So Many Ways to Play

There are two primary riding styles. English originated in antiquity and came to America with the earliest colonists. Western is rooted in the ways of the Spanish vaqueros (“cowboys”) who worked the vast cattle ranches of the early American West. Each style has its own unique attractions and gear.


For children?especially younger ones–the most popular English-riding activity is probably jumping, either informally or in competition. Older children also can become drawn to the challenges of equitation (proper riding form) and dressage (classical horsemanship in the execution of geometric patterns).

Needs for an English rider include:

  • Saddle. English saddles vary according to the sport they’re used for, but they all lack the prominent horn found on the front of a Western saddle, and are less bulky. Jumping saddles have forward-reaching flaps that accommodate the leg position of a jumper rider. Safety stirrups (designed to release the foot easily in the event of a fall) are ideal for children. A variety of pads are available to cushion the saddle on the horse’s back.
  • Bridle. English bridles are typically fitted with snaffle bits (a jointed mouthpiece with a ring at each end) or, for more control, a bit designed to provide leverage on the bars of a horse’s mouth (some examples are the kimberwicke and the pelham).
  • Helmet. This must be properly fitted to your child’s head and meet current safety standards.
  • Apparel. For footwear, riding shoes, riding sneakers, or boots with a heel are appropriate. (Ordinary sneakers, loafers, or hiking boots are not, as they can allow a foot to hang up in a stirrup.) Ankle-high jodhpur boots pair well with jodhpur pants, riding tights or jeans; older children may prefer traditional, knee-high English boots with breeches or riding tights. Garters (straps just below the knee) may be paired with jodhpur pants to help keep them in place. Riding gloves ensure a better grip on the reins and help protect young hands from chafing and the elements.

If your child jumps, especially cross country, you may also consider her wearing a safety vest, which helps to protect the chest, abdomen, and back in the event of a fall.

You can buy tack and apparel at tack shops or through catalog companies. Cost varies widely, depending on quality, style, and materials used (natural fabrics and leather will cost more than synthetics and rubber). Used tack and apparel (available in some stores, at tack swaps, and through e-Bay and other online sources) is often a smart choice for everything other than helmets, which should be purchased new to assure their condition.


Youngsters who ride Western can perform ranch chores, ride down the trail, or compete in a variety of events, many of which (such as cutting, reining, and roping) are based on the workaday needs of a cattle rancher. The prominent horn of a Western saddle, in fact, originated as a place for a cowboy to anchor his line after roping a steer.

Western gear and apparel includes the following items:

  • Saddle. Like English models, Western saddles vary widely in price depending on type, quality, and materials used. Prices can climb steeply for show saddles, depending on such amenities as custom tooling of leather and inlaid silver.?Breakaway stirrups are now available for Western saddles?? and are worth considering for safety’s sake. Western saddles are typically used with one or more saddle blankets or pads; an endless variety are available.
  • Bridle. Western bridles may be fitted with snaffle bits, but more often sport curb bits that use leverage to exert pressure on the bars of the mouth. Western horses may also be ridden in a bitless bridle, known as a hackamore.
  • Headgear. Not all Western-riding youngsters today wear a safety helmet, preferring instead a traditional cowboy hat. Helmets are highly recommended, however, and are now available in styles more appropriate for Western riders.
  • Apparel. Cowboy boots are the Western footwear of choice (rounded-toe styles now outsell “pointy” varieties). Blue jeans are standard, sometimes covered by leather chaps. Riding gloves, as for English-riding youngsters, are often added to provide grip, comfort, and protection. As with English tack and apparel, you can buy Western equipment and clothing at saddle shops or through catalog companies, and used items (other than helmets) in some stores, at tack swaps, and through e-Bay and other online sources.

You Don’t Have To Own

Whether your child fancies English or Western riding, she’s likely to start pestering you, sooner than later, for a horse or pony of her own. Should you take the plunge? Unless you or someone in your family is already horse-savvy, most experts would say no–emphatically.

