We’ve all heard of that fabulous lesson pony, the one that can build confidence in children and novice riders. My version of this pony came into my life when I was on the other side of teaching: I was the coach, not the student. His name was Topaze, and he took his last breath only a year ago following an onset of colic. Extremely sensitive by nature and affectionate in his interactions with humans, Topaze was essential in helping me as I searched for a better, calmer, more positive approach once I was in the coaching role. This article is inspired by him and the lessons he taught me both as a coach and an equine trainer.
My history as a rider
When I was a child, there was very little one-to-one time with the coach. We were shown a couple of times how to halter, lead out of the stable, pick hooves up and then tack up. These procedures were demonstrated to the other students and me; however we were unable to practice them under the eye of the coach. We were very quickly left to our own devices, no matter our age, to deal with the horse we were to be riding. I was faced with horses that did not want to be caught in their stable, that kicked out when their hind hooves were picked up, pulled away when being led, and kicked out or tried to bite with pinned ears when I saddled up. This was all before I was even in the saddle.
Once in the saddle, I was further exposed to bucking, rearing, bolting, and the list goes on… I found these behaviours frightening and intimidating to deal with alone and even under supervision in lessons (I much later on in my life realized that all of these horses were demonstrating pain and fear behaviours). When I went to seek help from the coaches or the stable hands, I was witness to harsh behaviour from the human to the horses: yelling, smacking, and demonstrations of force to make the horse “do what it was told.”
When I was riding, I felt like I had to repeat these harsh behaviours that I had learned, and it made me feel sick to my stomach. What I had been taught to do did not match my nature, nor my love for the animal in front of me. I struggled deeply to apply these methods and I found myself looking for other ways to communicate with the horses I was riding. I would try speaking softly and holding my hand out to the horse, waiting for a sign that I could approach or, even better, for the horse to come to me. I was young and had no structure or knowledge of learning theory or equine behaviour. I only knew that I wanted more peaceful interactions with the horses. These experiences drove me to approach my training with my students as a coach in a totally different way, seeking this quieter and more positive approach. I was lucky to be working in a school that considered nutrition, behaviour, and saddle fit, and worked on an individual basis with the students. This allowed me to experiment and develop the method I wished I had been taught when I was a child.
When children come to you to learn about horses, the opportunity is ripe to introduce them to a holistic approach, in many cases, from the very beginning of their contact with horses. They are often keen to absorb any information surrounding the horse if it is provided in a way that makes it fun and engaging for them. In my time as a riding school coach, I worked with a significant number of children and was moved profoundly each time by the purity and innocence with which they approached the horses. Positive punishment was never anywhere near their consciousness, unless it had been put there by previous trainers. In these cases, positive punishment was easily discarded in the face of more ethical communication as it comes naturally to children.
The combination of this with a pony like Topaze, who was highly motivated by praise and scratches along with a natural penchant for engaging with young children, were my first insights into positive reinforcement work at its purest.
There are many elements to consider when working with children and horses, and I will break the most important ones down into sections.
1. Safety is paramount, at all times
This goes for all training, with all people and all animals, though becomes especially important with children, as they are often completely unaware of possible dangers. This means that they should be paired with appropriately sized ponies, as a starting point. Safety measures should be introduced in ways that help them to remember why they are so important. For instance, if we explain to them that horses don’t have the same visual field that we do and where their blind spots are, children will often remember and ask whether the horse can see them from wherever they are standing. This helps them to understand why they should go around the back of a horse by walking a wide circle.
Explaining and revising quick-release knots for tying is also essential, and returning to it regularly emphasizes its importance for the children. I developed a little game that I called “3,2,1 Spook” to work on the knot in an engaging way. Once they have understood that horses are flight animals and can become frightened of elements in their environment very suddenly, it is easy to introduce a practice ritual to help the child understand how quick-release knots work. I would count down from three, which indicated the pony was beginning to become anxious and at the word “spook,” there would be a big fear reaction to something in the environment. During this game, the horse in question was never in fact spooking nor anxious, but the children took it very seriously and would rush to untie the knot and reassure the horse by stroking and speaking to them quietly. This activity also allows for discussing behavioural cues that could appear prior to a bigger fear reaction, like changes in head posture, tension in muscles, snorting, or triangulated eyes.
It did, once, actually happen that dear Topaze began to pull back because the wind banged a stable door closed behind him and the child I was working with that day rushed to free him. No harm was done that day other than the child telling me off because the door should have been closed. It could have been terrible for my ego, but it was actually a very proud moment for me as a safety and behavior-aware coach.
2. Choosing an appropriate pony
This is also tied to safety. Horses have their individual combinations of life experiences and personality traits that contribute to their preferences of activities to engage in. Some horses show significant facial and body tension around children, while others are much calmer and seek out contact with the child by bringing their head closer and smelling them with their ears relaxed. This is hugely important to me, as those second horses are naturally inclined to want to engage in this type of work.
For the others, you of course could devise behavioural modification plans to help them become apt to work with children through a LIMA framework. However, I feel that this does not necessarily have its place when working with other people’s children in a coaching context, as you are responsible for these children while they are with you. I believe it would be an increased risk to work a behavioural modification plan in this type of situation. For these reasons, I prefer to work with children alongside horses and ponies who show a natural inclination for it already. I also feel that this is much more respectful of each horse, as it lets us consider them individually, rather than having an undesired role thrust upon them.
