Riding Schools – Choosing For Children
How do you choose the best riding school for your child? This article explains the things you should look for when you have no experience of things horsey.
If you have never learnt to ride then choosing a riding school for your child can seem complicated.
First and foremost, your primary focus must be on finding somewhere safe. Horses are animals and therefore unpredictable. If you are naturally wary of horses then this will be an advantage when selecting a safe and secure environment for your budding equestrian to flourish.
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It is always worth asking other parents if they know of a riding school they would recommend. Should their suggestion pass all the other criteria then you may find that travelling to and from the stables can be shared, or at the very least you will have someone to talk to during the lesson.
Sometimes well meaning friends may offer to teach your child on their pony but please decline, politely but firmly. The perfect riding school pony is a specialised animal and whilst the friend’s pony may be perfect for their child’s standard of riding would not be safe for your child to learn on. Would you suggest that a novice car driver learn to drive in a sports car?
It is possible that the school nearest to you will be satisfactory but please do not choose a riding school based purely on its convenient location.
Most countries have a regulatory body and you should never consider anywhere that is not licensed or approved by them. In the UK this would be the British Horse Society or the Association of British Riding Schools. You can then be assured of at least basic standards of safety and teaching proficiency.
Once you have a shortlist of possible riding schools then it is time to start interviewing them.
Step Two – First Impressions
Your first contact with a riding school will probably be by telephone. Do not book a lesson but do arrange to visit the yard. I would suggest you do not tell your children about your planned visit. In the child’s mind the school will be perfect purely because they have horses and you do not want to disappoint them or feel pressured into booking lessons. The chances are that your child has been nagging you for lessons for some time, so I’m sure you will cope with another week or so.
First impressions are not everything but bear in mind that a successful riding school is a business and should therefore be professional in all their dealings. Whilst it is possible that the phone may be answered by someone that sounds impossibly young, they should still be polite and make arrangements for a more senior member of staff to call you back.
You must always feel that you are a valued client and not a nuisance. A professionally run riding school will be happy to answer all your questions in full. They should also be more than happy for you to pay a visit and watch a lesson. It is possible that there will be certain times that you may not drop in but this is to be expected. Both staff and ponies work very hard in a riding school and so their ‘quiet time’ should be respected.
Step Three – The Inspection
It can be tempting to choose a riding school in much the same way as a hotel. Pristine paintwork and hanging baskets may look attractive but do not prove the standard of the yard. More important than window dressing is an impression of peace and an ordered environment. If there are tools left lying around, or children running around shouting then please get back in your car.
You should easily be able to find the office or someone should quickly greet you and guide you to it. Do not expect pristine carpets and luxury armchairs but it is as well to find out whether refreshments for waiting parents are available.
If any safety equipment such as riding hats or boots is available for hire then you can see the sort of standard available. Quite rightly, many schools insist on you providing your child with their own hat and boots before their first lesson. If you weigh up the price of a riding hat against the value of your child’s head then I am sure you will agree that this is a worthwhile investment, even if your child’s enthusiasm wanes after only a few lessons. The good news is that children’s heads have done most of their growing by the age of 8 so their riding hat should last a little while.
If a riding school does not insist on a riding helmet and correct footwear then that tells you all you need to know about their attitude to your child’s safety.
Step Four – The Lesson
It is a peculiarity of riding schools that often the most novice riders are taught by the most junior of instructors. It is quite possible that a very young member of staff can have had many years of experience but watch that they have the respect of their pupils and manage to maintain order. If you are not happy then ask whether there are other more senior instructors are available. It is well worth paying the extra cost for the extra care at this most vulnerable stage in your child’s riding career.
Is the instructor enthusiastic and enjoying the lesson as much as the pupils? Is there a clearly defined lesson plan? Is everyone given enough help getting on and off their ponies? Is respect for the ponies stressed or are they treated like vehicles?
During the lesson you will quickly spot the most nervous learner and the most daredevil. How are they treated? Is the nervous rider encouraged and reassured. How does the instructor measure whether or not to push the pupil and are you happy with that? How is the more adventurous rider kept safe? Does the instructor find other ways to channel their enthusiasm or are they allowed to take risks? Most importantly, do you trust that the riding instructor will make your child’s safety or their progress a priority?
Go with your gut feeling – the instincts of a parent should never be ignored. If you have any concerns then please approach the owner of the school and question them. If you are not happy with the answers then vote with your feet.
You will have noticed that I have made no mention of how or what your child should be taught. This is for the riding school to decide but never allow your child’s safety to be compromised.
Riding is a very worthwhile and challenging activity for all young people. Not only does it get them off the sofa and away from the TV, it is an excellent way to teach respect for others, both people and animals, and to inspire an interest in the world we live in.
Many riding schools have a pony club attached which will provide a safe social life for your child as well as teaching them how to care for the ponies. Others may well encourage the pupils to take proficiency tests of which they may be rightly proud. As these are more practical than academic in nature they can do wonders for the confidence of a child that perhaps struggles a little at school.
If your child does decide to continue with their new hobby then you can rest assured that getting them to bed at a reasonable hour will be much easier. Nobody can stay up late and be up at 5.30am for mucking out. Unfortunately, you may find this will apply to you too!