One of the most frequent goals I hear from the parents who sign up their child for horseback riding lessons is “I’d like her to get some confidence.” Typically the child is five or six and excited to be with horses, but neither the parent nor the child know what is involved.
For me, it is so fulfilling to watch a child blossom from unsure of what to do with the horse to having complete control, or as complete control as possible, of a thousand pound animal who doesn’t have to listen if she chooses not to.
It starts with grooming. Some horses are wall huggers, so the child learns early on that she has to make the horse move away from the wall or that side will not get groomed. It may take a few weeks of learning how to talk “like you mean it” with the horse, but it happens. The rider soon learns the difference between firm, questioning, and mean tones.
The rider learns how to lead the horse around the arena. This is not taking a puppy for a walk. The horse may decide to stop. The child needs to learn the difference between stopping because the horse does not want to walk and stopping because it’s potty time. This involves learning how to read the horse. Great skill not only with horses but with people as well.
Once on the horse’s back, the real challenge is presented. Make the horse walk, stop, turn, zig zag through a maze of ground poles, and other actions that teach riding skills and increase the rider’s confidence in their ability to control the horse. The rider learns that the horse mirrors her feelings and energy. If you feel tired, the horse drags and doesn’t want to cooperate. Feel energetic and the horse is ready to do anything you ask. Lose focus and the horse goes in the other direction.
In most cases, because of the rider’s age, ability, and size, the parent assists with the grooming, saddling, and leading of the horse. We encourage the parent to gradually step back as the child’s skills increase. One rider in particular was young and very small for her age. I could tell that her mother enjoyed interacting with the horse as much as her daughter did. It only took about six months when the rider looked at her mother and said, “I can do this by myself.” She did ask for help saddling the horse, but otherwise, she displayed the confidence that her mom was wanting her to gain – both in the barn and in school.
Horses – building confidence in young children that can be transferred to other areas of their life.