Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Kids and Horses: Saving Them From Each Other

Just a tad early to catch Horse Mania
There’s an old saying among horse people that green horses and green riders are a formula for disaster.  There is a great deal of truth to it, which is undoubtedly why those words have been handed down over generations.  It’s also true that kids and horses seem made for each other.  So how does a sane parent of a horsey kid ensure that the relationship will be a safe and fruitful one?

The first consideration must be the age, ability, and training level of the child in question.  Any child under the age of 7 will have a hard time handling any horse alone and unsupervised.  It’s a simple matter of physics.  If the horse’s chest is at the child’s eye level, the child can’t be expected to react to changes in the horse’s demeanor.  He simply won’t see those ears suddenly flick backwards at a threatening sound or the eyes roll in the horse’s head when the Garden Monster silently roars.  I’ve seen small children knocked flying by a horse’s knee when the horse was doing nothing more than stomping at a fly.  To boot, a child too small to reach the horse’s withers will easily be mowed down by the sheer top-heavy nature of a horse’s build when the horse feels the irrepressible urge to see what’s around the next corner. 

This doesn’t mean a 7 (or 8, or 10) year-old shouldn’t have a horse.  It means that a larger, preferably experienced, human should be in the immediate vicinity while the two are bonding over orange soda and mints.  It also means that the horse and child must be reasonably well-matched in temperament.  Many parents opt for ponies because of the obvious size benefit, but small stature does not guarantee a kind heart, so it's still important to have a knowledgeable horseman gauge the match.  And the down side to a pony is that an adult trainer may be too large to hop aboard for a quick reminder when manners begin to fail. 

A word here about matching a child with an HUO (horse of unknown origin), whether it be a rescued animal taken sight-unseen from an online personage or a horse at a dealer's barn that arrived (or so the dealer says) sans paperwork, simply dropped into the barn out of the blue.  Don't do it.  That's the word: "Don't."  Find one that you can research thoroughly, watch being ridden, and let your child handle prior to purchase to make sure the pairing will be fun, not fatal.  

While it’s often the case that a hyper-kinetic or emotionally-damaged horse can be managed nicely by a very laid-back adult, a shy child won’t be able to wrestle Old Fireball to a halt.  He won’t be able to, and probably won’t even want to, enter into the fray.  That's not the fabric of which great horse and rider pairs are made.  Add to the mix that children tend to be a little shrill at times, move quickly and in odd ways (or not at all), and make intriguing decisions like short-cutting under the horse’s belly when a brush is accidentally flung during grooming, and it’s easy to see that there are rules to be made and rigidly observed.

The best horse for a small child is one that has:

  1. Plenty of training
  2. Lots of face time with small children
  3. A calm and quiet attitude
  4. No health issues that a scrambling rider might invoke 
  5. All his faculties (sight, smell, hearing) intact
This last is important.  I have before me a very lovely, very old, arthritic, one-eyed Appaloosa gelding that many of my friends have seen on Facebook in a recent video.  He is as solid as a rock under many circumstances.  He shouldn’t be able to move quickly if he had to.  But sneak up on his blind side and make a sound like a carnivore (which category, apparently, includes most sudden vocalizations), and he’ll whirl around and probably deck you with his head as he tries to aim his remaining eye at the source of the commotion.  He’s also partially deaf, which means not only can he effectively ignore most commands and efforts to retrieve him from the pasture, but that he is quite startled when a soft-spoken human suddenly appears in his limited field of vision.  He wouldn’t purposely hurt a fly, but accidentally he’s a thousand pounds of confused juggernaut who’ll take down even an unprepared adult. 

It is generally assumed that young children and old horses are a good match, which eliminates the “green horse” part of the pairing.  But old horses, like old humans, are sometimes crotchety and single-minded.  So though there is some logic to looking at an older animal for a child, too old can be just as bad as too young.

Children who are difficult to handle simply shouldn’t be given horses.  If you can’t get Willy to stop poking the dog with a stick, you’re probably not going to fare any better when you lay down a set of rules for horse handling.  A horse is a much more dangerous critter than most house pets, so respect is of utmost importance. 

Children should be taught:

  1. not to stand directly in front of or behind the horse
  2. not to poke, throw things at, or otherwise irritate the horse
  3. not to climb under the horse for any reason
  4. to be calm, quiet, and patient with the horse
  5. to take responsibility for their own actions and not blame the horse when things get out of hand.

There is something about children that can bring out the best in horses and vice-versa, which is delightful and almost magical to watch.  If your child has learned the basics of riding and horse-handling at the knee of a decent trainer, and if that trainer agrees that the child is both capable and deserving of a horse of his own, and if a suitable horse can be found, your child—and you—will be in for a life-long experience in the wonder of inter-species bonding and communication.  But children of all ages—including that irascible seventeen-year-old sulking in your kitchen because you refused to let her pierce her navel—count on the adults in their worlds for guidance.  They fight it, but they rely on it.  Make good choices, and be prepared to enforce good rules, and you will open the door for your child on a world that many can only imagine.

1 comment:

Patti said...

Love it.

My nieces (10, 12, and 14) occasionally hang out with us and enjoy being around the horses.

Oddly, I have some horses that are better for grooming and others for riding, and am finding the one with the barn name "Twitchy" is actually the nicest one for the little ones to ride.

Some horses just seem to have a sense about kids that somehow supercedes their usual demeanor.

Thanks for the post.