We’re surely fortunate to live in horse country. The Upper Valley is
home to gorgeous farms and spectacular equestrian facilities, with
world-class centers like GMHA in South Woodstock attracting competitors
and recreational riders from all over New England. A herd of horses
grazing on a hillside can be breathtakingly beautiful, and watching an
accomplished rider soar over a jump is poetry in motion.
Stella Girdwood gets ready to mount her horse,
Tango, as they prepare for a lesson at Lucky Star Stable in Lyme, New Hampshire.
should those sights inspire your kid to explore the wonderful world of
riding, you as a parent could be in for, well, a wild ride. Because
unless you’re from an equestrian background, how do you even get
started? You don’t just go out and buy a horse like you would a bike
with training wheels. Instead, experienced riding instructors suggest
that you start out by assessing whether this newfound passion is more
than a temporary fad. Stop by a farm and ask if you and your budding
rider can say hi to the horses.
Delaney, who has been teaching for decades out of her barn in
Brownsville, Vermont, notes that many kids are rightly terrified when
they finally get up close and personal with a big, unpredictable animal,
and the budding love affair may end right there. But if riding really
is what they are after, then your challenge is to find a lesson barn
with a suitable beginner program. First, however, get ready for some
expectation management, because there’s a catch:
there may be very little riding at first.
So Much More Than Riding
Riding comes in many
flavors: dressage, western, eventing, hunter/jumpers, and trail riding,
to name a few. But no matter what your young rider may eventually be
doing on horseback, it all builds on the same core foundation of
horsemanship: knowing how to safely work and behave responsibly with and
around horses. A good, worthwhile lesson program will strive to instill
those lessons above all else.
Abbey Buckley at Sunny Brook Stables in Windsor, Vermont, helps six-year-old Hannah Reed tighten
the girth on Rosie, her 21-year-old lesson pony for the day.
Abbey Buckley at Sunny Brook Stables in Weathersfield, Vermont,
explains her approach to new riders: “I start everyone out with
grooming and leading the horses, and we spend a lot of time initially on
helping with chores and feeding. I don’t want to be the kind of barn
where a horse is all tacked up and ready to go for a lesson, because I
feel that would give a false idea of what being around horses is all
about. It’s important—and safer—to learn all aspects of horsemanship
instead of just riding.”
Smedman, herself a rider, reflects on the path she took when her two
daughters got into riding. “When you first start riding, I think it’s
most important to learn the basics of not just riding but how to take
care of a horse. I looked for a place that had beginner horses but also
let the kids tack up and take care of the horses before and after
riding. Once they learned the basics, I looked for a barn that had a
good culture and was focused on a riding discipline that we were
interested in. I also wanted a place where both my kids and I could take
lessons. As they got older, we looked for a more advanced barn where
the instructors had competed at pretty high levels, and we went to local
encourages parents to fully appreciate the cost and time commitment but
is quick to emphasize that “horsemanship provides life skills that are
extremely valuable outside the barn as well.” And even though it
definitely is an expensive and exhausting passion to pursue, it may be
worth supporting your child’s dream to make horses a part of their life.
Ann Swinker, a professor of animal science at Penn State University
found that “handling, riding, and caring for a horse or pony can develop
a host of positive traits in a child, including responsibility,
accountability, patience, level-headedness, empathy, kindness, and self-discipline.”
Find a Trainer & Shop for a Barn
Kristyn Smith directs a group lesson with her young equestrians.
some barn visits. Look for happy, healthy lesson horses in a
well-organized program. It doesn’t have to be spotlessly clean or
obsessively tidy, but you want a barn with clean stalls and
a neat tack room, with quality equipment in good condition. You will
want to see an enclosed practice arena with good footing, and while an
indoor arena is a nice feature to allow year-round riding in comfort,
some barns will pull off lessons outdoors even in winter.
importantly, of course, you want an instructor that works well with
kids. Watch a lesson or two. Does the instructor encourage the riders
and instill confidence? Is each rider given individual attention, even
in a group lesson? Instructors in a well-run lesson program will
emphasize being considerate and helpful to fellow students. But above
all else, Jill encourages that safety be a key factor: is it practiced,
and is it taught? Because that, in turn, speaks of respect for the
riders and the horses.
barn is the center of the equestrian world; your child will spend
countless hours there (as will you as a parent). The community and the
atmosphere around the barn are critical for a successful lesson program
that your child will want to stick with and enjoy.
possible, try to sign up for a lesson at any barn you’re considering.
Many lesson barns have a waiting list, so the first lesson for everyone
involved may be patience. Some barns offer vacation camps year-round
where young equestrians—beginners and more experienced riders alike—can
fully immerse themselves in the world of horses for days on end and make
friends with other riders.
Watch the Magic Happen
Once your young rider
settles into a lesson program at a barn you feel comfortable with, there
are plenty of opportunities to take things further with shows and
competitions, Pony Club, or perhaps the Athletic Equestrian League.
Eventually, you may decide to lease or part lease a horse at your lesson
barn, or take the plunge and buy them a horse of their own. But no
matter how far and where they decide to take it, the fundamentals of
equestrian life should remain centered around the joy of being around
horses. And who knows, you may just end up inspired to try life in the