Perhaps you are a parent or grandparent that loves horses or used to horse ride, or you have a 3-year-old in your life completely mesmerized by horses that will not stop nagging you about riding them. We hear you! The question of what age is the best age to start horse riding is one pondered by many and here we will look at the things you should consider when deciding if horse riding is right for your 3-year-old and how you can give him or her the best possible introduction to horses and riding.
Well then, can 3-year-olds ride a horse? A 3-year-old can sit on a horse in movement but will rarely be able to ride independently. At this age, neither their skeleton, balance, muscle coordination nor their attention spans are fully developed, and these are all important elements of horseback riding. At this age, shorter pony rides on a lead or lunge are usually the best option.
So, before you start reaching out to your local equestrian center, let’s dive a little deeper into the things to consider when deciding if a 3-year-old should ride a horse and what a good introduction to the equestrian world could look like. How you plan this first experience for a child will greatly influence her future trajectory – a bad experience can potentially put her off horses for life whereas a good one may plant the seed of a future horse learner (but hey, no pressure…!).
Can 3-Year-Olds Ride Horses?
Being able to independently ride a horse requires a few basic physical and mental capabilities that aren’t yet fully developed in 3-year-olds. Of course, every child’s developmental timeline is different so these guidelines may not apply to everyone however, they should provide a good starting point for evaluating your child’s situation.
Staying on top of a moving horse requires a certain level of balance and coordination. The swaying movement of a horse walking is often quite different from other activities a child has previously engaged in, which means there is also little muscle memory to rely on. While this does not mean a 3-year-old can’t ride, it does in most cases mean they will need an adult walking alongside them supporting them to stay safely in the saddle.
Horse riding also requires muscle coordination. In order to correctly ride a horse, a combination of leg pressure, hand movements, and weight distribution in the saddle needs to be applied. A 3-year-old will in most cases not have long enough legs to apply pressure in the right way along the horse’s sides and will also struggle to combine all these elements at one single time. This is why, in most cases, having an adult lead the horse around, effectively taking away the need for the child to control the horse, is a good idea.
Finally, horse riding also requires executive function and self-regulation, which is defined by The Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University as the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. What riding instructors who teach children often experience is that children this young can seldom maintain focus and attention for more than 15-20 minutes, which is less than half the duration of a typical riding class. Again, this supports the suggestion that shorter pony rides are better suited to 3-year-olds.
We have personally led many children around on horseback in the past and certainly seen that there are vast differences in how comfortable and confident they are and also how easily they adapt to the horse’s movements. Overall, however, children that will be able to ride independently at three years old are far and few between.
At What Age Should a Child Start Riding a Horse?
Officially there is no set rule for when children can start riding. Many equestrian centers will have a lower age limit for their riding classes, and this is for safety reasons but can also be for insurance and liability purposes. Usually, the lower age limit for individual riding will be 5-6 years. At this age, children are usually tall enough for their legs to reach down the sides of the horse and their balance and coordination good enough to steer the horse according to guidance from an instructor.
What are Pony Rides?
So, if pony rides are the best alternative to riding classes for young children, what is that exactly? A pony ride is when a child is on a horse lead by someone (preferably an adult) on a lead rope for a short period of time. This can usually be arranged at your local equestrian center but is also a popular activity at fairs, zoo’s, camps and other outdoor events. Of course, at an equestrian center, the possibility of receiving personalized instruction and attention is far greater than at a fair where the ride usually follows a set route and the riders rotate off as soon as the route is completed.
Alternatives to Riding Lessons for Young Children
Horse riding isn’t just about horse riding. While that perhaps sounds a bit strange, it is true. Taking care of a horse, getting it ready for a ride and learning about the stable routines and rules are all important things to learn. If you want your 3-year-old to become a mini horse-learner, combining pony rides with courses on grooming, stable routines and so on will help him or her feel more comfortable and confident around horses in a shorter amount of time.
Getting Familiar With Horses
There is a lot to say for simply spending time around horses and becoming familiar with their behavioral patterns. Not only will it help children understand how to behave in the stables, but it will also develop routines and conduct that will ensure they stay safe. Things like how to correctly approach a horse, how to give them a treat, how to safely enter a stall and understanding what behaviors are and aren’t acceptable in a stable are all valuable lessons for their future equine activities and will allow them to spend time around the animals they have already (and very wisely so!) developed a love for.
