The opportunity to encourage a child to interact with horses should not be missed. In a world where everything is going digital, children are becoming engulfed in technology and remaining indoors. They are no longer experience the wonderful world outside the home. Horses are an excellent way to get your child outdoors and exercising, improving their overall physical and mental well-being. Getting started may seem intimidating, but by learning how to evaluate stables and training programs, examining the costs, finding the right equipment, and learning about safety, you can help your children along this fulfilling lifetime activity.
Understand the Health Benefits of Children Riding Horses
Horseback riding is a pleasure and a responsibility, and you need to consider whether the benefits match your expectations, and the reality of associated costs. Assess your child's readiness and your resources, but also keep in mind that riding horses provides priceless opportunities to young kids. Children who spend time with horses, learning to ride and interact with their equine partners, stand to gain both mental and physical benefits.
Improved Cognitive Abilities
Horseback riding can help children improve cognitive abilities, which can lead to improved comprehension, memory, and critical-thinking skills. Children also learn practical skills and engage in physical activity while they ride, promoting general cognitive function. Riding natural helps bolster problem-solving abilities, as well, because children must learn to work with their horse to navigate obstacles and negotiate terrain safely. They learn to read their horse's emotions, as well, likely promoting social intelligence and developing empathy.
Increased Muscle Strength
On the back of a moving horse, maintaining a good riding position demands core strength, and involves the abdominal muscles, and lower back muscles in addition to their arm and shoulder muscles. Nearly every muscle in the body is put to use. Children who ride are not passively sitting on their horse. They are moving and working with the horse, gaining strength in the process.
Horseback riding is an excellent solution to the digital craze of today. Horses are naturally appealing to children, providing them a welcome alternative to watching TV, playing video games, obsessing over social media, or simply hanging around inside the house.
Riding for just 45 minutes can burn hundreds of calories, and more intense movements, such as trotting, can increase that amount even more. Exercise releases endorphins that boost mood and, overall, exercise can make children and adults feel and become healthier. It also improves balance, posture, and coordination. When done properly, horseback riding can be quite strenuous, but it also offers a gentle learning curve for new riders as they gain experience.
Examine the Costs for Lessons
Signing your child up for riding lessons is a necessary step in their learning process. Start small with basic riding lessons. Don't worry, you don't have to buy a horse to get started. Before investing heavily in riding, sign your child up for a trail ride, and progress to lessons on a rented or leased horse, if possible. Many facilities that offer lessons have docile and reliable horses beginners can ride -- often referred to as lesson horses -- as part of the instruction.
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.
Note: Don't choose stables based on the price. Always visit a facility 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.
Find a Place to Ride and Learn
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 First
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.
Check for Cleanliness
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? Is the horse displaying ear pinning, meaning the horse folds their 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, who threatens to kick or buck, is hard to catch in the field, or otherwise acts "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 Riding 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. The information must be delivered in a manner the student understands and at a level they 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 the full concept of horsemanship, including how to handle a horse, understand the horse's behavior, and their body language. The only safe horse is one that is handled with compassion and knowledge of their 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 age 6, although some stables have fun programs for younger children. Choose a stable or facility that is equipped to instruct children. Some barns are geared to teen or adult riders.
Safety and Riding Equipment
The safety of the horse and rider is the most important aspect 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 accessory (helmet, crash vest) can keep a child safe around an untrained or stressed horse.
Young riders should always wear riding helmets. 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 types of 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.
What to Avoid
Avoid facilities that use tack to tie down horses' heads, strong bits, or equipment that appear 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 (meaning, use of the horse is free if you are willing to take care of them), either through a riding facility or from private owners. Free lease arrangements vary, but the owner retains ownership rights to the horse, and typically requires that those leasing the horse commit to certain conditions to maintain the lease. Leasing offers the opportunity to see if the associated costs and commitment will be right for you and your child.
Note: Horses and ponies are herd animals. You can provide your equine a companion by sharing their space with a miniature horse, goat, donkey, cow, or even a llama.
Groups to Help You Get Started
If you aren't sure where to start, contacting a group that specializes in horseback riding for children may be the route to go. The following groups are available to those interested:
- 4-H: A 4-H horse program doesn't require you to own a horse and is a good starting point for beginners. To learn about 4-H groups in your local area, you can contact the 4-H agent in your vicinity.
- Certified Horsemanship Association: The Certified Horsemanship Association certifies riding teachers, accredits equine facilities, and provides educational conferences to increase public knowledge about horses and safety.
Important Life Lessons
Caring for and riding a horse provides children with important life skills and 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.