I love sharing my horses and offering children their first rides. If I can be the first person that they are exposed to, I can teach first about safety and then about fun.
Here is how I conduct a pony ride to make sure everyone stays safe and the child (and parents) have a good experience.
First, make sure you have a horse suitable for pony rides. Horses are smart creatures and many of them will understand that they need to be much more gentle with children, but not all horses are suitable to give pony rides. Horses that are spooky, rude (nippy or will walk over you) or inattentive or highly sensitive are NOT good choices. The key (in my opinion) is a horse that has excellent ground manners and will follow the leader on the ground and not pay attention to what is going on in the saddle.
Second, have three people. THREE???? Yes, three. It isn’t imperative, but it makes the children the most comfortable. You must have one person very familiar with the horse who works with it often (in this case-me), another person who has spent some time around horses. They don’t have to be an expert by any means, but someone who understands the basics and is not fearful. Finally the parent or someone familiar with the child.
I always use a western saddle. The horn gives the child something to hold onto and gives them a sense of security. Have the leader lead the horse. Have the other two walk on each side of the child, one hand on the child's thigh, one hand on their foot. That has them prepared in case anything happens to catch the child should he/she go sideways.
To start, have the child sit in the saddle and relax. Make sure the instructions are clear to your side walkers. Take off straight ahead at a slow walk, keeping the horses head on the ground. Do not walk quickly as the horse may end up in a jog/trot or intermediate gait. THIS CAN BE VERY SCARY for some children. Your job is not to push the limits, but to make this a positive safe experience.
I ask the child to squeeze with their legs and say walk, but I do not ask them to kick. Every time we do something with the horse, I ask the child to give the command, then I make the horse comply. This adds much more fun for the child.
After the child is more comfortable, I asked them to balance by holding out their arms on their sides. I love to use analogies when I teach, so I ask them if they have been on a balance beam. Most of them have, so I talk about balancing, but sitting instead of standing.
Finally, I fit the child with a helmet prior to riding. I talk about how important it is to wear a helmet, REGARDLESS OF WHAT THE PARENT WANTS. If they are riding my horse, in my barn, they will wear a helmet. I have been collecting a variety of sizes for lessons, but if you don’t have any ask the parents to bring a bike helmet. Talk about how smart they are and how the helmet will protect their brain. Kids eat it up. Most importantly, if you ride, wear a helmet in front of that child, even if you normally don’t. Help set a good life habit.
I am sure we all know of people who had terrible experiences with horses when they were younger. If you listen closely, you will figure out that a responsible teacher creating a positive experience can change the way they feel about our beloved equines.
Go forth and ride ponies!