I was at the Tryon International Equestrian Center (North Carolina) one summer watching rounds while waiting to go into the ring, and a certain white pony caught my eye. It was a good jumper, competitive, brave and had the sweetest disposition. Over the summer I kept seeing this pony and could not help but notice it over and over again.
The kid was not quite ready to outgrow it, but then again, my daughter, Kinser Vale, was only 3. My wife Mallory Vale thought I was crazy when I had her watch the kid race around and win the children’s jumper class at Tryon on it. She was asking why in the world was I scouting ponies when our kid was barely doing walk, trot, canter. My answer was: Good horses make good riders, and the best time to buy a horse is when you find a good one, whether you need it immediately or not.
Good horses or ponies are not easy to find, and the opportunities to acquire them are even less frequent. We constantly say this to one another. It is true of riders of any age but especially for junior riders learning the ropes.
I asked about this pony so much that eventually the kid started riding with me, and we went to USEF Pony Finals (Kentucky). She did eventually outgrow Magic Beans, and I was happy to get the pony for my daughter. Kinser started riding Magic Beans when she was 5. She is 9 now, and we still have Magic Beans in the family. Kinser loves this pony, and she loves being competitive. This kind soul has been a staple in my kid’s education and desire to ride.
Making It Fun
As a parent in this industry, people often ask me questions like, “Do you care if she rides?” or, “How do you keep her interested in this?” My answers are always the same: This should be fun for the kids. As I just mentioned, good horses make good riders, and the kids need to have a desire to ride.
There are so many aspects of creating a fun environment for kids, and a main one is having a good trainer. It is hard enough when we are at a show, running from ring to ring and dealing with conflicts. Time gets limited; horses get fresh, and people get frustrated. As a parent and trainer, I make sure to not get upset in these moments.
If you are a parent, I can’t encourage you enough to find a trainer or coach who always remains emotionally consistent. If they are a true professional, they will be able to do this no matter the situation. It is nothing new for them. The last thing your kid needs to hear is a screaming trainer when they finally do show up to the ring to warm up. Nothing good comes from this, and it’s not fun. Your trainer’s attitude will reflect on your child’s desire to ride and ability to learn.
As a parent the second most encouraging thing I can say is: Do your research. I do not care how many ribbons a barn has on their banner, go watch their riders before you pick a trainer or are looking to change trainers. Not only watch the trainer ride, watch their students. Watch their day-to-day processes and be observant. This is very easy research to do while at a show.
To develop good riders, you must have a good trainer to go along with the good horse. I am not saying a kid will never have a bad round with a good trainer, but not getting around should not be the norm. I once had a newer barn mom say to me, “Wow, everyone here consistently does so much better. If you watch other barns, half of their riders are not making it around or are always having poles down.” She had never been part of a true professional program, and the so-called “bad rounds” were the norm.
Made Horses Only
This takes me to my original point that good horses make good riders. Juniors, especially at lower levels, should start out on made horses. There are so many variables to this sport that they first need to learn to ride. No 8- to 12-year-old should have to go and try to kick a spooky horse or pony around and fail half the time. It is not fun. It is not fun for the horse, the kid, the parent or the trainer. Success must come first in this.
You can learn to fail after you first learn to ride correctly. Get that green pony or project horse only after your child has had hundreds of good trips in the ring. Yes, hundreds. I would not consider myself crazy if I made Kinser do thousands of trips in the ring before we go the route of getting her a green horse or pony.
My kid is already 9, and she has yet to ride a truly green horse or pony. I have no interest in her doing that yet. She is not ready, and there is no point in scaring her. The worst mix you can have is a timid kid that is scared to kick. I am not saying we haven’t had our share of falls or rounds not going the way we exactly wanted, but my point is that we are first learning to work through them on good ponies.
When I pick horses for my students, the same goes for them. They need horses that can help them work through their mistakes. Why in the world do I want to make this harder for them and/or me? If your horse or pony is not suitable for your kid, then find the next one. I do not care if you sell it at a loss. Do not risk your kid getting hurt and/or scared. Move on and find that good horse to make your kid a good rider.
If you can buy multiple horses, then do it. The more rounds and opportunities a kid has in the ring, the faster they will learn. I believe that for a kid to truly learn they must have three horses to compete. Those extra trips help kids not focus on that last trip that is nagging them about how they could have done better. More horses let them have more fun, and they learn to win faster and be more competitive each trip in the ring.
