If you’re a kid who gets to ride, consider yourself lucky. You experience the joy of caring for a horse and riding, all while being physically active, and you reap benefits that’ll help form who you are and set your path toward a successful adulthood, both inside and outside the arena.
[READ: Why Kids Should Ride Horses]
I raised my son, BJ, in the horse industry, and I’ve coached numerous youth riders to reach their goals and see them succeed as amateur and open competitors. Here are seven insights all youth riders should consider to get the most out of the experience.
Find a Barn That Fits
Youth riders tend to stick together, and trainers who work with kids have a special skillset. Find a barn that’s fun and where you fit in. That means your goals align with the trainer’s expectations, your barn friends share interests, and you can help each other along with your horses. Then when you travel to shows and events together, it’s almost like having your own team. You can cheer for each other, lend hands to help when necessary, and build each other back up after tough times with your horses (or at home).
Seize Learning Opportunities
There are so many educational outlets to improve your horsemanship. Capitalize on every single one of them. From clinics, DVDs, and lessons to watching other horses warm up and compete, open eyes can take in a lot of information.
[READ: Maximize Horse Riding Lessons]
So many kids—the ones without horses—spend all their time inside. Their only connection with other people comes via Internet connectivity, whether it be on games or social media. I can’t discount the importance of keeping up with technology; it’s important in today’s world. But your barn activities open doors for you to build lifelong friendships, as well as encourage an active, healthy lifestyle.
Get Off the Phone
This is my ongoing gripe with riders of all kinds, but especially youth riders. You’re attached to your phones, because it’s part of your DNA. Mobile communication has been part of your entire life. But can you put down the phone for an hour so you can focus on your horse? Yes. Can you leave it in the tack room when you head to the warm-up pen at the show? Indeed. (And you won’t run into another rider when you’re filming a Snapchat video horseback.) You’ll be a better horseman for it, too. If you’re not worried about what’s going on with Facebook or getting a text message, you can fully focus on your horse. It’s just one hour; disconnect from your phone, and see the benefits.
Learn About Life
Horse-show kids tend to grow up faster because they have a higher level of responsibility than most other kids their age. You’re responsible for a living, breathing, 1,200-pound animal. When I had youth riders, they bathed, groomed, and tacked their own horses. If they lived close enough to my place, they came over the day before a show to prepare horses. It taught them that they had a job to do. If they chose not to do it, then they couldn’t show.
As a horse kid, you also learn that you can’t take your horses (or friends, family, or classmates) for granted. You have to care for your partner. This teaches empathy and gives a sense of duty to do your part.
Perhaps most importantly, you learn that if you don’t do the work, you don’t reap the rewards.
Set High Standards
Expect a lot from yourself. Challenge yourself to always do your best. Don’t accept less than your own best effort. Your horse will rise to the occasion if you’ve put in the work. This also entails setting goals for yourself. Work with your trainer to set benchmarks for the short term (how many times you ride each week) and the more distant future (qualifying for a world show).
As you work to achieve your goals, be a good sport. Congratulate your barn friends when they reach a goal. Cheer for your competitors when they have a great maneuver in a pattern. They’ll do the same for you.
[READ: Goal Setting Tips for Riders]
Success Can Happen to You
It doesn’t matter where you come from. It’s how hard you work. I had nothing when I started as a trainer, but I worked hard, and horses have done very well for me. I made my son practically beg me to show horses before I let him compete. And then I put him on a horse that made him work for everything he got. He put in the time, and he was rewarded with becoming a better horseman. Hard work earns the rewards every time.
Bob Avila, Temecula, California, is an AQHA world champion, three-time NRCHA Snaffle Bit Futurity winner, NRHA Futurity champ, and two-time World’s Greatest Horseman. He's been named the AQHA Professional Horseman of the Year. Learn more at bobavila.net.