Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Riding Young Horses

by Laura Crum

The comments on Linda’s blog post gave me the inspiration for this post. As you all know, I enjoy riding my sedate middle-aged trail horse very much. But yesterday, despite my resolve that I’m done with young horses, I was riding my boarder’s six-year-old gelding, Smoky. Smoky is a very gentle, well broke six-year-old—as nice as they come (or I wouldn’t be on him). My little boy and I were gathering the cattle, pushing them through the chutes, and hazing for two of our team roping friends. Smoky did great. And then…

And then what? Well, in the unpredictable way of the world at large, something happened that was quite outside the understanding of all horses present. The people on the neighboring property—visible across a several acre field beside the arena, were having a gathering. Maybe twenty people in all were involved in some kind of shamanistic ceremony (this is Santa Cruz County, California, after all). And at a certain point they all began beating on drums and dancing in a circle, singing and howling very loudly. Every horse in the place stared across the field, head up, eyes wide. My son’s twenty-two year old gelding, Henry, and the two rope horses (in their teens), looked startled but stayed calm. Smoky, on the other hand, became pretty agitated.

Because he’s a well broke horse with a gentle nature, Smoky did not run off or buck or do anything too stupid. Because I’ve been around a few years in the horse biz, I did not pull on his face or panic. I just sat there, gently correcting him every time he tried to move off. We walked a few circles (well, we pranced, actually), we stood next to the calmer horses, we dealt. Smoky stayed under control. But I could feel his agitation growing. He really didn’t like the loud drumming.

I walked him around a few more times, halted him, and made sure I had his attention, despite his worry. Then I got off and patted his neck and told him what a good horse he was. We tied him up and by the end of our little practice roping session, he had relaxed. No big problem.

But, let’s say my son had been on Smoky, who is gentle enough that many people would call him kid safe. And lets say when Smoky got agitated my kid had gotten scared and started to pull on Smoky’s face. At this point Smoky would certainly have started dancing and skittering around, and where it would have gone from there I can’t say. Its not somewhere I want to go.

Less than two years ago a child I knew of had her horse spook and then bolt, and the child was dumped, got her foot hung up in the stirrup, and was dragged to her death. Yes, it happens.

But my son was on twenty-two year old Henry, whose eyes got big but whose feet stayed on track. Thank goodness.

People, I don’t care what your breed of choice is. Chincoteague ponies may be as gentle as dogs for all I know. Plenty of kids have been bit by dogs. There are going to be a range of individual personality types within any breed. Ponies are, in general, more phlegmatic and less flighty than horses—they are also more inclined to test for dominance and “bully” those who aren’t up to dominating them. Any breed of horse or pony—it is usually better to put a little kid or any inexperienced rider on a well broke older animal. Period. Horses and ponies are prey animals by nature. The impulse to flee danger is always there. Horses and ponies are also herd animals and the impulse to sort out just who is the alpha is also sometimes there. You absolutely cannot expect a younger, less experienced animal to be as reliable at staying broke under pressure as an older, experienced, reliable, gentle mount. And its your kid’s life that is at stake. This is important stuff.

Yes, some young horses/ponies can be/are good kid’s horses. And some older horses are not good mounts for young children. But of all the good, reliable kid’s horses I’ve known, the vast majority were in their teens or twenties by the time they achieved this “bombproof” status. And when something unpredictable happens—like the wild shaman party next door—you want your little kid sitting on the most reliable critter you can provide him with. That’s my take on it, anyway. I’m happy to hear your opinion.


OneDandyHorse said...

I'm all for ya! Although I have often thought that Dandy would be suitable for a young or beginner rider, I've never taken that step. My mom has taken lessons off of her and we were on a leadline nowhere near any kind of noise. I consider her bombproof, she has never spooked at anything in at least a year, and we've seen mighty scary things! The most she will do is be surprised by something and grunt and spread her front legs as if looking for an escape route, but never actually bolted. If her rider would remain calm, she would never spook.

I always have complete control of her and she trusts her life to me, before she started trusting me, she would bolt and threw the occasionnal buck. Dandy is four years old and I would put a calm beginner rider on her, under supervision. The thing is that she is blind and that causes me to think that she COULD be unpredictable, even if she has never been yet, so I will not put a beginner rider on her, unless in a controlled environment that Dandy knows well and that I am supervising!

My thing is, I am much more careless about me being on a horse than everyone else. I demand for others to wear a helmet on my horse or if riding with me (and if under age). I am a nervous wreck when kids ride with me, I keep checking up on them, I can't relax! Horses are pretty unpredictable and I can't say for sure if Dandy wouldn't buck or bolt if someone annoyed her (pulling on her face, etc.). I have taken a lot of spills in my day, trained a lot of horses, some good, some bad. I know my limits and I know for sure what a horse can do... serious damage!
Most beginner riders see horses as placid puppies, but dogs and horses cannot be compared. Dogs are predators, which means they are fearless, horses are prey, which means that any crack in the bush can set them off into a panic. They may fight against your leadership, kick you, bite you, buck you off, it's their instinct, without it, they wouldn't have survived for so many years.

To me you are completely right. A young rider should be on an old absolutely bombproof, seen-it-all, know-it-all horse. No doubt about it!

Laura Crum said...

Thanks OneDandyHorse--I appreciate your supportive comment. I feel pretty sure most experienced horsemen understand this point, but sometimes less experienced folk don't get it, and it is truly a huge safety issue. I cannot count the times I've tried to discourage a not-too-knowledgable young girl and her parents from trying to buy "a green four year old" or some such thing. And I also can't count the youngsters who, if not hurt, are forever discouraged because they had an unfortunate experience with a first horse. Giving a young child a gentle, reliable mount is really an important thing--thus I am willing to stand up for it.

KB said...

I agree - I'm a big fan of the kid's age + horse's age should = 20 rule. I do agree that once a child is experienced enough and large enough to control a horse, you can loosen the reins, so to speak. My eleven-year-old has four years serious riding and horse handling under his belt now, and he is 5'5" and 120 lbs. I'm okay with him handling and riding more horses at this point, but you know what? I didn't let him go in a stall with a friend's eight-month-old filly yesterday. We don't know the baby well, and she is recently separated from her dam. I'm still in the better safe than sorry camp, I guess.

Laura Crum said...

KB--I applaud you. Better safe than sorry every time. To many horse people, I guess, I'm overprotective, but I am so aware of the downside, having been around horses all my life and seen many wrecks. I would have made the same choice you did with the eight month old filly. My son is only nine, very slim and light and not terribly physically strong or inclined to be forceful. He is a confident, balanced, graceful rider, but I still keep him on old Henry and occasionally my steady trail horse, Sunny. Lots of well meaning folk have commented that he could handle more horse, but I'm with you in the "better safe than sorry" camp.

Shanster said...

I absolutely agree... the miles and experince are what makes them so solid. I know anything can happen with any horse... but it seems like you are just better "insured" when you have a nice teen - 20 horse under your behind.

If (if? I mean when... we ALL gots to go sometime! grin) my old horse dies, we will enjoy the financial ease of 2 vs. 3 horses and if we ever bring another one home, I want a teen or 20 something that I could put anyone on. My neice, my adult friends who don't ride but once a year... a nice, "safe", older horse.

They don't even have to be sound 100% of the time. Yes, those older horses who have been there and done that are worth their weight in GOLD!