The first rides kids or beginners make can shape their love of (or disdain for) horses for the rest of their lives. To set my students up for future success I like to focus on safety, balance, hand placement, and demeanor in their first lessons.
To keep my students safe, especially the little kids, I like to start them out on a safe lesson horse in a round pen. The smaller the environment, the better for the beginner to remain in control.
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I like to give kids space to find their balance in the round pen, just at a walk. For kids, sitting on a horse is unlike anything they’ve ever done, so allowing time to just feel the movement of the horse—without barking out a lot of commands—is key to helping them find balance. I just try to encourage them to not put all their weight in the stirrups, instead using their feet like shock absorbers and allowing their knees to keep contact with the saddle, I let them feel it out themselves in
At this point, I’ll allow them to hold the horn for comfort and safety. Holding the horn also helps with their posture, because when they’re off balance in the saddle, they might slouch or throw their right arm up in the air to try to regain control. But if they’re holding the horn, their posture will improve, and they’ll be more centered on the horse’s back, improving their balance without them having to hang on for dear life.
I like to instruct kids to keep their rein hand saddle-horn height, directly in front of the horn. I encourage them to be slow and steady with their hands, rather than making any fast, jerking movements. They’ll be more comfortable if they can master that, because they won’t be scared by horses reacting to jerking hands.
I want kids to know right away that they’ve got to stay calm while horseback, because the horse will react to the rider’s stress. While I don’t like to pick at every little thing kids do in the saddle, I make sure to direct them not to squeeze with their feet or panic with their hands. The more kids overreact, the more horses will overreact.