Monday, August 22, 2011

How Young Is Too Young?

What is the proper age to start riding?  I have gotten this question over and over, and as an instructor and a mom, I recognize that the answer to this question is not black and white.  It is clear that no matter what sport you intend for your child to participate in, the earlier you introduce them to it, the easier it is (usually) for them to figure out proper technique, understand the basic rules and gain the confidence necessary to excel.  But there is a line that mustn't be crossed in pushing them too young.  If there is too much pressure to perform, the child will get weary of the activity quickly, and begin to rebel against the parent's constant direction and over-encouragement.  And there is, of course, social pressures too; for girls, all their friends may be into 'girlie' stuff, princess themes, clothes, and taking dance classes.  For boys, there is an underlying pressure to be a jock type, or a gamer.  Not all kids fit these stereotypes, nor does every parent want to cater to them.  Still, the pressure to start these activities starts young.

I am, by no means, knocking traditional sports or dancing - as long as the child really does love doing it, on their own accord, and they are doing well enough at it that it boosts their confidence, then good for them.  However, I am biased toward horseback riding, and other, more 'outside the box' activities for kids.  Being different from their peers gives them a chance to shine all on their own!  And horseback riding teaches things that learning to tackle or being a pretty dancer cannot.  Being a good rider teaches confidence, balance, bravery, persistence, subtlety, a sense of humor, gentleness, body awareness and control, and consistency, along with the double edge concept of respect for a large animal that could hurt you, but also empathy and kindness for an animal that is at your mercy.  Horseback riding allows kids to get dirty, work hard, and see immediate results for their work, but also long-term accomplishment of goals.  And all the while, they are building a love for nature and animals, and an understanding of the natural cycle of life.  Invaluable experiences in my book.

Many parents begin feeling the pressure of choosing a sport by the time their child is four.  And this is usually the age that they call me asking if they are too young to begin riding lessons.  My response is to start asking questions:  Can the child follow directions well?  Are they able to control their movements, with the strength to sit up straight and use their legs?  Can they handle the occasional frustration?  If the answer is yes to these questions, I usually invite them to come out for a lesson with the intention of just getting the child's interest going.  There is no pressure to perform any difficult tasks, rather, we just introduce them to the routine: first, we get our trusty lesson horse out and tied up, do some grooming, saddle up, lead them around, teaching them to hold the reins and say the word "whoa."  Afterward, they help unsaddle, and return the horse to their pen, where they are allowed to feed the horse a carrot.

Then, I tell the parent to wait and see.  Some kids will just think that the whole thing was a fun diversion, others will hang on to the experience and start begging to come back.  That will tell the parent how much they want to pursue horses.  It must be child-driven.  It is not a good idea to push your child into any sport, but especially horses, since they are expensive, time consuming, and are a living, breathing being in need of care.  And I always advise them to have their child take lessons as long as possible before buying a horse.  If they aren't begging to do it, you could find yourself owning a horse that isn't getting enough attention.

You might think that because I am a life-long horse person, and an instructor, that my kids were loping around while still in diapers.  Nope.  With my own children, I have taken it slow.  Yes, we have ten horses here, and they have been out in the barn since they were infants, 'helping' with chores, and riding with me or being led on our old-timers.  But I have not given them a whole lot of lessons yet.  My boys are four and five, and my five year old has Asperger's Syndrome, a form of autism.  Until this year, he has had much difficulty following directions, and has been known to have meltdowns when faced with something frustrating.  Rather than push him to do it, and risk ruining the experience for him, I have chosen to wait and let him ask me to do it, keeping his experiences on horseback as short and as sweet as possible; such as when we had his birthday party last November and invited his entire preschool class out for a party and to go for rides around the yard on Jazz, one of our old horses.  Not only did his classmates have fun, Miles got to show off what he knew about horses, and he was very proud to do that.

Recently, we acquired a miniature horse named Sugar, who is broke to ride and drive, and has had lots of experience toting kids around.  Both of the boys LOVE him, and the effects of having him here were immediate.  Both boys talk about the horses more, whether it is what color horses are, naming the equipment used, what they need to do to care for them, or even just role playing with their horse toys.  They are gaining confidence in working around Sugar, leading him, grooming him, riding him, and taking the lines when we are driving him.  I am hoping to take them to a local show this spring, even if it is just for the leadline class.  No pressure, no matter how much their mom might want them to join her in the horse world.  My intention is that their love for horses will come from within themselves, even while my husband and I stoke the fire.

My four yr old son, Owen, leading his beloved Sugar.