Welcome to Allison Acres ~ Galt, CA ~ (209) 224-4304
So, you've got horses and want to teach your kids to ride!
It's great when horses are a part of the family. Kids get a lot more practice riding and can be very motivated to ride. Adults who are riding well enough to own their own horses that they feel comfortable letting their kids ride might not have ever had lessons themselves. Chances are they are doing some things incorrectly that they've been able to overcome due to experience, maturity, and guts. The worst thing that can happen is your kids get scared or hurt. I know you don't want to turn a beloved family activity into a battleground, or lose the companionship of your kids out with the horses. So please follow these very simple guidelines for the best chance at success!
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Videos of the following topics coming soon!
Leading: Not even an adult can lead a horse with brute strength. The horse has to be taught to come along with us. It is safest if the horse is farther away from the human while being led. If I cannot tell my horse to immediately get 5 feet away from me, then there is no way he's going to be allowed to walk within 5 feet of me, until he learns that skill. It is dangerous having them close to you. It is especially dangerous having them close to smaller people. If you hold them on a short rope, they have no choice other than to be extremely close to you, where they are more likely to stop on you, bonk you with their heads, even push you over. Plus the act of causing them to walk farther away from you is also an act that creates dominance. Then if they spook and need to take a few steps, they will not spook into you. You want them to say "OH NO something scary, I'm going to run, but OH NO even bigger, there is my human, and it is even more scary to run into my human!" So teach them to walk far away from you, and teach them to move away from you easily.
As for leading, it might be second nature to you, but it's not necessarily easy. The horse is extremely strong compared to your kid, and your kid doesn't have the years of experience that you do knowing what's going to happen before what happens happens. Teach your horses, and then teach your kids, that the horse should not let his nose pass the kid when being led. No circling around in front of them. That is a recipe for pulling away or kicking. Rope halters work good for this, so that when your child puts on some pressure, the horse actually feels it and might be motivated to avoid it.
When they get more coordinated they can use the end of their lead ropes to twirl in front of the horse's nose to back him out of their "bubble" as they are walking along just as easy as pie and as natural as breathing. But in the meantime, you doing some training on the horse will help a lot. It might be proper in halter class to have the horse walk beside you, but the more dominant position is to the front of the horse. I've never had a horse spook forwards into a handler but I've had several spook sideways into one, especially a short one, or step sideways onto a person, or pass a person up and take off.
Until your child has the coordination and mindset to create space between the horse and her while walking, you can have her practice while facing the horse and telling him to back away from her. This is a good place to start for the horse, too. If you want to see some videos, look for Parelli's yo-yo game. I pretty much only ever do the backing away portion of the yo-yo game. Most horses don't need an invitation to come close to somebody... Maybe after it's well established that they should not come in without being told.
Having the horse be a good ways behind the child is also very important when going thru doorways - gates, stall doors. The horse will make a decision to go thru, and it is VERY hard to stop them in the middle of going thru, so if you are also going thru at the same time, it is a recipe for getting smashed or stepped on. Teach your horse to wait, 5 feet back, while you enter, and then ask your horse to enter as well. A more refined way to have the horse go thru openings is to send him thru while you just stand there, but this is more advanced, and again not something I want the horse thinking about, especially with a small person, until waiting and staying back is well established.
Your young child can lead the horse while you walk behind her holding on to the end of your horse's rope halter tie. Back him up with it as necessary. This helps your child feel like she's actually doing something while giving you the chance to make sure your horse remembers his manners.
Also please, no tension in the lead rope while leading. Don't hold the horse right under his halter, either. If the rope is already tight or the child is holding right under the halter, there are two problems:
-the horse has no choice but to walk right in the kids' space, putting her in danger of being stepped on or smashed with a shoulder or a head.
-what will they do if the horse pulls away? If she's holding the lead rope properly with about 2 feet of space between her right hand and the horse, she can give him a jerk once she learns how to correct him for pulling sideways or forwards, and she's not going to get pulled along by the horse or flown alongside the horse like a kite. Remember, we cannot control them with our physical strength. We can only make the right thing easy for them and the wrong thing annoying for them. I've seen a lot of kids get jerked right off the ground while holding the horse by his lead rope snap right under his halter. That's not good for either of them.
Plus, we want the horse to respond to the feel of tension in the lead rope, not just ignore it. So if he's being walked with constant tension, it won't be long before he ignores it, and then it gets harder to manage him. The horse should always be seeking the "float" in the leadline. If you don't give him any float, he won't learn to seek it.
Tying: When tying up a horse, you are probably running all sorts of scenarios thru your mind and noticing if the horse is starting to balk or back up or worse, pull back. You are hopefully mindful of not putting your fingers or hands into the loops and knots that you are making. Kids are not as coordinated with the rope and not as observant of what's about the happen with the horse. Kids do not like to work with horses after getting their hands smashed, getting a rope burn, or worse. Kids also can't reach very high, and horses should always be tied from above wither height, to help prevent neck injury if they pull back and of course to help them not step over the rope. Tying up is one of the more dangerous tasks - please just do it for them.
