Parents: Keep Your Equestrian Safe in the Saddle
Smart tips for starting a beginning rider off on the right hoof
Lots of kids go through an I-love-ponies phase. But how do you know if your wanna-be equestrian is ready to saddle up? While horseback riding has great advantages — from teaching responsibility to the benefits of being outside — the sport comes with risks, too.
Roughly 4.6 million people are involved with horses in the United States. Of those, around 25,000 kids under the age of 20 are treated for horse-related injuries in the emergency room. Here’s how to make sure a beginner equestrian takes up the reins safely.
Ready — or not
Although most barns have a minimum age requirement for beginning riders, a child should be at least 6 before he climbs into the saddle, says Hannah Lavin, head trainer at Volo Farm in Westford, Massachusetts. Six-year-olds are open to new experiences and less likely to be fearful, so they become naturally comfortable with horses, she says.
They also can follow directions and have enough body awareness to master the ropes of riding. For example, they can understand how to move just their lower leg in order to control a horse.
If you have a younger child who’s desperate for pony time, note that some barns offer on-the-ground lessons where kids learn to care for horses, says Shelley Mann of the United States Pony Clubs, Inc.
Vet the barn before you sign up
“Finding an affordable stable that offers quality education in a clean and safe environment can be a challenge, but aligning your child with skills that will last a lifetime is worthwhile,” Mann says. Lessons can range from $30 to $80, depending on the program. Kids usually take at least one lesson a week, so the costs add up fast.
When you’re searching for a stable, take time to visit those you’re considering. Start by checking out the livestock, says Mann. Horses should be in good flesh — a term that means their coats are shiny, their ribs are not visible and their ears are pricked forward.
On your tours, ask to take a look at the tack room, where riding equipment is stored. “If the tack looks clean, that means it has been checked for repairs,” Lavin notes.
Ask to meet with an instructor, too. You’re looking for a levelheaded, patient vibe. If your child is interested in an English riding program (meaning she’ll eventually jump), ask if the instructor is U.S. Hunter/Jumper Association-certified. This program is rigorous, so instructors that come out of it are well-trained.
Be wary of relying solely on online searches for a barn or riding program. A good place can get a negative review, and vice versa. In the horse world, word of mouth is a great resource.
Dress the part
Many riding schools have spare helmets on hand, but Lavin urges you to buy your child his own — it’s money well spent. “When you have your own, you know it hasn’t been smashed or deteriorated over time — and there are many affordable options,” she says. It’s okay to use a barn helmet for the first few lessons, but after that, invest in your own.
Whether your child is wearing his own helmet or one borrowed from the barn, fit is crucial for safety. A riding helmet should be snug all around and not fall off when a child flips his head upside down, according to the Equestrian Medical Safety Association. A boot or shoe with a small heel is important, too. Sneakers, flip-flops and other non-heeled shoes can easily slide through the stirrup irons.
As for riding pants, stretchy, full-length leggings or sweatpants are fine the first time or two. After a few lessons, you might want to pony up for a pair of jodhpurs and boots on the cheap. “The more comfortable a kid is in the saddle, the better she will ride,” Lavin says.
Learn horse sense
Although lesson horses are typically gentle giants, it’s important for kids to learn to respect any horse’s personal space. Horses spook or startle easily, so kids should be taught to talk quietly, move slowly and be careful walking behind the animals, says Lavin. Don’t let all the rules translate into fear, however. With the right foundation skills, riding might just become your child’s lifelong passion.