How do you handle "can my kid come ride your horse"?

Every horse owner has had this conversation at some point.

“Oh, you have a horse, no way! Hey, little Jimmy really loves animals. Can he come and ride your horse?”

If you haven’t had this conversation, you are either far luckier and/or more unapproachable than I am. Teach me your secrets, please.

I don’t dislike kids. I don’t have any myself, and unless my personality, lifestyle choices, and personal goals all change dramatically in the next few years, I probably won’t have any.

I have a nephew that I adore, cousins, so on and so forth.

But the question of “can my kid ride your horse?” is a fraught one.

I don’t have any media of kids on my horse for privacy reasons, so enjoy these throwbacks to last year’s foliage ride through Groton State Forest.

First: it’s in how it’s framed. The best, most polite version of this that I’ve encountered takes into account my busy schedule, their kid’s actual level of interest, and does not include the expectation that the child will be riding. Those people usually listen when I tell them that they have to sign the barn’s release form, their kid has to wear appropriate footwear and a bike helmet, and that my rules and my instructions are absolute dictates.

The worst is some variation on “we’re coming on Sunday! kiddo really wants to ride! don’t disappoint us!” I’ve gotten that one too. That gets endless “Nope, sorry, too busy!”

For me, having kids on Tristan is fraught. It takes the place of one of my own riding days, because I don’t have enough time to spend at the barn to do kid stuff and┬áride. I have to basically enter my professional persona, the part of my brain that assesses kids and their reaction and scales my teaching appropriately. And I have to worry – about the chaos that is small children around a barn, about annoying the other boarders, about the dumb things that often happen around horses happening to a friend and/or their child.

That being said: I’ve done it a number of times. I would and will do it again. I think it’s important both for my own friendships (people are really weird about their kids) and to expose kids to horses, and to teach them how to interact appropriately with animals and to be in an agricultural environment.

Which is a long way of saying that a friend and his four year old visited the barn this week. He definitely falls into the former category, and I’ve know the boy for some time – he’s brave, smart, and sweet, and his parents set good boundaries for him.

Plus, giving a pony ride is Tristan’s favorite way to spend the day. He gets to amble along slowly and carefully. He is a rockstar. He can tell when people are a bit unbalanced on his back, and he thinks hard about where to put every single foot. Let me assure you that Tristan would love nothing better than to give pony rides to small children all day! (Well, nothing except sleeping in a field, but if he has to work for a living, doing as little work as possible is the idea.)

The visit went well. I established ground rules – no running, and inside voice only, because horses get scared easily – and had the boy help me brush him, then stand and watch while I picked Tristan’s feet. It’s important to me that I never present a tacked-up horse to a kid. I always make them wait and help to groom and then tack up.

The boy did great; I’ve had a lot of kids express interest in horses and then freak out once they get there, and refuse touch the horse, or refuse to ride once they’ve gotten close enough to touch. He was game to walk all around the ring, and even asked to go fast. (Nope, sorry, kiddo!) I put down a pole so he could feel Tristan picking up his feet a little bit. Then I got on and showed him a trot and a canter both ways, partially to get Tristan some┬ásemblance of exercise. Then we untacked and groomed him again. By then, the kid’s brain had pretty much run out, but 40 minutes is a long time for a four year old to behave so well and do so many new things! I would have him back if it fit into the schedule.

So: have you done pony rides for friends’ kids? How do you handle it? (I’m assuming that those of you who have kids of your own put them on a horse as soon as they can hold their own heads up.)