Here's what you as a parent can do to enhance your child's equestrian experience?including joining in the fun yourself.
Lighting, Fanning The Flames
Some children seem born horse-crazy; others become so by following the lead of family or friends. You can help the process along, Open the door. If you're not a horse person yourself, encourage your child's interest simply by exposing her to horses indirectly, like involving your child with equine-themed books, videos, magazines, and toys. Because horses are so naturally attractive to children, it doesn't take much to arouse a child's curiosity. From there, involvement in a club such as 4-H, and/or riding lessons at a stable with other young riders, should help keep the interest going. But don't push. This may seem obvious, but it can be especially difficult if you are a horse person, and are eager to share your passion with your child. To avoid pitfalls:
- Be a parent first. "Think of your child's perspective, and emphasize fun," advises Teresa Larson, a lifelong horsewoman who, with farrier husband Reg, has raised four children, three of whom are riders. "The right horse for each child is so important here. A mount that's hard to catch, for example, can make a sensitive child feel unwanted or ignored." She adds that you must let your child do the things she thinks are fun?which may or may not include showing. "If you worry that galloping through the fields might ruin your favorite show horse," she says, "find a second 'Old Faithful' to do just that so as to save 'Pushbutton Joe' for competition." Larson also recommends you share your child's other interests while waiting to see if a horse attraction emerges. "Participate wherever possible, to keep that child from feeling left out, or developing a resentment toward your own horse involvement," she says.
- Mind your "tone." For professionals, especially--instructors, trainers, show judges--it's important to make sure your child doesn't feel as if she "plays second fiddle" to horses. When she's young, don't drag her to the barn or along to shows if she doesn't want to go; if you do take her, find a way to let her have fun or participate in some way while remaining safe. When she's older, don't make her do your barn chores for you, much as you might make her do the dishes. "Above all," advises BJ LeMaster, who operates a busy show and lesson barn in Sacramento, "keep your own attitude about horses and showing positive. If you're having a dispute with a client, or a bad day at a show, don't take it out on your child," adds the trainer, whose own daughter has become an accomplished and competitive equestrian. Stay tuned in. For all parents, it's important to stay "connected" to a child to monitor her horse experience as it evolves. "Kids will talk to parents when things are going well, but often not when they're unhappy about something," cautions Doug Lietzke, a licensed psychologist, certified school psychologist, avid endurance rider, and father. "And, even if you ask them directly, they often still won't divulge. Instead, take an indirect approach. If you suspect your child is down about some aspect of showing, say, 'At the show yesterday, I noticed your friend Susie looked glum after her class. What do you think was going on?' That opens the door. "If your child says something about Susie's parent or trainer putting too much pressure on her, say, 'Do I do that with you?' If your child says you do, devise a signal she can use to tip you off the next time she's feeling too much pressure." As in all matters of parenting, says Lietzke, staying in tune with your child's inner feelings is key.
Maximizing The Fun
The ways of enhancing fun for your horse-involved child are limited only by your imagination and creativity. Here are a few suggestions, starting with those most appropriate for young children, to get you started:
- Grooming play. Many young children, especially girls, love the "fussing over" aspect of grooming. Enhance the experience by providing her with her own set of kid-sized grooming tools (they now come in bright, kid-friendly colors), and just-for-fun add-on--glitter for manes/tails, coats, and hooves, for example. The book Fun With Ponies And Horses, by Debby Sly (see "Educational Resources"), also has terrific how-to's for braiding and "decorating" equines with ribbons, bows, and quarter marks (those cute designs to comb or clip into the hair coat on a pony's hindquarters).
- Dress-up. Costume play--supervised, of course--is fun as an informal activity to celebrate a holiday or birthday, or as part of a special class at a show. Suggest a "Pony Parade" of costumed riders and mounts at your child's lesson barn, or help your child prepare her horse at home for, say, a special Halloween photo.
- "Pony sleepovers." If you're an experienced horse person with the appropriate set-up at home, invite one of your child's horse-owning friends and her horse or pony over for a sleepover. Let the kids make breakfast bran mashes the next morning for their charges, then help them decorate or costume their four-legged friends (see above). Older children might prefer a picnic trail ride (supervised, of course).
- Games. There are countless mounted games that are not only fun, but also skill-building. Suggest a "games day" at your child's lesson barn, or supervise one at home with your child's riding friends. Find great suggestions as well as safety precautions in Games on Horseback, by Betty Bennett-Talbot and Steve Bennett (see "Educational Resources").
- Riding camps. These combine the fun of a summer-camp experience with the joys of riding. As with choosing a riding instructor, you should select a camp on the basis of safety standards and curriculum as well as other factors.
WHAT TO ASK THE CAMP DIRECTOR
Ask the questions below to determine a camp's overall suitability for your child:
- How long has the facility been operating as a riding camp? Does it have any certifications or references?
- How many weeks may a camper elect to attend in a season?
- If getting to the camp requires air transportation, will someone be at the airport to assist my child at her arrival and departure?
