Skip to main content

I Want to Ride the Pretty Ponies - Introduce Your Child to the World of Horsemanship

Jun 28, 2022 11:37AM ● By Story and photography By Lars Blackmore.

Colleen Cooper of Thetford, Vermont, watches her daughters ride in a group lesson with Kristyn Smith at Lucky Star Stable in Lyme, New Hampshire.

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.

But 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.
Jill 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.”

Lisa 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 shows."

Jill 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.

Schedule 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.

Most 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.

The 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.
If 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 saddle, too.

Like what you're reading? Subscribe to Image's free newsletter to catch every headline