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Horseback riding lessons benefit children in many ways. They build confidence, strength, coordination and focus. However, riding a horse can be dangerous, even with the gentlest, smallest horse in the stable.
So when their kids start requesting riding lessons, many parents find themselves wondering: Is my child ready?
Here are some guidelines to help you determine if your little one is ready to get in the saddle or would be better off waiting to pick up the reins.
Talk with an instructor who has a good reputation and experience working with children. Because every child's developmental timeline is different, an expert can help you determine your child's readiness. And safety should always be at the forefront of the discussion, says Dana Surrusco, owner of HorseSense Riding Academy in Ellijay, Georgia.
Observing other children riding is also helpful, says Shelley Mann, spokesperson for The United States Pony Clubs (Pony Club), a nonprofit national youth organization that teaches riding and horsemanship through a formal educational program. This gives parents a better idea of the balance, coordination and maturity needed for a safe and fun riding experience.
At HorseSense, Surrusco provides assessment lessons to determine if a young rider is ready for formal instruction. In these short sessions, the instructor leads the novice rider around on a small horse to get a sense of the child's balance, strength and more. Then she makes recommendations about what type of instruction, if any, is appropriate for the child.
"You don't want to put children in a situation where you're asking them to learn something they are not mature enough to learn, either physically or mentally," Surrusco says.
Before you commit a lot of time and money to riding lessons, make sure your child truly understands the things that go along with riding, such as safety, education, grooming, tacking and cleaning stalls. She should also respect animals and have an appreciation for how to behave around horses.
“They may love [horses] from their bedroom, but translating that into the barn may be a different story,” Mann cautions.
Surrusco agrees. “If it's just about the child riding, it doesn't usually take early on," she says. Kids have to be ready to do more than just ride; they will need to learn all they can about horses, because there's a lot they won't be able to do right away.
Knowing how to act around a horse, for both the child's and the horse's safety, is critical. “The first thing kids should know is that most horses are gentle giants, but they don't like loud noises or quick movements,” Mann says. Children should learn to be quiet and soothing around them, she adds.
Surrusco teaches her young riders to approach their ponies from the side, toward the shoulders and neck. Kids learn that they may scare the horse and risk being kicked if they approach the horse from behind or the front.
Another important lesson for new riders, Surrusco says, is learning a horse's body language. For instance, if a pony's ears are flat against his head, her students know to keep their distance.
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