The perfect kid's horse
As a small child, I had the most wonderful and perfect pony a little girl could ever dream of. She was heaven-sent, as safe and careful as could be with her smallest passengers, and she served as my entertainment, my transportation, my best friend, my confidant, my teacher, and my babysitter. As much as I appreciated her then, it was only as an adult that I appreciated what it took for her to become the perfect kid’s horse and how very few and far between these precious equine gems really are.
Many parents of my horse-crazy young pupils ask me how they might find the perfect kid’s horse—one they can trust to protect and teach their child. To help get conscientious parents on the right path, I’ve compiled this helpful list of what to look for in a perfect kid’s horse, with some tips on searching for, acquiring and maintaining that once-in-a-lifetime animal—the animal that your child will love and cherish for years to come and from which he or she will learn the responsibilities, joys and sorrows of horse ownership.
1.) Disposition, disposition, disposition
One of the first considerations about a potential kid-horse candidate is the horse’s disposition—does he have the right temperament for the job? In my experience, good kid’s mounts tend to be highly intelligent, good natured, people-oriented, naturally curious, and not be either overly submissive nor overly dominant. I look for a maternal-like nature in a good kid’s horse, or the kind of animal who seems to go out of its way to protect the little people in its presence.
The ideal child’s horse will display an unflappable temperament. You want an animal who is very observant and aware of its surroundings without being hyper-sensitive to them. A horse who is overly-spooky or easily upset by nature is not likely to make a trustworthy kid’s horse, even if that same horse is a perfectly fine mount for an adult-beginner. Children are inherently erratic and unpredictable little creatures, and since horses are, as a prey animal, hard-wired to be suspicious of human beings (a predator), the often predator-like behavior displayed by youngsters can often make a nervous horse more nervous. Of course, all horses are prone to react first and think later; however, the more a horse has learned to think and analyze a situation before he reacts the more you can trust him with your child’s life in his hands.
Something I’ve come to realize over the years of working with horses is that one of the most indispensable elements to a favorable disposition is an innate and insatiable curiosity. Horses who’ve lost their natural curiosity have become bitter and jaded, and are unlikely to have any interest in figuring out their littlest riders’ wishes. A horse who runs on autopilot is nice in some regards, but if you actually want your child to learn to ride and not just be a passenger, a horse who can improve his rider’s skill by making an honest attempt to respond to all the cues given—even inadvertent ones—is paramount. This way, improperly applied aids elicit unexpected results and teach the child through trial and error what the proper cues feel like. A horse who lacks curiosity will not have any interest in attempting to interpret his riders’ wishes and will therefore not be as good of a learning tool.
2. Age and training
One of the most dreaded sentences a trainer will ever hear come out of a parent’s mouth while horse shopping is, “I just want to get a young horse for my child so that they can grow up and learn together.” This is a nice thought in theory, but a horse is not a puppy and the consequences of putting a young, green rider on a young, green horse can be catastrophic. In fact, there’s a saying among riding instructors and trainers about this very situation: “Green on green makes black and blue.” Rarely will you hear of a younger equine with the right personality who has already gained the experience and wisdom necessary to become a suitable kids’ horse. Some parents will look at a horse who seems perfect for their little ankle-biter, and unscrupulous sellers may foment this idea that the young horse they’re selling will be “just fine” for a child. But it’s important to remember that just because a horse is good with a child under the watchful eye of their current owner/trainer doesn’t mean they will behave the same when you get them into a new environment with handlers who are unfamiliar to him. Young horses will go through many changes as they age, both mental and physical, and there could be natural developments during his maturation process that are incompatible with your child’s goals and safety.
That being said, it’s also important to know that just because a horse is old, it doesn’t necessarily mean he will be a good kid’s horse. I’ve met plenty of horses that will just never be safe for kids, no matter how old they may live to be. However, age is almost always a required ingredient for a safe child’s mount. I tend to believe that the longer a horse has been on the earth, the more predictable he will be due to the simple fact that he’s likely encountered most of the things you may expose him to, making a surprise response far less likely. With young horses—even very good, solid and well-trained ones—it’s not too uncommon to witness them behaving in a way that surprises even the handler most familiar with their antics, and the words “Huh, I never would have guessed that he’d do THAT!” are usually not ones you want said of the horse with which you entrust your child’s life. This is not to imply that older horses don’t have their own quirks; it’s just that you’re likely to know what those quirks may be and therefore are better able to predict and manage them.
There are many older horses who may be good with children but have not yet had the chance to try it, but this is not to say that a horse cannot be acclimated to small humans. In a controlled setting with a qualified trainer, a horse who’s never had a child on his back can essentially be trained to be a child’s horse. In fact, any good prospect that you as a parent or a caregiver are considering for your child should have gone through this process of actually learning to be a kid’s horse as opposed to just being thrown into it because the animal got old and frail and smaller humans were the only thing he could comfortably carry. Even old and frail horses can be quite dangerous to a child (or to anyone, for that matter).
