At 3 years old, Big M has developed a few major infatuations: ballet, princesses and horses. She lives in a tutu as long as we are in the house, asks to watch The Nutcracker at least once every day, and now requests her ballet slippers so she can dance along while verbally narrating the story while she watches. During quiet time most days, she plays with her Fisher-Price Little People Disney Princesses, lining them all up on her windowsill, retelling fairy tales… and, here’s where the horses come in… taking the horse from her Little People Farm out for them to ride. And just as we began taking ballet lessons, I knew it would not be long before Big M wanted to know when she could also learn to ride a horse.
Family of Equestrians
I should start out by clarifying that I did not grow up around or riding horses. I’ve probably only been on a horse 2-3 times in my whole life. My mother- and sister-in-law, however, are both major horse enthusiasts and experienced equestrians. In fact, my sister-in-law, after a decade long career in finance, combined her business savvy with her greatest passion, and now works as the business manager at Well-A-Way Farm. They have been all too eager to fan Big M’s horse fires. Grandma brought her more horses for her princesses, and for Christmas, got her a stable to keep them in!
We had gone to visit Aunt Lisa at the farm once before, when Big M was about 22 months old, and I was extremely pregnant with Lil’ M. Big M was all about going to ‘see the horsies,’ but when we actually arrived, she was terrified to go near them.
Fast forward a year, and after riding ponies at Daddy’s summer picnic and a friend’s birthday party, her fear was conquered, and she began to ask me at least weekly when we could go see Aunt Lisa and her horses again. One of my mommy friends also has a horse-obsessed 3 year old, A, so over their Christmas breaks from preschool, we planned a morning to go visit the farm.
Our Visit to Well-A-Way Farm
As the inexperienced horse mom, I anticipated petting a few horses, feeding them a few carrots, along with a pony ride or two for the girls. The horse savvy Aunt Lisa, however, had lined the girls up with a real trainer, Francoise, and a full, official lesson. Francoise couldn’t have been more fabulous. From the start, she had both girls hanging on her every word. She spent the first 15-20 minutes introducing the girls to their pony, teaching them how to brush him, how to safely approach and walk around him, and how to pick his feet and put on the saddle. She fitted both girls with helmets, and then together, they walked the horse from the stables to the indoor ring.
When we arrived at the ring, Big M was first up in the saddle. While I was ready to hoist her up, Francoise had her climb the block and taught her how to get into the saddle herself. She seemed a little more than nervous at this point, but a big smile from Aunt Lisa set her right at ease, and as soon as they started moving, we couldn’t get her off. Francoise taught her how to tell the pony to stop – “Whoooa!” – and had her hold her arms in different positions to practice balancing in the saddle. She taught her how to assume ‘jumping position’, and finally, took her on a trot, which she thought was great fun and couldn’t stop laughing.
Next, her friend A was up… when she was done, Big M declared it was her turn again, and was sadly disappointed, that our lesson for the day was done! They returned the pony to the stable with Francoise, brushed and cleaned him again, and we bid our farewells.
8 Questions to Ask Before Your Child’s First Riding Lesson
So now that I have a full-fledged little horse lover on my hands, what do I do next? While Aunt Lisa would certainly welcome us every weekend, the 90 minute ride makes that less than feasible. Having never been a regular rider myself, I didn’t even know where to begin or even what questions to ask… so I turned to Grandma and Aunt Lisa for a little guidance. And since I am sure I am not the only inexperienced mother with a child lusting after horses out there, I decided to share their teachings with you.
1. When does it make sense to start lessons?
While Big M and her friend, A, thoroughly enjoyed the lesson they shared, most children are not ready for regular, riding lessons until closer to age 5. For little riders, safety is the single most important factor. To keep them safe, they must have the aptitude to follow instructions. This is a sport that should only be pursued if a child expresses genuine, persistent interest – and should not be forced. If they are scared of the animal, or can’t pay attention – it’s not for them.
2. How do I find a barn appropriate for an early rider?
There are many different kinds of barns/farms with differing missions. Some are high end farms, catering to competitive riders. Others are schooling stables, offering lessons to riders of all ages and ability levels. There are also backyard farms, places where you can go on casual trail rides or have pony rides, as well as stables that are focused solely on boarders, and don’t offer lessons.
An online search will help you find what barns are close to you, and a review of their websites will likely help you filter them into the categories above: high-end/competitive, schooling stables, casual rides, or boarding. Focus on schooling stables, and confirm, again via their website or even online reviews that they are receptive to younger, novice riders. Place calls to the handful you deem appropriate and inquire about: lesson length and time availability, private or group, number of kids per instructor, what equipment will be needed, and cost. Then, schedule a visit.