Riding on their own: Probably the worst thing I see is parents letting their kids attempt to ride on their own before they have an independent seat. If most of their mental focus is still needed to deal with simply staying on, please do not let them have reins in their hands. They will only learn to use them for handlebars and they will be robbed of their chance to develop feel and communication between their hands and the horse's mouth. Yes, it's so cute and so fulfilling to see your kid on a horse. But you wouldn't have them pilot an airplane without hours and hours on the simulator. This is the same thing.
To develop an independent seat, where they do not need to hold on to anything with their hands or grip with their legs to stay on, you have to work with them without reins and without stirrups. You need certain training on your horse (I can help!) You can lead them, lunge them, pony them, and when ready, round pen them. EVEN IF they seem to be doing great, don't be in a hurry to do an extended trot or to canter. I want to see my kids keep the correct position on a fast turn that I initiate on the lunge line, and during a halt to trot transition, and during a really quick stop, before I progress. My students under the age of 12 don't lope for at least 20 sessions. My students under 9 might not lope for over a year. If you let them lope too soon, they can easily develop bad habits of gripping and being tense.
Here are some exercises to increase their comfort on the horse, to keep their joints fluid and their muscles loose and to help them locate the center of gravity:
It is also usually really bad training for the horse to have a kid riding him independently before she's ready. Should he turn sharply when one rein goes tight? Should he leg yield when the reins are crooked and the body is crooked? Should he go toward the parents when the kid looks at them with excitement? When he's not being given freedom to move forward but is being kicked, should he go forward? What about next time when the kid wants the tightness in the reins to mean he should stop? It is very overwhelming for a horse and they can very quickly decide to just start making their own choices. Parents of my lesson kids are always complimenting my ponies, saying they've always heard ponies can be very badly behaved, but mine aren't. But mine would be, if I let kids try to ride them independently before they are ready.
Body position: It's not enough just to stay on. We want them practicing proper position from the very beginning. It is very hard, very, to change ingrained muscle memory if they have been allowed to ride out of the proper position.
To start with, even if you want them doing hunt seat later, begin with them in the standard neutral seat. Their pelvis should be level, which almost always means having them tuck it under, sit more on their back pockets. Their backs should be neutral, as straight as possible, without a hollowed back - no pooching out the butt! Their shoulders should be slightly behind their hips. This often feels like leaning back to them, so work with them to help them recognize it when they have it. Their front line should be longer than their back line - the line from belly button to throat should be longer than the line from nape of neck to pelvis. They should have their heads coming right out of the top of their spine, like the last block on a stack of blocks. No turtle heads sticking out to the front! Their knees should be open enough that their lower legs are long and pretty perpendicular to the ground and their toes are up, heels are down. If their feet keep coming out of the stirrups, the most likely culprit is the closing of the knees. The knees close, the heels tip up, the feet come out. We want a long leg with open knees.
Their feet should be as parallel to the horse as possible - not like a bullfrog, but don't force something that's painful. To straighten the leg, the upper thigh "meat" should be more to the back of the femur. They should not push on their stirrups - all their weight should be in their seat. If they are reaching for their stirrups, shorten them, but don't let them ride in stirrups that are too short as that encourages pushing and knee pain.
The goal is that if the horse does something sudden, their pelvis follows the horse, their joints are loosely absorbing the motion, their upper body is staying in position, not flopping forward like a rag doll. If their legs are tense they can be launched off like a missile. I tell them to be made of oatmeal, not a pogo stick.
Steps toward independence: When they are getting it, not scared, able to keep the same position even through unexpected changed in the horse's motion, already doing well with trotting on the lunge line, maybe even while being round penned, the best way to go faster is to do a "passenger lesson." Teach them the one rein stop but it won't really be necessary for now because you will be there on the ground helping them in an enclosed area. They are to hold their reins in one hand and hold the horn with the SAME hand. NO steering. Their only job is to go faster than a walk, not faster than you think they are ready for. The horse's only job is to go faster than a walk, not faster than he's being told. This keeps it simple and they are more likely to have success. It also shows the horse that the kid is capable of causing obedience. There are no attempts at steering. Steering with short little arms, especially before learning to create enough impulsion, and definitely when the rider's balance isn't great yet, almost always means the horse keeps getting pulled to a stop. That is very frustrating for a child and the horse quickly realizes he does not have to obey.
Kids might need a spanking device to get the horse feeling motivated. Try not to let them nag the horse. Kiss, squeeze, spank hard until he goes, and then hopefully next time the horse will say "YES MA'AM, I'm going now, no need to spank me!" Kicking isn't an especially useful tool to increase speed even for riders with long legs. And later when you want to teach lateral moves, the horse's who's really sensitive to being kicked is going to have trouble giving you a calm response without thinking he's supposed to speed up. Spanking is a much more natural cue. Or you can also help get the horse going from your position on the ground.
