Cowboys like smoky old pool rooms and clear mountain mornings, little warm puppies and children and… I have always been more at ease in smoky old pool rooms than with children. It isn’t that I dislike kids, I just don’t know what to do with them or how to relate to them. I am less at a loss when I can put them on a horse.
Some friends, call them Susan and Eric, brought their kids to the ranch yesterday. The children are 8 and 6, I think. I will call them Lily and Rose respectively. This presented a problem I have not faced in a while: how to find horses suitable for small children to ride?
We have plenty of horses. When I explain that I don’t know if I have a horse someone can ride, they often do not understand what I mean. There is a difference between a broke horse and one just anyone can ride. There are a variety of horses that can be called “bomb proof,” as there are different kinds of “bombs.” Children can be great for diffusing those bombs, or they can be firecrackers. The horse needs to be prepared for both.
Horses, like all animals, know the difference between infant and adult. Most will try not to squash infants, and will even refrain from punishing them too harshly for bad behavior. I have seen this not only with children but even with puppies. That is, a horse will be a little nicer to a puppy than a grown dog.
So on the surface, it should not be hard to find a fairly broke horse that will not buck a child off. But not bucking them off is only the beginning.
You also need a horse that will, at no time, frighten the parents. This includes being easy to catch, leading quietly, behaving well during grooming and saddling and basically any time when the parents are looking at the horse. A horse that fusses while being tacked up may not alarm a child but it will send up red flags for the parents, even if they are not very well versed in horse behavior.
My friends trust me not to get them or their children killed. But this doesn’t mean they won’t get nervous seeing a horse storm around, snort, prance, or in any way act silly. They might be the bravest person in the world, fearless for themselves, but once their child enters the picture, it is a new game with new rules. It is entirely natural and right, they should take more care for their children. And children can be more sensitive to an adult’s mood than adults, so once you have the parent antsy, then the kids get nervous and then you’ve got crying kids and no one wants to get on a horse.
So, without my old reliables, I had to review our herd for temperament, soundness and age. Just being old isn’t enough. Sadly, an old horse is likely to be unsound, and while you don’t want a lively horse for a kid, you do want them to not fall down or stumble, since this is easily as dangerous as bucking or spooking.
So who then? I settled on our oldest mare, Dolly, who had many years of trail experience and a couple of years in the show ring. She is 29 now, I think. She is also pretty unsound so I would not send her out on the trail anymore.
Since there were 2 kids and 2 parents, I decided best to have 2 horses, and chose a not so old mare who has always displayed an extremely gentle temperament. She is less trained, since she has always had soundness problems and was never suitable for show and not very safe on the trail. She is also tall and very stout- 15.3 hands, which is enormous for a purebred Arab. Cookie was a dummy foal who barely survived but since we like fillies we went the extra mile to save her. She has survived these 15 plus years, but, despite having an endearing personality, has never been quite right.
Both mares have fallen, some years ago, with riders on the trail. Those events ended their riding careers. In a perfect world neither would be my first choice. But I knew they would not panic or be inappropriately playful so they were the best choices.
Cookie was very happy to get some attention. She enjoyed being groomed, though when I lifted the saddle to put it on her, she lunged and acted like she had never seen one of those before. I had forgotten she does that, almost every time I saddle her. I talked her down and got the saddle on, then proceeded to not be able to find a girth to fit, had to lift the saddle on and off several times before changing saddles altogether. She stopped jumping around.
Dolly was much worse. She tolerated brushing for a few minutes, but once I got the saddle on her she began to paw and pace back and forth and snort and act every bit the very angry, fiery steed. Susan commented that they didn’t need to ride Dolly if it was upsetting her. I made an excuse like “she thinks we are going to make her work, she will settle down once she realizes this is not hard work.” It was true, she did always act like that before work, but I was not actually sure she would settle down. I don’t know if my friend believed me but the kids were oblivious to any anxiety. Lily kept repeating she wanted to ride Cookie and Rosy responded that she would ride the other one. That settled that, I was glad to have one decision off my plate.
It reminded me of my own childhood, when a friend and I were taking lessons. There were two horses we had to choose from, one was very large and one was not. We always argued about who got to ride the small one. We were small, we preferred not gigantic horses. Lily clearly did not have that problem. She was emphatic, repeating many times “I want to ride Cookie,” to which Rosy responded every time “I want to ride the other one.”
