Just a number?

A conversation with the ever-provocative Wiola of Aspire Equestrian prompted me to write this post.  As you may be aware, I started having riding lessons on my fourth birthday.  Apparently, I’d first expressed an interest in learning to ride at the tender age of three, and it was due to the riding school’s rules that I could start no sooner.  Thanks to the organisational skills of my parents, when the great day dawned, I was allowed to take my seat in the saddle for my first lesson and it came to be that I started at riding school before I started at “big school”.

My younger sister is two years, three months and 17 days younger than me.  By the time she turned four – and our parents had no doubt endured two years, three months and 17 days of jealous pestering – I had moved to a different riding school, though the age limit policy remained the same.  Unfortunately for my sister, I got all of the leg genes – as adults, there is a six inch height difference between us – and she was ordered to wait another year.  By the time my sister was five, she still hadn’t grown much (I’m not joking when I say that her heels did not stretch below the bottom of the saddle flap, thus rendering her ineffective on even the smallest of ponies), but she would not be held back any longer, and she too began having lessons.  Can’t say I blame her, I’d have fought tooth and nail if I were in her miniature jodhpur boots too!

Most professionals I read about – whether they’re rags to riches or born to do it – seem to have started their riding careers at a similarly early stage: some will have been plonked on the back of a horse when they were younger than I was and, in the case of one up-and-coming young professional, have even been around international competition tracks when they were in the womb.  My feeling is that the logic of many riding schools is that, at the age of four, a child can sit up unaided and balance reasonably – critical skills for riding – but they are also able to pay attention to basic instructions.  No, they won’t learn much more than how to stay on, stop and turn, but they’ll gain confidence and balance, which are the foundations of becoming a rider.

Four year olds can’t concentrate for long and there’s a lot they can’t do for themselves.  But they can enjoy new experiences and adapt to situations in order that they don’t fear them in the future.  Equally, a negative experience at a young age can result in anything from a minor setback to a lifetime of terror, but if the situation is well-controlled, the outcomes are generally positive.

It takes very special instructors and ponies to effectively assist tiny tots in their first rides – it’s something I’m not sure I’m equipped to do and well-schooled, healthy and happy ponies capable of carrying small children present a unique training challenge.  But I think it’s worth the effort.  Despite my size, I can perhaps be of more assistance with training the ponies than I can the kids – I’m too big to ride even the sturdiest of small ponies, but ground work is just as important, and that’s something I would be able to do.

I hope that centres who do have the right skills and facilities can continue to keep this practice up, partly so that children of the future can have the joyful experiences that I did, and also so that they can feed me the older ones to bring on!

Parents: from what age would you allow your child to start learning to ride?  Riders: when did you first start and how did it work out?  Instructors: how do you build from confidence to competence, and do you think it’s as challenging to teach a teen or adult from scratch as it is a young child?

learning the ropes, aged 4

learning the ropes, aged 4 and possibly hoping to be a jockey with stirrups that length!


11 thoughts on “Just a number?

  1. I started riding around age 10, but didn’t really begin with lessons until 12ish when a family friend let me ride her horses whenever I liked. Jim Dandy, a 25-year old chestnut Quarter Horse gelding is the instructor that stands out to me the most from that era. I don’t have a strong opinion on what age to have a child start. I think it depends on family circumstance, interest, experience level of parents, types of horses accessible, etc. I think you need to post a picture of you riding at age 4. 🙂

    • Image duly added above! Please excuse the poor quality, it’s a scanned hard copy (pre-digital era! So this would’ve been taken c.1992)

  2. I started riding when I was six and didn’t really stop, I remember the first horse I rode on the leading rein was actually 14hh but once I came off the leading rein I went onto a 12hh gem, called Beaut.
    From an instructors point of view I’ve seen many kids come to me with parents wanting them to learn to ride. Some parents are happy with me taking the kids in the school doing a bit of steering and a couple of trots then a walk round the woods, others just want their child to have fun. One woman insisted I taught her child for the full half hour, despite her daughter having the concentration span of a gnat and too small a hands to hold he reins. And no control over her body so she could barely sit on the pony when it was stationary!

    Having said that, I teach a four year old who canters and jumps (on a lead rein) but is SO switched on. She’s always catching me out telling me what part of the saddle or grooming kit she’s got, as well as being able to use her outside leg when circling. I think it depends on the child and I try to adjust the lesson to each jockey and their physical ability 😀

    • This is something I didn’t elaborate on above, but I have also seen kids who ride because their parents tell them to – at this point, more when I was a child than as an adult who (sort of) teaches, but I’m sure I’ll see this again in the future too.

