The first time I ever got on a horse, it didn't go well. I was about 20, and a bunch of friends had decided on a whim that this would be a fun thing to try. We get to the farm, and they ask me if it's my first time. I say, "Yes", and so they offer me what I'd call a mid-size horse, brown, quiet, flashing its tail gently in the breeze near a pretty white fence. Of course, I look around and most of my friends are climbing aboard bigger, more impressive horses (which naturally gets me thinking, "No thanks! I want my money's worth"). What's more, there's a big, white horse with this gigantic head, giving me the eye, and when I walk up to it, it rubs that giant, boney skull up in down my leg. Obviously, I've found a better horse, right? Never mind that the weathered farm hand making the assignment says something like, "'Jess wanna' warn ya'; he can be a little tough." The words flow in and out of my ears like so much ignored, manure-stained wind, because I've found, in horse-form, my kindred spirit.
Rule number one when it comes to riding horses: never accept a horse you've been told is "a little tough."
We're sitting in a pasture, the ride having not even really started, and instead of sauntering toward the open gate at the edge of the field, my noble, kindred spirit has his snout buried deep in the grass, munching away, with apparently little interest in actually riding me anywhere. One of the farm hands rides up to the pair of us, looks at me with what I remember as a kind of knowing grin, and says, "You'll not want to allow him to do that. He'll stay there all day." So, following his instructions, I gently tug on the reins until my horse's massive skull-head rises to a level relatively even with mine and after about ten seconds, he begins falling in with the other dozen or so horses which are now ambling toward the trail. Soon bored with this, however, he promptly stops over the next green clump of field weed, and begins another round of enthusiastic munching. Remembering my instructions, I again yank gently on the reins.
I will never forget the result. The giant skull rose again, only this time, the horse cocked his head, and I could see the whole of his eyeball, roughly the size of a grapefruit, sizing me up as the rookie I was, and then taking on more of a glaring, disgruntled expression. The next thing I knew, the skull dove out of sight, so that I was suddenly on the edge of a cliff formed by two massive horse shoulder blades. Next, the animal inexplicably began backing up---fast! I say "inexplicably", because during the initial half-second of this unanticipated movement, I really wasn't sure what had happened. It was as if somebody had lassoed the horse's tail and was pulling it backwards with a Corvette. It was the horse, of course, directing this sudden movement, and his intention was all at once clear: to remove me from his back, possibly killing me in the process, so that he could continue his eating without further interuption.
Long story short: I lived. The horse never did succeed in dislodging me, although his kicking hoof put a horseshoe-shaped impression into the thigh of one of my friends whose animal had taken up an unfortunate position behind mine.
What a great way to introduce a Parenting Blog about putting your kids on horses, right? In fact, I'm still in favor of the idea. My daughter actually took lessons for several years when she was in grade school and high school, and the familiarity she gained with such large animals went a long way toward her choosing a profession working with animals.
Don't Force It
But there are rules to this game. First, don't force it on a kid. If the idea of getting on a horse just seems scary to them, then it's probably not a good idea. You might want to first try young kids out on the back of a pony with the nice strap-in seat and a trainer leading the animal in a slow gait. When you graduate to larger horses, pick a reputable stable with horses that are used for teaching. Horses are like people. They have different temperaments, and a good stable that stakes its reputation on teaching beginners will only use healthy, calm-spirited animals that are used to kids with little experience. These horses are well-trained, quiet, and usually need little prodding to follow basic commands like "walk on", "turn" and "trot". However, even calm horses are sometimes known to buck, and being thrown is always possible. Kids should understand this, and schools should offer instruction on how to react as part of any ongoing training regime.
Lessons aren't cheap. They can run $20 or more for a half hour. But it's the sort of thing where you will see improvement in riding skills after a fairly short time, especially with kids who are further along in grade school, or entering high school. The advantages are good, according to those who promote the hobby: exercise, building confidence and focus, and encouraging responsibility. In fact, the responsibility angle is especially stressed by some riding schools, requiring that students learn to take their horses out of the stable, saddle them up, and wash and brush them down after the ride is over.
Opening New Pastures
Another bonus to exposing your kids to horses is that, often, while on vacation, opportunities to ride present themselves in very unique places. I've ridden with my daughter on grassy slopes next a rocky beach in Hawaii, and along the sides of a box canyon in Colorado. But even if it's a local trail on some Delaware Valley farmland, the experience can be memorable for both you and your children. However, read online reviews about whatever venue you're considering to get a sense of how reputable it is and to get an idea of the temperament of the horses they employ.
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