Kids on the Trail
By Stan Walchuk, Jr.
I was worried. Twenty-two kids, aged seven to fourteen years old, all at once… are you kidding me?! I had taught horse lore to kids and adults of all ages but never to such a large herd. Their horses, with who-knows-what issues to deal with, were also added to the mix, as were the 20 parents of these high maintenance kids and horses.
As I drove into the Yukon recreation centre where the four-day 4-H program was going to take place, I thought of a hockey coach I once knew and his comment about parents. When I asked him if he was going to coach the Major Midget team another year, his response was, “The only way I’ll ever coach again is if I get a team of orphans.”
I told myself, “Okay, calm down. You’re being paid well to do a job. And, don’t judge a book by its cover.” Still, the first thing I did was head over to the holding corrals. Maybe you can’t judge a book by its cover but I make my living judging the trail partner under the horse’s skin.
Although experienced in teaching children and adults of all ages, the author was more than a touch apprehensive about giving a clinic to 22 kids and their horses all at once!
Right away I noticed a surprising level of common sense. The horses were kid-size and appeared calm and sturdy, with a good sprinkling of ‘been-there-and-done-that’ old timers. When a kid’s horse shows some age I don’t feel bad for the horse, I feel good for the kid.
And the pleasant surprises did not stop there. That famous Yukon hospitality is a reality, and it was a joy getting to know the kids, parents, and leaders. It was a lovely four-day event combining teaching, riding, work, and fun, and a learning experience for all of us. Now, let’s talk about those kids and their horses on the trail.
First, consider that the most important aspect of kids on the trail is matching rider with horse. We always talk about doing things right - the right training, riding method, gear, and discipline – but there is no escaping the fact that kids will be kids. They do not have the physical size and strength of an adult, the same ability to discipline, the same control, or the same focus and concentration to work through issues. Kids want a horse buddy so they can enjoy their time with the horse and feel its power. For an adult a challenge is something to work through, but to a child a challenge is a disappointment. The right horse for a child is a horse that is honest, forgiving, and calm, as that horse will get along well when things do not go right or when the child does not make the right decision.
When introducing children to riding, the most important thing is to choose a trail mount that is honest, calm, and forgiving.
Like me, you may remember the good old days when, as kids, we gleefully jumped on anything with hair, oftentimes only for a few seconds. But those days are gone, and most of us would never risk putting our children on horses that might cause trouble or put them in danger.
Truthfully, aside from my own string and a couple other trail strings, I had never been around 20 calm, friendly horses at one time, so the Yukon 4-H horses were a relief and a joy to work with. Little attention may have been given to looks or bloodlines, but these steady-minded horses were big on calmness. There was very little spook and an abundance of friendly behaviour, which is a prerequisite for a positive experience between a young person and a horse.
There was also a notable lack of very young horses, which I saw as an indication of more wisdom. It may be possible for a young person to begin with a weanling, yearling, or two-year-old horse and learn and grow together, but it can be a long and bumpy road. I would not recommend such a pairing unless an experienced adult is taking the child through the journey and the horse is innately calm and friendly. And remember, kids want to have fun riding now, not a few years from now.
The child-horse bond, the friendly aspect of that relationship, and the astounding power a child discovers when he finds that he can command, move, and steer a big, beautiful animal around are all deeply satisfying and do wonders for a child’s self-esteem. The problem is that many horses are not that honest, and will take advantage and control of the child, both while riding and on the ground. It is extremely important to buy a horse that is calm, forgiving, and honest by nature.
Young riders should be allowed to groom and tack up themselves, albeit with adult supervision, in order to learn how to work safely and effectively around horses. Rusty stands calmly as two young trail riders learn the fine points of the diamond hitch.
Children are often gentle and consider the horse a friend. They may have little desire or ability to establish their role as the alpha being. In these situations parents need to be particularly careful in choosing a truly gentle, willing horse. Enter the older horse.