You can probably see how it would work if the child was afraid of going fast, because they were doing it too soon, and they told the horse to go, and the horse didn't go, so they spanked, and the horse responded appropriately, but the kid got scared and pulled back. Both horse and rider are going to have trouble progressing in that situation. By the time the child is riding independently, she needs to be capable physically and mentally of riding out whatever happens when she insists on a proper forward response to her aids.
Steering: When they are ready to start steering, please please please don't let them pull back to steer. Most horses that are gentle enough for kids to ride will slow down and stop if they feel any restriction of their reins. Later, years later maybe, on a different horse maybe, you can teach kids to roll back, spin, piaffe - things that will involve some slight restriction of forward motion - but the horse they will do that on will have enough impulsion that he can essentially be told "go stop" and not get upset or confused. Or even the horse your kids are riding might be able to do that stuff with you, an adult. But the gentle horse is more "stoppy" with a kid riding. It's very frustrating though for a kid to be on a horse who keeps stopping.
The opposite type of horse isn't great for kids though, the ones who will go even when they feel restriction thru the reins, as they will usually get scared, sometimes hurt. Kids don't have enough maturity to know what's happening if a horse they are on actually goes even if they are holding their reins tight. That kind of horse can be very dangerous for kids to ride, and kids won't recognize it until it's too late. This kind of horse is for later.
So, when they hold reins, they need to have their hands out in front of, and a bit higher than, the saddle horn. For small kids that often means their arms are almost straight. Don't lock the elbows but get those hands out there. To turn, LOOK the direction they want the horse to go, then push the hands forward and over. Like pushing a shopping cart. They are creating a space for the horse to move into. Then add some outside leg in front of the cinch. The outside rein cannot cross the mane. It simply puts the neck rein in touch with the neck. If they are not getting the turn they want, they should then take their inside rein out and up, then tug/release/tug/release. If it's not working, just put the reins down and get that horse moving and work on steering next time.
When your child is balanced enough and safe enough, riding outside the arena helps a lot with steering. Gentle kids' horses get very very lazy in an arena, especially a closed in covered arena. Being outside with the wind blowing and the grass moving is more energizing to them.
Keep the reins at a length where they are ready but not taut. You want the horse to notice when the rein gets taut and think it means he needs to do something. If the rein is taut all the time, the horse ignores it. The rein cues should be like a spoken word in duration. If kids put a steady pull on the reins, the horse can easily just put a steady pull back on them and wait them out. Most kids get frustrated in this situation.
Also teach your kids to shorten and lengthen the reins with slack in them, so the horse doesn't feel it. Don't let them pull against the bit to slide their hands up or down the rein. When the horse feels something, it has to mean something. A good analogy is to tie their shoes for them, first by putting a lot of tension in the laces as you pull and tie such that it makes their foot move around, and then doing it so that their feet don't feel a thing as it happens. That's what they want the horse to feel. If the horse feels reins, you want him to always think "uh oh, my rider must have already given me a few cues thru her body language, voice, and intention that I didn't notice, and now I'm about to get in trouble." You don't want the horse to think "I wonder if that's supposed to mean something this time."
The horse: If your horse can't do this stuff safely, please put your kids in lessons, or put your horse in training, with me of course. :-) I have turned over 75 horses into safe lesson horses that kids and adult beginners can learn on, and a big percentage of those horses had already been declared by their previous owners as too spooky to ever be a kid's horse. Your horse's behaviors, and even his attitude, are not set in stone. In two weeks I can tell you if I think it's worth the investment. In two months I'd be surprised if he's not totally ready.
A note on human emotions: I am a GREAT teacher of other people's kids. I receive hundreds of compliments each year on how patient I am, how kind, and how I never lose my temper. That is very easy to do with other people's kids. I am not this patient with my own, and you might not be either. It is important to preserve your relationship with your children. As they get older especially and get into peer pressure and situations where they need to make choices, it is best, I think, if they trust you, if they feel like you expect they will make good choices because they are good, smart people, if they can come to you when they are worried and need advice and they'll receive loving and respectful guidance... If they respect you and like who you are and how you treat people and live your life, they are more likely to take your advice and follow your rules.
If teaching them to ride, or doing homework with them, or anything else is ruining that relationship, get somebody else to do it. Send them for riding lessons. Hire a tutor. Model calm emotions, and recognize if it's hard to stay calm in certain situations. I was at a gymkhana when a mom was very embarrassed when her 8 year old girl got scared of her horse running backwards. The horse was being pretty challenging and the girl started crying. The mom screamed at the girl in front of all of us that if she chose to get off that horse, she'd never be allowed to ride again. And that's what happened. That mom is now missing out on what could be a super fun shared hobby. The daughter is now 13, involved in who knows what. This is very sad to me. Preserve that relationship. It's precious and should be cherished. I understand if you can't keep your cool - that's why I'm here. It's not easy to teach stuff to your own kids, even if you are the greatest horseman in the world. :-)