The way in which your child is introduced to ponies and riding may remain an influence well into his or her adult life. A safe, fun experience will probably result in a life-long love of horses and riding, but one scare can put a child off for life. It is, therefore, essential to ensure that the first equestrian experience is both safe and enjoyable.
Your child may indicate an interest in learning to ride because a school friend has recently started lessons, or has a new pony and has some exciting and interesting tales to tell. Or there may have been an interesting movie on television which sparked an interest in riding. In my own case, my uncle bought a horse for my cousins when I was about eight and after one ride around the field, I was hooked.
The best way to make sure that your child has a positive experience is to do plenty of homework first.
- Check around your local area and seek out lesson barns and instructors that teach children. Check in the Yellow Pages. Ask at the local tack store. Check local online resources that maintain directories of lesson barns etc.
- Visit the stables before booking any lessons. It doesn't have to be state of the art, but it should be neat and tidy. There should be some kind of fenced riding arena or school in which lessons are conducted There should be a variety of lesson horses, of all sizes, suitable for beginners. The horses should appear clean and in good health. The tack should be in good repair. It doesn't have to be new, but dirty, crusted tack should send up a warning flag!
- Watch some lessons to get a feel for the instructor's style. Does the instructor get on well with children? Does she emphasize safety? Is she a good teacher? Does she get her point across so all students can understand? How does she react when things go wrong?
- Talk to the parents of some of the other students at the stables. Would they recommend the stables/instructor? Are they pleased with their child's progress?
Most instructors offer a course of lessons at a set price. Setting up a short course of lessons will help you and your child decide whether riding is going to be something they want to stick with. If they really like it, you can book more lessons.
The age at which your child starts riding can vary, depending on the child's size and maturity. Generally, however, most instructors require children to be at least seven years old before accepting them into a lesson program.
A reputable instructor will require that your child wear a protective helmet from the very first lesson. Ask if the intructor has helmets that students can borrow for their early lessons. Once you know that your child is going to continue riding, it's advisable to go to the local tack store and get an approved helmet for your child.
The first lesson will ideally be a private lesson and will cover such things as the correct way to approach the pony, leading and working around the pony safely, mounting and dismounting, position etc. Children that are old enough will probably be taught about grooming and tacking up too.
Early riding lessons will be on the lunge line or lead line and will cover skills such as maintaining position at the walk, the basic aids to turn and to stop the horse and exercises to enhance balance and confidence. Once the child can apply the basic aids to stop and turn, lessons will be conducted in an arena or other confined area, allowing the child to practice and hone those skills and learn new ones, such as rising to the trot, in relative safety.
Once the child is confident and capable at the very basics, some instructors like to group two or more children together in a group lesson. Group lessons introduce the element of friendly competition, as the children each strive to do their best in front of their class mates and cheer each other on as they learn a new skill.
Some stables run informal "Schooling Shows" or play days where the children can enter competitions on the school horses. Even beginners can enjoy these shows, entering walk and trot classes and having the chance to win a covetted ribbon. More experienced riders can compete in games and jumping classes. Some of my earliest ribbons were won at these types of shows in England, in classes such as "Best Child Rider" (hard to imagine that now!) and "Peter Pan Jumping" (nothing over 18 inches high).
Children can gain so much from riding lessons. They learn patience, compassion for another being, responsibility, sportsmanship and a lot more. And, as I mentioned earlier, they can result in a life long passion for horses and the enjoyment of riding.