Does it really matter if your seven-year-old first-time rider manages only three good years with a geriatric horse before arthritis or lack of condition require putting the horse down? A few years is a long time to a school age child and bless you if you can give child and horse that precious time together.
Very often, retired outfitter horses or pack string horses make great kids’ horses and a phone search of these businesses can turn up some good prospects.
Size counts. Big horses can be intimidating to children, and the ground looks a long way down from the back of a tall horse. I did expect to find some big, friendly Belgian-Clydesdale-Percheron horses at the 4-H program, the type grandpa safely sat the whole family on when we were kids, but not one was in sight.
Pony breeds, such as Shetland and Welsh, have earned a reputation for being somewhat headstrong and are often thought to be not the best choice for a child. I believe there may be some merit to that opinion. By comparison, individuals from small horse breeds, including the Quarter Horse, Morgan, Fjord, Halfinger, and Icelandic may, in general, have softer minds. However, we have owned some excellent Shetland and Welsh crosses so be careful of generalizations.
Small horses have some limitations, but not many. In our own herd of more than 20 horses it cannot be said that the smaller horses are slower when setting a pace on the trail. The speed at which a horse feels comfortable walking and keeping up is more a matter of the individual, the breed, training, and habit. Some of our fastest walking horses are around 14 hands. On the other hand, if you do an abundance of wilderness trail riding and cross streams and rivers, smaller horses will struggle more when stepping over, on, and around rocks and boulders in a stream. They will be more prone to stumble and when water catches their belly, more prone to go down. Personally, I do not like to see a rider on a horse that is less than 14 hands on a trip with deep or fast-moving, boulder-strewn water crossings.
The joy that a child receives from developing a bond with the horse, and the self-esteem that child gains upon discovering that he or she can command, move, and steer such a large, powerful animal, makes riding an incredibly rewarding, confidence building activity for the junior rider.
Almost as important as choosing the right trail horse is teaching the child to take control with ground work before riding. A child needs to understand the concept of being the dominant or alpha being in the relationship. This does not mean that the child must complete a program in advanced horse training, but they should practice some basic and repetitive control exercises on the ground before riding.
From my perspective, a five-year-old can effectively lunge a calm, experienced horse on a short lunge line and gain a huge amount of respect from that horse in a short time. A child can also safely initiate basic discipline when a horse is misbehaving or coming into their space without being asked, by aggressively rubbing the nose, pushing the face back where it belongs, or with a downward tug on the halter or slap at the base of the neck. Because of the child’s relatively small size, the horse must absolutely respect the child’s space. A pushy, disrespectful horse is trouble any time, but double trouble with a youngster.
Children also need to understand the horse’s basic grooming, care, feeding, and management needs, and should be expected to effectively groom and tack up (they’ll need kid-sized saddles) their own horse. The more they are involved in working with the horse, the more they will develop a relationship with that horse, teach the horse proper behaviour, and earn the horse’s respect.
To say that a horse can put a smile on a child’s face is an understatement. Studies have shown how “happy endorphins” are released when we are around horses, causing our stress levels to drop and self-esteem to increase. But horses are expensive and riding lessons for your child can be cost prohibitive. Keep in mind that there are many opportunities available. Horse sharing arrangements, barn rentals, an assortment of camps and clinics like our own Blue Creek trail riding clinic, and 4-H programs can help you start your kids off on the right foot.
NOTE: Kids Riding Bareback
Riding the horse bareback may be a rewarding experience as it allows you to feel the power of the horse and learn balance, but I would personally never let a child, or an adult for that matter, attempt a trail ride bareback. We have had a broken arm and a near disaster with our own two children from bareback riding (both times against my wishes, I might add). Trail conditions are too variable and there is always that branch, that bank, that mud hole ready to dump you harshly onto the ground. If you want to allow your kids to ride bareback, do so on soft ground, in a confined or controlled area.
Main photo: Because children lack the physical size and strength of adults and are often reluctant to discipline a horse, time should be spent educating them about the basics of horse behaviour, handling, and ground work. All photos by Stan Walchuk, Jr.