If there’s one combination I am absolutely sure works, it’s kids and horses.
I remember being a young child and wanting to learn all I could about horses, but there was no one to teach me. Then my parents hired some teenaged sisters to babysit who had horses, and by the time I was ten or twelve I was visiting their ranch and learning all I could wish to know about those fantastic creatures. These were the Taylor sisters, and by the time I was old enough to get my first horse, they were busy raising beautiful Arabian horses at their GaFla Arabians horse ranch. I determined that when I was older, I would teach any child who wanted to learn as much about horses as I knew, and through the years, that knowledge grew.
Kids—girls especially—love horses.
A beautiful horse, his mane tossing in the wind, is the stuff of dreams. They imagine themselves riding bareback across an open field, the connection with the horse nothing short of miraculous. Of course, the reality is a lot different.
I once had the privilege of helping to design a program for youth at risk using horses as the vehicle to help them. We picked the kids up from school and brought them to the ranch where we began to teach them about horses. None of them were at all familiar with horses—without exception— and all were a bit intimidated by the horses’ size. As well they might be, since the horses outweighed the kids by more that twelve to one!
These kids were on the brink of becoming part of the juvenile system, and this program was their last chance. They were referred by the juvenile justice division of the local courts, and many of them came with hard exteriors but terribly wounded interiors. No one believed in them. Everyone expected them to fail, so fail they did. We determined that this program would be one where they succeeded.
The very first thing we taught them to do, after how to properly approach a horse, was to clean their back feet. It was the most intimidating task, because the kids had to trust the horse to patiently lift his feet and not kick while the child was underneath those powerful legs. Some kids took a lot of coaxing at first, but every single one managed to clean the hooves on the very first day. There was a lot of excitement when they realized that they had control over something in their lives, and something so big and powerful. This was the first time in some of those kids’ lives that they actually felt in control.
We went on from there to teach them how to groom and handle the horses, and eventually how to ride them. The funny thing was, many of the kids enjoyed grooming the horses even more than riding. There is something soothing about brushing a horse’s coat and combing out the mane and tail. And these kids really needed the break from their internal chaos!
When my middle daughter was about nine, we bought her a Western Pleasure show horse, which she rode and showed for several years. Eventually, though, she outgrew the horse’s abilities and needed a new horse. Because the mare was aged, we didn’t want to sell her to just anybody, so for several months, she stood in our pasture. Finally, our daughter told us she wanted to donate her to a riding for the handicapped group near us. That turned out to be the best possible match for the horse. She was treated gently and carefully and was able to help people who were challenged physically, mentally, emotionally, and developmentally. In fact, two autistic teenaged boys who had never spoken began talking first to the horse. We were so glad we made the decision to donate her!
As my children grew up, we involved them in 4H and United States Pony Club events, showing and competing in fun and rewarding times. I was a leader in both groups, so I stayed very engaged. They learned so much, not just about horses, but about sportsmanship, working as a team, and competing with oneself to improve personal bests. They formed lasting relationships, some of which they are still involved with today, many years later.
Owning a horse is a great deal of responsibility as well as fun.
Horses have to be fed and cared for every day, not just when it’s sunny and warm. Feeding happens in the rain and in the cold, too. Shoeing is necessary, grooming, and veterinary care, and it is best to have the child assist in those activities as much as he is capable of. The most rewarding part of horse ownership is not necessarily riding the horse.
As my children gained skills, they were able to help me out in my riding business. We had nine horses and about thirty students, some of them handicapped. Walking alongside a handicapped rider was so rewarding when a child locked in an unresponsive body smiled. They also became so proficient that soon they were teaching their own students and training their own horses.
We never had problems with our kids getting involved with drugs, alcohol, or breaking the law. They were polite, responsible, and able to communicate appropriately with any age person. This, I believe, while not entirely because of horses, was aided by their involvement with them.
We gave up a lot to have our kids involved. There was no leaving town for the weekend or sleeping in on weekends. We didn’t have some of the things that other families did, because horses are expensive and take a lot of time. But if I had it all to do over again, I’d do it the same way.