Our young rider

We are always getting calls about how young will we take children for riding lessons.

Our policy is four years old. And even at four, some children aren’t ready yet.

There are certain developmental traits we look for before putting a youngster on a horse.

First, let’s look at attention span.

Child development experts say that on average a four or five year old can stay focused for two to five times their age. So, one four year old may have an attention span of eight minutes and another can stay focused for 20 minutes. That’s quite a difference and if the average lesson is 30 minutes long at this age, we would want them to focus on rider for at least 15 minutes.

Even though we change the activity every five to ten minutes from weaving cones to going over poles to making circles or tossing bean bags, the child is still sitting on a horse. Even a 30 minute lesson can feel like forever if the child loses interest.

In addition to focus, we look at stamina, gross and fine motor skills, and the ability to follow directions.

Horseback riding means being able to sit balanced in the saddle for an extended period of time. Riders who lean forward, backwards, or to one side aren’t balanced. This takes a toll on their muscles to sit up and not lean. They usually tire quickly and then, horseback riding is no longer fun.

Now, I will admit that horseback riding will strengthen those core muscles and this is the basis of therapeutic riding for many, but, if strengthening core muscles is not the goal, then we want the rider to be able to sit comfortably without leaning or holding onto the saddle.

The rider must also be able to hold the reins during the ride. Dropping, letting go, or the worse, throwing the reins indicate a lack of control, poor fine motor skills, and/or a lack of focus.

Finally, the rider needs to be able to follow directions. A rider who is in a “no” or defiant stage will not benefit from or learn to ride a horse.

Children in a farm environment often start riding as soon as they can sit on a horse – right around two or three years old. But, they are not getting regular lessons. They pop on for a few minutes, get led around, and then go back to playing their typical kid games. My own grandson started riding at three. But we never kept him on a horse longer than 15 minutes.

When you sign up for lessons, unless the instructor is a friend who can fit you and your child in at odd times, the facility will have strict times set up. Many do offer 30 minute lessons for the younger child, but most have one hour lessons and have the minimum age of six or seven.

So, how old should a child be to start horseback riding lessons? Four or five years old if they have the interest and the criteria mentioned above. Otherwise, it’s best to save your money, let them ride a pony at the carnival, and wait until they are a little older.

Pretty Pony Pastures is an inclusive horseback riding facility located in Davisburg, MI. Visit the website for details on all the lessons and activities. Their recently published book, Fifty Blades of Hay, which highlights how horses help riders, is available in paperback or on Kindle on Amazon.