Another activity that will get children some hands-on experience with horses is by learning how to groom and tack up. Although at this age they will usually not be able to reach up to the horse’s neck and back, it is still a great opportunity to interact with the animal and learn how to prepare a horse before riding. This is how we started our horse careers and on the final course day (it was a 4-week course of 1 hour per week) we got to take our first ride in the arena! It was a great way to build up confidence and knowing that we would get to ride at the end gave us plenty of motivation to learn about grooming. For non-equestrian parents, this is great as they will often be able to participate and thus also gain some experience and horse know-how together with the child.
Horse life ain’t always glamorous (in fact it mostly isn’t), so if you would like to give your child the full picture, how about you introduce them to some of the work that goes into running a stable and caring for horses? Mucking out the stalls, weighing and feeding hay, sweeping the floors and cleaning tack are just some of the activities kids can be introduced to. Although it may be difficult to find a course in this, give your local equestrian center a call and see if they would be willing to let you tag along for a feeding or for an hour as they are going through their daily routine.
Parents and Kids Classes
Some equestrian centers will have different types of classes designed for children to learn together with their parents or guardians. This is the perfect opportunity to learn new skills and bond through spending time with your child. Our parents actually took a ‘parents only’ class after realizing they had ‘lost’ both their daughters to the stables, and it not only taught them the basics of grooming and horse care but also made it much easier for them to understand our ‘horse language’ around the dinner table and the challenges we sometimes faced with horse riding.
Useful Questions to Ask When Contacting Equestrian Centers
If you have decided to investigate the options for getting your 3-year-old introduced to the world of horses, what are the next steps? We recommend you do some research and reach out to a few equestrian centers in your area. They will be able to guide you and let you know what services and activities they offer for children. Beyond their offering though, below are a few questions you may want to ask in order to gauge which center is most suited for you and your child’s needs.
Experience Teaching Kids
Teaching kids is very different from teaching adults so ask if they have courses specifically targeted to children or trainers particularly qualified to teach them.
Being around horses and getting in the saddle will always come with risk. Even well-trained horses are animals with a mind of their own and primal instincts and accidents do sometimes happen. A professional equestrian center will have liability insurance but ask about their coverage and if additional insurance for children is recommended.
When your child is just starting out you probably don’t want to invest in lots of gear, so ask if items like helmets and gloves are available for rent or to borrow. If you plan to rent a helmet, ask if they have helmets for children and if they provide surgical caps (for lice prevention). Otherwise, you may want to bring this along yourself. Children’s helmets are lighter than other helmets to avoid putting too much strain on a young child’s neck.
After a few lessons, if the child has caught the bug and wishes to continue riding, we’d recommend investing in a certified helmet as this gives you control of who uses it and you can also be sure it hasn’t been subjected to any hard impact (in which case it should be replaced immediately).
If you are considering signing up for a course, ask for references from past clients of that same course. Getting input from a fellow parent can be invaluable and if none can be provided, this may be cause for concern or at least a reason to investigate a bit further before committing (and paying) for a class. You could also ask for recommendations at a local tack store.
Visit the Stable
If you have found an equestrian center you think you like, ask if you can come for a visit to look around. Although most stables don’t want people hanging around for extended periods of time (primarily for safety reasons), having a look around at an agreed-upon time usually won’t be a problem. Good stables will be neat and tidy, the horses well-maintained and healthy-looking and there should be an evenly flat fenced area dedicated to riding.
Benefits of Horse Riding for Children
Beyond physical activity and exercise, horse riding and simply being around horses has a number of great benefits for children.
Taking care of a horse means having the responsibility for a living, breathing creature and being accountable for their well-being. Over time, this teaches children the importance of being reliable and having self-discipline. We both remember the weekends when we had to get on our bikes and head for the stables on a frosty Saturday evening when we all we really wanted to do was relax on the sofa in front of the TV.
When it comes to learning horseback riding at a young age, this truly tests a child’s patience, attention span and endurance (both physically and psychologically)! And for those that push through and start to develop this skill, the sense of mastery and confidence boost is hard to beat. Not to mention, the incredible feeling of bonding with an animal many times their own size!
Although we didn’t start our journey at 3 years old, we are still very thankful for the early start we got and all the lessons these wonderful animals have taught us over the years (and still keep teaching us!). We 100% encourage parents to introduce their children to the equine world and we hope this article is helpful in figuring out the best way to do so.
Best of luck and we look forward to adding one more horse learner to the tribe!
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute diagnosis, prognosis, treatment or any type of medical advice for humans or horses. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.