Updated: Feb 16, 2021
What happens when your child becomes interested in riding lessons but you don't know much about it?
Most of us would ask for a riding instructor recommendation on social media, do a web search or word of mouth. Perhaps, we've been seeing the check-ins or posts from a friend about how well their child is doing at a local program. You notice that the account for the program has a lot of followers and nice pictures. From the website, you gather it is an established program that has serviced a lot of sessions. You arrive at the ranch and everything seems in order. Most likely, the horse was already tied up or you watched it come out of a stall. The child helps groom the horse, saddles up, and rides around the arena. You are happily watching your child ride a horse, the smiles are huge, and the pictures are great! Congratulations, you have a little equestrian in a riding program!
Off to a great start, right? Well, I definitely hope so but there's a lot missing. This is a pretty typical generalization of how signing up for horse lessons can go. And don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with this. However, I am going to help you gather more information so you can have your child in an ideal program.
First and foremost, who will be providing the instruction and attention for your child? Is it the owner/head trainer or is it a working student? Many programs start with a knowledgeable trainer but as they get busier they bring in assistants and working students. Personally, I wouldn't feel as comfortable about the safety of my child in a working student's hands. I'm not saying there aren't great student teachers; there can be exceptions to the rule. The average working student knows how to ride, compete, and they have grown up around lesson barns. But do they know how to teach children? Are they certified or have they received any formal training? Are they focused on the horse's body language? The child's body language? Are they safely managing equipment or in close proximity? Even if the instructor isn't a working student, still take a moment to think about these questions. The mark of a wonderful teacher is their presence during the lesson and ability to adapt to the student's capability and learning needs. Remember, only experience can groom wise intuition and judgement.
Your child's physical safety is of the utmost importance, similarly, your child's confidence is crucial too. I prefer to bring kids along slowly. In my opinion, there's no need to have a six year old cantering around an arena off a line. The potential for an accident is high. God forbid, but if that happens, you'd now have fear, broken trust, and confidence to repair. There's much to learn on the ground. There's also much to learn in the saddle before going fast.
I think some instructors feel pressured to produce results in the visual form of saddle time, riding independence, and speed. For example, when the student is trotting or cantering, the student is happy and the parent observes an obvious level of difficulty achieved. While being able to do that is great, I'd pose the question of it being age/skill appropriate and whether or not it is being done safely. The bottom line is that the instructors job is to create a safe experience to build a foundation of horsemanship skills. If a horse or situation presents where it is not safe to ride, then don't. You need to trust that your instructor is going to have the awareness and confidence to make that call.
Last but definitely not least, the horse matters. A safe and sweet lesson horse is priceless. Invest in an excellent trainer with an excellent horse. Your child's safety, experience, and education is worth the money. Does the horse look healthy and happy? An old horse is perfectly fine as long as they are of good weight and condition. Is the horse stuck in a stall most of the time or do they get pasture or turnout? Was the horse exercised in the round pen at liberty at the start of the session? Did they practice groundwork before getting in the saddle? Is the horse relaxed and attentive or is it distracted and bracing? These are just a few of the things to think about with the wellness and suitability of a lesson horse.
As an equestrian, we are talking about trusting a 1000lb animal with his or her own mind and body. There are inherent risks and dangers in the equestrian world and ranch atmosphere. Even the best trainer can't guarantee complete safety. The best trainers are proactive about mitigating risks and teaching from knowledge rich experience. Furthermore, there's a huge responsibility on the instructor beyond operational success and risk management. My job, as teacher of horsemanship, is to inspire a student to learn more! To encourage a love of horses. Cultivate a respect for these amazing animals. To show students all the aspects of partnering with horses, before and beyond the ride.
My recommendation is to watch a lesson or two before your child participates. When the trainer has time, ask questions and get a feel for whether or not it is a fit. Trust your gut and don't assume that since a program is popular that it is high quality.
Ride safe and be well,