10 Things Horses Teach Children
1. Learn Responsibility – Horses will help teach your children responsibility very quickly. To learn this, your child should do majority of the work involved in caring for the horse. From feeding, cleaning stalls, grooming, saddling and riding. Once they know that the horse depends on them and that in order to ride they have to take good care of the horses, they will learn to be more responsible in other aspects of their life.
Horses can help develop a sense of responsibility in children through sharing tasks such as feeding, cleaning stalls, grooming, saddling and riding etc. A child learns through observation, hands on experience and problem solving and it is important they are only given a level of responsibility within their capability, taking into account the horse’s size and temperament, the surroundings and the child’s age, their proven skill level, physical strength and emotional maturity. In most situations, an experienced adult or older child should be present to supervise and assist if required. Small steps first help support the next step of learning. Risk management for both the child and horse should never be discounted. Learning responsibility may also be improved by the child being asked to put themselves in the horse’s situation so they develop the ability to see from different perspectives other than their own as a human.
A simple example may be to have a child hold the bridle or bit in their hand while another person pulls on the rein. Feeling the experience of the pull in their hand, harder and softer, helps a child imagine or relate to how that might feel in their mouth. Would it hurt? Would they feel ok with it or how might they react to it? Or how it might feel for cold water to be put directly on their body, rather than first their feet and slowly brought up their leg. Such examples help the child to reflect and consider taking responsibility for their actions and the outcomes for their horse, themselves and others near by.
2. Learn Trust – Horses must be able to trust their handlers. One of the first things that your child can learn is to be trustworthy and dependable. If the horse doesn’t trust its handler it may not obey him/her or may be confused or too frightened to learn well. Trust can be a very valuable lifelong lesson for your child. Just as it is for humans, trust is a basic physical and emotional need for horses as they may see humans as predators. It is vital children learn about boundaries, theirs and their horses. That means not rushing into the horse’s space, asking rather than demanding of the horse. The horse also needs to be trained to respect the handler’s personal space.
Children can also learn to trust themselves to think about what is happening and what they are going to do before they go ahead and do it. Children can be asked to watch for signs the horse is comfortable and at ease indicating a level of trust between the horse and the handler. Or is the horse unsettled, distracted, agitated or in some other way, not comfortable. As children learn about the body language of the horse, the position of ears, eyes, the movement of the horses feet, their tail etc, they can learn if the horse is trusting them each time they approach or handle the horse. Or alternatively, the signs they may need to work on building trust. Because every day is different and many things change, it is important they learn to check out this trust each time they are with a horse.
Then handling or training has a good chance of being safe and productive or they can check with an adult if they don’t feel that trust in themselves that things are ok. Horses like to depend on their owners being kind and consistent and then they are more likely to respond as trained to do so. However, every day is different.
3. Open Minded – Every horse is different and may even have to be handled differently on different days. A good horseperson never stops learning, even experts and trainers will admit to this. Horses can help your child realise that both they and their horse are learning all the time; it can be an ongoing process. This sense of always learning can transfer into other areas of life such as school, relationships and life in general. Developing the habit of always having a “beginner’s mind” ensures the child is always using and developing their curiosity and awareness to look at each situation with fresh eyes. This helps them avoid assuming or taking anything for granted. Last week their horse may have been happy to pick up a foot to be cleaned, but this week they may have a sore spot or hidden injury and react differently.
4. Build Confidence – Horses are large and intimidating, so naturally it takes a lot of confidence to be able to handle or train one. Letting a child handle a gentle experienced horse will do wonders for their confidence. The more experienced your child becomes at handling a horse, the more confident he/she will become. When children do well with the horses they handle, their confidence can increase and their self esteem can also improve dramatically. This sense of achievement can then be reflected back to them when they face challenges in other areas of their life. They can be reminded of how they solved a problem at the barn and what where the steps they took to achieve that outcome. Did they get a result right away, or did they have to try different ways or use lots of patience to get the result. It is also important children feel safe and accepted when they want to ask for help. This is also an important lesson even adults can have difficulty asking for help.
5. Learn Patience – Young horses can be like young children. They can be inexperienced, unsure, unpredictable, rushing in or holding back to feel safer. Training both horses and children requires patience and an understanding of their level of experience and particular capabilities. Tasks should be just at the right level to both build a skill and confidence or to challenge just a little more so a new level of experience and learning is achieved. As your child becomes a confident rider, letting them help train a horse will be an excellent exercise and experience for them. Horses require a lot of patience because training any horse involves maintaining a trusted bond, sometimes a lot of repetition and quality training time. These lessons are all transferable and can help children in all aspects of life and through growing up.
6. Self Discipline – Horses can take a lot of time and work, so your child’s commitment and dedication to learning how to ride, care for and handle horses may vary depending on their experiences and life situation. Your child may develop self discipline as they go and this may be reinforced from their achievements with their horse and the work involved. To help them stay on track a simple reminder of why this work will be worth it in the end can help (spending time with the horse, riding...etc). It is also important to celebrate regular milestones of achievement even if these are not awarded in the show ring or with ribbons or trophies. Small lessons on achievement set up the learning and understanding of the process involved in setting and reaching goals and in celebrating success. These small lessons well learned highlight the development of self discipline and the potential every child has to achieve in their own time.
7. Teaches Sensitivity – Horses are very sensitive creatures. They communicate with body language and are very sensitive to their handler’s body position. The handler must be able to tell how the horse is feeling and why it might be behaving the way it is. The handler must learn to interpret the body language and to communicate back to the horse effectively in each moment. Horses may sometimes also mirror human body language, so being aware of this can often give us clues as to why they are acting the way they are around us. Just like us, they have good days and bad days, can be irritated by pain or are just down and out. Being sensitive to our own situation on any given day, what attitude we bring along to the barn, can have an immediate effect on the horse and visa versa. Horses are so sensitive in this way; they can also pick up energy or “vibes” from some distance away. So their restlessness may not be due to us, it may be coming from another source unknown to us. Being aware of this and allowing for this sensitivity helps us give horses credit for their nature and keen sense of survival.
8. Learn from Mistakes – When your child starts learning to ride and handles horses they will make mistakes; however they will realise that you learn from your mistakes and this is a natural part of life for everyone. The horse behaves in response to the cue from the rider. So if the outcome is not as was required, the rider needs to acknowledge the need for a correction and try again. Patience and consistence with cues is important so the horse can learn what is being asked of them. When they do respond correctly, the rider must feel this response and reward the horse immediately. The skilled horse person has a keen sense of touch in each moment, plenty of patience and works as a partner with the horse by helping the horse to learn. This is what horsemanship is all about.
9. Respect – Children can learn to respect their horses and themselves. Horses are large and can be unpredictable creatures and they need to be treated with respect in order to be handled safely. With training and experience they may also come to respect their handlers. By learning how to handle a horse, children will become more respectful of their horse’s needs and its nature. By learning to be trustworthy, confident and responsible your child may earn the respect of their horse.
10. Fun – Last but not least, your child should have fun and enjoy being a part of the horse life style. They need to have fun with their horse as well as know when it's time to be more serious depending on each situation. Children may go off riding or being with their horse if they are not feeling safe, are not getting the results with their horse they want, feel pressured to achieve beyond their current capability without support or are physically or emotionally unwell. If the horse and rider get on and can be relaxed together, that’s a good basis for learning for both and should indicate happy attitudes. If not, it is always worth an adult supervising from a distance to see how things are going. This may give more accurate feedback to a situation than asking directly or telling. Then appropriate steps can be taken that best suit each situation and support great outcomes for the child and the horse. If in doubt, ask for help from a more experienced person.