Evelyn, the granddaughter of a friend of mine, began riding when she was five—she absolutely insisted on it, and Grandma, who taught grade school for many years, helped her mother vet the riding instructors until all three of them agreed on one. If you Google horse breeds, most will say the horses are suitable for children. Not so.
Horses vary by breed—Quarter Horses in general have more whoa than go, and Arabians, Thoroughbreds, and American Saddlebreds are the opposite. But they also vary by individual. Two horses of the same breed can have very different personalities. One way of distinguishing a good riding instructor from one who’s not so good is that she owns, or has access to, several lesson horses that are suitable for young riders of varying abilities and fear-levels. Usually if a child wants to ride, she won’t be afraid of horses. On the other hand, once she’s in the saddle, she may realize that it’s a l-o-n-g way to the ground and start crying.
This is how my friend characterized her granddaughter, and explained how learning to ride changed her. “Evelyn is the oldest and most people-pleasing of [my three granddaughters]. Even though she grew up in a house with two elderly Golden Retrievers, all dogs, even her own, worried her. She and her younger sister and her niece were just plain afraid of the German Shepherd I had when she first started riding. He wasn’t dangerous, but when the girls play, they made noise and waved their hands and in general acted like prey. A couple of years ago, after my old dog died, I bought a young male Doberman. The same thing happened. When the girls played and got noisy, my dog came running. As he ran among them, the girls squealed and wriggled even more, and my dog got even more excited. I had to put him in a down-stay or crate him. All three girls have tried to crate or otherwise command the dogs, their own and mine, but the dogs all ignored them.”
This past fall, at the age of seven, Evelyn won her first blue ribbon on a lesson horse. “My Doberman doesn’t ignore her anymore,” says my friend. “She has a quiet, authoritative way of handling him and he takes her seriously. He stays put for her wherever she downs him. That ability raises her status in her playmates’ eyes. For the first time she no longer needs her parents’ intervention when she plays with them at home. Even her own dogs obey her now.”