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?