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This weekend my grandchildren joined us on a six-hour community trail ride. There were over 100 riders and lots of kids. Some parents brought children that had no business being on a horse and were too inexperienced for such a ride, but luckily there were no serious injuries.
The safest way to learn to ride a horse is in a controlled environment under an experienced equestrian’s watchful eye. Beginner riders should wear appropriate clothing and safety gear and know the rules of safe horse handling before getting on one.
It is important to know the safety precautions when horseback riding for children. You want to make sure that your kids are safe and not putting themselves in any unnecessary danger. Although it may seem like an easy sport, there are many things that you should be aware of before taking on this hobby with your child.
Horse riding basics
‘There is something about a horse that is good for the heart of a child.’
Is your child dreaming about becoming the next Mark Todd or Zara Phillips? Perhaps s/he simply wants to go trail riding with friends, or maybe you have surprised child a horse as a present!
In any case, your child needs to master the basics of horse handling and safety if your child wants to ride a horse. Learning the basics is especially important for your child’s safety and others – both people and the horse.
There are a ton of horse riding basics to know before you can hop on your first horse. This guide covers essential safety tips and the basics of horse riding for kids. Here are the topics:
- Benefits of horse riding for kids
- The right age to start horse riding for children
- Ins and outs of kids’ riding lessons
- Safety rules on the ground – Understanding a horse’s body language
- Basic safety riding equipment to invest in
- What to expect during the first lesson
- How to fall off a horse safely
- Dos and Don’ts while riding a horse
So saddle up!
The Benefits of Horse Riding for Kids?
Horse riding has long been a favorite pastime for children, and it is also an excellent way for kids to learn important skills. Horseback riding can teach children how to be confident, self-sufficient, and independent while having fun at the same time.
Over the years, I have seen many kids improve their balance and strength through horse riding. The benefits of horseback riding are numerous and include:
- Improved posture
- Stronger back, core, and muscles
- Superior balance and coordination of arms and legs
- Reduced obesity
- Better self-esteem and self-confidence
- Reduced mood swings, depression, anxiety, and stress
- Improved academic performance
What is the Right Age for Beginning Horse Riding for Children?
For many kids, the excitement of owning a horse starts when they are very young. They dream about what it would be like to ride their own horse and how proud they will feel when riding in a show. But is there an ideal age for children to start horseback riding?
Six to eight years is a good age for most kids to start riding. At this age, they have the necessary motor skills and confidence to handle a horse. Having said that, you are never too old to start horse riding!
Anyone can start riding a horse with proper guidance and training. An important prerequisite is that they know how to follow directions and understand that horses are easily scared by sudden movements.
When kids are first getting into horses, always start by exposing them to horses and allowing them to develop a relationship with the animal. Sometimes it’s best to get acquainted in ways that don’t involve riding for those new to horseback riding – like grooming or helping out around the barn!
We got our kids interested in horses at an early age. They helped us feed and groom our animals, and we took them on short trail rides.
They also watched as we trained our young horses; this gives them an opportunity to see how we communicate with these animals. They rode a calm horse in our round pen when they got old enough before beginning their riding lessons.
Ins and Outs of Horse Riding Lessons
Horse riding classes are a great way for children to learn about horses and horseback riding. Horse Riding Lessons teach grooming, saddling, tacking up, leading, mounting, and dismounting skills in a safe and controlled environment. They also offer the opportunity for children to interact with other kids their age who share an interest in animals.
How to choose your riding instructor/school.
It is important to have a good relationship with your riding instructor. A successful student-teacher relationship can make the difference between love and hate for horses. The best way to find a riding instructor that you will like is through word of mouth, either from friends or family members that also ride.
Do your research before enrolling a child in a riding program. A bad experience can ruin your child. So, here are some of the main points you should consider when choosing a riding instructor/school for your child:
- Visit several schools and find out if they have certified instructors.
- If possible, ask to see the horses. Make sure the animals look well taken care of.
- Can you board your horse at their facility? Do they provide horses to ride?
- If they allow, ask for a demo class or simply ask to observe a class in progress.
- Is the instructor responding to students’ queries? Is everyone following safety rules?
- Only after you are completely satisfied can you go ahead and enroll your child in the school.
You want your child to learn the skills they need for life, which is why you research their schools. You should do that same level of homework when it comes time for riding lessons too!
Should You opt for solo or group lessons for kids?
The decision to take solo or group lessons is an important one. Some riders prefer the social aspect of riding with friends, while others are more comfortable on their own. There are pros and cons to both options, but it’s up to you to decide which route works best for your personality type.
This is often a dilemma parents face when they first consider riding lessons for their children. So I decided to make this table with the pros and cons of solo and group lessons so you can take a quick glance and make an informed choice:
|Feature||Solo Lesson||Group Lesson|
|Chance to make friends||Nil||Higher|
Many kids also do well with a mix of private/solo and group lessons.
Now we will talk about horses.
Which is the best horse breed for kids to learn horse riding?
There are many breeds of horses that are gentle and easy for kids to handle, such as the American Quarter Horse, Tennessee Walking Horse, and the Morgan breed. Remember that horses are individuals; you are choosing a beginner’s horse, not a breed.
