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In next 10 weeks or so, countless letters to Santa will be carefully written with PONY listed at the top. If my own childhood is any indication, the majority of those children won’t find a new pony under their tree. But their pleas just may have swayed their parents enough to agree to start the adventure of riding lessons.
I treasure my days as a lesson kid and have discovered a new appreciation for the role non-horse riding parents play as my own child has dabbled in lessons. As the resident “horse expert” for my parent friends, my answers to the many emails & Facebook message asking for information after a child has finally begged enough for lessons has developed into a standard response – the “new pony mom” letter.
Dear New Pony Mom,
Welcome to the fabulously inspiring & confusing world of horses! Your child has discovered a magic – one that we desperately need in this often too harsh world.
For you, it may be bewildering. Equestrian sport (and it is a sport in the same way that gymnastics and travel soccer and swim team are) comes with a unique jargon, extensive options and several hundred pound, mute, four legged partner. But, with a little bit of guidance, this will be a wonderful investment in the person your child will grow up to be.
get some help
If you haven’t already signed your child up for riding lessons, RUN (not walk) to a respected, professional instructor. The world of horses is a dizzying one full of contradictory opinions that don’t appear to make any sense. Before she has her own pony, your child needs to learn how to safely handle this animal. The key to minimizing the risk of injury in a sport that involves a prey animal is good instruction.
Not to mention, a good instructor will be an invaluable addition to your life as well. The best instructors do more than teach your child to steer, stop and brush a horse. They are another trusted adult who encourages her to know what she wants, work for it and accept the consequences of her actions (like when she slides off after forgetting to tighten her girth). Look for professionals who actively manage the environment in their barns – encouraging community without letting it progress to Lord of the Flies. It can be a fine line, especially with large groups of horse-crazy pre-teen girls.
there is some investment
Horse people love to crack jokes about how expensive it is to ride. We also cry about it, sometimes at the same time. But the truth is that the basics of getting your child started well are pretty equivalent to most other sports that require individual or small group instruction.
Spend your money on the most important things – safety. A properly fitted helmet, appropriate boots (and half chaps) and gloves are an excellent start. If your child is riding English (hunt seat – the jumping and dressage stuff), go ahead and get some breeches. You can find them at websites like Smartpak very reasonably. She doesn’t need the super trendy, $150+ ones but a good pair will help her to be comfortable in the saddle and help her instructor see what she’s doing with her body while riding.
She doesn’t need her own horse to start and she *definitely* doesn’t need a baby horse to grow up with. She needs an instructor with good, well taught school horses who can build her confidence while you figure out if she’s going to stick with it. The most important investment you’ll make will be in choosing that instructor and providing your child with regular lessons.
let’s talk mean girls
Just like in school, every other sport, the grocery store and the PTA, you’ll find “mean girls” in the horse world. They won’t always be children and they won’t always be girls. There will be people who will judge you or your child to be lacking in some way. They will think (and might say it out loud) that your child isn’t wearing the right clothes, should be progressing more quickly, or that your trainer isn’t the best.
In every aspect of life that we encounter people like this, their criticisms and judgements say far more about them than you and your child. For every two people in the horse world, there are three opinions on how something should be done. Find trusted professionals whose insight you trust and make the best decision for YOUR child.
the lessons learned
Oh, the things your child is going to learn!
To be honest, I’m a little jealous of her.
Those discoveries, early in a child’s interactions with horses, are precious. They stick.
Horses are soft noses, warm necks and strong, broad backs. They are a silent, understanding partner when friends just don’t get it. They are a safe place to land when school isn’t going the way we’d like it. They don’t see differences, bad hair days, weight, height or acne.
Especially for girls, riding teaches lessons that our children desperately need to prepare them for life. They need to be confidently and compassionately in charge. Not only are they telling this 1,000+ lbs animal where to go, they are also responsible for its care. They need to brush it, check to make sure it is healthy and reassure it when it is unsure. This animal counts on your child to be an emphatic leader. Something we need so much more of and that a practice that our children have so few opportunities to develop.
Riding, and especially horse showing, teach our kids that sometimes hard work isn’t enough.
We can do everything we’re supposed to do and it still isn’t our day. The horse might trip. A tent could blow over and send us off course. And that’s ok. Learning to lose with grace and keep going is a skill that will serve them well no matter what they do with their life.
At the barn, they’ll learn skills that will make you shake your head. There will be tools they wield that you might not have even seen before. They’ll post and canter and clean tack and set lines and see distances. They’ll also learn the joy of finding just the right itchy spot that makes a pony’s lip wobble. There is the satisfaction of a shiny, just bathed horse and hilarious resignation when that horse immediately rolls in the muddiest spot available. There is confidence and assertiveness and unspoken communication and the power of positive thinking.
In riding a horse, we borrow freedom.
But, perhaps most importantly, riding offers a gift. Generals and world leaders were so often portrayed on the backs of horses for a reason. It is a powerful, freeing place to be. As an adult with a job, a family and a mile long to do list, there are a thousand productive things I could be doing with my time. But several times a week, I set those things aside and head to the barn. In a pair of dark eyes I find his confidence that I’ll keep him safe. In the saddle, I can work towards goals that are purely for the joy of accomplishment. On a broad, strong back, those bad hair days and unchecked to do lists don’t matter.
The barn is a home that I can return to over and over again, where ever we live and no matter what else is going on.
And that’s something I definitely want my child to have.