Monday, January 27th, 2020

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.

Stella’s Legacy

Saying good-bye to a loved one, whether human or furry, is never easy. And with Stella, it was an event I didn’t want to face, but knew it was inevitable, since she was now 28 years old.

The early years

We purchased Stella in November – Thanksgiving weekend to be exact – in 2003. We had just completed the pilot for our therapeutic riding program, and although our young, energetic horses were willing, I knew we needed what I lovingly called a “grandma” horse. Tom started by calling members of the Haflinger Association that we belonged to and stumbled across Stella. He checked her out, said she would be a good fit, and we purchased her.

tyler-scratching-stellas-ears-christmascamp2003She was about three inches shorter than the rest of the herd, and a little more drafty. To be honest, a lot draftier and about 250 pounds overweight. But, she was gentle, accepting of our riders, and eager to please.

A therapeutic horse has a big responsibility. The horse has to be able to accept riders with anxieties, or no balance, or sudden outbursts without reacting. It really goes against what we know about the fight or flight instinct that every horse possesses.

One of Stella’s first riders was a young boy who was terrified of moving on the horse. He would mount up, but his anxiety was so high, that it took almost the whole class to get him to walk two or three steps. Stella stood, and stood, and stood, barely moving her muscles so he wouldn’t panic. And when she did move, it was a small step.

Another rider came for her first “try” at riding and did not want to get on. So we brushed, Samantha demonstrates riding bareback on Stellaand brushed, and then brushed some more. Finally, the very young girl got on and took a stroll around the arena. Decided she liked it and rode for the next six years – strengthening her core, balance, and muscles. This same young girl could not ride a bicycle. After a few years of riding, she not only could ride, but eventually was able to do 25 mile rides to raise money to cure Juvenile Diabetes. Thanks Stella!

My husband swore Stella tiptoed around the arena whenever we had a more fragile child on her back. She was so totally aware of the passengers she was carrying.

The diagnosis

One of the things that I noticed early on with Stella was her lack of energy. Yes, she was calm and easy-going with the riders, but, it seemed that she was run out of energy and drag around the arena before the day’s lessons were completed. I wasn’t sure if it was her weight, diet, or something else. But, she appeared healthy and the vet didn’t seem over concerned.

Quinn uses the surcingle in his riding class.About four years later we lost a young horse and discovered she had Equine Polysaccharide Storage Myopathy (EPSM). We did our due diligence and had our entire herd tested for this disease. Stella came back positive. The horse we lost was 8 years old, Stella was 18! We worked with our vet and put Stella on a diet that would, at best, keep this disease in check.

Within a week Stella’s energy level changed. She did not drag herself around the arena and was eager to trot with the riders who were capable. I was concerned that her new energy level would change the way she handled our therapeutic riders – but it did not. She was definitely a steady-Eddie for our youngest and more fragile riders.

The last few years

I always felt that if a horse reached 25 years, every day after that is a blessing. A few years ago we had a winter of non-stop below zero weather. We do not stall our horses and I was concerned that we would lose Stella in the brutal winter. But her thick golden coat kept her warm enough.

Stella's last lesson.Then, two years ago she started losing weight. Our vet suggested feeding her separately and offer second cutting hay instead of first. She regained her weight and muscle in a very short period of time. Sometimes we think she enjoyed her special treatment. Nickering to us when we came into the barn as if to say, “I’m ready for breakfast, let me in!” We could open the door and she would go to “her” eating stall automatically – no lead line required.

But last fall, probably November, I noticed that although she still enjoyed coming to the arena for lessons, she was not willing to trot her young, light riders. She was definitely slowing down – not dragging – but a little slower than normal.

And so, as we said good-bye this past weekend, we ended the legacy of a horse that captured the heart of every rider she had as well as the parents of those riders. But her spirit will live on forever in our hearts and memories.

Linda Watson-Call is the owner and head riding instructor at Pretty Pony Pastures. Visit the website for details on all the lessons and activities at this facility.

It was a very wonderful and informational week-end.

We were invited to participate in the North American Horse Fest.  I was thrilled that we were asked to come and demonstrate therapeutic riding with one of our horses.

The first decision was – which horse should we take.  Our horses are out in the paddock 24/7 and knowing that who ever I took would be in a stall for almost three days, I had to make the right decision.  Stella could go.  She wouldn’t care about being in a stall, she had been stalled before.  Lu-Rain is a seasoned show horse.  She is not only used to being stalled on occassion, but also has the right attitude about being in public.  Poppie might be able to do it, but we haven’t had her long enough to know how she would react to the crowd.  As we sorted through, we decided that our seasoned show horse, Lu-Rain, would represent both the breed and therapeutic riding the best.

quinn-at-nahf-croppedNext decision – which riders should be selected?  They ALL want to go…but who would best represent our facility?  I sent out an e-mail to the families , asking who would be interested in attending.  Two of the responses came from riders that I know would be right.  Quinn, who just recently turned three, and James, one of my teen riders, who is also deaf.  This was a great combination.





james-in-arena-at-nahf-croppedBoth riders did well.  Both performed at the show exactly like they do in the arena.  And Lu-Rain, who could ask for more?  During the day, she would stand quietly in the stall, but, when children approached, she came up to the grate asking for a pet.

On the last day, one of the presenters asked if she could be used to demonstrate desensitizing.  He made sure that Lu-Rain had been sacked out and was generally a calm horse.  We assured him that she would do fine.  Oh, she did better than fine.  She was completed unphased be anything that he brought out, including a leaf blower!  I should have told him that we use a blow-dryer on our horses if they get too wet!

Here are the links to the condensed video of Lu-Rain and riders.

Quinn riding

James riding

Lu-Rain desensitizing demo

This has certainly been an exciting week! Because they weren’t sure about the frost laws, the builder decided to split the load for the barn materials into two loads. The first part came on Tuesday, the rest on Friday.

moving the barn materialsI am very impressed with how this is done. The truck part gets disengaged from the flat bed and turns into a fork lift. Everything is on skids, so all the driver has to do is remove the pieces from the flatbed and place them in the designated area near the building site.

All I could think about was how much trouble I have when I need to hook up my horse trailer to my truck. Not to mention trying to back it up. Here, the materials are all moved with the driver going backwards much of the time! Great work and great training.

Moving to the spot


Once everything was placed in the proper locations, the wood was covered with black plastic to protect it from the elements.

Everything is set. Now all we have to do is wait from Monday, or Tuesday, or at the very latest, Wednesday when the crew will show up and start building!
If this was exciting, I can’t wait to see what next week brings!

Welcome to Life at Pretty Pony Pastures.  We hope to share with you our work with both the Haflinger breed and our Therapeutic Riding Program.