Ellison is a professional horse trainer and riding instructor. She runs a summer camp program and offers kids a safe introduction to horses.
What's Is The Best Age For a Child to Start Lessons?
This is one of the questions that I get asked more than any other. It doesn't have a black and white sort of answer. It depends on a lot of factors.
How Old Do They "Have" to Be?
At our farm and most farms that I know of, they will not start a child in lessons until age 4. At 4 most children are able to follow instructions well enough for lessons, assuming they have the attention span. Which is always a question when it comes to the younger children.
When discussing it with potential clients, I emphasize that in order for a child to be safe in a barn, whether riding or on the ground, they need to be able to follow instructions.
I also make sure that parents that want to start their child at 4, know that it is going to be a while before they get to do anything super exciting. I start my 4-year-olds in leadline lessons. I teach them the names of the brushes and they watch and help me tack up the pony. They also learn simple terms like saddle, bridle and bit.
Once mounted I teach them how to properly hold the reins, proper position of their feet in the stirrups, stopping and steering the pony. All very basic stuff. I try to incorporate different games into it to keep it fun for them whenever possible.
A lot of riding is done with our legs. We hold ourselves on with our legs! Young small children a lot of the time don't physically have long enough legs to really hold themselves on with. Being able to steer properly requires coordination that kids at a young age are still developing. Then there is the attention span thing, they have to be able to pay attention and follow instructions in order to be safe.
That being said physically and mentally a child has to get to a certain point in their development before they are able to ride independently. All children get to this point at different rates.
To us horse people this would only be common sense, and easy to see when you look at a tiny kid with even the smallest pony the size difference is great. We as horse people know the nature of the horse and so it's easy to understand why even a little pony could pose a danger to a small child.
You need to do your best to help your clients understand this without scaring them away. I have seen it happen many times, where parents are totally shocked when their child falls off or gets a foot stepped on. Like they never considered this could happen! To a lot of non-riders, especially seeing kids on lesson horses, it appears to them the horses are like lesson robots and the kids get on and go round and round. If only it were that simple.
It presents a problem when I have children start at age 4, with parents who have super high expectations of them quickly progressing to riding without a leadline. It's not the child's fault, it's just physically and mentally they aren't able to safely do it on their own yet. I just make sure I explain that to all interested clients and encourage them by saying we teach with an emphasis on safety. We only have their child's best interest in mind.
Safety and them having a positive experience at this point is the main goal. You just want them to learn a little about how to groom and tack and get comfortable in the saddle. That way when they are ready for independent lessons they have a jump start on older kids who are just being exposed to the horses for the first time.
In my experience, a lot of the students that start at a young age like 4, get bored with it before they are able to really learn to ride. There are only so many things you can do in a lead line lesson, only so many ways to make it fun and still keep it safe.
Of the students that I started as 4-year-olds in what we call our "pony pal" program, I would say that more of them lose interest before they are ready to really ride, than ride continuously until they are ready for independent riding or group lessons.
It can be hard to explain to parents when they see videos on youtube of little tiny kids cantering and jumping, that most of those kids come from "horsey" families and probably spend a ton of time in the saddle. The average 4 or 5-year-old, coming once a week for a lesson is going to take a really long time to get to that point
What Do I Recommend For Parents With Young Riders
We offer a pony pal program so of course, I encourage the young kids to come and get started. For the kids that seem really horse crazy and have enthusiastic parents, if they want to take lessons continuously I will encourage it. These are the kids that may progress to independent riding a little faster if they stick with it.
For the little ones who like it, but aren't totally pony crazy, I recommend they take a few sessions a year of pony pal lessons. That way they are still learning and getting comfortable at the barn, but won't get bored with it before they are physically able to ride independently.
I can think of more than a handful of students that first came to the barn at 4, got bored with not being able to do more. Then came back a couple years later at 6 and 7 and are now in high school still riding.
I have some that started the second they turned 4 and have ridden consistently ever since then. It all depends on the child!
Can I Teach a 4 or 5 year old Horsemanship Skills?
Of course, I can, it is just going to be a slower process and if they aren't that excited about it they might get bored before they are ready to do more. We are always upfront with my clients and explained all of this, our program for little riders runs quite smoothly.
Instructors And Parents Need To Be On The Same Page
The main thing is just making sure you and your client are on the same page as far as what their child will be learning and why. That may even depend on the child. I have had some "pony pals" as we call them that enthusiastically try to help me tack the pony and try their darndest to use their legs and hands the right way. These are typically the 4-year-olds that are almost 5 or 5-year-olds that are almost 6.
On the other hand, I have some who basically treat their "pony pal" session as a glorified weekly pony ride. Which is totally fine too, as long as you and the client are on the same page with expectations. Most of my clients that use the sessions this way have children who literally just turned 4. The difference in a just turned 4 rider and an almost 5 rider is huge!
I do my best to accommodate each individual child according to their own needs. Some parents bring their 4-year-olds to the barn to get a head start on their child's hopefully spectacular riding career. Other's just have a kid with an interest in horses, that want to give it a try and see if they like it.
Advantages Of Waiting And Starting A Little Older
If you wait to start your child in lessons until they are 6 or 7, they will most likely have the physical ability and mental ability to follow instructions well enough to start off riding independently.
Also when you are starting them a little older, group lessons are an option. A lot of kids like the social aspect of riding, so it appeals to them more if they can ride with other kids.
If you wait until they are older there is more on the ground they will be able to do for themselves. Like tacking up, for example, they may need help with tightening a girth or getting a bridle on, but with the help, they can do it. Whereas the little kids aren't able to do as much with tacking. Some of my pony pals are only able to participate in the tacking up by picking out what saddle pad they want to use that day!
It Really Just Depends On The Kid!
When trying to decide if your child is ready for lessons, you will have to research the facilities around you and discuss with them what they offer. A lot of places don't offer lessons until age 6 or 7. A lot of farms insurance policies won't allow them to teach lessons to younger kids. You will just have to check and see what options you have in your area.
If you find a program you are interested in once you contact the instructor, no matter what age your child is, you should have a better feel of whether or not the program is right for you.
Don't Be Disappointed, You Can Always Try Again Later!
After researching programs, if you decide to give it a try, don't get disappointed if your child doesn't like it as much as they thought they would. A lot of times especially with the younger ones they are super excited, but then get nervous when they see how big a horse really is.
If this happens with your child don't sweat it. If they still seem interested in horses in a couple years, try it again. I bet now that they are older they will be ready and enthusiastic enough that their excitement overcomes their nerves!
Horses aren't for every child. Give your child the best chance possible by putting them in the right program, at the right time, to give them a positive experience.
Our first experiences up, close and personal with horses stay with us forever. We want those to be good memories!