“Owning a horse is a responsibility that a child needs to work up to gradually, and a privilege to be earned,” says Jessica Jahiel, PhD, author of The Parent’s Guide To Horseback Riding and moderator of a popular online advice service (

Instead, here are some alternatives that can serve as stepping stones to eventual horse ownership:

Warm-ups. For the youngest children (too young even for lessons), there are a variety of ways to accommodate or encourage a love of horses including:

  • Horse books. Both fiction and non-fiction are a terrific way to entertain and educate a young horse fancier (and improve her reading aptitude, as a bonus). Choose both simple texts that she can read with your help, and more advanced books you can read aloud to her. (Try and for endless suggestions.)
  • Magazines. Introduce your child to age-appropriate publications, such as Blaze magazine ( Parents and older children may also be interested in regular equestrian publications (find a variety at
  • Videos. The list of horsey films now available to own is a long one (again, and are great resources). Or, see what’s available at your local video rental store.
  • Toys. Model horses are a time-honored approach, and many youngsters who later go on to the real thing continue to enjoy their toy horses for years. These days toy equines come with a full range of accoutrements?tack, grooming equipment, stables, even hauling rigs?to make play more realistic and entertaining. There’s even a model horse convention?Breyerfest–held each year at the end of July in Lexington’s Kentucky Horse Park (
  • Clubs. Many youth groups?including 4-H, Pony Club, and some breeds’ youth branches?don’t require horse ownership in order to participate. They offer many non-riding educational opportunities and just-for-fun activities for the youngest enthusiasts. (See the listing of associations at the end of this chapter.)

Lessons?the right start. At about 7 (the age will vary), a child will have the muscle strength, balance, attention span, and ability to follow directions needed to make group riding lessons safe and productive. Lessons with a good instructor are the ideal way to begin your child’s riding career for several reasons. They’re less expensive than any other option; they provide flexibility in terms of scheduling; and they enable your child to discover how committed she is to horses as she develops her skills.

Moreover, lessons get you plugged into a network of knowledgeable equestrians who can guide you if you do later decide to buy a horse or pony.

Lessons vary in cost, but expect to pay about $20 to $45 for a 45- to 60-minute group lesson, once or (ideally) twice a week. Private lessons run about $40 to $55 for the same length of session.

Sharing a horse. If your child is eager to develop a relationship with one horse, consider sharing or leasing. Ask around to see if there’s another parent who’d welcome help in riding and caring for the horse his or her child owns. Such arrangements can be informal (your child rides in return for friendship and help with barn chores) or contractual. In the latter case, a “part-lease”–in which you pay a set portion of a horse’s monthly board, shoeing, and routine veterinary expenses in return for a set number of days’ riding privileges?works well.

Leasing a horse. A full lease will provide your child with most of the benefits of horse ownership without the initial expense of buying. You’ll be responsible for the cost of the horse’s entire care and boarding, and sometimes an additional fee in the case of highly desirable animals. Leasing is an excellent way to fully test the waters?financially and in terms of time and commitment?before you buy. For best success, make sure all terms of the lease (responsibilities, privileges) are worked out carefully in advance.

Clubs?Multiplying The Fun

Your child can find other horse-loving youngsters and a wealth of information and resources by joining a horse-oriented club or association.

“The variety of organizations catering to the interests and educational needs of children is incredible,” notes Cindy Schonholtz, executive director of the American Youth Horse Council ( “Benefits range from the educational to the just-for-fun, with and without contact with live horses.”

Some groups to consider:

Local riding clubs. Many areas of the country have grass-roots organizations of like-minded equestrians. Some emphasize trail riding and family activities; others focus on shows, playdays, and gymkhanas; some do a little of both. Check your feed store or tack shop for local horse publications (usually free) that’ll give you an idea of the groups in your area.

4-H. More children are involved with horses through 4-H than through any other youth group, and the numbers are rising. As of 2003, there were 311,000 youngsters participating in 4-H horse and pony programs nationwide. This venerable group, which draws its name from an emphasis on “head, heart, hands, health,” has been encouraging youngsters “to make the best better” since the early 1900s.

