Selecting the right children’s horse is the first step in encouraging young riders. Keeping the youngsters interested is the key to creating lifelong horsemen, according to Chris Cox.
Choosing the right horse for a child can make the difference between creating a lifelong rider and losing the interest of a potential horseman. It often isn’t an easy process, but Chris Cox says extra effort during the selection process will pay off.
The Mineral Wells, Texas, horseman and clinician has experienced the process firsthand with his 5-year-old daughter, Charley, and 4-year-old son, Case. Although he might have an advantage due to the number of horses in his barn, Cox says every parent can use the same criteria he does to choose a reliable child’s horse.
“First of all, there’s a high percentage of horses, because of their character or personality, that are never going to be conducive to being a child’s horse,” he says. “They need to be eliminated right away. It takes a bit of understanding of what to look for.”
When selecting a child’s horse, Cox wants to be sure that horse has gone through a considerable amount of training, and he looks for certain traits that make it a willing, safe mount for a youngster.
“The ideal horse has been through the training and the miles, and it’s just happy with being slow and relaxed,” he says. “That horse will bond with a child.”
Then, once the child has a good horse to ride, he says it’s important to keep that child engaged with horses.
Finding a Fit
While some people balk at paying much for a children’s horse, thinking the investment is too hefty for a horse the child might outgrow quickly, Cox stresses that a good horse is money well spent.
“Do you know why those good children’s horses cost so much? Because they’re worth it,” he says. “In my opinion, it is worth the investment to find the right horse for a child. It’s easy for us to go out and buy [an expensive] vehicle, but when we go out and spend a little money on a horse and think we’re getting a good deal, we’re worried about the deal and not worried about the child. Safety is the most important thing. You can always sell that horse. It will always be ready for a younger generation. It will hold its value.”
The ideal child’s horse, Cox says, is one that is well trained and that has proven itself with beginning or amateur adult riders. It is old enough to have reached a stage where it is complacent and relaxed, he explains. He watches a horse’s reaction to different riders to determine its potential as a child’s horse.
“‘Pullback,’ the horse that I have now for my children and the horse that taught them to ride, doesn’t really care for experienced adults riding him. He’ll get upset,” he says. “But if he gets a beginner on him, he’ll be forgiving. He’s the kind of horse that will start trying to help [his rider]. When I see that attitude toward an adult, I recognize it as a good trait to eventually make that horse a children’s horse.”
Cox says this type of horse puts up with the wrong commands without reacting, compensates for a lack of balance on the rider’s part, and doesn’t overreact to a rider’s miscues or badly timed kicks.
“The weight distribution is definitely different with a child, especially when the child kicks with his short legs,” he says. “To test this, I’ll put the child on the horse and pony the horse around for a little bit, and if I see any inclination that the horse is not accepting of the child, I’ll stop.”
If the horse isn’t bothered by the child’s movements, Cox then encourages a “follow the leader” mentality.
“We talk about a horse being ‘buddy sour,’ but in this case it’s a good thing. We want a child’s horse to migrate toward another horse,” he says. “Most of the time, children don’t have any control; they’re just hanging on. They don’t have a lot of direction. That comes later. No matter what happens, you want that horse to come back [to another horse]. If the horse gets afraid, it will come right back to the lead horse.”
He also wants a horse that doesn’t spook, jump or run when the situation gets stressful.
“Under pressure, does the horse stop or go against the pressure? Does it panic?” he asks.
As an example, Cox talks about “Betcha,” a red roan gelding that his daughter now rides. The horse was started as a cutter, and went on to help Cox start colts and conduct clinics. When he first put beginning riders on the gelding, he determined that Betcha would be safe for children.
“When a beginner starts to ride, you can see how forgiving a horse is and how it responds to different situations. We’ve seen beginners get on Betcha, and he loped around and people have almost fallen off, and he’d just stop,” he says.
“These children’s horses really need to be bombproof. If the child starts to lose his balance, the horse needs to stop. And whether you’re riding in an arena or outside, the horse needs to act exactly the same.”
That is a valuable trait as children learn to ride, because they often lean or are unbalanced, he adds. Cox also likes a horse that will walk over obstacles on the trail calmly, rather than jumping them.
“You want to find a horse that doesn’t jump little creeks and things,” he says. “Things like that can have a big effect on a child’s confidence. You need to find this out before you take a child out on a trail ride.”
On the ground, the horse needs to be equally aware of children’s movements.
“It needs to be good on the ground, so the child won’t get stepped on or run over,” Cox says.
To test that, he suggests walking all around the horse and seeing how it reacts to touch and movement.
“Grab the horse’s tail and see if it jumps,” Cox says. “See how it reacts to you. If the horse overreacts to you, most of the time it will overreact to a child. And getting a horse controlled on the ground is just as important as it is from the saddle, because just as many children get hurt on the ground as they do on a horse’s back.”
Age, Size and Soundness
Because Cox’s children began riding when they were toddlers, they’ve progressed faster and earlier than some children might. He stresses that children have different needs at different ages as they begin to ride and improve.