      I also agree that I’ve seen some tiny (literally and/or in age) kids do really well, and some older kids not cope with it at all – there is definitely some magic combination of natural aptitude and sheer will to succeed present in some people! And yes, you do have to tailor your language and goals to the student at hand, no matter their age, what they want and what your preconceptions are, I totally agree.

  3. I started to have formal lessons at 10 or 11 mostly because horse riding in the 8o’s was in Poland an elite sport in full meaning of the word i.e. very very expensive and beyond our reach. There was also no ponies to learn on so you needed to be tall enough to ride a horse.
    Through my father’s connections I landed an opportunity to learn to ride finally and had weekly lessons on an ex-racehorse with a military-style instructor.
    Having said that, I had been sat on beach ponies, donkeys, wooden horses, large dogs 😉 since I can remember and loved being around horses and animals apparently from very early childhood.

    From teaching point of view, after many a thought on this subject, I decided not to take on children younger than 11 on my riding programmes. Many factors are involved. To ride a pony or a horse with attention and understanding, some maturity is needed and although I love seeing cute little kids doing well, it really is a minority at grassroots level. Children of professional riders, riding school/livery yard owners’ and generally those for whom riding is a part of life are a different matter. They often will have seen and assimilated more by the age of 6 than some teen riders will have learnt by the time they are 18 😉

    I strongly believe in programmes like Think Like A Pony where children learn interactions and communications with the ponies. To me that’s a perfect start. Riding lessons for 4-6 years olds are to me not really riding lessons and, with some exceptions, I don’t enjoy watching them or running them. On the other hand, I like running short care+ride out “lessons” for the tiny ones 🙂 They spend time with ponies grooming and patting, ask the most amazing questions (!), touch the ponies, then go for short walk around over varied terrain. After reading on general child development, I don’t think it is healthy for such young children to spend long time in the saddle.

    Once I have the conditions to do so, I would like to expand the Academy to kids from 7 to 11 but for this I will want to have ponies that were brought on without mad kicking and pulling so I don’t have to teach that in order to ensure kids are effective and safe…

    • Both parts of this – your own story and your reasoning behind your current plan – are absolutely fascinating and brilliant contributions, thank you. I’m sure you’re aware that riding’s never been cheap in the UK either, though far more affordable than it clearly was in Poland. My sister and I are incredibly fortunate that our parents were passionate about us having a hobby, to give us a break from school and enjoy ourselves, and that they were able to financially (and by other means) support us throughout our childhood. A GB coach I met during the Olympics said that kids need three things to succeed in sport: parents, Pounds and petrol. I agree with him, and we had enough of both.

      I was telling someone at work about you, and saying how much I respect your decision, that it’s very easy for instructors to offer lessons to a wide age range in order to maximise their profitability, but that you have clearly chosen to play to both your strengths and the welfare of your clients and animals, and I applaud that. When I’ve had a little more time to think about my gut-feel theory regarding how to avoid teaching via kicking and pulling, I’ll share it with you. The future is exciting! 🙂

      • Thank you!
        Sometimes it’s hard to explain everything concisely and I often just resign myself to saying I don’t teach children right now simply because not everybody want to understand the reasoning.

        I made an effort to read about child development in sports and I think the best possible way for little riders is to have diverse physical education (with pony time thrown in). Balance, coordination, eye-hand coordination, proprioception – all this develop best through variety of sports.

        Very true re parents, pounds and petrol. I also like George Morris’ saying: to succeed in this sport you need money, talent and hard work. If any one of those 3 is lacking, the other 2 better be working up for it…

        I look forward to our chat..! 🙂

  4. I don’t think my legs really reached off the saddle properly until I was about six or seven. To this day I’m not quite sure how I got a pony to move anywhere! (And another fun fact for you, despite my size, I’ve never ridden a Shetland pony, at least, not that I can recall.) I can’t imagine an inability to effectively use my legs did me any favours in developing my riding skills. That’ll be why you got all the expertise and I’m more suited to – as the quote goes – staying on a horse…

    • Agreed re your legs, agreed re getting a pony to move. I realised a little while ago that I’ve probably got a “hot bottom” and it’s because I know how to make a horse go but am definitely not so good at getting them to stop. I’ve definitely never ridden a Shetland – given that you were over two years old and wearing shoes that I had grown out of by the time I was one, I think it’s safe to say that I was also always too big for Shetlands! (plus I have a natural penchant for leggy horses).

      Hey, I’m getting good at staying on a horse! The amount of bucks I’ve sat lately belies the fact that I grew up riding the Father of all Steady Eddies.

  5. Pingback: How Old? | The Rubber Curry Comb

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