by Laura Crum
So today I have a question for everyone who has ever taught a kid to ride. I haven’t done a lot of this. I’ve given the occasional lesson to the occasional child, and I’ve certainly supervised many beginners on horseback, but I have never been in charge of a kid’s steady progress from being a beginner through intermediate to advanced. Until my son came along.
The way I have taught my son to ride is based on the way I’ve taught him in general. I am a homeschooling mom and I am using the path called “unschooling”. At this point I can hear the collective gasp. Perhaps many of you are now feeling that I’m part of the evil empire. I have slowly become aware that many folks consider someone like me to be at best misguided, and at worst positively diabolical. Let me point out that I feel the same way about those who deliver their innocent children into the jaws of the public school system and abandon them there. But perhaps a horse blog is not the place to discuss this subject.
The fact is that “unschooling,” or learner led learning, has worked very well for me, both when teaching my kid to ride and teaching him to read (he is a voracious reader reading well above his grade level, in case you were wondering). With the riding, this has amounted to (mainly) giving him a completely reliable horse and providing him with lots of opportunities to ride. I let him decide what he wants to do on any given day. If he’s struggling with something, or I see the horse needs a correction to stop him from developing a bad habit, I’ll intervene and give my kid some advice and direction. At times I have had to ride the horse and “straighten him out” (this is very rare). Certainly I intervene if I see something developing that isn’t safe (though Henry is such a good horse this really hasn’t come up). But mostly my son just rides his horse and enjoys it. We trail ride, we gather cattle and drive cattle, we ride in the arena at the walk, trot and lope. We have fun.
This way of learning to ride is quite different from the formal lessons I was given as a child. I well recall a succession of demanding riding instructors who frequently insisted I do things that I felt were over my head and ride horses I was afraid of. I remember how scared I was, often to the point of tears. I think if I had not been so passionate about horses and riding, those formal lessons would have put me off the whole business for good.
My son has never been passionate about horses the way I was/am. Horses are a part of his life and he really enjoys them, but it has never been lost on me that if he were hurt or badly scared or seriously over-pressured, he probably would not want to ride again. So far, I have been able to prevent this from happening. Largely by giving him such a reliable horse to ride and being present and carefully observing every single moment he is on his horse. And letting him decide what he feels up to doing. The net result is many, many happy shared times on horseback. So far, so good.
My little boy has spent his whole life on/with horses. From six months to five years he rode in front of me on my horse, from five to seven he rode his pony, Toby—first on the leadline, then independently. From seven until now (he just turned eleven) he has ridden his steady, reliable Henry—on the trail, on the beach, on gathers…etc. Despite the lack of formal lessons and the fact that my son is a gentle, sensitive kid, inclined to be too passive rather than too aggressive on a horse, my boy has developed a good seat and can make his lazy horse mind him. He is a pretty strong, confident rider at this point. And therein lies the problem.
Lately we have had some fresh cattle at the arena where we ride. These are cattle that need to be trained to run down the arena and go through the chutes—before they can be roped. And this job has fallen to my son, who vastly enjoys it.
Henry, who used to be a rope horse, knows exactly how to run down the arena after a steer. My son is an effective enough rider that he can ask the horse to drive and the horse will obey him. The net result is that my kid, for the first time in his life, is blasting down the arena in a hand gallop, rather than a long trot or a lope.
No, Henry is not running away, he isn’t even going full speed. But its still pretty fast. And no, my son is not really completely in control; he just isn’t used to going that fast. I trust Henry not to buck or bolt or do something stupid, and these things are not happening. Henry chases the steer down and pulls up at the end of the arena, just like he’s supposed to. Both horse and boy are enjoying themselves. But I am a little bit freaked out.
What if, my mind keeps shrieking. What if Henry stumbles or even falls, what if my son just loses his balance, what if he comes off? Going that fast the odds are he could get hurt. The last time one of our friends came off in that same arena in the middle of a roping run he broke six ribs.
Part of me says my son is ready to do this. Part of me trusts his judgment and thinks that if he feels threatened by the speed/lack of control, he’ll pull the horse up. Part of me knows he has a very good seat and won’t come off easily. But part of me knows what he doesn’t know—how unpredictable the whole business is—and realizes he can’t really make accurate judgments with his degree of experience. Sure, he thinks he’s doing great, but he doesn’t realize the potential downside and might not protect himself enough. The biggest part of me just wants to prevent him from getting hurt—or even, God forbid, killed. Yes he wears a helmet, no that won’t prevent you from getting killed. The last kid I knew of who was killed on a horse was wearing a helmet. She broke her neck.
OK, maybe I’m paranoid. Kids my son’s age are jumping cross country courses and making actual team roping runs—for real. This is a lot tougher stuff than just running a steer down the freshly groomed arena at a hand gallop. Maybe I’m just way overprotective. I’m not sure.
So far I haven’t said anything, other than reminding my kid to shorten his reins before he kicks Henry up to the gallop after a steer, and telling him to be sure to stop the horse if he feels out of control. I applaud what a good job he’s doing with a big smile on my face. I try not to dampen his joy with my worry. And I am proud of him. He’s doing great, learning new skills, and he feels confident. He’s getting a lot of well-deserved praise from the ropers, which is good for him. But the thought of my little boy getting badly hurt because I allowed/encouraged this activity really bothers me. I’m pretty darn sure I wouldn’t think it was worth it. So am I making a good choice here?
Today I’d like to ask what others think. Have you taught a kid to ride and seen the young child progress to doing pretty dangerous stuff? Where do you draw the line? What is appropriate? I’m sure the parameters are going to be a bit different depending on the individual child, but how do you as parents/instructors decide what is a reasonable risk and what isn’t? Clearly if I wanted to avoid all risk I wouldn’t put my kid on a horse—horseback riding is a notoriously dangerous sport. But then, if I wanted to avoid all risk we wouldn’t drive our car anywhere either. And then, of course, we’d die of some odd, unpredictable disease. I get it that risk is part of life. But there are some risks that I think are just dumb—such as putting a young kid on a green horse, or anything less than a truly reliable, solid-minded babysitter. I would not choose to take that risk. But there are still these gray areas—like galloping Henry down the arena after a fresh steer. Where do I draw the line between acceptable risk versus unacceptable risk? What guidelines do I use? I’m not sure I know.