“In my opinion, you’ve got three different steps,” he explains. “A toddler, at 2 to 3 years old, needs to be on a proven, dead-solid horse that can walk and jog. From there, when children are 4 and 5, they need to still be on a proven horse, but one that has some control so they can learn to steer. Before that, they’ve just been learning their balance.
“From ages 5 to about 7, you want a horse that still [meets the criteria], but one they can handle and start loping on, and learning their leads. At that point they can start riding more by themselves and learning direction, and following something like a mechanical cow or steer.”
He stresses that a child who is 7 or 8 years old and just learning to ride will need the same type of horse as the toddler did.
“If you’re teaching a child to ride for the first time at that age, you’ve got to go back to the beginning horse,” he says. “You can’t have the same horse for a 15-year-old and give it to a 3-year-old child. They have to go through those steps [of learning to ride]. My daughter is 5 and she’s been through three horses. She went from a miniature to a pony to Pullback, and now to Betcha. Keeping them progressing is very important, but if they can’t control the horse it’s no fun.”
And while some people think a pony is the ideal starting place for a child, that’s not necessarily true. The test is the horse’s disposition, willingness to adapt to a child and forgiving attitude.
“It is safer if you have a smaller horse, and it feels better to us if the child was ever to fall off,” Cox says. “Ponies have a bad reputation, but they fill a small void, and that is that children don’t feel as intimidated by them. They can build their confidence, even if you have to lead them around. But you can soon get them off a pony and onto a bigger horse.”
He also advises being sure that the pony gets along with other horses.
“I’ve seen ponies get mad and go to kicking other horses, even with a child riding,” he says. “Then you’ve got a war on your hands and feet are flying. Maybe the pony is okay to ride around [by itself], but if it has a confrontation with another horse it’s a dangerous situation.”
Cox also says it’s ideal to have a child’s horse that is large enough for adult to ride and correct when needed.
“I don’t like a pony that’s so small that an adult can’t get on it,” he says. “It’s okay if you have one you’re just leading around, but past that you need to be able to have a pony or horse that an adult can get on and tune up, because believe me, they’ll need it. They can start taking advantage of a child pretty quick, and that can be dangerous.”
No matter the size of the horse, Cox doesn’t worry much about soundness for a child’s mount since the horse won’t be asked to do excessive work.
“Most of the time, these older horses are going to have some soundness problems,” he says. “So what? Very seldom are you going to find a perfect horse that’s got a little age on it that’s going to be clean-hocked and completely sound. If they get around fine, there’s nothing wrong with that.”
Keeping it Fun
Cox’s goal with his own children is to teach them to ride and be around horses safely, but also to have a good time. It’s the only way, he says, that they will stay engaged and interested in riding.
“We make it fun for them,” he says. “It’s been good for both of our children to ride together because they play, they chase each other, they laugh. I don’t ever make their lessons long. I make them short and sweet. When we get off, my daughter wants to ride more. That’s a good sign. You certainly don’t want them doing the opposite.”
Safety is a primary concern when teaching children about horses.
“I’ve got a saying with my clinics, my horses and my children: I’m going to expect the best, but I’m prepared for the worst,” he says.
Cox starts safety lessons from the ground up.
“We teach our children to clean out the horses’ feet and brush them,” he says. “But there are areas they understand that on some horses they can go to, and on some they can’t. They need to learn to be aware. If they’ve never been hurt, they don’t understand what the big deal is about not walking up to a horse’s flank, for example. It’s important to talk about the ‘kick zone’ and areas of a horse that are touchy. Some horses, no matter what you do, are going to be fine. And children don’t comprehend that. They think that because they can do it on one horse, they can do it on every horse.”
But he makes it a point not to scare his children and to keep riding enjoyable for them.
“Being a professional horseman and instructor, I’ve spent most of my life correcting or teaching people. I realized with my children, as long as they’re safe, I’m going to let them have fun,” Cox says. “If I critique them too much, they won’t want to ride or come down to the barn. So I don’t want to be overbearing. I’ve learned that if they want to swing their arms or flop around a little bit, I’ll let them. They chase each other, they giggle. My wife and I will slowly critique them, and they watch us, too. But if we were trying to start them out with detailed instruction right off the bat, it wouldn’t be any fun for them.”
His instruction at this stage of his children’s lives emphasizes safety.
“Safety is number one,” he says. “I keep it plain and simple. I will suggest things, like rein management and body position, but I don’t drill on it. The older they get and the more interested they get, they will take on those things willingly themselves.”
Cox’s safety measures with his children include helmets when they are horseback.
“I recommend all children ride in helmets,” he says. “When they get old enough and their balance gets better, you can help them make the decision. But at this point, I want them to wear helmets. Is it cool? I don’t care. I’ve seen children get hurt. And we started them out young, so they don’t know any different. They just put their helmets on when they ride.”
Cox says he and his wife make it clear to their children that riding is a privilege, but they spend family time enjoying the horses.
“There is nothing more satisfying as a father, as a horseman or horsewoman, [than] to saddle your children’s horses and ride together,” he says.
This article was originally published in the June 2014 issue of Western Horseman.