Kids and Trail Riding

When is a child ready to hit the trail? Follow these tips to maximize a young rider's safety and enjoyment.
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I'm an experienced trail rider; but I learned how to ride as an adult. I have a 10-year-old daughter, and we just bought her first horse. She wants to go trail riding. Although she's comfortable in the arena, I'm scared at the thought of her out on the trail - even if I go along. Could you give me some tips on how to get her safely started in trail riding so I can relax?

Credit: Heidi Melocco The right safety gear is critical for riders under 18 years old. Invest in an ASTM-approved, SEI-certified riding helmet.

Credit: Heidi Melocco The right safety gear is critical for riders under 18 years old. Invest in an ASTM-approved, SEI-certified riding helmet.

Peggy Johnson
Salt Lake City, Utah

It's great that your 10-year-old daughter wants to get involved in trail riding, although I'm sure it can be worrisome for a concerned mother. Also, you're smart to realize that you might not be your daughter's best teacher. Here are some get-started tips to help keep her safe on the trail - and you from becoming unduly worried. (For more information on being a horse parent, pick up The Parent's Guide to Horseback Riding, by Jessica Jahiel, PhD; www.jessicajahiel.com.)

At Home

  • Invest in safety gear. The right safety gear is critical for riders under 18 years old. Besides the basics - riding pants, boots, and long-sleeved shirt - get your daughter an ASTM-approved, SEI-certified riding helmet. Make sure she wears it when riding and while working around her horse on the ground. Also invest in gloves, reflective materials, and a cell phone/cell-phone holder.
  • Invest in trail tack. Make sure your daughter rides in tack made for trail riding, rather than other equine disciplines. Note that trail-specific saddles tend to be lighter weight than all-purpose Western saddles, which will help your daughter wrangle the saddle on her own. This, in turn, will help her build confidence in her self-sufficiency. Make sure her tack fits, with the help of her trainer/instructor. (See below.)
  • Find a trainer/instructor. Now it's time to find a certified trainer/instructor in your area. He or she should evaluate your daughter's horsemanship skills, as well as her horse's training, to see what needs to be done before the duo is ready to hit the trail. If you were successful with a trainer/instructor in your own riding, start with him or her, and go from there.
  • Discuss instruction plans. Make sure the instructor plans to teach your daughter to handle her horse on the ground and under saddle in a round pen/arena. Make sure the basics will be covered, including lateral flexion, vertical flexion, sidepassing, and the basic gaits. Your daughter should learn how to desensitize her horse to negative stimuli (anything that spooks or upsets him) and sensitize him to positive stimuli (such as verbal, leg, and rein cues, and shifting body weight).
  • Focus on spook control. Your daughter needs to learn ahead of time how to handle a spook on the trail. The self-confidence she gains as she hones her horsemanship skills will help; her horse will sense her confidence and learn to trust her. Also consider spook-control clinics offered at local horse expos.
  • Back off. This may be difficult, but once you've put your daughter in an instructor's hands, step back. Watch the lessons if you can, but avoid micromanaging them. Save all questions for the end the session, and respect the instructor's point of view.

On the Trail
Here are some tips to consider, once your daughter believes she's ready to hit the trail.

  • Make sure she's ready. Every person is an individual; 10 years old may seem too young to start into trail riding for some horse folks, but not to others. Play it by ear, and see how your daughter progresses. Ask her instructor for guidance.
  • Make sure you're comfortable. When your daughter's instructor is confident your daughter is ready for her first trail ride, make sure you're comfortable with the decision. If you're not, have an honest discussion with her instructor. He or she should be glad to go over your concerns.
  • Use the buddy system. Your daughter's instructor should go along on the first two or three trail rides. You should go along, too, if you wish. Then, make sure she always rides with others. It's never safe to trail ride alone.
  • Keep groups small. That said, ask your daughter to ride only in small groups of six riders or less, unless you or another adult is supervising (such as during organized trail rides); large groups bunched together can create a wreck. Ask each rider to give the others enough space, so if one horse spooks, his rider has enough room to recover without jeopardizing the safety of the others.
  • Find out where she's going. When your daughter goes on an unsupervised trail ride with others, find out where they're going and when they plan to be back. Make sure she has a cell phone with charged batteries.

Trainer/clinician J.F. Sheppard specializes in responsible training for trail horses, and safe horsemanship for trail riders. He's certified under top Paint Horse trainer William T. Lawrence. In his 50s and afflicted with osteoarthritis, he continues to actively ride and train. The southern Oregon resident can be reached at flyingeagle@ccountry.com. 

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