3. Keeping the child and pony engaged
A standard session is roughly one hour. Realistically this can end up being too long for young children and also for the ponies in a traditional approach with riding as a primary goal. However, if the focus is on simply teaching the children how to be with horses and we shift our lessons to developing horse people instead of horse riders, we can then design sessions that keep both the horse or pony and child engaged all the way through.
A typical session for me with this approach looks something like this:
First, we go and fetch the pony together from the stable or field. We observe initial behaviour from the pony, such as whether or not they come toward us. If not, do they leave when we approach? We discuss this momentarily and generally if the pony has left or not approached us, by the end of the discussion they are close by and watching us with more relaxed body language. We then work through haltering and leading up to the grooming area. For positive reinforcement training and encouraging choice for the horses, this is a nice moment to teach children about self-haltering.
We then groom and tack up together while discussing what the horse is communicating all the way through. I build up distance progressively until they are independently grooming and tacking up, but I remain close to ensure safety measures are in place and to keep the child and pony engaged. During this time, we will incorporate the aforementioned field of vision exercise and “3,2,1 Spook.”
The last component to the session is working on leading skills around a simple obstacle course that I have set up previously. Finally, we work through the same course under saddle while being led. Similarly, I build up my distance from child and pony as the child learns and becomes more independent.
Ponies remains engaged throughout these sessions because they are stimulated in many different ways. Moreover, their behavioural cues are a vital part of each session, which means they are always below threshold. I also really like the obstacle course because it gives the pony structure, and they are also able to focus on it as much as the child. It provides a common goal for the child and pony, making it easier for them to develop communication with each other.
With very young children, engaging their creativity is a great way to keep them focused. I encourage them to create a story around the obstacle course I have set up. A serpentine of cones then easily becomes a winding riverbank and poles on the ground often become fallen tree trunks in a forest. As a coach, I have come to love this exercise. In my time in the riding school, I would watch the children come to life with bright eyes, and the ponies always had their ears pricked forward with equally relaxed bodies and faces.
This is where my tribute to Topaze in particular comes to the fore, though there were many other wonderful equines I worked with, like his brother Pégase, Lucky, Blacky and so many others. Over time Topaze became so engaged in this work, and it became such a combined cooperative session between him, the child and me that it can truly be said that he was my teammate with each child we worked with together. I was able to build up to sending children over jumps (small, of course, until they were older and more experienced) off lead as long as I was waiting for him on the other side a safe distance away to provide praise and scratches for him, while the child in question fell onto his neck to hug him in ecstatic laughter.
This began to build when I noticed the tendency Topaze had to veer toward me when I praised him for the right answer even with a student on his back. I realized with time that I had installed a marker word, quite by accident. He had learned that when I said “good boy!” he would get lots of scratches and cuddles when he came to me. Though this was completely accidental initially, I quickly realized that it was really helpful in teaching the students, as Topaze was focused on how to get his cuddles. This meant that the first time I let students off the lead line, I could position myself a couple of strides ahead of them and ask them to walk toward me, applying the aids in certain ways. I knew there was a high chance of success and therefore a great learning experience for the child, because Topaze knew that coming toward me was always an answer that was positively reinforced. The first canter transitions off the lunge line went off without a hitch for the same reason. He would execute the canter transition perfectly, no matter where he was in the arena, and then look to me for the next question. I refined my communication with him to the point where I knew exactly how to set up initial jumping exercises to build experience and confidence in his young riders all while ensuring that Topaze was enjoying his sessions and getting something he valued highly out of it – scratches and cuddles from me and his rider.
With more experienced riders that needed less of my security and proximity, Topaze learned that the cuddles and scratches would come after certain amounts of effort. He would stay engaged through the whole sessions as long as there were regular breaks in which he was praised heavily by me and his rider.
Because of these experiences, I know that this is a better, more holistic, and safer way to work with children and horses, and it is a far cry from many of my own experiences as a child that were fraught with anxiety and fear. I will continue this approach throughout my career, and as I gain in knowledge and experience, I will be able to further include reward-based training and positive reinforcement in a more structured way.
Teaching children about horses, whether purely riding or a more global approach, is a responsibility to be taken seriously in many ways. Not only are we responsible for teaching them to be safe around such large animals, but we are also passing on the true nature of the horse to a new generation among which many will become lifelong horse lovers who will give our horses homes. In the children we teach, there are also future veterinarians, farriers, body workers, grooms, competitive riders, behaviourists, Olympic medalists, trainers…
It is essential that we acknowledge that we are in a unique position to start their journeys off by understanding the importance of giving the horse a choice, and by recognizing that asking kindly and patiently, respecting the answers we receive, and rewarding the horse for what they do give us – rather than forcing a result – we build much more with these animals we all love so deeply.
There is no comparison and no greater pleasure as a coach than to be privy to such happiness from a child under your tutelage as they discover the true joy of being with horses, and to witness such true cooperation and willingness from the horse. I will never forget the look on Topaze’s face as he flew child after child over jumps with such ease and on long reins with faulty steering from his young, inexperienced riders, only to come to a quiet halt to receive his cuddles from his human teammates. He was truly a wonderful pony, and I am honoured to have worked alongside him for so long. May he rest in peace along with all the other wonderful horses that have been on this planet.
Nadia Hernandez is an equine trainer, behaviourist and dressage coach. She has a BSc in Psychology, and MSc in Equine Science from Edinburgh University. She runs a holistic equestrian support system with a focus on behaviour problems and building bonds between horse and human. She lives in Luxembourg with her partner, her dog and her four horses.