I frequently meet parents of horse crazy kids who want to provide more equestrian opportunity but don't have the bandwidth to dive in head first. I've often lamented the fact that this sport doesn't accommodate incremental increases in commitment. However, I'm seeing things differently lately and want to share why I've changed my mind.
You can't be an in between horse person. The people who have been the most successful in any equine sport have done so on the backs of horses they knew intimately. They start these horses themselves rather than buying made horses. They spend so much time with their horses and see them everyday in every situation so that they know immediately if something isn't right. It's akin to our relationships with our kids or our partners. I can tell when not to ask a favor from my husband or if my oldest isn't feeling well but is gutting out a race nonetheless. If you go in halfway you lose that connection and barometer.
There is no middle ground because you either own a horse or you don't own a horse. Of course, there are people who half lease or share horses. Horses are very expensive so it is unrealistic to think everyone who wants to ride can simply buy and maintain a horse. Sometimes the perfect half leasing opportunity comes up and those are fortunate circumstances. With a 2 - 3 day a week commitment, the child is able to learn more than if she had just been taking lessons but without giving up everything else in life. That's great. And for some people they simply can't afford more and I get that.
However, and this is where I may lose some of you, you don't become a horse person by doing it part time. If you want to be a horse person, know the ups and downs and be a true steward of a wonderful living being, it's a full time job. It is a choice that eliminates other choices from your life. Riding horses should never be like playing soccer or tennis. It should never be something you show up to do for an hour and then off you go to do all your other things in life. Such an approach is disrespectful to the incredible gift the horses give us by letting us get on their backs and train them, learn from them, work with them, pour our secrets into their ears and dry our tears on their coats.
Our world today approaches everything as a disposable commodity. We are accustomed to instant gratification and tossing aside things that don't work. Horses defy that evolution. It takes forever to learn how to ride and care for a horse properly. And I mean forever!!! And when a horse isn't doing well he's more similar to your child than a piece of equipment. You might dump a $3,000.00 saddle if the horse doesn't like it but you never just dump a horse. You care for it, you do everything you can, consult everyone you know and you hope that when it is time to give up the people around you will tell you because it is unlikely you would be willing to give up without a crazy fight. And giving up can take many different forms. For some that means retirement to a field to live out his days in relaxed bliss. For others it means rehoming to a therapeutic riding program or as a trail horse. And for those beyond help, it means ending their suffering. None of this is easy.
My point is that the real value of embracing a horse sport for your child is that it isn't simple. You don't just sign up. This is a commitment that will teach your child the true meaning of commitment. When it's 11 degrees someone has to break the ice in the water bucket. When it's 20 degrees but the horse has an abscess, someone needs to go soak it and get their hands wet. Someone needs to take their gloves off to poultice the hoof after soaking. And when it's 95 degrees and humid at the end of a long horse show, someone, has to muck out the stall and reload the trailer. That my daughter has never once complained about being the one to do all of this and much more indicates her preparedness for the world and anything it can throw at her.
The better a rider knows a horse, the more prepared the rider can be if something goes wrong. A rider who truly knows his horse will not go out cross country if something is wrong but first you have to know the horse to know that something is wrong. At this point, as a parent of a kid who likes to ride, you will rely on a trainer to know if the horse is off or if the child shouldn't be going out. But if you rely on that trainer forever and for everything, you and your child will not develop your own gut instincts about what not to do or when something is wrong and developing those instincts is what will make your child a horse person rather than a kid who takes riding lessons. You need the trainer but you also need to develop your own knowledge. You are responsible for the child so ultimately you are responsible for the horse. Pony Club is a great resource for parents and kids to learn the things they need to know to be responsible horse stewards.
As parents of horse kids we are not raising horses so we do buy horses, ostensibly with experience in the sport our child is pursuing. It takes at least a year to get to know the horse. Anything that you do in that year is a bit of guesswork. Some horses take longer to know but a year can give you a good idea of how things are going. But that's ok. That is how we create a learning opportunity for our kids. If they continue in the sport there will come a time when they need to build a horse from the ground up, put in the years of work and build the long term relationship but first they need to become horse people.
And one final thing parents of equestrians really need to understand. This is a lifetime sport. Most kids won't play soccer or football past high school and even fewer past college. Gymnasts and skaters peak in their teens. Equestrians peak in their 40's and can still be at the top of their game in their 50's. It takes that long to learn enough to develop your own horse. A horse takes at least 10 years to develop to the top levels of eventing and often more. So if you are a parent who has a lot tied up in your kids' athletic achievements, equine sports might not be all that fulfilling for you. The hunter and equitation world does provide classes for kids and there is hefty competition and a huge amount of money being spent so kids can win medals. But all of that misses the point of horses and raising horse people.
Life with horses, especially for kids, shouldn't be about ribbons. It should be about connection, love, hard work, barn life (which is usually a boy free zone and a great place for teenaged girls) and learning about horses. If your child truly wants to be a horse person, find a way to help her. I can't think of anything better for a kid than hard work with a healthy, happy equine friend as the reward.