Q: What are safe tips to introduce my kids to horses and riding? I want them to love riding but don’t want to do too much too soon and end up pushing them away. –Mya Web, via email
A: The great thing about riding is that it is a lifelong sport. However, it is not a great sport for very small children. To ride safely, your child needs to be big enough and strong enough to carry the weight of a helmet and needs to be old enough to follow instructions and pay attention. Usually organized lessons start for riders at least five years old and some stables require children to be seven or eight. If your children are younger than five, make sure that all experiences with horses are fun, highly supervised and safe, and short enough to match their attention spans.
Remember that no horse is bomb proof. If you start too soon or trust a horse too much, you may inadvertently set your youngster up for an accident. If a child learns to fear horses because they seem so big when they are so small, it can be difficult to reignite the riding bug later. The danger of falling is directly proportionate to the height of the fall. Matching a smaller child to a pony is an important safety consideration.
All that said, there’s plenty you can do to make horses and ponies fun and safe for kiddos. I started lessons when I was six years old. When my father saw that I had a passion he made sure that I got the best education possible in the sport of horses. I can attribute a big part of the success I’ve had in my career to the great horse and riding education from classically trained instructors when I was a child, as well as the life lessons learned from horses.
Speaking as a mother who hoped desperately to have a horse crazy child, I found that it was important to have an appropriately sized horse (pony). Brushing and picking up feet and being able to do things yourself can be really important to a child—especially a horse-crazy kid. If they feel they can take part, they’ll want to do it more.
When my son, Hunter, was young, I first thought of riding as a privilege for him. “You can ride as soon as you clean stalls or earn this right.” I rethought that parenting strategy rather quickly. I was the one that wanted him to love horses and riding. I changed my thinking to make riding fun. I rearranged my schedule so that I’d have time to ride with my son. If a friend was coming over, I made sure to saddle up the pony and make riding a fun treat for the visiting children. I packed picnics and ponied my son out to a favorite lunch spot.
Don’t confuse your agenda with your child’s horse agenda. You may love dressage but they may want to go fast and barrel race. Hunter thought that picking out the horses’ feet and hanging out with the farrier was fun. I got him farrier chaps and a farrier’s tool box and allowed him the time to do that I loved that he wanted to be around the horses so supported whatever interest he showed.