Here are the top 10 horse breeds in the world:
- American Paint
- Miniature horse
- American Quarter horse
- Tennessee Walking horse
Popular pony breeds are Shetland, Welsh, and Pony of the Americas. You can enquire with your riding school about the breeds they have. I wrote an article all about common horse breeds in the United States I suggest you read. It will be helpful.
Now we will move on to some safety rules.
Safety rules for working horses on the ground: Starting with a little horse sense!
Horses are big animals with powerful muscles, and they’re a lot of fun to be around, but they can be dangerous if you don’t know how to handle them correctly. Kids must follow safety rules when around horses.
Horses need to be respected at all times because when a horse is not being handled properly, it can unintentionally hurt someone or even kill them. Here are some vital rules to follow when working on the ground with horses:
1. Observe the horse’s body language.
Horses are, by nature, very nervous creatures. They need quiet and confident handling. A horse also has a way of telling you how it is feeling, usually by the position of its ears and its overall body language.
- A comfortable and happy horse has a relaxed posture. It might ignore you and continue eating, although some might prick their ears and give you a welcoming whinny.
- When a horse pricks its ears forward and lifts its head, it is intent on listening.
- Horses lay their ears back against the neck when threatening
- Both ears pointing back but not pressed to the neck means that the horse is listening or resting. (If it is dozing, its eyes will be half-closed and head will be lowered.)
- The horse’s tail also gives many signs– a relaxed horse will carry the tail slightly lifted without swishing. On the other hand, it will clamp its tail to the rump when frightened and even when it is about to kick someone.
2. No horsing around horses.
Kids should not talk loudly or yell around horses. Horses like it when people speak to them in a soft voice. Encourage kids to greet the horse and then pat and stroke its shoulders or neck without startling it.
3. Don’t startle a horse.
Horses can’t see behind themselves. They may be startled by loud noises or by someone coming up to them too quickly. They also rely on their sense of smell and how they feel when someone touches them.
Horses can kick if you stand too close to their back end, so make sure that you stay in front or to the side of the horse and let him sniff you first before touching him. Remember: horses can and will bite! These gentle creatures can get spooked easily. So no horsing around!
4. Be confident.
Since horses rely upon their feelings a lot more than we humans do, they can easily sense an insecure rider and become nervous themselves. That is why kids need to spend some time with their horses before they ride them. Easing tensions beforehand can make for a more comfortable and enjoyable riding experience.
5. Always listen to the instructor/guide.
Kids: Pay close attention to the instructions your instructor/trainer/guide gives you. Parents – please avoid leaving your kids alone with horses – Even if your child is ‘horse-broken,’ always ensure that an adult supervises their interactions.
Now we will move on to some safety rules for kids to follow when they actually begin riding.
Safety rules to follow while riding
Horseback riding is a very popular sport. When you get on the horse, it’s important to remember that anything can happen. It may be hard for you to control your horse, and it may not listen to what you want it to do.
Now that you have slightly more horse sense – perhaps you are ready for that first riding lesson.
Rule No.1: Dress properly
Avoid wearing shorts and sandals. Instead, wear long pants and footwear with a smooth sole and heel if you do not have riding boots. If you wear a jacket, make sure you zip or button it up fully – a flapping jacket could scare or distract your horse. Remove any jewelry before riding as it could get caught and cause nasty burns or cuts.
You will need a riding or schooling helmet. Many horse riding schools provide a helmet as a part of the fees. Helmets protect your head from falls, and you should not ride without one. I reviewed riding helmets for kids in an earlier article, and you may find it useful in choosing one for your child.
If it is cold, wear a jacket but make sure it isn’t too restrictive.
Rule No. 2: Check and recheck the girth/cinch.
The girth or cinch holds the saddle in place, preventing it from slipping around during a ride. It usually has straps that attach to each side of the saddle called billets. If it’s not tight, you’ll likely fall off your steed!
Check the saddle cinch before you put your foot in the stirrup. Place your hand between the cinch ring and the horse. The ring should be snug against the horse’s side. Tighten it if needed, or ask your instructor if it needs tightening.
The best way to tighten it is by pulling up at each end of the cinch strap and feeling for any slack or play in the strap; if there is any, tighten the straps as needed. The last thing you want is for your horse’s saddle to slip during a ride!
After your horse is all saddled up, walk the horse around and check and recheck its cinch. In most cases, your trainer or instructor will do this for you. Still, it is a good idea to know what to expect so you can do it the next time you ride.
Rule No.3: Ensure equal stirrup lengths.
Before mounting, check to make sure both stirrups are of the same length. After mounting, stand up in the stirrups, and make sure there are at least 4-inches between you and the saddle. If there is not, get off, adjust the stirrups, and check again.
Rule No.4: Stick with your group but maintain a safe distance from other riders.
Assuming you are taking your lesson in a group session – stick with the group. The horses that are trained to ride in groups have a way of influencing one another, so if your horse is lagging behind, it will try and catch up with the others. Never leave your group or have them leave you.
