It must be daunting for parents when their children have “riding a horse” on their wish list. Especially for families with little experience with horses, it is a step which they must either research carefully or regrettably ignore.
Having taught horsemanship for more than 30 years, including giving numerous riding-instructor clinics, I will share some of my experience concerning the choice of a riding instructor or horse establishment that offers lessons, camps and short sessions.
Safety is the most important issue when doing anything with horses. They usually are wonderful and loving creatures, but equines can be big, weighing more than 1,000 pounds.
Because they are a creature of flight, they can react to things we might find inconsequential. A well-trained and schooled horse has had years of good education prior to being suitable for beginning riders. In riding school,s such a horse is considered “stabilized” or “bombproof.”
Certification for instructors
Unlike Europe, where many countries have specific qualifications and criteria that riding schools and instructors must meet, the United States, in general, has no required licenses or standards for instruction. An exception is the state of Maryland, where instructors must be licensed and pay fees in order to teach riding.
On the bright side, the certification of riding instructors in our country is gaining momentum, with many riding schools, camps and instructors seeking professional status.
Among the first to set standards among summer camps, as well as college equine programs, is CHA (Certified Horsemanship Association at http://www.cha-ahse.org.). ARIA (American Riding Instructors Association at http://www.riding-instructor.com) is a rigorous program for those in many specialized equine fields, including dressage, jumping, eventing, mounted patrol, recreational riding, driving, endurance, reining and stable management, to list a few. They have test sites throughout the United States.
The USEventing Association and the United States Dressage Federation have certification programs for advanced level instructors in those disciplines.
It is true that there are top instructors who many not be certified but have on their resume years of experience training good horses, competing at high levels and a track-record of being excellent instructors with above-average safety records. Being a good rider, however, does not necessarily guarantee one is a good teacher.
Riding horses includes more than just learning how to sit on a horse. Good horsemanship and understanding the horse – its habits, needs, physical ability and care – are essential. Watch any small children in their early encounters with horses, and one learns that they love grooming, making friends and feeding this majestic animal. Learning how animals think and how to communicate with them confidently and effectively is a key to success.
Horse camps, private stables
For beginners, especially children, there are many summer camps with horse programs throughout the country. Again, some are more reputable than others. Look for a camp with a longtime horse program and certified instructors that is accredited by the American Camping Association or Western Association of Independent Camps. Locally, Wolf Mountain Conference Center and Snow Mountain Camp have had horses as an integral part of their programs. Both have incorporated CHA standards.
Private stables also provide some great opportunities from exposure to horses to advanced instruction. Rock-n-Horse Ranch in Grass Valley offers year-round, one- and two-day camps, special summer sessions, birthday parties with horses and special instruction in driving and trail riding safety.
Their junior driving students were major participants in the Nevada County Fair Horseshow last June, using Rock-n-Horse’s stock and horse-drawn vehicles. Safety is a No. 1 issue for them, as both Randall Gross and Trish Browne Gross are emergency medical technicians and firefighters and are certified for large animal rescue, in addition to having years of experience with horses.
A highly reputable facility that caters to different levels of experience, including top show riders, is the Foxfield School of Riding in Westlake Village in Southern California. A few of my Nevada County students attended their summer program and loved every minute of it.
In addition, The Ojai Valley School, where I taught from 1976 to 1986, offers an intense riding program in addition to academics, including one for show riders. Our Nevada County 4-H Horse Project program also offers much to members, emphasizing safety and good horse care.
The horse and its gear
Good horses, not necessarily fancy, but horses with good dispositions, in good health, serviceably sound and well cared for are what you want. They should be at least 5 years old and trained well enough to follow basic riding aids. Most important with beginners is that horses accept the role of being master teachers themselves – forgiving rider mistakes, not being sour or badly behaved. Horses should stand still when mounted and dismounted. Often, older, experienced horses are the best.
Saddles, pads and bridles should fit both the horse and the rider in size and design and be well maintained and clean. Cinches, girths, chin straps and reins are of particular importance and must be in safe condition.
Where to ride
Riding areas may be trails but are more often riding arenas. The footing should be maintained and watered for dust control during the summer. Usually riding arenas will have a safe perimeter fence, and gates should be closed during riding activities.
Riders must be required to wear suitable boots so that feet do not get hung up in stirrups in case of a fall. A horse accidentally stepping on a tennis-shoe-clad foot can cut right through it. Equestrian helmets are highly recommended and are required by most riding schools. Proper clothes make the experience much more enjoyable. There is a reason why cowboys wear what do and why English riders wear traditional attire.
Group classes should include no more than six riders with one instructor, with beginner riders being either in smaller groups or with more supervisors. As an instructor, one does not have six individuals to teach and supervise, but rather 12 when you include the horses!
You should expect to be asked to sign a hold-harmless waiver from the facility providing the lessons and should, as well, sign a medical treatment release in case the rider, if a minor, needs medical care in your absence. Be sure to alert instructors if a rider has allergies, such as to bees, or other medical, physical or mental conditions that might need to be addressed.
Learning about horses
Last, but not least, there should be a body of knowledge for all levels of riding that students will be expected to learn. Lesson plans help teachers create a well-organized instructional period with safety, fun, and information effectively presented. CHA has excellent illustrated manuals available. The U.S. Pony Club manuals provide a thorough reference for horsemanship and riding.
Whether the rider’s goals are recreational or to strive for serious competition, fun, safety and high standards of care and conduct are important. Being with horses is a wonderful opportunity to foster skills in communication, learn confidence, participate in an active sport to better physical condition and balance, enjoy the out-of-doors, learn responsibility, better sportsmanship and care for something other than oneself. Find a way to open this door for your eager would-be rider and you’ll encourage their passion with horses.
How to contact:
Wolf Mountain Conference Center (530) 273-8709
Snow Mountain Camp LLC (530) 265-4439
Rock-N-Horse Ranch (530) 272-3289
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