3. What should I look for when visiting barns?
For most people, a clean stable is very important. No matter how clean it is, there always will be certain smells, but there should not be piles of manure everywhere, and stalls should have clean shavings. Aisles should be swept, and tack rooms (where saddles and equipment are stored) should look neat. Horses should be clean, with clean hay and water buckets in their stalls, and there should be large outdoor areas where they can be turned out.
An indoor arena is a must, and an observation room (preferably heated) where you can watch lessons is really nice. So are bathroom facilities (for me, indoor plumbing is preferable!). A visit to the barn will give you a chance to check out all these facilities. Ask to visit while lessons are being given, and you can get a sense of how the instructor works as well. Talking with the parents of kids who ride at the barn will also give you real insight that goes beyond what you will see in an advertisement or hear from the barn manager or owner. Word of mouth is probably the best recommendation.
4. You both stress safety… what are key signs safety is being prioritized?
Supervision of children around horses is key. An individual lesson should take care of this right off the bat, as the instructor emphasizes basic safety rules and models appropriate techniques for moving around the horse while grooming and tacking up. These rules include no running, sudden movements or loud noises in the barn and staying away from the back end of the horse. All riders should also be wearing helmets, and no one should be riding in sneakers.
5. Which is better to start – group or individual lessons?
Individual lessons would be my choice for beginners, as they need the instructor’s undivided attention. Usually the beginning rider is on a lead line, so the horse is being controlled by the instructor. It is possible to have two or even three beginners in a class, though, if there are individual handlers holding each horse. This is sometimes the case at horse camps. After a few lessons, if the rider is judged capable of controlling the horse, group lessons can be enjoyable (and less expensive). The instructor would make this decision, of course, and how long it will take for that transition to happen depends on how quickly the rider catches on to the riding techniques being taught.
6. What should a child wear to their first lesson?
Most barns have several different sizes of riding helmets which beginners can borrow. The next most important item is foot wear. Horses are heavy, and if a child’s unprotected foot is in the wrong place, serious injury can result. Sneakers do not offer adequate protection, and they are not appropriate for riding either. Footwear should be sturdy shoes with a small heel, to prevent the foot from slipping through the stirrup. Long pants are a must, even in summer. Jeans are fine, but the tighter the fit on the lower leg the less likely to have abrasions from the rider’s calf rubbing against the saddle.
7. What equipment will I need to invest in for my child?
If the child shows interest in doing more than a lesson or two, the helmet would be the first purchase I would recommend. Years ago, only English riders were required to wear helmets, while western riders often did not. Today, all riders require head protection, no matter which style of riding is being pursued. For footwear, most kids would love a pair of cowboy boots (which could be worn independent of horse activities), but if the child shows real interest, a pair of paddock boots would be a good purchase. Third, once the child is “into” riding, the purchase of breeches or jodhpurs with leather leg patches would be a good idea.
There are great online sources (Dover Saddlery and Smart Pak Equine) which offer beginner package deals that include a helmet, boots and often riding gloves as well. When a child continues to ride and outgrows the original equipment, many barns will take it in a trade for another child’s larger used gear.
8. What should I expect to pay for a lesson?
Maintaining barn facilities and caring for multiple horses is an expensive proposition, so the cost of riding lessons is fairly high. When compared to registration for a season of baseball, dance or swimming lessons, parents may experience sticker shock. Expect $50 per lesson to be the norm for an hour of time. This includes tacking up, riding, and untacking, so the actual riding time is only about 30 minutes. Sometimes barns will offer package deals where you pay for 9 lessons and get 10, or you may get a reduced rate if you pay for a number of lessons in advance. Bottom line: horseback riding is an expensive sport, so go in knowing that. It is, however, an activity that can last a lifetime!
Our Local Offerings
Since Big M is only 3, we have a few more years of casual pony rides before we really pursue this… if her interest remains. The good news is there are numerous stables nearby, offering both schooling as well as casual riding options.
Maple View Farm
Built in the 1790’s, Maple View was a working dairy and produce farm, and remains one of the oldest farms in central Orange. The main house was the first house on the Green in Orange and is registered in the National Registry of Homes. Maple View offers pony and carriage rides for birthday parties, holiday events, and on Wednesdays through the summer and fall. Follow them on Facebook for details.
Spring Meadow is a schooling stable, offering year round professional riding instruction on all levels for the show and pleasure rider. They also offer a therapeutic riding lesson program that is modeled after the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA) guidelines for accredited operating centers.
Silver Horseshoe Stable
Silver Horseshoe Stable is a boarding and teaching facility and specializes in all areas of English and Western instruction. The Stable hosts an indoor riding arena and a lighted outdoor arena, as well as easy access to public trails at Eisenhower Park. They also host birthday parties, but space and time is limited.