Despite their size and power, horses can be fragile animals…
Horses have been described as being more addictive, more expensive and more dangerous than class A drugs, yet 25% of horse riders in the UK are under 16. It is many children’s dream to own a pony, or at least ride and look after them and this natural love results in the expense, as horse’s aren’t the cheapest animal to look after properly. The danger can however be significantly reduced in many ways, including empathetic riding.
Firstly, a pony that is in discomfort or pain is a more dangerous pony, as more extreme behaviours will be displayed in response to discomfort and these behaviours have the ability to cause people physical harm. Aside from the more obvious causes of pain, such as sharp teeth or inappropriate tack, one of the biggest potential causes is the rider themselves. For example, at East Devon Riding Academy we use a progressive system of support for the riders hands as they learn. This avoids inflicting pain on the pony from a rider who might otherwise use the reins for balance, stopping and steering. We also do not allow children to use whips as a form of communication; in society children are not permitted to hit other people or pets, so ponies shouldn’t be an exception. Ponies have the ability to look after their rider, which they are rightly not so inclined to do if they associate being ridden with pain. Children also have the ability to look after their pony, so it is important to sustain this quality by showing them how to communicate with pain free methods.
Research has shown that many serious accidents are the result of a mismatch between rider skill and the attempted activity. Letting children off the lead rein or allowing them to go faster before they are both knowledgeable and physically capable enough puts them at increased risk. Safety should not be misplaced in the quest for a goal, as holding on and hoping for the best is fraught with danger. Skill, good communication and empathy with the pony are factors that increase safety and these take time to develop. Falls also happen when the communication between rider and pony isn’t clear. It sounds obvious but ponies are not mind readers and people often forget that! They don’t know the riders plan, it is up to the rider to explain with their body what they would like. With a lack of clear subtle communication that the pony understands, the pony will be left with the option of either guessing or making the decisions about speed and direction themselves and this disharmony increases risk. It is therefore much safer to teach children that successful small steps are more important than unsuccessful big steps and the big steps will be achieved more safely if the small steps are completed first. With a child’s safety at stake, it is vital that they have a good foundation of knowledge and skill, as short cuts only ever increase the chance of an accident.
All these points are relevant to adult safety too. I have been riding for 35 years, looked after horses daily for 30 years and have 2 equine degrees and I’m still learning. Children have only just started on their journey, so keep expectations realistic and they will be safer for it. Happy Riding!