Once a child has mastered some degree of balance and a correct seat at the walk, and seems comfortable, Krshka is ready to move on.
“I look for control [to tell me if they’re ready to advance],” she says. “They’ve got to be able to control their horse, because once you go to the next gait, things can get out of hand really quickly. Their balance can be shaken once you go to the next gait.
“The one thing I won’t tolerate is a child riding around sideways or leaning. That’s how they get hurt. If you can’t stay in the center of the saddle and control the horse, you’re going to get hurt.”
Even if the child says he or she is ready to go faster, Krshka makes sure those basic elements of balance and control are in place. She also wants to know the horse being used is solid and safe, because a bad experience can discourage a child from riding.
“It’s got to be a good-minded horse, with a good attitude,” she says. “The other thing I look for is a horse that handles well. I believe with a beginner rider, if you have a good-minded horse that handles well, they can get themselves out of about any pickle. If you have a horse that is temperamental and a child who takes the wrong approach, you can get in trouble. If the horse takes off and there is no control, then there is a big problem. But if the child can pick up the reins and say ‘whoa’ and that horse will stop, most often you can keep them out of trouble.”
As any horseman knows, having a reliable horse doesn’t mean problems won’t arise. When they do, Krshka says, she goes back to the basic lessons about a horse’s nature.
“I may have a rider going around the end of the arena and the horse spooks and jumps,” she says. “Ninetynine percent of the kids want to punish the horse for spooking. But I’ll ask them to stop and think about it. There was something that made the horse fearful. Let’s find out what he was looking at or what alarmed him.
“There are some people who would say, ‘jerk the horse’s head off and don’t let him do that.’ But I think we teach a horse to be obedient and trust us, and probably the way the horse spooked was because he didn’t trust his rider to carry him through that area of concern. Then it’s about teaching the rider why the horse reacted that way, not punishing him for how he reacted.”
Krshka says that practice does make perfect in the case of children learning to ride. Although some children have natural balance that accelerates their learning curve, others have to work at learning to sit in the middle of the saddle. Correcting problems early goes a long way, she says.
“I see a lot of beginner riders rotate forward, and that makes their toes go down, which once again leads to a balance problem. Those things domino into bigger problems,” she explains.
Teaching a child to have soft hands goes along with a good seat and a basic understanding of the horse’s nature.
“I’ve been riding beside students and have seen them jerk the horse’s mouth,” she says. “I didn’t say anything, but I rode alongside them, grabbed their arm and jerked. They would say, ‘What did you do that for?’ And I said, ‘That’s exactly what your horse just said to you. Now, if I came up and tapped you on the shoulder and said ‘hey, come over here,’ what’s your response going to be?’ When you put it like that, it shocks them. But they get it. I ask them to connect softly, ask the horse, and see what kind of response they get. You have to go through those types of scenarios to [help a child] develop good hands.”
By teaching at the child’s level, offering encouragement and demanding improvement when the child is ready for it, Krshka says, it’s possible to develop lifelong horsemen.
“It will happen if you have taught them to have a true connection and love for an animal,” she says. “If they truly learn about the psyche of the horse and about teaching an animal, and if they have the passion, they’ll go on with it if they get encouragement.”
Article originally published in the April 2013 issue of Western Horseman.