Horseback riding fills the day dreams of many young children, and who can blame them? Horses play a major role in the fairy tales and children's movies kids hear and watch. But owning a horse is not possible for many families, whether for a lack of funds or the space necessary to keep up and care for such a large animal.
The good news is there are many ways for kids to learn how to ride without having their own horse.
Animals as Natural Therapy is a nonprofit, accredited Whatcom County stable that offers programs ranging from summer day camps open for any toddlers through teens, to therapeutic courses during the school year for young people who may have a variety of issues stemming from things like unstable family or housing situations, mental health problems or addiction.
Founder Sonja Wingard answered some questions about how to introduce kids to horses and riding.
Question: How can parents encourage their kids to pursue horseback riding if they can't afford to own a horse?
Answer: There are lots of great day camps around. Lang's Horse and Pony Farm has day camps down in Skagit, and there are day camps all over the county here. Sometimes private people with horses will just put on a day camp for a group of kids.
There's always a way. A lot of places will let you volunteer. For us you have to be over 14 to volunteer, unless you're with a parent.
We have families who come with a parent and they do chores and stuff so they're around horses.
Often if the kid shows care and does many chores, many horse people are very generous and might give them a lesson.
Not everything you get from horses is riding them; there's so much more to the relationship.
Q: Do you have any tips for introducing small children to such a large animal?
A: Don't force it. You let them keep a distance if they want, and watch you or someone they trust interacting with the horse.
The worst thing you can do is stick a screaming kid on a horse.
As they watch another kid ride a horse, they usually go, 'This is pretty cool." We have little kids that come here with preschools, and we never say, "You're going to ride a horse today," but I swear nine out of 10 do by the end of the day.
The major thing we do (at Animals as Natural Therapy) is invite kids to have a relationship with a horse. Sometimes if they're really afraid, we have to start with a goat or a rabbit so all our animals here play into it. We develop mutual respect between you and this 1,000-pound horse.
Q: How do you develop mutual respect between kids and horses?
A: We teach how horses respond and think and how we as humans are predators and how we think differently than they might. Safety comes from awareness.
You start learning how to be aware of how your behavior affects another one. That's really necessary in social situations and society.
One of the contracts the kids make with the horse is: "I need you to take good care of me, and I will take good care of you. If you mess up, I'll forgive you, and if I mess up, I need you to forgive me." Kids need that in schools and at home - we need to ask for what we need.
When you get on a 1,000-pound horse that has its own opinion, they're very powerful. It can be very dangerous unless you learn to be aware, how they think, what might scare them.
A horse will give you its all if you respect it.
Q: For a child to succeed in horseback riding, how important is it that parents be involved in their training or classes?
A: You really have to have the support of your family if you are going to do any competing. If you seriously want to learn to ride, you're usually talking competitions.
For instance, for a kid who is going to a horse show with 4-H, parents can't help you groom, but it's getting you there, making sure you have everything on your list, helping raise money - it's not just a thing where you drop your kids off.
You can drop them off at lessons for a few years, but then they're going to be around kids who want to show, and they need support from their family to show.
Q: How should parents and kids choose a riding coach?
A: You have to just go in with the idea that you're going to try it out, and if it doesn't work, you need to switch.
There'll be a riding coach my son loved that could have someone else in tears. But just because a riding coach had one kid in tears doesn't mean it's not going to work.
You kind of want a coach that matches your kid's personality.
It depends on what your kid's goals are, not what your goals are. They may want a mellow, laid back instructor if they're in it just for fun, and some may be more competitive and want that coach that's really tough.
Reach Samantha Wohlfeil at Samantha.Wohlfeil@bellinghamherald.com.