Back to school season reminds me of kids, and school horses. One of the more common conversations taking place in American households, is often the “I want a horse” talk. I know it happened a LOT in ours! There are many valuable lessons to be learned from a child having their own horse, or at least access to one, but it’s not as simple as they’d like to think.
On tv, we see people drive up to expansive barns in shiny cars, step out of the car, dressed in the nicest togs, and walk to where a groom is holding the reins of a gleaming, saddled horse. They ride for a few minutes, then pass the reins back to the groom, and leave. It paints a pretty picture, highly unrealistic, but pretty. I honestly can’t remember a time I’d gone to the barn, even for just a few minutes, and not left looking like a troll. Parents, if your kids are leaving the barn anything short of filthy and exhausted, they’re doing it wrong. Hahaha!
When your son, or more often daughter, comes to you wanting a horse, the first question is usually whether or not it’s affordable. The truth always boils down to this, the horse is the cheapest part of the deal. If you already have, of have had horses, it’s not such a big deal, but if you’re new to it, the idea is daunting, and not one to enter into without a lot of help. My recommendation is to find a nice barn for your kids to take lessons in for a year or so as your first step. This is the closest you’ll get to a trial run, and offers the opportunity to see a lot of what goes in to horse ownership, without the financial obligation.
First you’ll want to talk with your child about what’s drawing them to horses, and hopefully you already have an idea as to what kind of learning suits them best. Take as much time as you need to find a barn, instructor, and horse that has the most to offer. If you don’t have any horse connections on your own, try reaching out in social media, or going to local feed/tack stores and asking for recommendations. In the U.S., trainers and instructors don’t have to carry a license in order to teach. There are many certifications available, through a variety of entities, but none are required.
Consider how much time you’ll be able to devote to the lessons. Ideally, a good instructor is going to teach them everything from the ground up, including grooming, tacking, and some general care. This is the best way for your child to learn and understand that having a horse isn’t like having a dog or cat in the house, that you can just play with when it suits you, they’re a lot of work. As the parent, you’ll be driving them to and from the barn, waiting while they have their lesson , an hour or two, scheduling all this around homework and any other activities going on.
Once you’ve found a suitable location and trainer, you need to get your child suited up with some basics. Some barns will offer loaner helmets, but I prefer each rider has their own for a couple of reasons. One, for sanitary purposes, and two, you never know what’s happened to the helmets when you’re not around. Someone could have had a crash in one, and just put it back, without having it safety tested to make sure it’s still sound. They’ll also need a sturdy pair of boots. They don’t necessarily have to be riding boots, but they do need to fit well and have a good heel, with a fairly smooth sole (no lug or hiking boot types). Some instructors may ask you supply your child with gloves, chaps, or other items, but they can start without those and can be acquired as needed.
If you’re unsure as to what kind of riding your child should start with, my preference has always been (hunter) english, even for the boys. It’s the best way for them to learn balance and coordination. Once they have a good foundation in the english saddle, changing to western is fairly easy, and they’ll appreciate their skills when they learn how adaptable they are. You instructor may start them on a long line, depending on the child’s age, or independently. Don’t assume you’re welcome to stay in the arena during their lesson. Ask if there’s a viewing area, or somewhere the instructor would prefer you stay, so as not to interfere, and let the child answer for themselves as much as possible. There will be an introductory period where more parent involvement is acceptable, but once the instructor develops a relationship with your child, it’s important to step back and allow them space to work together. If you have questions, try to remember to ask them before or after, or write them down, rather than asking during the lesson if you can. You paid for the time, but if the instructor is spending more time talking to you than teaching your child, it’s counterproductive.
As your child is learning, unless their size makes it difficult to do things, like reach to fasten a strap, let them learn how to do it on their own. There will be nights when you’re rushed or running behind, a little help now and then is okay if it means getting back on schedule, but otherwise, it’s all part of the process. They need to understand that having a horse to care for takes time and hard work. The benefit of taking a year or so for their initial lessons is so they learn how to adapt to climate changes. Horses don’t take snow days, holidays, or sick time. They still need to eat and poop, even if you want to go on vacation. Riding horses teaches how to dress for weather, plan ahead, and be responsible, all valuable life experience.
Most importantly, understand that a rider falling off a horse is a matter of when, not if, and your child is no exception. You do what you can to help prepare them by providing the helmet that they should always be wearing when riding, and you’ve selected an instructor who you’re comfortable with and trust with your child, and you have to focus on that the first time they “make a real estate purchase” at the barn. It is scary, to see a little body get launched into the air, and land with a cloud of dirt. Your first instincts will be to rush to them and asses the damage, but know that it may not be the appropriate response. Above all, remain calm, and look to the instructor for guidance, they’ll be the first one to your child, and sometimes having a hysterical parent right there can make the situation worse. If the horse is running loose, and you’re comfortable handling one, try to at least corral it away from the fallen child and instructor, or look for help if needed, but listen first, and act second. If the instructor sees the child looking to you to decide how to react, they may send you from the arena, and you have to go. They know what to do, let them do their job, it will all be okay. In the rare event it happens to be a serious fall, and medical help is needed, the instructor will be able to tell you who to call, where to go, and what to do. Remember, you can always sneak off and cry behind the barn later. For now, you need to be calm and stoic.
At the end of your year, you’ll have enough experience under your collective belt to know whether or not the child is still interested and willing to put in the work. You’ll have an idea as to if you can continue on the schedule you’ve created, or if you could afford more money and time either in lessons, or with your own horse. If you decide you’re ready for the next step of ownership, you have a valuable tool in your instructor who can help guide you to a suitable first horse.
Sending your child off to school, in a barn, can be an experience that they’ll learn from through the rest of their lives, make it a great one!