Donning a pair of swimming goggles and a tutu, Izzy Beisel set off towards the racetrack at the center of the HITS Ocala (Florida) showgrounds atop her small pony, with her brother Cooper Beisel beside her, sporting a pair of cowboy chaps. Once the sandy surface stretched out before them, they’d kick on, lost in their own fantasies.
“Usually they’d scare half of the adults when they’d go galloping by on the racetrack,” recalled their father, grand prix show jumper David Beisel. “Not on purpose. They were just having fun.”
The Beisel siblings learned the basics of riding, but they weren’t required to spend their days learning diagonals or worrying whether their backs were ramrod straight. Izzy’s pony Weebiscuit’s forelock was braided into a unicorn horn; his hooves sparkled from a liberal coat of Twinkle Toes, and his gray coat was dyed purple from excessive Quic Silver. Cooper spent more time swimming his pony Coconut in their pond on the farm in Goshen, Ohio, than taking lessons.
“I think the biggest part was really good ponies—finding super, super safe ponies for them,” said David. “We probably spent a small fortune leasing ponies for them, but to have them on the golden oldies is priceless because they’re able to be so independent. When we’d go to Florida, they could go off all over the place and have a great time.”
Izzy, 15, and Cooper, 17, both grew serious about riding—Izzy at around 5 or 6, while Cooper was closer to 14 or 15.
For some parents, there can be a temptation to push, but ratcheting up the intensity too early or too often can backfire, leading to disinterest. So how do trainers strike a balance of educating young riders while keeping it low pressure, fun and safe?
Whether children are starting at 6 or as young as 2, trainers agree the early rides are just about getting them used to the feel of a horse moving underneath them. “They do not have the strength to ride or the coordination [at 2 to 4 years old], so you basically just keep it fun and safe in the beginning so that you can kind of hook them in,” said Linda Smith-Faver, a trainer based in Wellington, Florida, and Aiken, South Carolina, who has introduced many trainers’ children to the sport.
Charlie Moorcroft, whose Wellington-based business focuses on training young children, gets them out of the ring early on a leadline and with a side-walker if necessary. His facility has access to bridle paths and features a 15-acre pond with wildlife; the visual stimulation lessens any boredom in the early stages of riding. The key, he says, is finding their balance, and with their bodies constantly growing, it can change rapidly.
“I would ask them to touch their toes, reach up to touch the pony’s ears, walk a couple of steps with their hands out to the side, touch their head, reach back one hand at a time and try to touch the tail,” he said. “Maybe ‘around the world’ with assistance, just stuff like that. But really it’s just the experience of being around the animal.”
While Olympic eventer Boyd Martin takes a rough-and-tumble approach to riding with his sons Nox, 6, and Leo, 3, the goofing off establishes their balance. “When I help them ride after school it’s probably everything the opposite of what you’d read in a textbook,” he said. “We’re climbing all over the ponies; we’re going bareback, doing a bit of sideways saddle, and falling off multiple times.”
“Both horses we have for the kids are quite safe, and if they happen to topple off their horse just stands there and sort of sniffs at them as they’re dusting themselves off,” he added. “My feeling is that natural feel is more important than the black-and-white lines of the discipline of correctness. Looking back on my riding career, as the rider develops a bit of feel and understanding then we can introduce a bit more of the formal correctness and how to ride systematically.”
Five-star eventer Buck Davidson admits his oldest daughter Aubrey, 6, probably wouldn’t choose to go to the barn if given the option, but she has fun playing with eventer Kylie Lyman’s daughter Emily or show jumper Aaron Vale’s kids on horseback.
“Our philosophy, [my wife] Andrea [Davidson] and mine is just to make sure that first and foremost everybody’s safe and that everybody’s enjoying it,” Buck said. “Because there’s not a pot of gold here at the end of this. It’s all a lot of hard work and sometimes frustration, but it is a great way of life, so we just really try to emphasize having fun and being safe.”
Trainers can capitalize on that desire to be part of the group in formal lessons as well. Once students have established skills on the longe line, Smith-Faver brings in older riders to aid in lessons. Initially those riders will ride next to and in front of the new rider to “sandwich” them on the rail as the new student establishes steering and control. Later, they’ll play games like “leapfrog,” where they have to pass each other.
“I have found some kids that are harder to keep focused or who really don’t want to be up there, [the key] is to bring other kids who can play with them,” she said. “They watch them, and then [I can say], ‘So-and-so’s in charge now! You have to follow them!’ or things like that. That has gotten me over the hump a couple of times.”
Moorcroft likes to bring in a more experienced child when a student is struggling through a learning curve as he said sometimes having another kid believe in them or explain it in a different way helps them tackle that hurdle. Having friends at the barn can also encourage nervous riders to try a new task, Moorcroft said.
