All Fun and Games

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Teenage Suzie has been rolling her eyes a lot lately in her lessons. Little Charlie’s attention keeps wandering during your instruction. And adult amateur Jane hasn’t quite conquered her confidence problem. What do these riders have in common? Each could benefit from playing games. That’s right, games. Believe it or not, there’s nothing like mixing a little play time with lesson time to grab young kids’ attention, challenge more advanced riders and even build the confidence of timid riders.

In fact, horseback games can do all of that and more. “At the most basic level, games teach teamwork and patience as well as balance,” says Cheryl Spencer, who uses games during horse camps and lessons at Raspberry Ridge Farm in Newburgh, Ontario, Canada. “At the more intense levels, the students learn to coordinate all of their aids. And all learn to have fun with their horse.”

Kiki Osbourne, director of the lesson program at Hunter Oaks Equestrian Facility in Carlock, Illinois, which sponsors the Royal Oaks Pony Club and plays host to the Illinois Wesleyan Equestrian Team, finds that games help her keep students’ interest. “I try to make riding exciting, especially for the younger students who don't have as long an attention span,” she says. “It also can help get my point across in a different, more fun way if the student ­doesn’t understand a concept.”

Games also help students learn in a more natural manner—by doing and reacting, rather than simply by listening and responding. “When students learn naturally, I think they sometimes learn faster than when we’re just telling them what to do,” says Sharon Skipworth, who uses games in lessons and horse camps at her Forest Hill Farms in Muscatine, Iowa. “You get that 14-year-old who rolls her eyes and knows everything. This challenges her, and you can say ‘show me what you can do,’ instead of just telling her what to do.”

Plus, says Skipworth, in games that have a win-or-lose aspect, the chance to win—and the risk of losing—acts as a great motivator. “And motivation is key to getting students to listen and learn and want to do it,” she notes.

Last but not least, says Spencer, “Games are also less stressful for the horse than a lesson and give both horses and riders a change of pace.”

Play It Smart

The downside to horseback games is that they can pose safety concerns. Some involve a degree of speed, others challenge riders’ skills, and all can lead to rowdiness that may distract focus from basic safe-riding practices. To minimize the risks while maximizing the fun and rewards, Skipworth, Spencer and Osbourne offer the following advice:

  • Choose quiet horses.
  • Put beginner, very young or timid riders on a lead line.
  • Use games, gaits and challenges appropriate to the rider’s abilities.
  • Make a no-shouting rule.
  • Give small children and beginners a safety strap or neck rein to assist with balance.
  • Never allow galloping; play games at controlled paces.
  • Have all students wear helmets.
  • Let riders know that if they break the rules, misbehave or get too rowdy, they’ll have to sit the game out.

Let the Games Begin

There are countless horseback games your students can play. Here are some of the favorites used by Skipworth, Spencer and Osbourne.

Egg and Spoon

Benefits: Helps to develop quiet, steady hands, a quiet seat, and balance in the saddle.

Who it’s for: The game can be adjusted to the riders’ level. Beginners compete at walk; more advanced riders can walk, trot and canter. You can add additional challenges, too, such as backing, turns on the forehand, or even small jumps.

Materials: One large spoon (approximately tablespoon size) and either a real egg or an egg substitute (such as a similarly sized rock) for each rider.

How to play: Riders place their egg on their spoon, holding the spoon by the handle. The instructor acts as ringmaster, calling out the gaits, as riders circle the arena. When a rider loses her egg, she’s out. The last rider with an egg still on her spoon wins. Spencer notes that the game can also be played as a team relay, with each rider taking a turn holding the egg and spoon. The first team to have all riders make it back and forth across the ring with their egg on the spoon wins.

Obstacle Course

Benefits: Works on a variety of skills, including steering and learning to handle a variety of unfamiliar obstacles and situations. Can be useful as a preliminary to jumping.

