Can We Still Have Fun With Horses'

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I was pleased to see the strongly agreeable reaction to my wife, Heather Bailey?s, guest blog ?Are The Kids All Right'? on Feb. 24. Over-mounting of young students, along with buying unsuitable mounts for anyone, are two subjects she feels rather strongly about. Heather too often watches in horror as junior riders careen around the warm-up ring or the cross-country or show jumping courses because they're riding horses that are simply too high-octane for their abilities. We've seen it at dressage shows too, in the form of 30- or 40-something amateur women being led to the warm-up or from the warm-up ring to the show ring on horses of whom they're petrified. Not surprisingly, the riders (and the horses) are nervous wrecks. In addition to the comments you can read here, I received an email from Lynne Heckman, of Boone, Iowa, whom I interviewed a couple of months ago for one of the blogs I did on horse-keeping around the country. She told me they see the same over-mounting issues in Western events, ?especially in barrel racing and other speed events.? Tiny little girls and boys riding too big horses that only know to run the pattern at a full-out gallop, with the little girl (or boy) hanging on for dear life.? Those kids couldn't stop that horse or steer him off course if they tried.? But the sad thing is... they win.? And the wrecks we've seen!!? What are these parents thinking'? As a still relatively new father, I wonder too. Then Lynne told me about her daughter?s pony: ?She's 18 this spring, but hasn't lost a step.? The kids have done EVERYTHING with her.? Her resume includes barrel racing, parades, trail rides (including through herds of buffalo), team penning and sorting, breakaway roping, and 4-H shows.? My daughter rode her as the 2008 Dayton PRCA Junior Rodeo Queen, where she performed in front of 3,000 people each night of the rodeo.? This past summer my daughter rode her on the PRCA rodeo equestrian drill team as an alternate where she carried a flag while riding the routine.? She hasn't always won every show, but she has always been competitive.? She's the same pony every day, whether she was ridden yesterday or six months ago.? Sadly, our kids have now outgrown this precious pony, and we are looking to find her a new home.? Now that sounds like a great pony, but I fear that sHe's a pony about whom too many trainers (and, consequently, parents and kids too) would say ?isn?t fancy enough.? Well, our experience has been that many kids simply stop riding if they're scared or if a horse's behavior hurts them, so what good is a beautiful, extremely athletic horse or pony if your child won?t ride him' You?ve just got an expensive and beautiful lawn ornament. One reader's comments made me ponder a broader aspect. TBlover wrote: ??I put the onus on the trainer to help kids learn not only to handle their own horse, but to have fun with the horse. Most trainers these days are all about competing and not about making the journey fun for horse and rider. A 10-year-old girl should not have to put a stud chain on her pony to walk it back to its paddock after a lesson, but I have seen this firsthand, and it breaks my heart. ?It's up to the trainer, not the parents, to lead the way since many parents are not horse people. My former trainer was very competitive and never stressed groundwork skills or playtime with the horses to either child or adult clients. Ribbons were more important to the trainer than having fun with the horse. ?As an adult, I still find time to play with my horse, whether I am teaching her tricks, wandering around bareback, or spending a few hours hand-grazing. I wish more trainers would emphasize this with their clients.? Maybe we really don't have enough fun with our horses anymore' We had a working student a couple of years ago, to whom we sold a Connemara with a lot of brains and personality, and she used to get on him bareback and ride him up our mountain so they could both pick wild blueberries in the summer. They?d stand in front of a big bush for an hour or so, both of them picking and eating the blueberries. Now sHe's with a very competitive trainer and has sold that horse because he wasn?t competitive enough. I wonder if we, or other area trainers, encourage fun enough. Can we really do that' After all, there are only 24 hours in the day to fit in school, other sports, homework and other things?or a job and a family if they're adults. Plus someone?s paying for us to help them achieve their competitive or training goals. it's kind of hard to say, ?Oh, why don't you just ride bareback or play with your horse today.? I have several times taken our students to ride on the beach of the Pacific Ocean, and they've always really enjoyed it, but that's only possible in the summer, because of school, the tide schedule, and because it's just too crowded on the weekend to ride there. I look at myself and wonder if I have fun with my horses' I certainly enjoy the training and developing that partnership, communication and trust. That, to me, is the fun part, and it's the part that can take a very long time and be frustrating and rewarding. But I'll admit that I simply don't have time to ?play? with my horses. There is always another horse to ride, grass to cut or weeds to pull, an interview to do or an article to write, or my son, Wesley, to watch while Heather rides or teaches. Last weekend, while riding in a horse trial, I recalled I used to spend a fair amount of time at events where I stabled hand-grazing my fantastic partner Merlin. But now I rarely do that with my horses, partly because of having more horses to ride and students to coach and partly because only one California event always has any grass on which horses can graze. But those were special moments for Merlin and me, our time together. That was fun.