Kids often have a natural affinity for horses. They approach these magnificent creatures with curiosity and compassion. If your own child has shown interest in horses and horseback riding, you might be thinking of taking them for lessons – or even just to meet a friend’s horse. How old should children be to start riding? And just as importantly, what is the best way for them to start? We’ll dig deeper into these questions below.
The Best Age to Start Riding
The best age for kids to start formal riding lessons is generally about 5 or 6, at the earliest. At this age, kids are able to listen to and follow specific instructions. If their riding instructor says “raise your right hand” or “lean back a little” they’ll understand what is meant. This ability to follow instructions is also important for safety reasons. As remarkable as they are, horses are large animals, and your child will need to follow safety instructions when around them.
By the age of 5 or 6, kids’ legs are generally long enough to hang down over a pony’s sides. This allows them to learn proper leg aids. Their hands are usually large enough to grasp the reins, and their feet are large enough to fit inside suitable riding boots.
Kids at this age have usually begun school and are therefore more confident spending periods of time away from their parents. While you, as a parent, can certainly stay and watch your child’s riding lesson, your child will need to be comfortable being across the arena from you –accompanied by their instructor.
So what if your child is not yet five years old, but really wants to begin horseback riding? There are ways to get them involved sooner. Some stables and riding schools do offer programs for toddlers. These programs often get the parents involved. You may be asked to walk alongside your child and hold their leg steady as the instructor leads the pony.
Toddler programs can be a good way to get tiny children used to being around horses and ponies. If your child grows accustomed to being around horses at this young age, they’ll be that much more confident when they are a little older and ready to take more formal, independent lessons.
You can also start by simply taking your little one to a stable with you. Visit your own horse or a friend’s horse. Show your child how to gently stroke a horse’s neck, how to offer them a treat, and how to brush them. If possible, introduce them to a smaller pony, which they’ll likely find less intimidating than a large horse.
Tips for Getting Kids Into Horseback Riding
If you do choose to get your child involved in horseback riding, here are a few tips to help them get the most out of the experience.
Sign Up For Lessons
While there are some successful riders who learned “by the seat of their pants” as kids, they are the exceptions to the rule. The best way to get your child involved with horses is to sign up for lessons at a reputable riding school. Riding horses involves a great deal of balance, coordination, and multitasking. A good instructor will help your child develop these skills in a systematic way.
Children who take lessons and learn to ride properly are more likely to stick with it. As they grow and continue riding, they’ll learn how to get their horse to respond as they would like them to. They’ll learn how to be safe around horses, and also how to tack up, groom, and care for horses. Those skills are just as important as riding. Look for a riding program that incorporates these skills rather than only having the kids ride.
Have Them Ride Ponies
A big, 16-hand horse can be pretty intimidating to a 5-year-old. Not to mention, it is physically hard for little children to ride such large horses. Their legs end up spread too wide, and big horses have such long strides that little kids often have trouble learning to post the trot or sit securely in the saddle. Ponies are far easier for most children to learn to ride. Plus, your child will have an easier time learning to tack up and groom a smaller equine.
Most riding schools have at least a few ponies that they teach their smallest students on. You can absolutely ask to meet the pony your child will ride before you sign up for lessons. Make sure you and your child are comfortable with the equine’s size.
Keep Things “Low Pressure”
There are plenty of opportunities for competition in the equestrian world. Your child might one day want to compete in barrel racing, eventing, or western pleasure. But when they are first starting out, it is best to keep things low-pressure.
Encourage your child to learn, but don’t push them to compete right away. Talk about horseback riding as a fun, relaxing activity. Let them take their time and progress at their own pace. They can lope whenever they are ready to lope (and when their instructor feels they are ready). Push a child too hard, and they may become intimidated and disinterested in riding.
Look for an instructor who takes a fun, relaxed approach, too. Eventually, your child may want to move to a stable that takes students to shows and supports them as they compete. But at first, a quiet little barn with a few lesson ponies and a caring trainer is often the best place for a child to learn.
Invest in The Right Apparel
Your child does not need a whole wardrobe of riding apparel when they are just starting out. However, they do need a few pieces of basic apparel to make riding easier and safer. First, they’ll need a proper riding helmet. ASTM-approved helmets reduce severe head injuries by 50%. They’ll also need a pair of boots with a short heel. Such boots prevent their feet from sliding through – and getting stuck in – the stirrups.
Wait to Buy a Horse
When your child first expresses interest in riding, you might be tempted to run out and buy a horse. But you’re better off letting them ride lesson horses for a while. Make sure this is a passion they’ll stick with before you invest time and money in your own horse. If after a couple of years they are still riding, then you may want to consider horse ownership. Rely on your child’s riding instructor for recommendations here. A “green” child rider generally does best with a mature, experienced horse or pony.
If your child has expressed interest in horseback riding, look for a lesson stable near you. As long as they start at an appropriate age, riding horses can be a lovely physical activity that teaches them responsibility, compassion, and athleticism. Should they progress to the point of buying their own horse, check out Easy Horse Fix for helpful training videos. Most importantly, remember to enjoy this journey.