angle-left Kids and Horses: Make a Rewarding Experience

Kids and Horses: Make a Rewarding Experience

11 tips to help ensure your kids’ horse-showing experience is a positive one.

text size

Once a kid is involved in a horse project, there are a few things that will help ensure that blue ribbons aren’t the project’s only benefit. Utilizing horses for youth as a developmental tool is far from an exact science. 

1. Be aware of the development stage of youth.

Beginners should develop basic riding skills, learn to ride safely, gain confidence and like horses. Intermediate youth start developing basic training skills, and as their competitive nature surfaces, they will listen to details and practice longer because they want to improve.

Advanced youth have developed into functionally correct horsemen and can incorporate more advanced training skills into their riding sessions. Some become extremely competitive and compete a lot throughout their high school years. 

2. Purchase horses to fit developmental stages of youth.

Beginner horses should be gentle, functional and safe. Often called “packers,” beginner horses should walk, trot and lope on the correct lead. They should be easy to saddle, bridle, clip and load. Hunter or timed-event horses should be solid and dependable in their event.

Intermediate horses should have the same characteristics as the beginner horse, but should perform at a higher level. Advanced horses are often older, well-trained and therefore low maintenance, to allow time to work on other activities and projects. 

3. Commit yourself to your child’s project.

Without a parent’s help, it can be tough for a kid to get involved. Just as kids are encouraged to set goals for their horse project, it’s also important for adults to decide how involved they want to be.

Parents in the low-commitment category spend little time supporting the youth’s horse interest. Their child is generally involved in recreational-type riding with little emphasis on education and skills development.

Intermediate involvement from parents usually means the child participates in competitive events, but parents may be frustrated due to their partially organized program and subsequent level of achievements.

Highly committed parents provide support for planning, studying, practicing and competing throughout the time the youth ride their horses. Committed parents usually help build and strengthen groups where their kids and other kids ride and compete.

4. Encourage youth to join horse organizations.

AQHYA provides worldwide opportunities for youth 18 and under, including leadership seminars, horse bowl, speech contests, judging, showing and many leadership roles. Breed organizations like the American Quarter Horse Youth Association typically operate on a national or state level and provide opportunities to learn and compete.

4-H is organized on local or county levels and provides educational opportunities in a group setting. 4-H programs typically offer horsemanship practices and clinics, plus recreational riding opportunities like trail rides or parades. 

5. Help kids design a guiding road map.

Parents should explore educational and competitive opportunities by talking to county extension agents, 4-H leaders and other parents, plus performance and breed association representatives. Check out a list of AQHYA advisers by state to find out how to get involved with your local AQHYA group. 

When creating a plan:

  • Don’t be afraid to take risks. Kids need controlled risk to provide adventure. Risk develops courage, confidence, trust, faith and ability to handle fear and growth.

  • School and other activities usually demand more time as kids get older. School activities are extremely important, because of peer pressure from classmates, with whom kids spend a high percentage of their time.

  • One-hundred percent horse activity, with no other interests, is probably not good. 

  • Be sure that their horse remains an asset and never becomes a liability, with young people’s busy schedules and time pressures.

6. Track your family’s progress.

As your youth set goals, it's helpful to have a method of tracking their progress toward those goals. 

7. Help kids set goals.

Goal-setting is a specific life skill and is critical in developing a youth’s road map. Goals should verbalize what the youth wants to accomplish and when he wants to accomplish it. 

Goals should be: 

  • Smart.

  • Specific.

  • Measurable.

  • Agreed upon by the family.

  • Realistic. 

  • Goals should have daily, short-term or long-term target dates.

8. Help kids become problem solvers.

Problems are a part of life and not all are necessarily bad. Teaching kids how to solve problems takes time. It’s much easier for moms and dads to skip the process, solve the problem and never consult their child, however, this robs the kids the lessons they will learn in the process.

The steps in problem solving are:

  • Acknowledge there is a problem.

  • Define it.

  • Think about the possible causes of the problem.

  • Identify the possible solutions.

  • Choose the best solution(s).

  • Try the solution(s).

9. Teach kids to handle competition.

Programs like 4-H and AQHYA embrace the philosophy that professionally conducted, educationally sound, objectively evaluated competitions are beneficial to kids.

Competition allows a child to know where his performance ranks in comparison with his peers and the ideal standard. Knowing where they are, youth are challenged to improve their performance, set appropriate goals, practice and then retest.

Unfortunately, competition is the downfall of many families. Frustration, anger and poor attitudes - often on the part of moms and dads - make competition a negative rather than a positive experience. Competition should be an asset, so families should approach it with the correct philosophy. 

10. Be positive.

Research has shown that eight positive comments are required to erase a negative one. Negative attitudes and subsequent messages can devastate a child. Therefore, moms and dads need to be as positive as possible at all times.

In the zeal for a child to demonstrate a high level of performance, parents often lose their patience. Everyone should positively encourage kids, even if they had a less than desirable performance. Find something good to say to kids, even those you don’t know.

11. Have Fun.

Don’t let over-structure, over-organization or over-anything destroy your kid’s fun. The classic, “Are we having fun yet?” was no doubt first said by a youth with an over-anxious parent.

What can be done to make horses fun? Be light and creative. 

  • At the barn, put up cartoons or quotes from respected people. 

  • In the arena, set a pair of post-hole diggers with a hat on it and a sign that says judge. 

  • At practice, ride blindfolded, play music, stop and play football, eat homemade ice cream. 

  • At shows, add an egg-and-spoon race or a costume class. 

  • On trips, stop for a picnic, keep a journal of the places visited, people met and things learned.

Get more ideas for fun horseback games.

The bottom line is: Love and attitude should never be conditionally tied to a certain level of performance.