4-H accommodates a variety of English and Western styles of riding. In a 4-H horse program, your child will learn the basics of horse husbandry and horsemanship, moving up levels by passing written tests and demonstrating riding and horsekeeping skills. She’ll also learn about safety, team participation, and leadership. (Contact information for 4-H and other clubs is listed at the end of this chapter.)

Pony Club. No organization offers a more rigorous horsemanship program than the United States Pony Clubs, with 640 local clubs and 12,000 members nationwide. Pony Club emphasizes traditional English styles of riding, including eventing and dressage, as well as such activities as mounted games. Pony Clubbers (who ride horses as well as ponies, by the way) advance through rating levels by passing written and mounted tests.

Serious Pony Clubbers often go on to high-profile equestrian careers; more than 30 former members have represented the U.S. on Olympic equestrian teams. Pony Club also stresses citizenship and character development. As a Pony Club member, your child will learn about volunteering and “giving back” as well as horsemanship.

Breeds’ youth groups. Most of the major breed organizations (such as those promoting Appaloosas, Arabians, Morgans, Paints, and Quarter Horses) offer youth programs for their younger members.

The largest of these is the American Quarter Horse Youth Association, with more than 30,000 members worldwide. In addition to age- and experience-appropriate showing opportunities (including an annual Youth World Show), AQHYA offers its members:

  • Learning tools. The much-anticipated Junior Master Horseman program, now available though AQHYA’s parent organization (the American Quarter Horse Association), makes learning about horses engaging for groups and individuals. Also available through AQHA is the For Love of the Horse Gift Pack, containing information on horse shows, horse racing, and the American Quarter Horse. The pack includes one free riding lesson with a member of AQHA’s Professional Horsemen.
  • Contests. Categories include photography and art for annual competitions, as well as talent-show, speech, stall-decorating, and horse judging each year at the Youth World Show.
  • Scholarships. The AQHA Foundation awards more than $400,000 in scholarships each year, based on academic merit, equine involvement, and financial need. Resources. Also available to AQHYA members and their parents (and to the public at large) is AQHA’s, a highly useful online source for finding industry experts (trainers, riding instructors, breeders) and equine information of all types.

For details on the youth programs of other breeds, check on the relevant Web sites; contact information is listed below.

Master Plan for Fun

Looking for a great way for children to learn all about horses? Check out the Junior Master Horseman Program from the American Quarter Horse Association in concert with the American Youth Horse Council.

JMH is a multi-level, experience-based curriculum that uses vibrant characters to lead youngsters through lessons about their favorite animal. Modeled after the highly successful Junior Master Gardener program, JMH offers lessons that can be completed as part of a group (a classroom, 4-H or FFA club, or set of friends) or by one child working on her own.

Through the program, youngsters learn about horses and their care through interactive lessons in a full-color book and on the Web site. After every chapter, kids can go online to test their knowledge and, when appropriate, receive a certificate to move up to the next level.

“It provides ‘instant gratification,’ which kids appreciate,” says Christy Bramwell, AQHA senior manager of youth activities and JMH project coordinator.

Youngsters needn’t have a horse to participate in JMH, and the curriculum isn’t breed-specific.

For details and to register free online, go to

(For more information, go to

Helpful Contacts:

National 4-H Council

NOTE: 4-H is a grassroots organization. Contact your local club through your county extension agent; look in the government listing section of the white pages of your phone book, under the name of your county.

United States Pony Clubs, Inc.

United States Equestrian Federation, Inc.


American Miniature Horse Association, Inc.

American Miniature Horse Youth Association

American Shetland Pony Club/American Miniature Horse Registry

ASPC/AMHR Youth Program

American Morgan Horse Association, Inc.

American Morgan Horse Association Youth

American Paint Horse Association

American Junior Paint Horse Association;

American Quarter Horse Association

American Quarter Horse Youth Association;

Appaloosa Horse Club, Inc.

Appaloosa Youth Association

Arabian Horse Association

Arabian Horse Youth Association

Pinto Horse Association of America, Inc.

PtHA Youth Organization

Pony of the Americas Club, Inc.

Indianapolis, IN 46203-5990

Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ and Exhibitors’ Association

TWHBEA Youth Programs

Welsh Pony and Cob Society of America, Inc.

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