“Some days the kids might say like, ‘C’mon, let’s go. Do it. I mean, you’re here,’ ” he said. “Oftentimes the other kids will push harder than I’ll have to, and I’m OK with that as long as it’s within reason and supportive.”
Many of his lessons center on the concept of barnmates being part of a team, and that means supporting one another when one member needs help, especially when it comes to learning courses.
“If someone can’t remember where they’re going, rather than kids making fun of each other, I’m like, ‘OK, everyone get off. Walk it single file,” he said.
To Push Or Not To Push
Inevitably there will be days when a child just doesn’t feel like riding, and how the trainer responds to that will depend on several factors. While Robin Greenwood, a pony trainer based in Southern Pines, North Carolina, doesn’t do a lot of first lessons, she’s adamant that any reason a child—especially those under 5—doesn’t want to ride that day is good enough, whether it’s because they’re in a bad mood, too tired, or it’s too hot or cold.
“When you do it when they aren’t in the mood for it, you’re wasting everyone’s time, and they’re not going to stay interested,” she said. “[There are] very few skills they can learn, so they don’t need to ride a lot. I often tell parents, ‘When the weather is good, I’ll schedule you a half an hour, and we might only have 15 or 20 minutes, whatever the kid wants.’ ”
Smith-Faver likes to find incentives—and sometimes they have nothing to do with horses. One boy who wanted to ride in the golf cart was promised he could do so if he could steer around the entire ring. Others get to wear costumes while they ride.
Moorcroft recalled that when Ansgar Holtgers Jr., now a successful young show jumper, first came to his farm, he was motivated by fishing.
“If I needed a break, I would let him talk about fishing,” said Moorcroft. “He wanted to be a professional fisherman, and then one day he said to me, ‘I want to be a professional rider. And I want to thank you because you’ve helped me so much.’ And now he’s killing it in the grand prix [classes].”
Once kids are old enough to ride unsupervised, if they’re having a tough time staying engaged, Moorcroft tells them it’s OK to go for a trail ride or take a quick spin around the track. If they want to return, great; if not, that’s fine too.
“It might be easier to give them a chance to just regroup or come back another day,” he said. “They’re athletes; they’re kids. Especially this generation has so many options and activities and stresses and pressure, and oftentimes the kids are overscheduled. It almost is a safety thing, if everyone’s learning how to jump an oxer, and they’re really not even into it, it doesn’t help them to force them to participate in a level that they’re not mentally focused on.”
Confidence Is Key
Fear can sometimes be the biggest obstacle in getting children to ride, whether they’re scared of falling or of making mistakes. To establish the idea that a child always has control over their pony, Smith-Faver emphasizes halting from the beginning. “If they ever get into trouble, they know how to stop,” she said. She calls them “emergency stops” and asks for them throughout the lesson.
“It’s important that they think they’re getting better and better just so that they get their confidence up,” she said.
While falling is an inevitable part of learning, Greenwood and Smith-Faver emphasized the importance of making sure a child isn’t overfaced. Greenwood has one student who came to her afraid to trot over a pole.
So Greenwood made her a deal that she wouldn’t make the student do anything she was afraid of until she completely trusted her trainer to know when she could do it.
“Back then, I didn’t make her do anything that made her too nervous,” she said. “ ‘We’re gonna jump that box over there,’ ‘No, that’s too scary,’ ‘OK, we won’t do it.’ And now I can tell her she has to do it.”
While the student, who is now 13 and has competed at USEF Pony Finals (Kentucky), still has her fearful moments, Greenwood’s established enough trust that the rider is willing to try.
Martin, who teaches another boy a few years older than his sons, said it’s about striking a balance between teaching correctness, providing a thrill, and not killing confidence if something goes wrong.
“There’s got to be a little bit of a thrill in each session, enjoyment,” he said. “The tricky part is as a coach or a teacher, especially with the cross-country and the show jumping, is you’ve got to keep them confident. You can’t push them so hard and make them jump something where if something goes wrong they have a horrible experience.”
Whether kids stick with riding is dependent on a number of factors, but having positive and fun experiences at a young age is the first step. Regardless of how long they stay in the sport, the benefits are far-reaching.
“I am constantly reminded by parents, by teachers, by family members, what exactly this does for the children as far as self-esteem, as far as giving them confidence to answer questions in school,” said Moorcroft. “In school they’ll look people in the eye. If they can control that animal and really achieve some tough riding life lessons, they really evolve as people.”
This article ran in The Chronicle of the Horse in our June 27-July 18, 2022, Issue. Subscribers may choose online access to a digital version or a print subscription or both, and they will also receive our lifestyle publication, Untacked.
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