When it comes to kids and how to keep them engaged and enjoying their experiences with horses, there are a few tricks to the trade. Stable Management spoke to two seasoned instructors who work extensively with youth to learn how they handle their younger clientele.
Julie Kidrowski is an instructor at Peeper Ranch in Lenexa, Kansas; it is one of the largest equestrian facilities in the Kansas City area. Peeper breeds and shows Morgans and has a well developed lesson and training program and boarding facility. Ashley Behlen is an instructor/trainer and owner of New Legacy Farms, Auburn, Kansas, and has been teaching English flat and jumping for 12 years.
Here are 10 suggestions that help keep even the youngest of clients happy and safe.
1. Take an Active Approach
Kids usually like activities, and when it comes to horsey kids, they like variety.
“We encourage our riders to stay at the barn to help after lessons or to hang out with us on weekends,” says Kidrowski. “Our riding camps are a great way for the kids to build camaraderie with their peers. We have holiday parties, sleepovers and take several field trips a month. For each event, roughly 80 invitations are sent out! Our last sleepover had 57 kids stay the night.”
Behlen says organized activities can include barn shows, travel to local association or out-of-state shows, special kids’ nights, and field trips. Behlen’s favorite kids’ night was around Easter time when she hid hundreds of eggs in the indoor arena. Field trips to equine breeding facilities help kids really understand horses through and through.
2. Lessons Offer Continuity
“When teaching kids, it has to stay fun and it has to be safe,” says Behlen.”I break it down simple and easy, and I almost feel I am giving too much information.”
Youngsters usually start with a private lesson, and if the child is fairly young, the lesson may last only 30 minutes. Once Behlen feels the youngster will be safe in a group, he or she moves to group lessons.
At Peeper Ranch, which specializes in saddle seat riding, Kidrowski says the lesson structure is about the same for all riders. “I have found even the youngest riders love patterns!” she says.
3. A Club Just For Youth
For those social experiences with horse friends, Peeper Ranch has a “Peeper Ranch Equestrian Team Youth Club” that is open to all riders and their friends and siblings. They meet about once a month, usually at the ranch, but no riding is involved.
Some meetings are field trips, such as recent trips to the American Royal UPHA show and to the Ringling Brothers Circus. Parents are invited to participate, too.
The intent behind the youth club is to make every child feel accepted and a part of the ranch. The club even has its own section on the ranch’s website at www.peeperranch.com.
4. Time for Camp
A natural for youth and horses is to offer special equine camps during school breaks, holidays and during the summer. These camps can be for youth who don’t own a horse and want to learn more, or for more experienced riders who want to fine tune their skills.
Behlen offers weeklong summer riding camps that have youngsters riding about an hour a day, then doing educational and fun activities the rest of the time.
“In summer camp we cover tack and grooming, in addition to riding,” she says. She also brings in equine-related professionals, such as farriers or veterinarians, who can explain how they care for horses or show the youngsters how a horse’s hooves are trimmed or why a deworming program is important.
5. Get Educated About Horses
Not all kids want to participate in horse shows. Some are more interested in learning about the nutrition needs of a horse, or perhaps they want to learn why some horses are bay and others are palomino. Creating a program in which youth can learn, then demonstrate their knowledge about horses is a good way to encourage them.
Youth organizations like 4-H have a knowledge-based curriculum, and some equine facilities have opened their doors as a meeting location. Another great resource for educational programs is through national horse associations, such as the Junior Master Horseman program of the American Quarter Horse Association and American Youth Horse Council.
At Peeper Ranch, as a part of the youth club, there is also a horsemanship program that has different levels and provides educational materials for each. Youth can “learn and do” with the first level on the basics of horsemanship, colors of horses, and parts of the saddle and bridle. As the levels progress, the youth have to learn and demonstrate grooming, proper saddling and bridling, all the way up to the top level of demonstrating harnessing, hitching and driving.
6. Keep ’Em Involved
Keeping kids involved with their horses and with horse programs gets tougher as they get older and become more involved in school or have part-time jobs or volunteer activities. Enlisting the older kids to help is one way to keep them involved.
“We are incredibly fortunate to have wonderful teenage riders,” says Kidrowski. “These students serve as mentors for the younger riders in learning horsemanship. While tacking horses the kids are quizzed on parts of the horse and tack.” The older riders also judge the “mock horse show” group lessons at Peeper Ranch, says Kidrowski.
Behlen says she has the older kids help with summer camps, as well as help feed and care for the horses. “They help groom and they help with the shows,” Behlen says. “I think it’s a privilege for them. The older kids like it when the younger kids look up to them.”
7. Goals and Rewards
“I will use horses as rewards for our riders,” says Kidrowski. “If a child does an amazing job in their lesson, they often can pick out who they will ride next,” she says.
When older riders help at shows or during camps, she makes special plans to go on a trail ride as a reward for their assistance and involvement.
Behlen says she considers the goals of the youth. All of the youth she works with “have different places they want to go. Some want to do horse shows, others just want to come and ride once a week. I treat them according to their goals,” she says.
8. Don’t Forget Spontaneity
It’s the informal times and activities that probably make the most precious memories for youngsters. Those are the times a youngster gets to help clean stalls after a lesson, or brushes or bathes a horse. Maybe it’s an informal group gathering to clean tack and talk about horses. Those are relaxing times at the barn, just spur of the moment experiences.
“Kids want to do it all and be at the barn as much as possible,” says Behlen.
9. Be Sensitive to the Budget
While youngsters focus on their time with horses, the instructor or mentor needs to be in communication with the adults in the family and to consider the family’s budget as horse endeavors progress. Behlen says she tries to “work with their budget. If they are buying a horse, I prefer they go shopping with me, but if they already have a horse we will work with that.” And Behlen says it really doesn’t matter if the youngster doesn’t have a horse. “I can provide a horse for lessons, and a lot of times they might end up leasing or buying a horse,” she says.
10. Keep it Fun, and Safe
Keeping activities fun and safe are two of the most important things to remember when working with youth and horses. Having fun within boundaries is the key. Behlen, who is an adult, is sometimes a big kid herself. “And they all know it, too,” she says of her students.
Kidrowski has been with Peeper Ranch since 2005 and has some of the same youth riders still with her. “I enjoy seeing the changes in our little people and helping to create a safe and fun activity for them. I want them to have the same great experiences with horses that I had as a child.”