Kids and Horses (50 Shades of Hay…)

Riding is good for kids in terms of exercise and mental alertness, but horses are great for kids for so many other reasons. Yes, I love horses.

Cuteness is in the eye of the beholder. As a parent, I am allowed to be completely biased about my children. But is there anything cuter than a little girl on a horse, a huge smile across her face, pigtails and ribbons in her hair? (OK, I know a little boy on a horse is very cute, too.) There’s just something about kids and horses.

That image takes me back to how we got started with horses. Full disclosure: I love horses. Though during my childhood I did not have my own horse, I lived near my best friend whose family kept several horses. So I have many wonderful memories of riding with my BFF and her sisters.

When my oldest daughter was in third grade, she became interested in taking riding lessons. I really don’t remember how that happened either. Maybe one of her friends was talking about it, maybe her grandmother said something, or maybe even I might have mentioned riding. So I began asking around about riding lessons, where they were located, what the cost was, and what type of riding was taught.

I was able to find an after school program which offered riding lessons AND had van transportation from the school to the facility. This situation was ideal for me, as I had two other children to taxi around to after-school activities. I usually came to pick up my daughter at the end of the lesson when the horses were all brushed and put away so we could quickly be off to the next activity (usually getting dinner ready).

One day I came a little early so I could watch some of the riding lesson. As I pulled into the parking area, my silent screaming would have started a stampede if it had been audible. There in the riding ring were all the riders STANDING on their horses. I mean literally standing on the saddles, arms outstretched for balance. The horses stood quietly without moving. I watched from the car as the riders calmly lowered themselves into the saddles, then dismounted as usual. As I felt my heart starting to slow down a bit, I joined my daughter next to her horse. She smiled radiantly, and was excitedly telling me about trust with the horse and mutual respect. Oh, and balance too. We walked the horse over to the barn and began untacking and brushing the horse. My daughter continued talking and as I listened, it dawned on me that riding a horse is so much more than knowing how to sit in a saddle and make it go (and, more importantly, make it stop). Horse riding encourages self-reliance, responsibility, and courage, and is about a relationship with an animal that involves trust, respect, and (dare I say it) love. Riding is good for kids in terms of exercise and mental alertness, but horses are great for kids for so many other reasons. Yes, I love horses.

If you are reading this, you might have a child that is either interested in learning to ride, or one who has already started riding and might be ready for ‘the next step’ in equestrian sports. Using an FAQ format, you can scan the questions below that interest you.

What is a good age to start riding lessons?

This question has a very individual answer, based upon your child, previous experiences (with and without horses), and if you think your child is ready for this. There is no magic age, but a rough guideline would be age 7-8. That said, some children at age 5 could be ready, and others will want to wait until age 10. There are many children who grow up with horses and are in the saddle before they can walk. But for those who are inquiring about lessons, there will be an age of your child where their emotional and physical maturity will make riding lessons fun, informative, and hopefully lead to many years of horsemanship.

What are the different types of riding lessons?

There are 2 main divisions or ‘classifications’ of riding: English and Western. Within those 2 riding forms are dozens and dozens of subcategories. Trail Riding is a general term and does not necessarily refer to English or Western riding (although it is usually associated with Western riding). The tack (equipment used to ride the horse) varies between the two disciplines. Some feel that beginner riders will be more secure in a Western saddle, as it has a deeper seat and a saddle horn, but others feel that starting in an English saddle develops balance and leg strength.

How do I find out about lessons?

The usual way you might find out about things: talk to friends and search the internet (social media as well). Also, if you know of anyone, child or adult, who rides horses be sure to talk to them. Once you have the names of a few places that offer lessons, you can really begin your research.