If you can’t do that, then let your kid hang out at the barn and have every opportunity to get in the saddle more. But make sure those opportunities are on good enough horses until they are old enough to understand any problems.
A motivated kid who wants to catch some extra rides can still do it today. And if you have to clean 20 bridles to do it, then do it. Many people believe those days are gone. I do not. Where there is a will, there is a way.
Creating The Desire
The last point I must bring up is the desire to ride. A parent cannot make their kid want to do this. When Kinser was 2, some days we would just brush the pony and decorate the pony. We would use colored hair spray, stencils and glitter hoof polish. Some days we would do this for so long that by the time we got the pony tacked up to ride, she did not want to, and so we did not make her.
When I was about 6 years old, I was scared to canter. My parents would host local shows, and I couldn’t jump yet because I was scared to canter, but they did not make me. Instead I would participate in every flat class. When it came time to canter during the class, I would go stand in the center of the ring and wait for the class to finish. My parents made it fun enough for me to want to do it, and it was OK to take my time at that age. One day I just stayed out on the rail and cantered myself. The rest is history. When kids are young, let them get confident themselves. Let them develop that desire; do not try and create it for them.
By the time kids get to me for training and coaching, they usually have that desire. It’s important to direct that desire into goals. To keep juniors interested, it should be more than riding around the same ring for the 100th time. Each year set a goal or a group of goals—whether it is qualifying for a final, moving up a division, or learning to nail that lead change.
It’s important to involve junior riders daily. Ask them to help set jumps; have them bring that young horse up to the ring to jog him and get him out of the stall; let them help with the veterinarians; send them to the office. There is so much more to this than showing up to ride. If they are going to truly get this sport, they need to be part of the team in whole. Too many kids treat this like tennis: They go out and play, then toss the racket in the garage. Kids show up, get on their horses, hop off and go grab a coffee.
Riding should not be treated as an activity. Riding is a passion. Parents should encourage their children to help in the barn more, and a kid with a true desire will want to anyway. Trainers should let them. If they want to be good at this at any top level, it should not be up to the help to do everything. Kinser can fully tack up her pony, wash her pony, load and unload her pony, and clean her tack. She knows about hocks, stifles and tendons. She is not the greatest at clipping or cleaning stalls yet, but we are still learning.
I understand having help, and we need help when we are busy at the shows and home, but that is not an excuse to not learn about your horse.
Being around horses is an amazing way to teach your child about life. There are so many ups and downs in this sport that it really helps a junior learn to cope with life. The horse community is an amazing, supportive one on so many levels. It’s so important for kids to be able to support one another. If we can promote good sportsmanship in today’s world as trainers and parents, then we should.
One thing we can do better is teach junior riders not to compare themselves to one another in the show ring. Social media lures kids into comparing their ring results, even though each horse and rider is in a totally different situation.
I hate seeing juniors walking to and from their rings looking at their phone. You are on a 1,200-pound animal that, among other things, can trip at the walk, so pay attention. Get off Instagram for that three-minute walk back to the barn from the ring. Pay more attention to your horse. Pay more attention to the rounds and top-quality riders right in front of you at the shows. Go walk the grand prix course, even if you’re not in it.
Learn and be open to learning. Leave your phone in your tack trunk. Leave your thoughts on how much you want to move up—because your friend did, and you have not yet—behind. Instead, be stronger than your excuses. Turn that desire into results.
Top grand prix rider Aaron Vale runs his Thinkslikeahorse training facility in Williston, Florida, with quality jumpers, hunters and equitation horses. Many of his students compete on young rider and Prix des States teams, qualify for the top equitation finals, and become successful grand prix riders.
Vale has won more than 275 grand prix classes and represented the U.S. team on European tours and in Nations Cups, as well as placed in the World Cup Finals. He’s won countless USHJA International and National Hunter Derbies and twice won the $500,000 Diamond Mills Hunter Prix (New York). As a junior rider, he was reserve champion at the ASPCA Maclay, USEF Medal and USET Talent Search. He was named Best Child Rider at Washington and the Pennsylvania National.
He lives with his wife, Mallory, and daughter, Kinser.
This article appeared in the June 26-July 17, 2023, issue of The Chronicle of the Horse. You can subscribe and get online access to a digital version and then enjoy a year of The Chronicle of the Horse and our lifestyle publication, Untacked. If you’re just following COTH online, you’re missing so much great unique content. Each print issue of the Chronicle is full of in-depth competition news, fascinating features, probing looks at issues within the sports of hunter/jumper, eventing and dressage, and stunning photography.