Another equine that is all too often just thrown into the task of being a kid’s horse is a small pony. Ponies tend to have undeservedly bad reputations for being difficult and stubborn. This reputation, in my opinion, is a result of the fact that many ponies are too small to be ridden by an adult and so are expected to just become a perfect kids’ horse without ever receiving professional training.
If you can find a pony that has been trained by a professional and allowed the necessary time to learn to be a kids’ horse, this can be a wonderful option and it gives some parents peace of mind since the animal is more size appropriate for the child. It’s important to realize that ponies, no matter how small and well-trained, are not necessarily safer than horses and should still be handled with the same focus on safety as their larger counterparts. Also bear in mind that the child will likely outgrow the pony—perhaps before he or she is emotionally prepared to part with it—and you will be faced with the difficult decision of having to sell the pony to afford a larger horse or maintain two horses simultaneously.
A simple internet search will yield results of horses and ponies that can do a whole myriad of sports; however, the specific discipline for which a horse has been trained is for most people secondary to whether or not he’s safe for children. If your child is interested in competing in specific sport, then it is of course advisable to find a horse who has successfully done that sport. You wouldn’t want to buy a horse who was a champion carriage horse and try to make him compete in barrel racing, for example. However, a minor change of discipline is usually not a problem if you find a horse who fits your child well otherwise. For example, it’s not uncommon to find an older, retired jumping horse who is perfectly suited to teach a child dressage. He may not be sound enough to jump fences with an adult on his back anymore, but he may be able to compete at the lower levels of dressage with a child quite comfortably and indeed he will have been trained to do such tests already as a jumping horse. Likewise, an old ranch horse may be a great mount on which a child could compete in a team penning event. As long as the horse’s previous training prepares him in most ways for what the child’s goals may be, there shouldn’t even be much retraining necessary.
In general, though, the horse you are looking for is likely just a well-rounded, been-there-done-that type of horse who is as familiar bareback as he is with an English and a Western saddle. You want a horse who can effectively be controlled with a simple snaffle bit or even ridden in a halter. He should be easily caught, bridled, saddled, and mounted and allow his feet and all his body parts to be handled with minimal fuss.
He should be polite on the ground, meaning that while a “pocket pony” disposition may be cute and appealing, you might be better off opting for a more reserved type of horse who will not be as likely to tread on little people’s feet or knock them over looking for something tasty. It’s important that he be easy to lead and separate from his buddies as well as be fine riding in a group. A horse who could be dressed up for Halloween or ridden in a parade behind a dragon float complete with moving parts is the kind of horse you are looking for, regardless of what discipline he may have originally been trained for.
3. Conformation and soundness
I’ve seen many horses whose conformation was so appallingly bad that I would have turned and walked away without a second thought had I been looking for a horse for myself; however, these “ugly ducklings” deserve a more thorough look when one is shopping for a kid’s horse. First of all, a horse whose feet are less than perfect or who has crooked legs, for example, may not hold up to the rigors of high-level competition with an adult rider yet may be perfectly sound under the weight of a smaller child. Indeed, many of the most suitable kid’s horses are ones who were highly trained and later injured, necessitating their retirement from competition. Having suffered an injury sometimes will take just enough wind out of their sails to become an excellently-trained child’s ride.
This is not to say that you should go out and buy the most injured ex-show horse you can find, and soundness is something to take into consideration on any horse purchase. Just know that you may be facing dealing with some veterinary maintenance—e.g. hock injections or NSAIDS—to keep the horse comfortable and sound for your child’s use for years to come. You can talk with your veterinarian at the time of the pre-purchase exam to determine if any problems currently exist or are likely to appear in the near future, and if so, what kind of effort would it take to make the horse able to do the job in question. But just be aware that the main difference between purchasing a horse for a child and purchasing one for an adult is that soundness issues may take a back seat to other considerations, such as sanity and gentleness.
Now, when you actually find your unicorn—a perfect kid’s horse who’s gentle, well-trained, safe, sane, predictable, well-mannered and sound (enough)—you might be surprised at the kind of price tag it will likely come with. Prepare yourself for this sticker shock, but know that the investment doesn’t end there. To maintain the training required to be a safe horse for a child and to keep the child on the right path of learning good horsemanship, one of the most important things you can do is invest in a good trainer/instructor for the pair. It does no good to have a push-button children’s horse if your child doesn’t know which buttons to push, and even the most solid equine citizen can quickly become spoiled without an occasional tune-up from a professional. If this all seems like too much of an investment and you’re tempted to cut corners when shopping for your child’s horse, remember that hospital bills or funeral costs would likely be exponentially more expensive.
To me, horses are as necessary to survival as is water and oxygen, and I can credit horses for giving me many of the qualities that have served me in all areas of life, such as a work ethic, the ability to predict and prevent accidents, goal-setting and planning, responsibility and compassion. However, I would not have gotten all of these benefits had my first experience owning a horse not been a success. Getting kids started on the right foot to being responsible, compassionate and hard-working human beings can start at the barn if care is taken to find them the right companion to teach them these values.