- What is the average age of the camp counselors, and what is the ratio of counselor to camper?
- What is the age range of children at the camp? Are both girls and boys accepted?
- How many children of my child's age and gender will be at the camp?
- What percentage of campers, on average, return each year?
- What types of riding?English, Western, jumping, trail riding, mounted games, etc.?are offered?
- Is the emphasis on competition or cooperation among the camp riders?
- What activities other than riding are offered? Are these activities scheduled or free choice? Which of them, if any, are mandatory (and will my child be comfortable with them)?
- Are children safe and supervised at all times?not just around the horses?
- How much riding time does each child receive?
- H ow large are the lesson groups?
- How skilled a rider must my child be to attend?
- If my child is a more advanced rider, will she be adequately challenged?
- Are special dietary requests accommodated?
- What medical facilities are available nearby, and what medical staff is on campus?
Sharing The Joy
Riding with your child, sharing field trips and vacations, volunteering with her horse club?all of these are ways in which you can share with her the unique joy of horses.
Saddling up. If you're a horse person, you're probably already riding with your child--or anticipating doing so. If you're not horse-savvy but are interested in riding, consider taking lessons--possibly at your child's lesson barn, if it has a program for adult beginners. Beyond that, the options for sharing riding time with your child include:
- Showing. Many a "horse-show mom" gets bitten by the bug and winds up in the arena herself. Sharing the thrill of competing with your child is particularly gratifying, and showing as a family can strengthen familial bonds.
- Trail riding. Outings range from short jaunts from your home barn or the lesson stable, to daylong excursions in scenic locales, to overnight "horse-camping" holidays. The North American Trail Ride Conference (www.natrc.org) provides information and competitive opportunities for trail riders. Have Saddle, Will Travel by Don West includes useful trail riding tips. For additional books, videos, and other resources for trail riding and horse camping, try Two Horse Enterprises (www.extendinc.com/twohorse).
- "Clinic-ing." A wide variety of educational clinics and seminars is available to equestrians today. Sessions range in length from one day to a week or more, and offer everything from safe handling, horse savvy, and basic riding skills to advanced, discipline-specific programs. Although not all clinics admit youngsters, some, such as Lynn Palm's "Family Partners" schools in Michigan and Florida, cater to parents and children. Palm's program, open to any two family members (mother/child, father/child, brother/sister, grandmother/grandchild, etc.), teaches safety, correct position, and effective riding. The program also includes unorthodox and just-for-fun activities, such as riding to music, costume classes, and fashion shows (www.lynnpalm.com).
- Field trips. There are many interesting and educational attractions of interest to horse enthusiasts. The Kentucky Horse Park, a veritable "Disneyland for horse lovers," is a popular destination for horse-loving families (www.kyhorsepark.com). Or take your child to a special equestrian performance, such as the critically acclaimed theatrical production "Cavalia: A Magical Encounter Between Horse and Man" (www.cavalia.net).
- Equestrian vacations. These vary widely in destination, amenities, and cost. Riding tours are now available in the United States and abroad. Cross Country International's new mother-daughter rides include massages, make-overs, and special dinners as well as riding lessons in exotic locales (www.equestrianvacations.com). For closer-to-home (and more Western-themed) opportunities, there are many kinds of dude ranches to choose from. (For more information on planning an equestrian vacation, go to www.equisearch.com/horses_riding_training/travel/eqvacation3475.
- Volunteering. Whether your child belongs to 4-H, Pony Club, a breed association's youth group, or a local riding club, that organization can use your help. Just as volunteering in your child's classroom helps enrich her school experience, so too does volunteering with her equestrian club enhance opportunities for you both to enjoy her horse-related activities.
LOOKING AHEAD: A NOTE ABOUT SCHOOLS
If you think your child might be interested in a prep school or college that offers riding or other equine studies, see the listing of schools and colleges [LINK]. Horse Schools: The International Guide to Universities, Colleges, Secondary Schools and Specialty Equine Programs, by Angelia Almos, might also be helpful. For more information related to this story, go to:
HELPING SPECIAL RIDERS
If you have a special-needs child, or would like to help a program that benefits disabled children and adults, consider volunteering with a therapeutic riding center. Such programs provide both physical therapy and emotional support to participants. For some individuals, riding on the back of a calm "therapy horse" may be their only way to experience the sensation of "walking." For others, riding is a confidence- and morale-boosting experience unlike any other.
Therapeutic centers need help with various functions, including:
- Basic equine tasks--grooming, tacking up, cooling out horses, cleaning tack.
- work with riders--leading horses during lessons, sidewalking (walking alongside the therapy horse to offer support to the rider if needed).
- Administrative help--assisting with routine office work, public relations, fund-raising, and special-events planning.
Volunteers generally must be at least 14 years of age, although sometimes younger children with a strong horsemanship background are considered. By involving your child in volunteering, you can teach her the concepts of helping others and giving back to her community. Plus, it's fun and rewarding for both of you.
For more information and to find a therapeutic riding center near you, contact:
North American Riding for the Handicapped Association