Keep a safe distance between two horses. As a rule of thumb, leave at least one horse length between you and the other horse – either front to back or even between horses if riding side by side. Try to the same speed as other riders.
Rule No 5: Use proper riding position
Sit up straight on the horse and do not slouch. For greater security and balance, hold on to the saddle with one hand instead of the horn. Be gentle with the reins. Turn your knees to rest against the knee roll. Bend your knee slightly to allow your lower leg to hang at an angle by the horse’s side.
Let us discuss some safety equipment to use when you ride.
Safety Equipment to Use While Riding
Horse-related mishaps are a fact of life; even if you are an experienced rider, bad stuff can happen. That is why you must ensure that kids wear safety equipment while riding:
1. Proper Attire
- Wear long-sleeved shirts to protect your arms from the hot sun. Make sure the shirt is well-fitted and tucked in.
- Wear protective pants with boot cut style. This way you can wear riding boots.
- Avoid wearing tennis shoes. Only opt for riding boots which are specially designed with heels that prevent your feet from sliding through the stirrup. This feature can be a life-saver in case of falls.
- Gloves – You will be holding on to the reins while handling your horse. The friction from reins can cause painful burns to sensitive hands, and for some riding gloves is needed.
- Helmet – Always protect your head with helmets or hardhats. These can prevent grievous injuries in case of falls. Your riding school might provide you with one.
- Body Protectors – Heavily padded vests can protect you from falls. You can even wear them under your regular clothing.
2. Safety stirrups
Special kids’ safety stirrups are readily available in the market. These come with features that prevent the foot from slipping through and reduce the foot’s risk of getting jammed.
- Saddle packs – These can help you carry your water bottle, sunscreen, horse treats etc.
- Mouth guards – You can get these at drugstores or have a vet fit them. They can protect against oral injuries and save you from a lot of pain.
Your first horse riding lesson – What to expect
During your first lesson, you will learn how to tack up a horse, mount, dismount, and shorten the reins. Your first lesson will even teach you how to walk the horse in a straight line, stop, turn to the left and right, and how to steer your horse in a circle.
Here is what your child will typically learn during the lesson:
- Saddle a horse.
- Sit on the horse comfortably.
- Get on and off the horse properly and safely. The fundamental challenge for most students is getting high up until they can bring their leg across to the horse’s other side. If the horse is very tall, they could use a mounting block to reach up comfortably.
- Maintain balance while mounting and dismounting.
- Spend a lot of time talking to the instructor. Make sure you ask questions about your riding position. Try to ‘feel’ the movement of your horse.
How to Fall off a Horse Safely
I’ve been thrown from a horse many times, and just about every rider I know has as well. There is an art to falling from a horse, but expect some soreness even with the best technique.
Falling off a horse is an important skill to learn as it can help you avoid serious injuries. Kids should always prepare for falling since horses can easily get spooked and might buck or shy and try to throw the rider off. Here are the steps to fall safely off a horse:
- Kick off your feet from the stirrups when you know you might fall. Freeing your feet will prevent you from dangling dangerously near the horse’s hooves.
- Avoid placing your hands in front of you as you could fracture or grievously injure your wrists.
- Protect your chin by tucking it down to the chest.
- Try to take the impact on your back or shoulders.
- You can also quickly decide whether to hold on to the reins or let go.
Dos and Don’ts while Riding:
- Don’t lose your temper around a horse. To keep from getting frustrated, ride with experienced riders who can tell you why you and your horse aren’t communicating.
- Don’t use unsafe equipment. Make sure all your tack is sturdy, safe, and well-maintained.
- Do follow your guide’s advice. Choose your instructor carefully.
- Don’t work with a young or untrained horse.
- Do learn about emergency procedures and safety practices. Use safety stirrups and riding boots so you can dismount safely in case of an emergency.
- Don’t be afraid to use the horse’s mane. It isn’t painful for the animal. You can use it to mount and dismount and even to find your balance while riding. (Much better than using the reins!)
- Don’t show off or be silly. The best things to ‘show off’ are your excellent horse-handling and horse-keeping habits!
How long does it take to learn to ride a horse?
Learning to ride a horse takes time, patience, and practice. Every person is different, some are natural horsemen and will feel comfortable riding in a few months, but for many, it takes years of practice until they feel confident.
Is learning to ride a horse difficult?
Horse riding is as easy or as complex a sport as any other. Learning how to sit on the horse and use your legs for balance can be tricky at first, but with proper guidance, you’ll have no problem keeping up! You just need practice and an understanding of a horse’s body language.
Which horse breeds are the friendliest?
American Quarter, Appaloosa, and Morgan Horse breeds are known to be friendly and easy for kids.
Can riding a horse help a person lose weight?
Horse riding is a sport and, like all sports and it can help you lose weight. After all, you also move your body as you ride. In fact, one can burn thousands of calories and about 10-15 lb. of body weight by riding daily for a year.
What should you not wear while riding a horse?
You shouldn’t wear baggy, loose, or very tight clothes that restrict movements when riding a horse. Avoid open capes or jackets as they tend to flap and could scare your horse.