A Modern Approach To Teaching Children To Ride
By Natalie Bucklar, BSc (Hons), MSc (Equine Science)
Ethical tuition for mutual enjoyment
Children’s ponies have a very tough job, they are often required to be as consistent as possible regardless of influences such as the weather, environment or rider. When teaching children to ride, clumsy, unskilled communication is often taught in order for children to achieve a milestone. Kick to go, pull to stop and hands to your pockets to steer are commonplace instructions. Mistakes are naturally made during the learning process, so alongside the crudeness, the communication can sometimes be inconsistent and contradictory too. Being a pony on the receiving end of all this is not easy and it must be remembered that they haven’t even chosen their job!
It should therefore be the job of instructors to give ponies protection and manage the learning and achievement of the rider without it being at the expense of the pony. The idea that riding is a journey, not a destination should be encouraged and expectations of both the children and their parents need to be managed proactively. We need to build good foundations that enable refined, appropriate and consistent communication and we need to do this in a way that is safe and enjoyable for the children.
“The principle goal of education should be to create men and women who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done.”
Over 25 years experience of teaching up to 75 children a week has enabled me to recognise many pitfalls with traditional tuition and the desperate need to disseminate kinder, safer and more harmonious riding rather than perpetuating outdated methods. Times have changed, we now know far more about equine emotions and learning and thankfully there is also a greater drive for positive animal welfare. New techniques are therefore needed for the next generation of horse people and modern tuition needs to incorporate more empathy and understanding of the horse.
Children And Whips
Children aren’t born wanting to hit ponies, quite the opposite, many have a natural love and affection towards them. It is not acceptable for children to hit a dog or each other with a stick, yet it is not unusual for children to be instructed to hit ponies, particularly in riding schools and at Pony Club. This method of teaching children how to get their own way often has the lack of an accompanying explanation as to why these methods work. This is most likely because the teachers themselves were also taught this way and they are just passing this on. It is far more common to hear ‘Give your pony a tap’ than ‘Hit your pony with a stick so it hurts’ but they are both the same thing, people are very good at rephrasing things to make themselves feel better. Language remodelling is quite common in the equestrian community in order to reduce the emotional feelings of discomfort in humans.
It is now time that teaching children to whip ponies (and other such uncouth tuition) becomes extinct.
So how do we bring on the next generation?
How can we help children learn and achieve ethically, without inadvertently punishing the ponies?
My top 3 guidelines for instructors AND parents are-
1) Be patient and don’t use short cuts for lack of skill or knowledge. Slow down and enjoy the journey, looking at the bigger picture. If a child can’t canter without the pony being lunged in side reins, don’t canter. If a child can’t go off the lead rein without the pony wearing a more aversive bit, don’t let them go yet.
2) Reinvent the milestones. Make lessons about empathy, harmony and partnerships rather than faster, higher, ‘more’. Break from tradition and teach the premise that riding is not just about what the rider wants, that the pony’s needs are important too.
3) Be realistic. To learn anything new takes a huge amount of repetition. Reading, playing an instrument or driving a car doesn’t happen over night, yet when learning these we often practise every day. When children learn to ride, some are only riding an hour a week, or even less.
The Key To Modern, Enjoyable Teaching
To keep lessons interesting and children engaged whilst they carry out the huge repetition required to learn, I prefer the active learning approach whenever possible. This ‘teaching without talking’ style of education is a big hit in schools, where it has been proven to increase achievement, as well as improving understanding, focus and effort. And it’s enjoyable! Going around in circles following the bum in front whilst being shouted at is no fun for anyone and this style of one-size-fits-all tuition leads to bad riding, reduced safety and fed up ponies. Active learning empowers children to learn by doing, involving them in the whole process rather than just receiving information from the teacher. So instead of just telling a rider what to do over and over again, I think outside the box and think of ways that I can involve the children in their own learning and include exercises that will teach a specific thing without me getting into the realms of nagging.
Engage- Don’t Dictate
Here is an example of how active learning differs to traditional instruction-
Traditional Teaching– the instructor chooses which order a group of children will ride in, puts out some poles then tells them to start on the right rein riding over the blue pole first, then the red one then change the rein and ride over the yellow pole and halt at a certain point. The instructor then tells the riders what was good and what needs improvement. The exercise is then repeated.
Active Learning Approach– the instructor asks the riders where they want the poles to be placed. The group then discusses between them which order they will ride in and why, where they will start, what order the poles are ridden over and where the finish is. The riders themselves then discuss what they liked, didn’t like, what was harder or easier and what they could do to improve. The riders then choose to repeat the exercise or change it according to their findings from the first time. The instructor facilitates the discussion and gives their input but doesn’t dictate. Riders can learn from their own choices and the instructor is still there to step in should these choices cause a safety issue or inadvertently upset the ponies.
Charity Shops Are Your Friend!
