Thinking of starting your child in horseback riding lessons?
Congratulations! Riding is a skill that your child will keep forever. Like riding a bike, riding a horse is something you just don’t forget how to do.
Choosing a riding instructor for your child isn’t always simple. It’s important to find a safe lesson program where education and horsemanship are always at the forefront. Blue ribbons are nice, but without a safety-first, horse-first mentality, your child won’t learn the fundamentals that will make him or her a true equestrian. Fortunately, even if you are not a horseman yourself, a little common sense will go a long way in helping you choose a riding stable for your child.
Often, the first thing we want to see when choosing any sort of class is how the instructor is certified. But in the US, there are no state or federally-mandated riding instruction certifications. This means that some very good instructors have never taken a single training course, and some very mediocre instructors may have a certificate hanging on their tack room wall that proclaims them to be a certified riding instructor.
Instructors can and do voluntarily take courses and acquire certifications in riding instruction. You might see certifications from the American Riding Instructor Association, the Certified Horsemanship Association, and the internationally recognized British Horse Society, as well as from schools such as Meredith Manor.
Individual riding philosophies and disciplines also certify instructors in their particular styles of riding. If you are looking for an instructor certified in a style of riding, such as Centered Riding, or by a governing body of a discipline, such as the United States Eventing Association, their websites will provide you with a list.
Remember that the standards for these certifications vary. Some might be online schools. Some might be rigorous years-long educations. Most fall somewhere in the middle. If you arrive at a farm with a certified instructor and encounter broken fence boards, unkempt horses, and unsafe riding practices, the certificate means nothing.
The most important thing you can choose for your child is a riding stable where safety, cleanliness, and health are put above all else. Slow and steady learning, neat and tidy habits: these are the winning combinations for a riding stable. Visit stables, observe, take notes, and you’ll soon learn first-hand what this looks like.
So what are you looking for when you arrive at a riding stable for the first time?
Even if you’ve never been around horses before, safety isn’t hard to see. Horses, like children, are accident-prone. A riding stable that puts safety first will have everything in its place, and you won’t be tripping over buckets, scraping your hand on a broken fence board, or stepping over old piles of manure in the stable aisle. Look for clear aisles, horses that are led safely with a lead-rope and a halter, children riding in hard hats and boots (not sneakers!), and sturdy saddles and bridles that aren’t being held together with baling twine.
Cleanliness is part of barn safety: keeping things tidy prevents accidents with horses. Dirty leather deteriorates and breaks; wet and dirty stalls reek of ammonia and rot horses’ hooves. Use your eyes and your nose to determine if cleanliness is a standard at the stable.
If the horses at the stable are dirty and unkempt, move along. It’s easy to mistake a bored or dozing horse for a sick and unhappy one: floppy ears and half-closed eyes are often just the signs of a nap in progress. And school horses are famously lazy, so if one is dragging around the arena while a child struggles to get it to move forward, that’s not usually a warning sign of an unhappy animal. But if an entire barn-full of horses look uninterested in their surroundings, or have dull coats, goop in their eyes or noses, visible ribs, or swollen, puffy legs, you might be in a barn with a horse care problem.
Watch a Lesson
Observing a riding lesson is the most important part of a farm check. Putting your child into riding lessons with an instructor that isn’t a good fit is more than a waste of time and money. For a novice rider, a safe, supportive riding instructor is standing between your child and the possibility of a frightening fall. Even if no one gets hurt, the first few falls your child takes (and yes, your child will come off the horse!) can be very scary. A good riding instructor, who knows when to push and when to pull back, is imperative to keeping these spills to a minimum.
Stand at the rail and watch a lesson, focusing on the way the instructor interacts with the rider in the ring. An advanced rider usually likes to be pushed, and can take a little verbal abuse, but a beginning child should be encouraged. And if it’s a beginning riding lesson, it should be pretty boring to watch. That’s because it takes a long time to learn to ride safely, and beginners do little more than walk and trot in circles as they find their balance.
Children are often disappointed at how long it takes to master the fundamentals of riding. They want to get on and get right to the galloping. Some instructors humor that desire, to keep the kids and the parents happy. This is dangerous – riding takes time. If you see a child careening around without any balance or real control of the horse, move along. You want an instructor who will take their time and do things right, not move your child quickly in order to appease your impatience. A rider without the basics is a bad fall waiting to happen.
Taking the time to visit multiple stables, observe riding lessons, and absorb different standards of horsemanship will be worth it in the end. Investing in a great riding education for your child is a gift that your child will treasure for life.