by Judy Van Put
There’s something special about a horse. One of the largest and most powerful of our domestic animals, a horse can bring a smile to the face of even a tiny tot. Known for their great strength, beauty, grace, stamina and spirit, these magnificent creatures can cause your pulse to quicken as they gallop wild and free, yet can melt your heart with their gentleness. You can look into the eyes of a horse and feel a deep bond. Some are able to experience this connection and develop a love for horses at a very young age – which is fortunate, as horses can provide a lifelong source of joy.
There’s also something magical about horses and children. As we enter the time of year where we spend more time outdoors, getting your child involved with horses is definitely something to consider. For those with land for pasture and a barn nearby, owning a horse is ideal. For others, a local riding facility might better fit the bill. In addition, there are 4-H clubs and other programs offered by your local Cooperative Extension agency as well as summer horse camps.
My own experience came early (my parents said my first word was “horsie”). They realized that my love of horses was strong; fortunately there was a 4-H horse club forming in our town that I was able to join at age 9, and I learned as much as possible about caring for a horse. By the time I was a teenager, my dad promised me a horse if I was prepared for all the work and responsibilities that were involved.
4-H was a great outlet and provided my first real hands-on experiences with horses. I was able to borrow a mount for trail rides and learned enough in those early years to reassure my parents that I would be able to carry out the many necessary duties pertaining to horse ownership. We found a tiny old dairy stable and pasture up the hill behind our house, and I was able to rent it for a very reasonable amount from the owners which I paid each month. With some minor renovations, we were able to retrofit the barn to accommodate a horse.
The “deal” I had with my dad was that he would buy the horse and help out with the big things whenever I needed his help, such as fencing, barn repair and keeping the water source running fresh, but the rest was up to me – rising early each morning before school to feed and groom and clean the stable, then repeat the chores each night.
Working daily with the horse was important in establishing a bond, in addition to learning how to ride. Some days we just “hacked” on trails; other days involved more focused riding in the show ring at the fairgrounds nearby. Sometimes another friend with a horse would show up and we would play games and practice working in the ring as often as there was good weather, preparing for the county fair and 4-H show. The next summer when I was old enough to have a job, I was able to secure a position at a small horse farm, cleaning stalls and feeding/grooming/turning out Standardbred horses that were retired or recovering from the track. It provided a great sense of independence and accomplishment. I would saddle up and arrive in plenty of time to start work at 9 a.m., turning my horse out with the others until the end of the day and our ride home. It provided me with the ability to pay the rent for the little stable and pasture, as well as some spending money on the side.
In addition, and probably the most important consideration in my parents’ decision to provide me with a horse, it kept me from the peer pressures that young teens are faced with. I never needed a reason or an excuse not to get involved with drinking, smoking or any of the other negative things the kids my age were getting into – I didn’t have the time, as I had a horse, and with it, a lot of responsibilities. It was also considered “cool” when I would saddle up and ride to school and watch the football games and track meets from the back of my horse!
When should children be introduced to horses? There is really no “right” age, but definitely as early as you are comfortable and able. Just months after my first grandbaby was born, whenever our son and daughter-in-law would come home to visit, they would bring her into the barn to see the horse. Morgan seemed to sense a tiny being in her midst and was gentle with her. We always made sure there was a horse in the barn or paddock whenever we hosted family picnics and visits, as the children were always drawn to them.
There are many reasons for having your children get involved with horses. Studies have shown that the lessons children learn from riding and spending time around horses stay with them into adulthood. Early on, children learn the responsibility that is gained from caring for an animal –the horse is dependent on you for food, water, hay, turnout and exercise. There are barn chores that instill a good work ethic, along with the daily rituals of feeding, grooming, tacking and cleaning up – hard work doing something they learn to love. Financially, having a horse is a big responsibility, and children will learn how to save their money for things they’d like. Many stables and horse farms will instruct kids who board or ride at their facilities on how to feed, water and clean stalls, and this can become a way to make extra money. Hand-in-hand with earning money and saving up for special things like a new blanket, bridle or saddle comes the desire to care for those precious things that can turn a careless child into a caring child.
In this era when parents are concerned about the amount of time their children spend indoors with devices such as cell phones, tablets and social media, having a horse to care for can relieve those pressures and fears. Horse time is outdoor time – spending time riding will keep your children physically active. A horse can be a friend for those who are lonely or shy and can also help your children make friends. Barn friends are long-lasting, with many shared experiences to enjoy that can instill confidence. The memories they will gain from riding will never be forgotten. Riding builds character – overcoming the ups and downs of working with a living creature and their own physical limitations while learning how to ride. If your child decides to get involved with showing, earning a ribbon will teach them the rewards of their hard work. Lastly, caring for a horse will instill a sense of empathy and compassion that will last a lifetime. As the weather warms and your thoughts turn to what your child will be doing this summer, consider the magic of horses.