The Right Instructor, The Right Horse
Your child's first exposure to horses should come via lessons with a competent instructor, who will make sure she is matched to the right lesson mount. After a year or more of instruction--and perhaps some horse-sharing--your child may be ready to take the next step, into horse ownership. Assuming you're ready as well, your child's instructor can help to make sure that first horse or pony is a safe and appropriate one.
Choosing An Instructor
It's tempting simply to locate the stable nearest you and sign your child up for lessons there. But other criteria are far more important than location.
First, define your child's riding goals. Does she want to ride English or Western? Is she interested in a particular breed of horse? Will she primarily be riding for fun, or is she eventually going to want to compete--in, for example, jumping events or a Western trail class?
Even if the show ring is an ultimate goal, your priority now should be on securing the best foundation instruction you can find.
"For beginning riders, you want someone whose focus is on building good basic skills rather than on winning ribbons," advises Katie Phalen, who instructs at Waredaca Farm in Gaithersburg, Maryland. The ideal beginner's instructor, she notes, offers a holistic approach to horsemanship that includes understanding, handling, and caring for horses properly?rather than simply riding.
Where to look. With your child's goals in mind, seek information through:
- Other parents. Ask friends or acquaintances with horse-involved youngsters whom they recommend. Or inquire through your local 4-H horse group (via your county extension agent?check the white pages of your phone book) or Pony Club (www.ponyclub.org).
- Listings. Check the yellow pages under riding stables (also called training barns, equestrian centers, riding academies). Check listings in local equestrian publications, often available free at your local tack or feed store (see next bullet point). Google "horseback riding instruction [your hometown]" and see what comes up online.
- Tack/feed shops. Visit local equine outlets to pick up regional publications and to chat with sales personnel, who likely will know of instructors in your area.
- Local horse shows. If showing is an eventual goal, attend a local event and ask around. Look for groups of young riders who seem to be having a great time, regardless of how they're placing. Find out who they ride with.
- Breed registries. If your child is interested in a particular breed, call the registry (or a local affiliate?often advertised in local equestrian publications) for a referral.
What to ask. With candidates in mind, grab a spiral notebook, then call and ask about:
- Lesson mounts. Are there a number of horses or ponies suitable for beginners? (Riding a variety of horses helps develop well-rounded equestrian skills.) Are more advanced mounts available for when your child is ready to move up?
- Safety. Is there a program in place to address safety, with rules that are strictly enforced? Is there a well-thought-out method for matching beginning students to horses? Are personnel trained in first aid, and is there a plan for handling medical emergencies? Does the facility carry liability insurance? (The latter indicates an understanding of and attention to safety/risk issues.)
- Curriculum. Do students learn about the care and handling of horses as well as riding skills?
- Costs. How much are group, private, and semi-private lessons? Are there discounts for payment in advance? What are the policies regarding cancellations and make-ups?
- Logistics. What are the days, times, and age groups of lessons? How large, typically, are classes? (Ideally, they shouldn't be over six to eight for a group lesson.)
- Accreditation. Is the instructor certified by a riding instructor organization, or does he/she have other credentials, such as a college degree in horsemanship? (Accreditation doesn't guarantee that an instructor is good, but it's a helpful indication of diligence and professionalism. Find resources regarding certifying organizations at the end of this article.)
- Resume. Has the instructor had success teaching youngsters? If your child plans eventually to show, has the instructor coached young riders successfully in the show ring?
- Gender mix. If your child is a boy, are there other boys and men riding at the facility? (As riding is especially popular among girls, you want to be sure there will be riding buddies and role models available for your son.)
- Boarding. If you plan eventually to lease or purchase a horse for your child and prefer not to keep it at home, you'll want to be able to board it at the facility where your child's instructor is. What kind of stabling and services does the facility offer, and what do they cost?
Inspecting the facility.
Once you've "pre-qualified" some promising instructors, arrange to inspect their facility and watch a lesson in progress. Bring your notebook along to jot your impressions regarding:
- Safety. Are the safety measures you were told exist actually in evidence? Are youngsters wearing helmets? Do the horses and ponies look calm and manageable, as opposed to overly fresh, spooky, or high-strung? Are buildings and enclosures safe-looking, and tack and equipment in good repair? Are all personnel alert and businesslike in their oversight of the children? Is there an overall feeling of order and discipline?
- Professionalism. Is the facility clean and well-organized? (It needn't be expensive or glitzy, however, as these aren't reliable indicators of the quality of instruction.) Are lessons running on time, without undue confusion? Is the instructor neatly and appropriately dressed? Do the horses look fit, healthy, and happy, with well-cared-for feet (no overlong toes or clinking shoes)?
- Character. Your child will learn more than horsemanship and riding from her instructor. Is the instructor a role model you're comfortable with?
- Atmosphere. Is it businesslike, yet friendly? Do the staff and students seem happy and congenial with each other?
Observing a lesson.
Choose a class with children of about the same age as your child. Watch for:
- Focus. Does the instructor seem to have a goal for the lesson? (Ideally, the activities of the lesson are part of an overall instructional plan.)
- Safety. Are the lesson mounts cooperative and well behaved? Do the children look relaxed and unafraid? Are the activities well matched to the ability level of the riders?
- Teaching style. Is the instructor clear and patient, and able to convey concepts to children in a meaningful way? Is there a balance between theory and practice?that is, a balance between the time students spend listening to the instructor, and actually riding? Is the teaching style flexible to accommodate both bold and timid riders? Does the instructor re-phrase or re-explain things for emphasis, and check to make sure students are understanding? (Not all good riders and horse trainers are good teachers, so be especially mindful here.)
