensitive to the emotions of their handlers and often mirror those emotions. It is not unusual to see a horse ridden by a beginning rider refuse to jump a tiny jump that the horse, but not the rider, has jumped a hundred times. Sensing the rider’s fear, the horse wants to avoid any possible danger. As soon as the rider masters her fear and can approach the jump with confidence, over they go.
Apart from actually riding, children also benefit from handling horses on the ground and learning basic horsemanship. Because of their size, horses cannot be bullied into doing what the handler wants and handling them effectively requires tact and patience. A good handler is a tactful and patient problem solver that creates situations that cause the horse to perform the desired action.
Horseback riding does not necessarily have structured levels of achievement like the belt system in martial arts. There are some riding organizations, such as the United States Pony Club, that offer this kind of structure and it can be helpful. Regardless, it is easy for a child to see what she has accomplished and look forward to achieving new goals. Children often come to their riding lessons with their own goals in mind. They want to canter, or jump a small jump, or go on their first trail ride
Developing balance, coordination, forethought, empathy, and emotional control are essential for growth as a rider. These skills are also important for growth as a human being and have wide application outside the world of horses. Your child will think it’s just all great fun, and it is, but she will be learning skills that will help her succeed for a lifetime.
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