  • How long has the instructor been giving lessons?
  • How long has the barn been offering lessons (is this a new business or established)?
  • Could you have the names of a few parents for references?
  • What is the instructor to student ratio?
  • Will my child have the same instructor each time?
  • How long are the lessons?
  • What is the cost?
  • Will my child learn to tack up the horse?
  • What horse care will my child learn?
  • What can you tell me about the kind of horses used for lessons?
  • Is the instruction for English or Western riding?
  • What kind of progress can I expect in the first year?
  • What are the safety measures enforced at the barn?
  • And if it is close to summer, you might inquire about equestrian camps. A riding day camp or overnight camp could be a great way to introduce your child to horses (see my blogpost, To Camp or Not to Camp).

Speaking of safety, Is riding safe??

All sports have inherent risks, and equestrian sports are no different. Worried parents envision falls from the horse or horses that kick, bite, buck, and in general are a menace to humans. You should ask the barn manager or lesson instructor about the safety measures enforced at the barn and the kinds of horses that are used in the lessons. A beginner rider needs instruction ‘on the ground’ about proper conduct around horses. There are guidelines about how to lead a horse, how to behave around a horse, how to mount and dismount a horse, and how to avoid common injuries. The majority of lesson horses are quiet, steady, and reliable. Once your child understands a little more about horses and gains confidence around them you will also see that riding lessons are about much more that staying on a horse.

What kinds of clothes are necessary for riding?

The two priority items needed for riding lessons are:

  1. A helmet, and
  2. Shoes with a heel (or boots)

Many lesson programs will have extra helmets available to use, so ask the instructor when you set up the lesson. The most important thing about a helmet is the proper fit.

Athletic shoes are usually not appropriate for riding, but ask the instructor. As a beginner, your child does not need expensive tall leather boots. Some hiking boots, street boots, or cowboy boots will be OK for starters. There are inexpensive low top ‘paddock boots’ available for children at many saddlery stores or online. For the most part, jeans are acceptable riding attire. As your child continues in lessons, the instructor may suggest other riding apparel.

How do I choose a riding helmet?

Not all states require equestrian helmets for riders, but almost every lesson barn will require one. A helmet is a big investment, mainly because its job is to protect your child’s brain in case of a fall or an accidental kick. There is a huge price range for helmets, as well as a large design selection.

If you do not have a friend (or instructor) that can advise you on a helmet, it is best to go to a reputable saddlery or equestrian store to purchase one. The staff should be able to give you fitting advice, which is crucial to safety.

The helmet should have a date and ‘ASTM/SEI’ stamped on the inside which means it is approved by a national safety organization. The helmet is designed with padding on the inside and a hard shell on the outside. Some have better ventilation designs, but all should have a secure harness and adjustment straps.

Some helmets come with an adjustable fit that is attractive for a head that is still growing. If you are considering buying a used helmet, ONLY buy one from someone you know that can give you the ‘helmet history’. You do not want to use (or buy) a helmet that has been damaged in a fall (and it is not always obvious on the outside).

And if you were wondering if a bike helmet would be OK, the answer is NO – equestrian helmets are designed with falls in mind, and provide the best head coverage possible.

Do I need special insurance for riding lessons?

Most equine barns, lesson or otherwise, have a posted ‘No Liability’ warning to riders and will have all riders (or their parent) sign a waiver before anyone gets on a horse. You can ask about insurance, but most will tell you that your own health insurance is what will be your coverage in case of an accident.

What is ‘Pony Club’?

The U.S. Pony Club (USPC), or more often called Pony Club, is a national youth equestrian organization. Its mission statement is to, “Develop character, leadership, confidence and a sense of community in youth through a program that teaches the care of horses and ponies, riding and mounted sports.” Some riding centers may have official Pony Club recognition, while many lesson barns will have a looser affiliation or a few Pony Club participants, or none at all. Pony Club requires some extra time and commitment, but your child will reap the rewards of time well spent.

Do I need to buy a horse?

Whoa there. Lessons are one thing, but horse ownership is quite another.

If you are new to horses, commit your child to lessons and see how things go. A general rule of thumb is that riding will progress very slowly with one lesson per week, and improvement will be greater if the child can ride at least twice per week. There are many creative options to pursue in order to find your child more riding time without buying a horse or sinking a fortune into lessons.