- Attitude. Is the instructor upbeat? Does he/she focus on the positive, sandwiching constructive criticism between praise and encouragement? Does he/she seem to enjoy the children, or is instructing "just a job"? Do the students seem to be having fun as well as learning?
When you've found a promising instructor, ask for a sample lesson for your child. If that goes well and you sign on, work hard to keep the lines of communication open. Be fair about disputes that may arise, just as you would in any difference of opinion between your child and a teacher at school.
If, however, you ultimately decide it's a bad match, don't be bashful about moving on and trying someone else.
Finding A Horse Or Pony
When and if you decide to buy a horse for your child, seek help from your child's instructor. He or she knows your child's abilities, and can keep an eye out for a suitable mare or gelding (no stallions, of course!). Sometimes it's possible to buy the horse of an older child who's outgrown him in terms of size or ability. This is ideal, as you get a known veteran who's accustomed to taking care of a novice rider.
If need be, offer to pay your child's instructor to accompany you to examine and try animals at facilities other than the instructor's barn.
Most questions of suitability will be handled by the instructor. There are, however, a few key concepts to keep in mind at all times:
- Older is better. One of the most common mistake first-time buyers make is choosing a horse or pony that's too young. The worst scenario is an immature horse intended to "grow up with" the child. This is a mistake no matter how gentle the horse or pony seems to be. A horse is not a pet, and shouldn't be regarded as one. Your primary consideration must be your child's safety, and for that reason, "senior citizen" status is a virtue. As it says in the Pony Club manual, "The less experienced the rider, the more experienced the pony should be." Well-cared-for horses can remain serviceably sound and ridable well into their 20s; ponies even longer. So look in the nine- to 15-year-old range (a Pony Club adage suggests the combined age of horse and rider should total at least 20). Though it may at times be hard to do so, stick to your older-is-better guns.?"A solid, dependable five-year-old may seem like a wonderful mount," cautions Carmela Richards, who operates a busy Pony Club barn in Granite Bay, California. "But in order for him to stay wonderful, he needs to be given consistent riding for a few more years by someone experienced enough to be consistent. In the hands of a novice, he can begin to regress." And when he does, he'll become problematic?and probably unsafe?for your child.
- Size matters. Children needn't start on a pony, but neither should you consider a 16-hand horse for a four-foot-tall child. Ponies do provide a shorter distance to fall, and, as Richards points out, "are just so much more practical for the smaller youngsters. Kids love to do things themselves?it's the old 'I can do it!' mind-set." On the other hand, ponies can also be "ponyish," meaning cranky and willful. So if you do look for a pony, be sure to have your child's instructor thoroughly evaluate its disposition.
- Beauty's irrelevant. Although you do want a horse with reasonably correct conformation to help him stay sound (you'll rely on your child's instructor to evaluate conformation for you), you shouldn't be concerned with show-ring looks. This advice is harder to follow than it sounds, as it's all too easy to fall in love with a really "cute" horse or pony. If that happens, with your instructor's blessing, go ahead and look, but don't lower your standards in other areas. And keep in mind that good looks will certainly affect the purchase price. So if you're trying to keep within a budget, don't let a little homeliness put you off.
- Nothing's a given. Even if a prospect seems well trained and nicely mannered, ask specifically about all vices. Does the horse or pony ever bite? Kick? Rear? Strike? Spook? Run away? Pull back? Refuse to load into a trailer?
- Request a trial. If your child's instructor gives the OK on a mount, ask the seller if you can bring the horse or pony to the instructor's barn for a week's trial. Sellers are often willing to let you take a prospective child's mount for a test period if they're sure the animal will be properly cared for. Expect to give the seller a post-dated check for the agreed-upon price. (If you also purchase an insurance policy to cover the horse against death or loss of use during the trial, both you and the seller will be protected.) During the trial, and under appropriate supervision, have your child do everything with the horse you want her to be able to do?such as catch, groom, and saddle up; take a lesson; ride out on the trail.?If the seller won't agree to a trial, the next best thing is to ride the horse multiple times under different circumstances at the seller's place. If the horse passes muster, you'll be ready to:
- Have a vet check. A pre-purchase exam (or "vet check") is important regardless of the horse or pony's price. With an inexpensive animal, you still want to make sure your new purchase won't go lame or keel over immediately?because your child is certainly going to become attached to it. Be aware, though, that an experienced, mature beginner's horse is unlikely to get a "prefect score" on a veterinarian's evaluation, nor should you expect him to. Consult with your child's instructor to decide which minor health or soundness problems you can live with in return for a sound resume and wonderful disposition (and a corresponding discount on the purchase price).
- Pay the price. How much should you pay for a good first horse for your child? If you're not looking for something of show quality?and you probably shouldn't be?you ought to be able to find something suitable for about $3,500 to $5,000, at the low end. You'll see "bargain-priced" horses advertised for sale, and occasionally circumstances allow a truly good beginner's horse to be available for under $3,500. But the odds that something is wrong with a less expensive animal?either temperamentally or health-wise?are high. Approach all "bargains" with a jaundiced eye, and be doubly sure your child's instructor has plenty of opportunity to check the animal out. (And those $500 ponies and "free to good home" horses in your local newspaper's classifieds? Don't go there.)
(For more information related to this chapter, go to:
American Association of Riding Schools, Inc.
American Riding Instructors Certification Program
Certified Horsemanship Association (CHA)