When family and friends come to ride | TheUnion.com

When family and friends come to ride

We live in the country and have horses. It’s the perfect place to come visit, enjoy good company, food, and go riding.

The past days have given me renewed insight into the dilemmas faced as visitors came to see us, but really hoped to ride the horses. It happens all the time to horse owners, who by simply having a horse or two, are asked by neighbors, friends, and relatives, “Oh, please may we go for a ride?”

I’ve been teaching horsemanship since 1975, first within a school curriculum where I was a faculty member in the athletics department and later through my own business.

Lesson plans, safety, training horses so they are suitable for beginning riders, facilities, and tack are just a part of it. Certification for instructors, as well as experience, is important. Participation in the seminars and accreditation by the American Riding Instructors Association and the Certified Horsemanship Association open one’s eyes wide to the risks involved and insurance costs, unintentional abuse to horses, and the beginning riders’ lack of knowledge.

When teaching horsemanship, an instructor is responsible for formally controlling the direction of the lessons. Consideration is given as to which horse to ride; what saddle and bridle will fit both the horse and the rider; whether the riders’ boots, pants, and helmets are well fitted; where they will ride; what will they learn; and who do they ride with.

Somehow, when your friends and grandchildren are involved, the logistics change, and it is no longer a “school.” For the kids, it is a great occasion to ride at “Grammy’s ranch” and go over this or that hill on the horse they think is the prettiest, with little if any thought about suitability, fitting tack or helmets or their riding skills.

I wonder how many well-meaning relatives, neighbors and friends get themselves into that situation and then need to “lay down the law,” attempting to keep the situation safe and under control.

Horse owners love to share their passion. They have huge investments in their horses, equipment, facilities, maintenance, insurance policies and (especially) time.

It is special to encourage would-be enthusiasts to the world of horses and riding and feel the excitement, joy, and love of a horse shine on their faces.

But it also can be devastating to have an accident of any kind. One does not want loved ones to be hurt, scared, or to have a bad time. Serious injury should be avoided at all costs, nor does one want to be sued for negligence. The horses need to be considered, too – not overridden, confused or irritated.

Having one guest rider at a time can work out well. The horse owner can assist step by step with preparation, mounting and leading the horse for a new rider. But even this can be risky if your horse is not accustomed to strangers, especially small children.

Some years ago, friends who were excellent riders were treating youngsters to a lead-line ride, but their show horse was not accustomed to a little “fly” in the saddle, resulting in the horse spooking, then the child falling and getting a concussion.

Horses must be conditioned to an unskilled rider’s feet and legs poking them in the ribs, dragging across their rump, occasional inappropriate screams of delight or fear, unbalanced weight on their backs, and misuse and jerking of the reins hurting their mouths. Many of the “best trained” horses will be intolerant of such treatment.

Riders mounting an unfamiliar horse are seldom aware of all the horse’s personality traits and fears. Most horses, when taken on a trail ride, will get into high gear coming home, even at the walk.

Some, sensing that their rider lacks experience, will take full advantage of this and really speed up. As much information as possible should be shared before riding a strange horse. It is like leaving your home and pets with a new housesitter!

This past weekend, I found myself with no less than nine visiting relatives wanting to ride together. The logistics, even for a riding instructor, became complex as I assigned horses and saddles.

Thankfully, four of the parents were experienced riders and helped the children, all under 10 years of age. My daughter was keen on leading a little cousin from the horse she was riding, and it occurred to me that I had never “ponied” off her mount. But a few careful rounds in the arena indicated all would be well.

Once mounted, we discussed safety issues, courtesy while riding, and differences in horses. After spending time in the arena, a trail ride was planned, and I determined to leave the three youngest children home – two because of lack of experience, the other because I knew his horse might get too strong coming back home.

I do not allow people to ride double. Our son-in-law was elected to be the trail boss. A grandson on a fast-moving little horse got to go up with his uncle so that his horse would not get upset because he was being asked to walk slower than his natural pace.

My daughter, with the most experience, rode in the middle of the group, while another knowledgeable adult was the “drag” rider. It worked out well, and everyone had a great time. Upon returning even the children cared for their horses – sponging them off and putting their tack away neatly.

Procedures included a safety check of all equipment before anyone mounted. Then, a second check to make sure that the girth or cinch was sufficiently tightened to keep the saddle from slipping and that the stirrup length was comfortable and correct for each rider.

Reminders included holding the reins correctly and understanding what natural aids to use to ask the horse to go, turn, or stop. The biggest problem was traffic control, even in the ring, as young riders do a limited job of steering. Unlike bumper cars, crowded horses can bite or kick.

They also follow the leader, so that if someone decides to trot or canter ahead, the second horse is likely to do the same. No problem if you expect it or have ridden that fast, but a cause for excitement when riders have only gone at the walk and suddenly find themselves traveling at unexpected speeds.

Being firm about delegating specific horses to riders is important, too. While in the arena, our 10-year-old granddaughter, being thoughtful, wanted to dismount and let her 7-year-old cousin (who had hardly ridden at all) ride her horse.

I probably shocked her with a resounding “No!” but explained that more than one person had “bit the dust” because they were unaware of how sensitive her horse is, and when kicked in the side, she does what she’s asked and speeds up.

It wasn’t three minutes later when I heard “I can’t stop” and saw her cantering the length of the ring. Fortunately, she listened to instructions and stopped, but not without a little scare.

I did not need to bring up the subject again! And even better, at the end of the ride, she patted the old mare and told her how wonderful she was and that it was her fault by kicking too hard that she cantered!

So please, don’t assume all is well when loaning or borrowing a horse. Take special precautions to make riding horses a safe activity and realize the added responsibility and complexity of larger numbers. Take your time, be careful, and have fun. It’s not at all like a riding lesson.


Felicia Schaps Tracy is the owner of Emigrant Springs Horsemanship, co-founding instructor of Northern Mines Pony Club, member and Certified Horsemanship Association and the American Riding Instructors Association. Write her in care of The Union, 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley 95945.

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