A lot can be achieved with some inexpensive props and a few homemade resources, charity shops can be a great source of cheap teaching aids. So rather than asking a child to do a walk-halt transition 10 times, I would distribute some items around the riding area for the child to collect and take to a specific point. Depending on the age and experience level, the items could be small cuddly toys, grooming kit, old bits of bridle or pictures of super heroes, the only limit is your imagination! The child gets to choose direction and which item to collect next, they are practising several things repeatedly without realising it and the instructor can add value by, for example, choosing speed and correcting posture.
Active Learning From The Very Beginning
Good horsemanship begins even with very young children- what a fantastic opportunity we have with toddlers, who are a blank canvas, to set them off on the right path. I think it’s important for first introductions to ponies to be child led, even a Shetland pony can be big and scary to a little person. This is why I set up Pony Playgroup, so young children can combine learning about ponies with things they are more familiar with, which leads to positive associations and greater confidence. The children have the choice to go back and forth between being with a pony and playing in the sand tray, they can throw (clean!) shavings around in a spare stable with the sit on mini diggers and toddler sized wheelbarrows and tools and they can help look after the ponies by making feeds (popular and messy!).
Insisting a small child stays up close to a pony for long periods just doesn’t work, it can overload fragile confidence and make being with ponies tedious rather than enjoyable.
How To Turn Boring But Necessary Into Fun and Successful
We sometimes decorate a pony with stickers and ribbons, which again enables young children to spend time with a pony in a way that is more relevant to them. This is done with utmost respect for the pony, they are not treated like toys, rather we use it as an opportunity to actually discuss what individual ponies like and don’t like and how we must conduct ourselves when around them. Only ponies that are happy to be handled are included and the environment is set up for success, such as hay being freely available and the children being encouraged to remain calm with soft voices. The stickers help us make what can be a dull subject full of rules into an enjoyable lesson and they encourage even the most nervous of children to actually touch the pony rather than hiding behind mum’s legs. Children, like ponies, should never be forced or subjected to flooding, training both of them actually has quite a lot of similarities! Reward based methods work well, in short sessions and always setting things up for success.
Let The Ponies Play Too
I hate the thought of shut down, robotic ponies which are created to make it easier for the children. I prefer to allow my ponies to express their opinion and I also listen to it, I also like them to play- there has to be something in this relationship for them too. If the ponies want to pick up the toys we let them, Sunny in particular loves picking up and waving a hula hoop around- the kids love it and why shouldn’t he play too?
I further manage the physical and mental well being of the ponies in lessons by restricting both workload and activities within a lesson. For example, when a child is learning to do rising trot, we keep trots very short to begin with and as soon as the rider’s position starts to deteriorate we walk, correcting the position before going back into trot if required. As the rider progresses, the length of trot gets longer. This both protects the ponies and ensures that the rider is learning to trot well. Keeping going in a faster pace if the rider is all over the place just means that they are learning to ride badly and the poor pony gets bumped about on in the process. This is pointless and unethical! Riding should be just that- riding, not holding on and hoping for the best.
Throughout all lessons, with any age child, I incorporate information about looking after the pony. Whether that’s explaining to a 3 year old that looking where they are going helps the pony to understand, describing to a 6 year old why they mustn’t kick the pony when they get on or encouraging a ten year old not to slump like they’re watching TV.
This may be the start of a lifelong journey, so good habits need to be instilled from the start.
My Ethos For Teaching
Overall, my principles of teaching are to make lessons safe and enjoyable for both the children and the ponies. Ensuring that riding is pain and confusion free for the ponies makes it far less likely that they will demonstrate potentially dangerous behaviour. Involving children in their own learning ensures that they can use their brains and make decisions rather than just repeating a script. This also enhances safety, particularly in those possibly rare but inevitable emergencies. Nurturing the future generation of thinking, feeling horse people is so much more rewarding than producing a line of leg flapping robots. Seeing the smile on a rider’s face when they have achieved a turn from the subtlest of cues or successfully halted from their breath is priceless and creating the beauty of harmonious partnerships is an achievement better than any rosette.
Natalie Bucklar, BSc (Hons), MSc is the owner of Pawsitive Thinking. We offer a tried and tested portfolio of products to help you with the training, care and enrichment of your much loved pets. SHOP HERE
You can read an article on the subtle art of ridden communication HERE.
The Wonderful World Of Young Children
● We don’t ride 12 metre or 20 metre circles, we ride cookies and pizzas. The children design the flavours and choose where they start. I mention that the cookie has turned into a sausage or someone has taken a bite out of the pizza so we can try again. The weirdest flavour pizza we’ve ever ridden was cucumber and jelly bean but at least the circle was spot on.
● For encouraging good hand position, the children carry (hypothetical) mugs of their favourite drink and they have to try not to spill it on the pony. I ask ‘What’s in your mugs today?’ and I once received the reply from a 5 year old- ‘Gin’, which I have to own up was my daughter!
● For nervous children, we chat about their favourite hobby as they ride around, I ask them to name a football team for each of the arena letters or do an A-Z of animals. Rather than focusing on the nerves and what they think they can’t do, we create positive thoughts, distract them from the fear and focus on what they can do. I once got to S with one young rider, which was apparently for Shitland Pony, it can be tough to keep a straight face sometimes.