Teaching the Stars of Tomorrow

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We hear a lot about adult amateurs these days. And why not? They have money, and they’ve been joining the horse industry with fervor for the past decade or so. Still, if you’re overlooking youth, you’re bypassing a huge slice of the customer pie—not to mention your chance to influence the equestrian leaders of tomorrow.

But teaching kids and teaching grown-ups are two quite different tasks: Kids tend to have less fear, more physical agility, shorter attention spans and more interest in doing than discussing. To help you address these issues and help give the youngsters in your barn a safe, solid start, we asked five experienced youth instructors to share some advice.

How Young Is Old Enough?

Most riding instructors consider eight years old the minimum age for students. “Below eight, kids don’t have the attention span or the eye-hand coordination to receive instruction,” says Julie Goodnight, program director for the Certified Horsemanship Association, a non-profit group promoting safety and education for the horse industry. Jessica Jahiel, an Illinois-based author and clinician who is also an American Riding Instructor Association (ARIA) certified instructor, agrees. “It’s a question of body proportions, balance, strength and attention span,” she says.

Starting too early, says Jahiel, compromises the rider’s safety and often leads to poor riding habits, such as bracing against the horse’s mouth and using the reins for balance. This, she says, can slow the learning process so much that if you started an 8-year-old and a 5-year-old in lessons at the same time, the children would be riding at the same level at age 10.

Eight is only a guideline, though. An emotionally or physically immature 8-year-old may need to wait a year, while a mature younger student might start earlier.

Kids not ready for real lessons can still learn the joys of horseback riding. “I would give them pony rides—just a few minutes of sitting on a pony, being led by a competent adult who can show them how to hold the reins and so forth,” says Myra Wagener, an ARIA-certified instructor with 40 years’ teaching experience, who does freelance dressage and jumping instruction in the Grand Rapids, Michigan, area.

Group Wisely

When teaching group lessons, make sure students are compatible in both age and ability. “If you have a reasonably well-matched group, teaching and learning will be much easier, and you’ll be able to take advantage of the salutary effects of peer pressure,” says Jahiel, who prefers breaking groups into 8- to 10-year-olds, 11- to 12-year-olds and young teens.

Kids also benefit emotionally from peer-based groups. “An older child could be intimidated by a younger child who is a better rider, and the reverse may also happen,” says Lynda Lewis, an ARIA-certified eventing and dressage instructor who runs Lyndon Acres in Burleson, Texas.

Furthermore, the analogies and imagery you use when teaching should be catered to the knowledge and interests of each age group, says Judi Whipple, an ARIA-certified instructor who teaches from her Breckenridge Farm in Barre, Vermont, and has turned out USDF bronze and silver medalists. Plus, she adds, “Children learn at different rates according to their age, and if an older child is in with students much younger, they may not be able to progress quickly enough.”

A Logical Progression

Regardless of age, Jahiel starts beginning youth riders with lead-line lessons. Once the rider has enough balance and body control to remain in the saddle without assistance, she can progress to longe-line lessons. “Here, the child can work on balance and perform exercises at some distance from the instructor, but still without having any responsibility for the horse’s gait, speed or direction,” says Jahiel. That allows the rider to focus on herself, adds Lewis.

Once a student can stop and steer effectively, she’s ready to ride off of the longe line, says Lewis. At this stage, Whipple puts the student into a small group. “The students then concentrate on group riding skills such as spacing, arena patterns and basic control,” she says. “Once they have established basic control they move to groups of similar interest, such as dressage or stock seat.”

Beginner youth lessons should include more than riding instruction, though. “Handling and horse care must be taught along with the riding, every day, from the very beginning,” says Jahiel.

All Kids Aren’t Equal

Not all young riders are rank beginners, of course. It behooves the good instructor to separate greenhorns from more experienced peers. “Advanced kids need to be challenged in a safe way so that they do not get bored,” Wagener notes. Along these lines, the exercises you choose for advanced youth should focus on developing feel and piloting skills, whereas beginner exercises would focus more on building balance and strength, says Whipple.

Beginners also need to progress slowly and do a lot of repetition to build confidence and solidify skills, says Wagener. In addition, says Lewis, they still have everything to learn. And that means the instructor must have bucket loads of patience, a strong line on encouraging words and a bag full of different—and simple—ways to explain basic concepts.

Battling Boredom

Perhaps the two biggest obstacles to teaching youth are short attention spans and impatience. Kids get easily bored and often want to progress to more advanced riding before they have the skills to pull it off. Horseback games are a great way to keep tedium from encroaching on your lessons. They also aid safety by keeping kids engaged, focused and interacting with you, says Whipple.

Games can be simple, like Simon Says, or more elaborate, using props such as cones, ground rails, dressage letters or colored ribbons on the wall. The idea is to focus the game on the skills you’re teaching that session. For instance, says Goodnight, if you’re working on stopping and starting, you might tell kids to walk over the pole, trot at the green ribbon, then halt at the red ribbon.

Other ideas for beating boredom include:

  • Singing songs, which also keeps riders breathing and relaxed.
  • Asking students questions.
  • Offering “extra-curricular” op­por­tunities, such as drill team.
  • Mixing in unmounted work, such as using sticky notes to identify the parts of the horse, or allowing kids to play at braiding manes, etc.

Outsmarting Impatience

Tackling impatience to move forward can be a tough task. For instance, says Goodnight, it’s not uncommon for a child with no experience to want to start jumping right away. This puts instructors in a bind: Say yes, and you put the student at risk—and yourself at risk for a lawsuit. Say no, and the parents may take their child elsewhere.

Lewis battles that by explaining to parents the logical skill progression that her students work through, as well as the safety factors behind the plan. After that, she says, “The parents will usually just sit back and watch it work.”

The strategy has another benefit. “The student figures out early on that what she perceives as fun is more difficult than it looks, and that the ‘fun stuff’ must be earned,” says Lewis. Encourage riders to stick with it by providing short-term goals en route, she suggests. For instance, you might tell an eager rider that she can start small jumps once she can maintain a two-point over four cavaletti.

If you don’t have a skill-based plan already, you can look to two solid sources for guidance: the CHA’s student horsemanship manual (www.cha-ahse.org) and the United States Pony Club horsemanship manuals (www.ponyclub.org).

Bringing Out Their Best

Obviously, there are many important factors to bear in mind when you’re teaching children to ride. But they all boil down to a few simple rules. First, says Lewis, “Treat kids as you would like to be treated. If you are respectful of them, they will be respectful of you and your knowledge as an instructor.” Next, says Whipple, “Motivate them with a positive attitude that builds their confidence as well as their passion.” And finally, says Jahiel, remember that some of tomorrow’s riding instructors are the kids you’re teaching today.

When Parents Interfere

Here are some ideas for gracefully handling the dilemma of an interfering parent:

Talk it out— “We suggest that the instructor have a private conversation with parents,” says the CHA’s Goodnight. “Address this tactfully. Ask them to not interfere, reminding them that they are paying for your professional services, and their input could be a distraction.”

State the rules—“You can address the problem up front with rules about when to drop off and pick up the child,” says Goodnight. “Or you can let parents know that if they’re watching, they must stay in a special area.”

Make an ally—Along with communicating and setting up reasonable rules from the start, you can also cultivate parents into valuable assistants if you make a little extra effort to educate them as you teach their kids, says Wagener. For instance, you can recruit them to help arrange props or set jumps, or use them as runners when you need, say, an extra crop from the tack room. —SDW