Horses make wonderful companions for kids – and vice versa! The key is to set them up for success by imparting some basic safety precautions and handling techniques.
As a clinician, teaching kids to handle and train their own horses can be a lot of fun. And no offense to the adults, but sometimes it’s easier! Most kids who are passionate about horses are usually eager to learn and willing to give almost anything a whirl. This bravery around horses lets them advance their riding and horsemanship faster.
Teaching kids is sort of like working with young horses; they’re a fairly blank slate and are naturally curious. In addition, kids usually don’t come with the bad habits that are so easy for riders to develop over time. Creating a fun and educational horsemanship program, and enlisting the help of a qualified coach, will help set the foundation for a youngster’s future with horses.
There are many factors to consider when it comes to coaching kids, but here are six of what I consider the most important tips:
#1. Keep kids and horses safe by teaching the one rein stop
This is always the number one priority! The first thing we teach a young rider when they get into the saddle (or any beginner rider for that matter) is the one rein stop. This is when the rider pulls one rein and the horse bends his head and neck around to the side. The horse’s nose should be able to touch the rider’s boot, and the horse should come to a complete stop. This needs to be taught and practised regularly on both sides at the walk, the trot, and eventually the lope.
The one rein stop is basically like the emergency brake on your car. It’s the go-to move if things get out of control, whether the horse spooks, runs off, a rein breaks, etc. A horse can easily run through bridle pressure if a person is pulling on both reins to stop, especially because kids aren’t as strong. However, a horse that’s been taught the one rein stop is usually pretty easy to get under control if there is a problem. When a young rider knows they can stop a horse quickly and easily, it instills confidence and allows them to feel safe in the saddle.
#2. Help kids develop confidence on a horse
The better rider a person becomes, the more confident they become. They feel in control, and more equipped to handle whatever situation arises. To develop skill, a kid needs to be constantly advancing without skipping steps in their horsemanship education. For instance, if a youth is comfortable trotting the horse but not loping, go to a roundpen to work on the lope where there isn’t anywhere to go and the horse can’t pick up much speed. Have the youngster lope halfway around the pen and then come back to a walk; then walk a few laps; then lope another half. Gradually have the rider lope the horse a bit longer over time. Once they’re good in the pen, they can work on the lope in a bigger area like an arena.
Another way to build a kid’s confidence is to have him or her teach the horse to cross obstacles. Pick easy obstacles to begin with, such as wooden rails. Advance to crossing a folded tarp, then unfold it to make the obstacle bigger. This is a good way to practice for the unknown while in a fairly predictable environment.
#3. Keep things interesting
As a coach/clinician, there is a balancing act between teaching kids the parts of horsemanship they need to know versus the parts they want to know. If most kids had their way, they would probably want to jump six-foot fences or race around barrels on their second lesson. Obviously they need a good riding foundation before they get to that stage. However, they also need to have some fun and enjoy riding or they won’t stick with it. I recommend planning a lesson where you start with warm-up exercises; move onto the more technical parts of riding and training; then lean toward the fun things they enjoy at the end of the lesson. This is a great way to leave things on a good note and have young riders looking forward to next time.
The stereotypical cranky riding coach who is always yelling “heels down!” might be okay at developing a proper rider, but it isn’t going to matter if the kid doesn’t enjoy what they’re doing and doesn’t want to stick with riding. People ride because it’s fun, and it’s a mistake to forget that.
#4. Set attainable goals
Most kids probably won’t be too interested in hearing that if they practice hard, it’s going to pay off in five or ten years. They need to have goals they feel they can reach in the near future. Practicing and training for even the smallest show gives a youngster something to strive for. However, showing isn’t mandatory. Setting small training goals and having mini-competitions can do the same thing. Set up a small obstacle course and time or score the kids as they complete it. Then see if they can shave off a few seconds the next time through. This type of practice also helps reveal where their strengths are and what they need to work on.
#5. If possible, it’s best if a kid can work with and ride different horses
It’s very common to see riders of all ages who look pretty good on their own personal horse, but awkward on any other. When a person is young, it’s much easier for them to get an overall feel for horses, so take advantage of that. The more horses a kid can work with and ride (providing the horses are safe) the better they will become. They will easily develop a feel for horses, and that’s very hard to pick up later in life.
#6. Let them experiment
Although it might be tempting to keep everything very structured, kids need a chance to try different things with their horses and horsemanship. Trying a variety of equine events, riding with friends, performing their skills to music, and just having time to play around with their horses will help them develop passion, which, after all, is why we’re all in this in the first place.
I hope this gives you some ideas when it comes to teaching kids about horses. Keep it safe and keep it fun!