Who it’s for: “This is something we build on with beginner riders from their first lesson to give them a sense of accomplishment, so that after a few lessons all can do a simple course,” says Spencer. However, since you can always add new obstacles, you can create courses appropriate to any level of rider.

Materials: Traffic cones, poles, small jumps and other obstacles.

How to play: Use your imagination. For example, create a pattern of cones that riders must steer around and through. Lay ground poles to walk over, or have horse and rider walk or back through a pair of parallel ground poles. Depending on the riders’ level, you may add small jumps. Change the course over time to keep the game challenging.

Ride a Buck

Benefits: Helps riders develop a still and stable lower leg position.

Who it’s for: Intermediate to advanced students. Note: Make sure that the horses used will tolerate lower leg contact and pressure.

Materials: A dollar bill or similar-size piece of paper for each rider. (Osbourne likes to use slips of paper with rewards, like a free trail ride, written on them.)

How to play: Riders place the dollar under their lower leg, where it contacts the horse. The instructor gives them a challenge, depending on their ability level, such as riding once around the arena at a specific gait or taking a jump. If the rider completes the challenge without losing the dollar, they keep the money (or earn the prize written on the paper). If they lose the dollar, you may opt to give them another chance or two, or you may call them out of the game.

Red light, Green Light

Benefits: Hones straight-line steering skills, as well as stop and go abilities.

Who it’s for: Beginner students.

Materials: Just horses and riders.

How to play: The instructor stands at one end of the arena, while riders stand side-by-side in a line at the opposite end. When the instructor calls out “green light,” riders walk forward. When the instructor calls out “red light,” riders must stop. If they don’t stop, they’re out. Keep repeating the process. The first rider to reach the instructor wins. Osbourne prefers to keep this a walking game but may do it at a slow trot. “This game could get out of hand if you don’t explain about staying slow,” she cautions.

Count the Strides

Benefits: Develops jumping skills, such as counting strides, adjusting strides and learning to see a distance to a fence.

Who it’s for: Intermediate to advanced riders.

Materials: Two ground poles.

How to play: Place the poles on a circle or a straight line, at least 48 feet apart. Instructor and riders count the strides between each pole, then riders try to add and take away strides each time through. Whoever has the largest range of strides wins.

Drill Team

Benefits: Riders learn to plan their actions and adjust their horse’s stride.

Who it’s for: Riders able to steer and control their horses; Skipworth says it’s generally more effective with adult riders. “This is also really good for riders with fear,” she adds. “A lot of them have commented to me that they didn’t have time to get scared.”

Materials: Just horses and riders.

How to play: Group riders into evenly numbered teams (i.e., two, four or six riders to a team). Then give each team a pattern to execute. For instance, you might ask a pair of riders to each complete a 20-meter circle, mirroring each other’s actions. Or you might assign a more complicated pattern, such as “thread the needle,” where riders start in adjacent corners and ride across the diagonal, so they must cross in the middle, with one rider just ahead of the other. “There’s a lot of thought involved,” says Skipworth. “They have to synchronize, to coordinate with the other riders, staying with each other and guiding their horses.”

Get Creative

For more game ideas, see below, talk with other instructors and simply use your imagination to create your own. Then, you’ll have just the trick to keep the lesson challenging, interesting, confidence-building, skill-enhancing—and fun!

Game Resources

1) The American Riding Instructors Association (www.riding-instructor.com) sells numerous books on teaching riding, including “Games on Horseback: Having Fun, Learning Safety, Improving Horsemanship” and The BHS Instructor’s “Manual for Teaching Riding,” both of which include games sections.

2) “Mounted Games Across America, Inc.” (http://mountedgames.org) lists details of many competitive horseback games in its Rules section; modify to suit your students and facilities.

3) United States Pony Clubs, Inc. has books on horseback games for sale through a Yahoo site (http://store.yahoo.com/uspcbooks/games.html), including “Naty’s Riding Games” and “Mounted Games–Threshold Picture Guides.”