Once your child is committed to riding and is showing progress, ask the instructor for ways to find more riding time. Some horse owners offer ‘part lease’ options, which usually means you agree to ride the horse 1-2 times per week for a specific price. Another option would be to ask the instructor for an ‘extra’ ride on a lesson horse at a reduced cost (this would be without instructor supervision, and is for riders comfortable with riding and basic horse management).

Barns always have work that needs to be done, so an older child could barter labor time (mucking stalls, cleaning tack, blanketing horses, feeding) for riding time.

If we are thinking of buying a horse, what are the options?

By this point, you have hopefully met some trusted horse people and you can pepper them with your questions.

First, be realistic with a budget. The initial expense will be the purchase of the horse (include the cost of a prepurchase exam by a veterinarian). The cost of a horse can vary from free (or free lease, explained below) to tens of thousands of dollars.

Second, you must consider all of the ongoing costs of keeping a horse. A few of these include monthly board, farrier costs (shoeing and/or trimming), yearly vet bills (this doesn’t include vet bills for illness or injury, or insurance for illness, injury, or death), as well as the continued cost of lessons. There will also be the cost of your own tack (saddle, bridle, etc.) to consider.

You could start by letting your instructor know that you are thinking of owning a horse. There may be a horse at the lesson barn that is for sale, or someone that the instructor knows has a horse for sale. There are also online ads through horse websites, auctions, rescues, and plain old word of mouth.

Instead of buying a horse, another option might be what is called a free lease. These are usually advertised as such. A free lease agreement might be for a year, or open-ended. Be specific with the owner about this. You will be responsible for ALL the cost and care of a free lease horse, but you do not own it.

Do your research and rely on the expertise of more experienced horse owners to help you through the process. Do not buy or lease a horse that is exhibiting bad behavior, signs of lameness (limping), or one you are feeling pressured by the seller to buy ASAP. It is very important to find the right horse for your child and this might take time.

Things to consider about the horse are the following: age, breed, size, temperament, experiences with children, behavioral issues, past health history (especially lameness issues), and how your child is able to ride and handle the horse. The ‘rule of thumb’ here is do not pair an inexperienced horse with an inexperienced rider. Remember, you want to find a great horse for your child. Whatever you decide, always have a written contract, whether it is a bill of sale or a lease agreement.

Horses are expensive. Is there any way to keep the costs down?

This is kind of like saying, ‘Kids are expensive, is there any way to keep the costs down?” Well, yes and no. No, in the sense that there will be monthly and yearly costs associated with horses, lessons, and equestrian activities. Yes, in the sense that you and your child can find ways to minimize costs by teaching your child to save money for special purchases, buying used equipment and riding clothes, and working at the barn in exchange for lessons or riding time. You might ask the instructor if there is a reduced lesson fee if you pay for a group of lessons in advance. If you are at a lesson barn with other children, start a ‘clothes co-op’ that will help pass on outgrown clothes and boots to others.

  *    *    *

Since that first day at the riding lesson, we have had exhilarating ‘highs’ and sorrowful ‘lows’ because of our love of horses. We have leased horses, bought and sold horses, and buried horses. But we wouldn’t trade any of it, or the wonderful equines who have been part of our family, past and present. Our unbridled enthusiasm hasn’t been reined in, but spurred on by our unharnessed love… (sorry, I couldn’t resist!).

Published on: April 18, 2016
About the Author
Photo of Sheana Whelan Funkhouser RN PhD
Dr. Sheana Whelan Funkhouser is a self described ‘nurse mom’ who is known for her down-to-earth advice and practical approach to health and healthy living. Sheana spends time volunteering at the animal shelter, church office, and at a health clinic serving medically vulnerable community members.
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Check out the book Horse Play! A fun way to inspire a child’s obsession with horses, and so much more.