Thoughts on Introducing Children and Horses – Getting it Right the First Time

This article originally ran in issue No. 106

Some people who know me know that I have three adult children who have become very successful in the horse business. Occasionally someone will ask me how that all got started.

As I remember when they were pretty small we held them up to a horse’s face and just let them get a close-up look at a horse while in our arms. They could see what a horse feels like to pet, pull on their manes, feel the warm air coming out of their nostrils and let them see how funny they look when they look into the mirror of a horse’s eyeball. Then perhaps when they were big enough to appreciate it we would set them up in the saddle with us and give them a little ride around the yard on a horse we could really trust. Eventually when they were strong enough we might let them take hold of the reins and help them feel what it’s like to slow one down, stop him and maybe back a few steps. Generally at this stage a child’s arms are too short to do much steering.

Then as they get big enough we would mount our kids up on something really gentle and we led them from the ground with a halter under the bridle. Soon they would be learning more about how to get a hold of the reins so they could be effective. The natural thing for a child to do is pull from wherever his hands are on the reins instead of choking up and shortening those reins so he is pulling on the bit and not against his own belly, under his chin or worse yet over his head. For this stage I would use a leverage bit with a chain curb if necessary and wait until the child’s legs are long enough that he can get a little weight in the stirrups.

If children’s legs are too short they’re about doing the splits setting up there and all a horse needs to do is shake to send a little guy to the ground. As a child’s legs get a ways past the blanket they may start using their feet for acceleration in addition to their romal. Although I am not advising it to anybody my kids wore spurs as soon as their legs were long enough a horse could feel them. Some people would consider it dangerous and for some it could be but any horse I would start my kids on probably has been rode with spurs for many years prior. A little kid is pretty handicapped if he can’t get forward motion. A horse is like a bicycle in that you really can’t steer much until you get the wheels turning.

After they know how to choke up on the reins 100% of the time and he can get a horse to move and turn I would play games in a small area perhaps with some buckets for barrel racing or tag games with me on foot and on and on till we are taking little rides around the yard.

So far I’ve written with little kids in mind but if you have a more timid child or you don’t have a fitting horse available I suggest just waiting until your child gets more size, strength and boldness. Some of what I have written so far you may take lightly and if you have a fitting horse and an older child you could do that but what I have written about rein handling (choking up) is crucially important. I have heard story after story of children that are done with riding for life after one bad scare or injury. These early years are so fragile. I saw my own cousin when he was 9 years old have a trot-away on the old horse we all learned to ride on. Although he never broke a trot he was just terrified and out of control but pulling on the reins with his hands above his head. When we got him stopped the old horse didn’t even know he was being asked to slow down. With plenty of good horses available he never rode more than a few times for the rest of his life. Bill Dorrance told the worst story I ever heard from his youth in Oregon. The neighbors had family come from back East for a family reunion. They mounted their little cousin on the old horse they all learned to ride on for her first ride ever. Probably with no rein instruction at all. The old horse trotted across the yard she bounced off onto some farm equipment and died right in front of the whole family. I tell this story of tragedy in hopes that people will really consider safety when starting kids out on horses.

Jim 4, on Slim.

Jim winning a trophy on Coyote in Battle Mountain, Nevada

Jim 3, on Pinto Bean at the Cross Ranch in Deeth, Nevada.

Jim 4, showing Coyote at the Elko County Fair.

In the barn from left to right, Jim 9, Luke 5 and Kate 8.

Kate 6, on Brownie at the San Benito Cattle Co., where Bryan was cow boss. Bryan had started Brownie on the ranch with Tom Dorrance many years before.

Kate 12, Jim 13, Bryan, and Luke 8, each with a horse to sell at a horse sale in Alturas, Calif. Luke is on Penguin, purchased as an unstarted stud for $90 and sold at this sale for $900.

Kate 7, mounted on an older horse.

Luke 7, and Bryan with a yearling they started.

The Fun Factor
I believe the biggest thing children need once they have learned to be safe is how to have fun.

I’ve seen people get so stuffy with their riding lessons that they sometimes take the fun right out of it. I figure they get plenty of school in school. Not everybody can do like my family did and get those kids involved with cow handling and roping but even a good brisk tag game can be so much fun and I believe they can learn to ride quicker and better than any riding lessons could possibly achieve.

The Money Factor
Our family is a little different than some in that we never gave our children money. We tried to instill the thought that the way to acquire money is by earning it. They were home schooled and never got into the sports thing like most kids so they had plenty of time for riding. Seems like they always had plenty of projects going at a pretty young age. As soon as they started selling a few and had a little money they were constantly upgrading their prospects.

With my children we had lots of colts to ride so when each turned 11 years old I would hire them to ride colts for me. I gave them a dollar a ride the first year then double that when they turned 12, triple by the next year and so on. By the time they were 16 they were doing pretty good and taking on their own customers. The money factor was definitely a big incentive to saddle up even when they were tired or the weather wasn’t so great.
Prospects for Children

The fact is that finding a good horse for children, especially little children, can be quite a difficult job. The best I’ve seen for little kids is to find something bigger kids have been riding and out grown. The best ones are ones that have been gentle their whole life, enough on the lazy side to where a kid has to work some to get up speed and a little arthritis could be a big help as well.

It needs to be understood that because a horse is gentle he may not a fit for children. Consider also a good old horse for an adult may be terrified to look back and see the vacancy left by a small child. I would be very cautious when first introducing a horse to children. I would have one person leading the horse and a separate person have a hold of the child so he could be pulled off quickly if it was evident that it wasn’t going to be a fit.

Sometimes people ask about ponies. Seems like the general consensus on ponies is they are mean and nasty animals. I had a pony when I was little. I’ve had ponies when my kids were small. My youngest son Luke was a pony breaker and dealer when he was younger and is lately back in the pony business and my grandchildren both have ponies. I’ve helped start ponies in my clinics and I’ve yet to see a mean pony in my life. I’ve seen ponies that have got out of whack some and that had shenanigans going like any sized horse could but I have always attributed that to the fact that most pony riders are pretty young and green. One nice thing about ponies is they provide independence to a child. They can catch, saddle and mount by themselves easier than a normal sized horse. When my children were little I had a pony big enough I could ride as well. Then I could give it good ride the day before or in the morning before which took the edge off and made it so much more manageable for them. You may have thought I might be going to hurt the pony but it was well worth the gamble. I was more concerned about the pony possibly hurting my child than me hurting the pony. New ponies are being born every day but nothing is more precious to me than my family as I’m sure yours is to you.

My advice for anyone is to slow down and be careful when finding the right mount and introducing your children to it. Regardless of the age of the child or size of the mount you may only have one chance to get this right. It could be the difference between your children finding other things to do or sharing your passion for riding the rest of your lives.

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