It seems that youngsters in general have always had an affinity for horses — from the tiniest tots to impressionable teenagers. For some, the interest is passing, especially when there is no outlet or avenue for introduction to horses; for others, there is a connection that is long-lasting, one that surpasses any obstacle that might thwart a less enthusiastic fan, and may last over an entire lifetime.
Articles have appeared in various publications about how promoting an interest in horses is beneficial to youngsters, as well as adults. In addition to the emotional attraction to a beautiful and athletic animal such as a horse, one of the most important lessons to be learned by caring for a horse properly is the responsibility that goes along with the job. Not only is the animal dependent on you for his care and welfare; you also need to learn how to designate time responsibly to ensure that chores are done in a timely manner, and all the other daily duties, such as schoolwork, helping around the house, being on time for appointments, etc. are all being taken care of.
In addition, involvement with a horse will help keep youngsters focused — and away from the troubles and temptations many teenagers are faced with. It takes a lot of time, patience and money to care for a horse — chores always come before leisure — but the amount of fun to be had far outweighs the hard work and sacrifices that have to be made.
There are a number of different paths that lead to getting started with horses. For children who are lucky enough to be born into a family that already has a horse, whether on a farm or in the backyard, the transition is easy. For those that come from non-farm families, the local 4-H clubs and Cooperative Extension offices provide a great introduction through hands-on experiences similar to those learned on the farm. In addition, riding lessons and summer horse camps are becoming a popular choice. Often these experiences pave the way for youngsters to build on their new-found interest, and in some instances, result in ownership of their own horse. And how fortunate is the child that is able to own her own horse!
Many years ago, I had been given that wonderful opportunity. I was a horse-crazy youngster born to parents who had moved from New York City to the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York. Neither Mom nor Dad had any farm experience and, as we lived in town, opportunities to spend any time around horses were pretty limited to an occasional horse show or fair at the local fairgrounds. They could see my interest, and encouraged me, at about the age of nine, to join the local 4-H horse club that was starting up in our area. Our 4-H leaders were generous in ‘sharing’ their horses with those of us who had none to work with. We learned how to care for a horse — from grooming to feeding, health care and riding. There were clinics with local veterinarians, trail rides, preparing for shows and even a bit of training. The support and education we were given was priceless — and I believe that most in our little group are still today involved with horses to some extent as adults and parents with children of our own.
Not all schools or communities are fortunate to have their own 4-H horse clubs or FFA chapters as ours did; however today many children are given the opportunity to attend summer camp — and there are a growing number of “horse camps” that specialize in teaching youngsters not only how to ride horseback, but also how to care for a horse. There is a great emphasis on the hands-on experience — from how to properly clean and muck out the stalls; to grooming, brushing and picking out the horse’s feet; getting the horse tacked up and ready to ride; cooling the horse down after a ride, and feeding and watering. There is a wide spectrum of opportunities that abound in the various camps; in addition to basic equitation and trail riding, there may be drill teams, rodeo events, dressage, jumping — all based on the child’s age and level of skill.
Our neighbors’ children, who live near our horses’ summer pasture, have grown up seeing our horses pretty regularly, occasionally giving them apples and carrots, and as tiny youngsters, have enjoyed an occasional leadline horseback ‘ride’ on summer evenings. This seemed to provide an interest that has grown, as this past summer, the now-6-year-old Cassie has attended her very first three-day ‘horse camp’ — and she and 8-year-old sister Hayley have entered the LeadLine class in their very first horse show at the Sullivan County Fair in Grahamsville, NY.
Many of the facilities that offer summer horse camps will also provide private or group riding lessons. And as we head into September and a favorite time of year for autumn trail riding, weekend lessons are another option for youngsters to work in around their school schedule. Other offerings include boarding, clinics and shows as well as therapeutic riding.
These programs are dedicated to providing the opportunity for developing equestrians to become more confident in their abilities and comfortable with other riders as they learn the fundamentals of riding and horse care. An added bonus is the confidence, independence, responsibility and leadership skills that are learned. When choosing options for your youngsters that will provide a healthy outlet and alternative to the troubles and temptations they may be facing, consider getting them started with horses!