On the way to the arena Dolly pranced and tossed her head and made a show of storming around. I do not know why my friends trusted me that much, but they did. They do not know much about horses but they could tell when a horse was pretending to be the Black Stallion at the race track and they had every reason to worry.
I knew better, at least I figured if the mare did not settle down in the arena right away, we could give up on her.
My friends were very quick to get Rosy on Dolly and did not give her time to continue her antics. Luckily, that did settle her down. She cocked her head, took in the situation and began to plod quietly around. She even let Rosy back her up, which is more than Cookie was willing to do. But neither mare frolicked, though Dolly did stumble on her bad hind leg once or twice when asked to trot.
Lily and Rosy were fearless kids. I like fearless kids. As we mature we all learn to be afraid, it is best to start from a position of fearlessness. Also, I don’t know what to do with a scared kid. My instinct is to say “Snap out of it! Get on or get off, don’t just sit there scaring my horse.” Not the best approach.
They both wanted to ride without the lead line, something I resisted for a reasonable amount of time. Susan suggested a compromise- maybe she could get up on the horse with Lily? I said that Cookie had never done that, and I didn’t want to try it today. I also mentioned that it was the sort of thing you need 10-12 year olds around for. They are good for trying things like that because they are reckless, they do things they have been told not to do, and they tend to be lucky about not getting killed. At least, that was how we used to tandem-rider train our horses. Okay, that was how I tandem-rider broke our horses, as one of those reckless kids.
Lily continued with her polite but persistent requests: “can I please ride without the rope?” I remembered that, as a child, I had fallen many many times, without a helmet, without a saddle, and survived just fine. Both kids had their helmets, and I didn’t have to worry about them being dragged because we have no child saddles and they could not reach the stirrups. So I caved.
Lily of course immediately bragged to Rosy that she was off the line. Rosy had been the one to ask first, but her mother nixed that because she was not sure Rosy understood she could not go fast. Once Rosy was convinced that if she went fast there would be a terrible accident likely to kill the horse, and possibly crush her too (her mother’s idea, not mine- see above for my fear of frightened kids), we let her ride on her own.
Two parents meant there was one person per child and a third for camera duty. The mares showed no inclination to leave their human attendants, which may have bothered the girls but made me happy. At one point I heard Lily saying “Daddy, don’t walk with of me.” Clearly she had noticed that, even without the line, her father was in a position to interfere with her perfect free control of the horse. Eric was able to step a few feet away and this seemed to satisfy Lily.
I had not expected the parents to want a go as well. Eric rode Cookie, as Susan is very very petite and Dolly is not so big and, as mentioned before, very elderly. I didn’t want to tax her with anyone of any weight. Susan had demonstrated an uncommon natural balance years ago, so I also figured that if Dolly did stumble or even fall, Susan would be able to deal with it. Trying to explain that the horses were not completely inept and that they probably would not fall, I mentioned that I could ride either horse and help them to not fall, but that this was a fairly advanced level of riding. Susan asked how you help them not fall, so I went on. If you can sense when the horse is off balance, you can use the reins and your weight to bring them back (“collect them”) and prevent them from stumbling. Susan admitted “well that’s not going to happen. I just won’t trot.”
At one point, Cookie decided to rub on me, got my baseball cap stuck in her bridle and panicked, whirling around and almost falling. Eric held on, tried to stop her by pulling on the reins (a reasonable plan) but Cookie was already running backwards in a circle. I was able to get the message across that Eric had to let go of the reins (once I got the hat off the mare’s bridle) and Cookie went back to sleep. As mentioned, that mare has never been quite right.
Like their children, Susan and Eric are fearless folk. Eric was unphased by Cookie’s antics and carried on with the walking ride. Susan trotted a little on Dolly, ending in a stumble, but nothing grave occurred. All in all, it was a successful outing.
Only this morning did I remember we could have used Goliath, the most bomb proof horse on the planet who could easily have been a police horse used for riot control. He is even bigger than Cookie but so well behaved that even a screaming child or a thrashing adult will not unsettle him. Funny how things slip my mind when I think about little children. It is all the more important, therefore, that the horses I choose be more kid-safe than I am.
Oddly, when we went to visit “the boy pasture” with apples and carrots, Goliath was nowhere to be seen. I wonder if he was actually hiding, having heard the children’s voices when they arrived. He showed up promptly for dinner so I have to assume he was. No great loss, it is good to know I have more than one horse that, in a pinch, can be trusted with children.