A good ride starts with good, safe gear and tack. When it comes to kids, safe gear helps prevent accidents, which keeps them hooked on riding. It also builds good habits for when they become more seasoned horsemen. Here, I’ll cover the basics that you should consider—and teach your child to look for—every time they ride.
It’s tempting to put your child in an adult saddle for a quick ride. However, that’s not setting them up for success due to the big seat, long fenders, and large stirrups. Additionally, the seat is probably so wide, the child’s hips are too far apart, causing discomfort. A kids’ saddle is always the best option for a young rider.
The main thing we’re looking for when a child is in the saddle comes down to balance. Can the child sit in a balanced fashion, with their legs under them? The biggest concern here is the fender length and stirrup size. You should be able to shorten the fenders to fit the rider’s legs, and the stirrups should be at least ½ inch larger on each side of the child’s boot.
Check the saddle’s latigo for excessive wear and all buckles for burs that can develop with use. The saddle should fit the horse, too, because a comfortable horse is a happy horse.
Bonus Hint: Breakaway stirrups can be a good addition for a child rider. If a child is in a situation where they might get hung up, the stirrup “breaks” to free the rider’s foot.
First of all, never leave a rider without a way to control the horse. Even if someone is leading the horse, provide the child with a way to control the horse if something goes wrong in the form of reins.
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I prefer to outfit youth riders with closed-loop reins. They don’t fall to the ground if dropped, they’re easy to manage, and many have grips or stops for the rider to hold onto. The key is the reins need to be a size that the rider can easily handle—not too wide. You can knot split reins, but be sure they’re not too wide for small hands.
Bonus Hint: I like to use what I call “rainbow reins” with kids. I can easily tell them to move their hands to a different color to lengthen and shorten the reins as needed.
It can be tempting to let the children have a quick ride in sneakers or something other than heeled boots. Children should always ride in boots with a smooth sole and a 1-inch heel. I also recommend boots with a leather or durable vamp in case a horse steps on their foot.
Bonus Hint: Be sure the boots fit properly so they can slide off if a foot gets caught in a stirrup. Speaking of “slide,” don’t let young riders in the saddle in exercise tights or slick gym pants.
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First of all, bike helmets aren’t approved for riding. Second, a child should be outfitted in a child’s helmet—not an adult’s helmet, certified for equestrian use.
A helmet must fit snugly enough that if you rock it back and forth, the child’s eyebrows move. The sliding piece that makes the V in the strap on each side should be just below the earlobe, not down by the chin. Anytime a helmet hits the ground—whether from a fall from a horse or the child dropping it on a hard floor—it should be replaced to ensure the rider’s safety.
Bonus Hint: In very small children, the head often weighs more than the body, which inherently puts them out of balance. Adding a helmet to that weight further decreases balance, especially if it’s ill-fitting. Be very careful with toddlers on horseback for this reason.
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