Starting Kids in General (read: the justification)
Hooking up kids with the right starter horse is important, it’s like kids and people. If you hook ‘em up with the slower, quieter, been-there, done-that patience-of-Job grandparents for a Saturday afternoon, it tends to be a win-win. Grandma takes it in stride when junior yanks on her hair, and doesn’t scare him with a big reaction when he runs the roll of toilet paper all over the house. Grandpa doesn’t have a heart attack when princess sneaks up behind him and yells “BOO’ while tickling him with her sparkly feather boa.
Our kids have been “riding” Pumpkin since they were three years old. (They were on a lunge line until five.) Pumpkin is a full sized quarter horse who had an ultra amiable personality to begin with, and then mellowed out from there to near sainthood. He packed them around happily until they started to understand riding. Then he pulled every gentle trick in the book to test their skills and thus taught them to control their frustration and anger.
Micah tries to think things through, wants to be excellent immediately, and is very sensitive to animals-as-people. He was three when I said: “We ask them to go left by opening the rein, and encourage them to go into the opening with our calves. We don’t hit, pound or kick horses.”
He ever so carefully steered Pumpkin around the arena. He still remembers that little speech word for word. (Dang it!) I was thinking ahead to horses with a lot more vim than Pumpkin. He took my early words to heart so much it almost incapacitated his later riding.
Ashley, on the other hand, was born into exiled royalty, taken from her real parents at birth, and placed with us for her own protection. She’s still waiting (pleasantly) for the castle and personal attendants. This trait may have been inherited from me. She has the ability to make us all want to wait on her hand and foot, and feel like it’s a privilege: she makes us feel loved and special. Really. She’s gonna make some guy a very happy man. (After we let her go on a date. When she’s 40. Post wedding, background check, and threats on his life.)
Her 3 year old reaction to the same words was: “Uh huh. Okay. Move please.” Every inch the imperial princess, with the hair and nails to match, she directed Pumpkin easily from on high. She just had to think “we are going THERE and we’re going NOW” and Pumpkin skedaddled to the other side of the arena.
The kids grew, Pumpkin, already older, was now elderly, and it was time for him to retire. (Safely to a ranch with acres of rolling pasture.) He earned it. Ten years on a Pumpkin does not prepare one for the rest of the wide world of horses.
Lilli offered Tiny as a transition schooling/lesson horse. Tiny is big, wide as a sofa, and about as difficult to fall off of, he loves kids, is quiet, forgiving (if you apologize) and doesn’t do anything bad when frightened. He either plants, or runs away a couple strides and plants. Tiny, when he does go, is a much more forward horse than Pumpkin ever was. Ashley immediately understood how to deal with Tiny…assert and bully if necessary. Micah, wanting to be the best possible horseman (like you and my trainer, mom!), respectfully asked Tiny to do stuff. Like move. At a walk. Sometime in the next hour.
Tiny can stand perfectly still for an entire day.
In my zeal to instill kindness-to-animals and my concern to keep giving age-appropriate information that would make them both cautious but not frightened, I made two big errors:
1. I neglected to mention that there are appropriate levels of encouragement beyond a nicely spoken “walk on” and light tap of the calf. That there are horses you might have to ride while waving a white plastic bag tied to the end of a jumping bat.
2. I never said: at some point in your horse life, you will come off and hit the ground. It will hurt, it’s shocking, it will scare you, and that’s a normal part of life with horses.
Exhibit A: the helmet. Exhibit B: smooth soled boots with heels.
Ashley’s interest in horses has waned, but Micah is still hooked. Shaun said to me, the day after Micah turned 13, “Don’t you think you’d better tell him about falling off? When exactly are you planning on doing that?”
“Um…right after I teach him the emergency dismount. He’s tall enough now.”
“Uh-huh.” said Shaun.
I don’t think any trainer in their right mind teaches the emergency dismount anymore. The liability would be killer. No way is our kid’s trainer going to teach it. It would be unfair to ask.
I guess I’d been kind of putting it off. Because we’d have to talk about hitting the dirt. And generally, during the process of learning the emergency dismount, you, uh, hit the dirt. In case you’re not elderly like me, and didn’t learn the ER dismount in the prehistoric times before helmets were worn and saddles were purchased to fit the horse, I’ll explain.
I learned to vault off a horse at the halt, walk, trot and canter, and land on my feet away from the horse. Sort of the safety ejection seat method when all systems fail. Except without the parachute. That’s the emergency dismount. It’s saved my hide a number of times. But it’s also not the safest thing to teach or practice. How hard do you think a 13 year old boy would protest if I wrapped him in bubble wrap?
It’s beginning to dawn on me I might have a teensy problem with procrastination when it comes to introducing the kids to something that has the potential to scare or hurt them.
Maybe I’d better teach him to fall first.
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