It can seem the unlikeliest of pairings: a small 80-pound child and 1,200 pounds of equine mass. With proper guidance, horses can cultivate responsibility, build confidence and introduce children to a healthy activity that can last for years. Teach children to put safety first: theirs, and then the horses'. While they may be eager to giddy up and go, the value of a horse-child partnership lies in horsemanship -- learning everything from a horse's health requirements, to cleaning the saddle and bridle.
Don't underestimate the value of a professional trainer or experienced horse person for guidance. Paying for sound advice now can save you money and possible injury down the road.
Understanding the Horse's Nature
While some horses seem to have puppy-dog personalities, it's dangerous to assume that they are similar to their canine counterparts. A distinct difference is their place in the ecosystem: Dogs are predatory animals while horses are prey. This matters because the horse's instinct is to avoid being eaten at all costs, so a quick movement out of the corner of his eye could send him into a gallop until he considers he's a safe distance away. This is known as the "flight or fight" response.
While all horses are hard-wired for this response, an experienced one with proper training is typically less sensitive to sudden movements and has learned to trust his human handlers. A child's first horse should have a calm temperament with a lot of miles on him. However, children should learn never to take a calm-natured horse for granted, and learn how to properly approach and handle a horse.
Line of Vision
Horses have one eye on each side of their heads. This allows them to see approaching predators in an almost complete circle. However, it also gives them two blind spots: one directly in front of their noses, and the other directly behind their hind ends. Children must never approach a horse straight on or straight behind. They should approach a horse at the shoulder, speaking in a calm voice, with the halter organized in their hands, ready to put on.
Horse whiskers help them avoid undesirable objects on the ground since they can't see directly in front of their noses.
In addition to learning how to halter a horse, children need to learn how to groom a horse before and after each ride. Grooming entails brushing and cleaning hooves before and after each ride, and bathing the horse after a more intense ride or when necessary. Later they will learn how to care for manes, tails and any clipping that is appropriate for a specific discipline or season.
Taller children should keep one hand on the horse at all times while grooming; this may be difficult for small children, so teach them to speak continuously in low, calm voices so the horse knows where they are at all times. This is particularly important if the child steps away from a tied horse, and returns a few minutes later when the horse is relaxed. Suddenly touching the horse could trigger that flight-or-fight instinct, startling the horse and unintentionally injuring the child.
Children should wear safety helmets working around horses, not just when riding, to prevent head injuries from flying hooves.
Leading the Horse
The horse's instinct and line of sight requires that he be led from the side -- children should never let horses follow behind them. If the horse tries to get away from a dog running underfoot, he can jump forward and onto the child.
The lead rope should be held within the child's hand, not wrapped around it in a loop. A horse trying to run away can cause the loop to tighten, severely injuring hands and fingers.
Basic Horse Care
In addition to grooming and cleaning feet, children should understand simple basics of what horses eat and how to care for them, with more detailed information coming in small doses as they get older -- or as they ask. For example, some horses get grain while others only need high quality pasture grass or hay to maintain a healthy weight. Just as important, there are foods that horses should not eat, either because it's poisonous, or they have certain health conditions. A child should never feed a horse a treat or pull grass or forage from outside the horse's existing pasture area to feed to a horse without permission from the horse's owner or trainer.
A Healthy Habitat
Horses need clean living environments, whether they live in pastures 24 hours a day or spend part of each day in stalls. Stalls dirtied with manure and urine can adversely affect a horse's respiratory system, feet and expose him to harmful parasites. Manure should be removed from pastures periodically, depending on the size of the pasture and number of horses in it. They should have clean feed dishes and water buckets, with access to clean water at all times.
Teach children that stall cleaning can help them keep an eye on their horse's health. For example, a child can learn the difference between a healthy pile of horse feces, and one that can indicate an illness or other health problem.
Bones and Muscles
Equine anatomy can be overwhelming, but there are basic bones and muscles that children can learn as they work around horses. They have to hold the cannon bones in their hands as they clean the horses' feet, for example. When learning to tack a horse, they should understand how saddle placement can inhibit a horse's shoulder from moving properly, or how an ill-fitting saddle can pinch his withers or back. Identifying body parts is important so children can communicate to others when a horse is injured or ill.
Making fun quizzes helps children learn equine anatomy and other horse care elements. These are excellent activities during inclement weather that prevents riding.
Types of Riding
The goal for most children who love horses is to ride. Both Western and English disciplines offer several options, from barrel racing to jumping. The basics for both disciplines are the same; a child learning in a Western saddle can later switch to an English discipline. Professional riding instructors or children's horse clubs are excellent ways to learn basic riding skills.
A Western saddle offers greater rider security, but an English saddle helps the rider feel the horse's movement more easily. It's typically easier for an English rider to change to Western than vice versa.
Caring for Tack
Cleaning tack -- bridles, saddles and any other pieces a particular horse needs -- is part of good horsemanship. Tack is expensive, so teach children how proper maintenance can extend the life of a tack and save money that can be used to attend horse shows, for example. Proper tack care is also a safety issue: It keeps the leather healthy so it won't break, and also causes children to inspect the tack closely for missing buckles, weak spots or worn areas that can irritate the horse.