The opportunity to encourage a child to interact with horses should not be missed. Horses teach children about communication, partnership and most importantly, compassion.
How Much It Costs
Many people equate interacting with horses to tossing money into a vacuum. This is not true. Keeping a horse, or locating a reputable riding facility, is similar to buying a car. Some cars cost as much as a house and others less than $5,000. It just depends on how much you are willing to spend and what your expectations are.
Generally, rural or suburban areas offer reasonable fees for horseback riding lessons, while farms near major cities or "luxury" communities will cost much more. In general, expect to pay $20 to $50 for a half-hour private lesson. Lessons at elite training stables will be significantly higher. Price ranges at these barns can be well over $80 for an hour and are generally geared to riders who are in competitive training.
Tip: Don't choose stables based on the price. Always visit a barn first and decide if it offers the level and quality of training your child needs. As the young rider matures, you can always transition into more advanced disciplines (reining, dressage, jumping) and lesson plans.
What to Look for in a Stable
Finding the right stable to ride in can be a daunting task. Follow these guidelines to assist in narrowing down the process.
Visit the stable to inspect the buildings, pastures, riding areas and horses. Staff should be friendly and cheerful. Horses need to be kept in clean environments without any unusual buildup of manure.
Farms naturally have odors and a few flies. However, if the smell is overly offensive (strong urine odor in dirty stalls), flies and other pests are prevalent and the facility looks unsanitary, consider another riding stable. Horses should look healthy with shiny coats and not be too fat or thin. Remember, elderly or ill horses may not look their best. The stable personnel should explain, willingly, why any animal appears unwell or thin. Some farms take in rescue horses and rehab them, too.
Always take the time to watch a riding lesson from start to finish (getting the horse, saddling, riding in the lesson and untacking or removing the bridle and saddle). Is the instructor encouraging and pleasant and familiar with teaching children? Is the horse happy and willing (no ear pinning - folds ears back like a hissing cat, biting or showing a general "unwell" or unhappy demeanor)? If you are unsure of what to look for ask a horse-owning friend or trainer to come with you.
Note: Be wary of stables that dismiss a horse's unhappiness. If you see a horse with pinned ears, that threatens to kick or buck, is hard to catch in the field or otherwise "sour," these are all signs of a chronically stressed animal. Never ride at a stable with staff that hits, yells at or uses aggression on the horse. Violence has no place around children or animals.
A Well-Run Lesson
Once the lesson starts, watch to see the lesson is well-run:
- Instructors should be focused on the lesson and the rider.
- The instructor should spend the lesson directing the rider. Information must be delivered in a manner the student understands and at a level she can handle. Of course, the lesson should be fun!
- Safety is paramount. Instructors should evaluate the horse, and the tack, before every lesson. A lesson must be stopped if the horse appears uncomfortable or if the child rider is unable to maintain control of the horse. Any lesson horse that exhibits head tossing, ear pinning, bucking, rearing, bolting or any other unsafe behavior needs to be stopped. Horses exhibit these behaviors when they are in pain or otherwise unhappy and require the attention of a veterinarian or professional horseman.
- No child should be allowed to ride a horse alone - and horses and ponies should be trained and suitable for a child rider. Trainers need to lead the horse or pony for any child who pulls on the horse's mouth to balance, is very unstable in the saddle or is excessively fearful. A bit can cause significant pain to a horse - even in the hands of a child. Children should not hold the reins until they are able to balance in the saddle without holding on for security.
- The instructor should teach the child in the full concept of horsemanship including how to handle a horse, understand the horse's behavior and body language. The only safe horse is one that is handled with compassion and knowledge of his or her natural behaviors.
- Children should look forward to their next lesson. One great aspect of learning to ride as a child is young bodies don't get saddle sore. Children also have less fear than adults and can get the most out of their equestrian experiences.
Most stables begin teaching riding to children starting at six, although some stables have fun programs for younger children. Choose a stable that is equipped to instruct children. Some barns are geared to teen or adult riders.
Safety and Equipment
Safety of the horse and rider are the most important aspects of equestrian pursuits. A well-trained, well cared for, and content horse is the most important element of safety. NO piece of equipment or safety accessories (helmet, crash vest) can keep a child safe around an untrained or stressed horse.
Riding helmets should be worn by young riders. Be sure the helmet is ASTM rated and only use helmets designed to protect the wearer during riding sports only - do not use bicycle helmets or those designed for other recreation. Wearing a helmet will not prevent a child from becoming injured during dangerous or ill-designed riding situations. Do not rely on a helmet to keep a child safe when riding in a poorly set-up stable with untrained or unhappy horses.
Avoid facilities that use tack to tie down horses' heads, strong bits or equipment that appears to restrict the horse in any manner during a child's lesson. Be aware of possible sedation of horses as well. Lesson horses must never be sedated before being ridden by a child.
Purchasing or Leasing a Horse
If you are familiar with livestock and are open to learning new skills, you can consider buying a horse. Keeping a horse or pony for a child is similar to owning any other pet. If you have an acre or more of land, the expense of care is greatly reduced. Your child will build a relationship with the horse and you will have full control over the horse's care, well-being and training.
If you're not sure if horse ownership is right for you, you can try it out by leasing a horse. Many horses are available for free lease - either through a riding facility or from private owners. Leasing offers the opportunity to see if the associated costs and commitment will be right for you and your child.
Behavior Tip: Horses and ponies are herd animals. You can provide your equine a companion by adding a mini horse, goats, a donkey, a cow or even a llama.
Important Life Lessons
Caring for and riding a horse provides children with important life lessons. They learn tolerance, kindness, discipline, and confidence as they build a partnership with another being. Problem-solving skills and the ability to plan and interpret information are extra benefits that come with horse riding and ownership. Introducing a child to horsemanship builds a hobby and passion they will share and enjoy throughout life.