Jessica, I LOVE your newsletter - do you ever come as far as Texas? I'd really like to go to one of your clinics or presentations. I haven't seen this question addressed in your newsletter yet, but this is kind of bothering me. I have 2 nieces - 9 and 10 - who have taken a few riding lessons, ridden their cousins horse out a couple times, and ridden rental horses on the beach....Of course, they now think that they know how to ride and want to ride my horse. I have a VERY SANE quarter horse who is not too big - 14.3 - so I don't worry about the horse being 'too much horse' from that standpoint, but he is in dressage training and is working 2nd - 3rd level. He is VERY forward at this point and has a huge trot. Do you think that the horse would be over-trained for them to ride? E.g. might they get him going more than they could handle by bouncing around and being generally unbalanced? If so - do you have any explanation that I could give my brother and sister-in-law - they think that I'm being silly to worry.... If you think that this would NOT be a problem - what could I do to make sure that he doesn't inadvertantly get socked in the teeth? He gets pretty fussy about that and if it goes on too long can get pretty angry (which leads to major head-flipping....teeth are find - and he's in a myler bit - just has a very low palette and a FAT tounge!). Any advice would be GREATLY appreciated!
I'm glad you asked this particular question, because it's an issue for a LOT of people. You're by no means alone with this problem - and it IS a problem, if you let it be one.
Your brother and sister-in-law, like so many other good human beings who aren't horse-people, are just thinking that it might be nice if their kids could have fun with your horse. They don't have the knowledge or the experience that would make them know why this is not a good idea. They're not bad people, I'm sure - they just don't know about horses and riding, and they are simply not aware of the possible risks to their children, much less of the risks to your horse and to you.
I'm going to point out some things you may not have considered, but that all have a bearing on your decision.
INSURANCE and liability issues - as soon as anyone is riding YOUR horse, there's a liability issue for you. Are you carrying the kind of insurance that allows you to do this? Are you keeping the children in a confined area, under supervision, and insisting that they wear - at the very least - ASTM/SEI approved helmets and proper footgear whenever they are on or near the horses?
LITIGATION - this is why you need the insurance! I'm sure that your brother and his wife would never want to sue you if their kids got hurt while playing with your horse, but here's the problem: they wouldn't have to. Their insurance company would do it, with or without their consent, because even if their own insurance covered the cost of any medical work, the insurance company would, after paying out to the hospital, want to recover that money, and that's when their company would come after you.
FAMILY RELATIONSHIPS - tend not to be the same after something like that happens. It's better to be known in the family as "cranky Aunt Mary who won't let us ride her horse" than to be known as "Aunt Mary who should have known better than to put those babies on that dangerous animal". And keep in mind that any horse that a child has fallen off, for any reason, will instantly become, to the rest of the family, "a dangerous animal."
Now, here are the two things you've wondered about - with reason.
YOUR HORSE'S TRAINING - will, of course, deteriorate, along with its soundness, if the horse is used for "fun rides" by untrained, uneducated riders of ANY age and size. The best result you could hope for is that the horse will learn to do a short-strided, shuffling jog, so that the kids can stay on his back by holding onto the reins. And is this something you would wish on ANY animal, much less your own personal dressage mount? I think not. Horses don't know that "this person's riding counts" and "that person's riding does not count" - they have to make the effort to understand and cope with whatever riding they get. A dressage horse in training is a work in progress, and that's not something you should be handing over to anyone, child or adult, for random riding.
THE CHILDREN'S SAFETY - AND ENTERTAINMENT - will not be promoted by trying to hang on to an energetic, well-trained, confused, uncomfortable, and upset dressage horse, and that's precisely what they will be doing if you let them ride your horse. It's not just unfair to the horse, although it is utterly unfair to him - it's also unfair to the children. Think of it in driving terms - they're at "bumper car" stage, not at "Maserati" stage. You wouldn't lend a youngster your Maserati just because it (a) was related to you, (b) wanted to drive a Maserati, and (c) had been allowed to sit on Daddy's lap and steer the family car up and down the driveway a few times. A child's first car - driven under supervision, AFTER a good driver-training course - should be a solid, reliable, easily-driven vehicle, not a highly-tuned sports car. The potential for damage to both is just too great. Sentiment aside, a horse can, and should, be respected as much as any other large and potentially dangerous piece of heavy equipment. There are such things as equine babysitters, but a one-owner, one-rider dressage horse in training is highly unlikely to be one of them. Don't take the chance of hurting your nieces or your horse.
If you feel very strongly that these children need to ride when they come to your house, I suggest that you do three things. First, get all the necessary insurance. Second, buy a "elder statesman" schoolhorse - one that knows it all, is used to putting up with neophytes, and is patient and as unflappable as a horse can be (and remember, no horse with a pulse is 100% unflappable or 100% safe). Third, get a good instructor to come in and give the children lessons when they visit - THAT, not wild riding to no purpose, will be their special treat at your house.
You could, of course, offer them the option of being led around on your horse's back for a few minutes, with the horse wearing a halter and lead rope (certainly not a bridle), but most youngsters who have had a few lessons and think they "know how to ride" are more likely to be insulted than pleased by such an offer. ;-)
Your private horse is not a public or a family commodity, any more than your private car would be. Your private horse in dressage training is not suitable for beginner riders of any kind - it's bad for him, and it's bad for them. Your nieces are unique, irreplaceable children. Keep these things in mind, and just say NO. ;-) You'll be doing the right thing - and no sane adult will question your actions or your motives. If it causes a little frostiness between you and their parents, so be it - it will be temporary, because if they go to any reliable source of information about riding and children (the American Medical Equestrian Association, the United States Pony Clubs, Inc., etc.), they will find that you are absolutely right. I'm sure that you would, without hesititation, say "No!" if the children wanted to use your power tools... use the same tone of conviction and authority when you say "No" to the question "Can we ride your horse?" and all will be well.
Jessica (who has a young nephew and a young niece, and treasures them both - and who will teach them the fundamentals of horsemanship, including the fact that it's the height of bad manners to ASK to ride someone else's horse!)
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