Teaching Young Riders Empathy and Responsibility

Photo © Andree-Anne Brunet Photography

Francesca Mulligan from Stoney Fields shares how she fosters empathetic, hard-working riders. 

How do you teach kids to handle disappointment or mistakes? 

We normalize them. It’s important to stress to young riders the value and probability of mistakes. It is far more likely that their performance in the ring will include a mistake than be flawless. There is an opportunity in those mistakes to learn, try harder, build character and conquer! We always say to our riders “Your choices in the ring don’t need to be perfect, but they need to exist.” Promote effort and confidence over perfection. Encourage them (barn mates, students, peers) to talk to each other about it. It’s harder to feel embarrassed or disappointed if they know they aren’t alone in the process.

How do you encourage riders to take responsibility and have empathy instead of blaming the animal? 

All of my students know that I have a strict “no pony blaming” policy. We work really hard to choose appropriate mounts for our riders based on their goals and experience. For the most part, a pony or horse is only as good as the instructions they get from their “pilot.” I remind our students that their pony partners did not come from a toy store. Like us, they have good days and bad days. Establishing a partnership between pony/horse and rider can really promote empathy and understanding when things don’t go as a rider plans. Empathetic riding is in the vein of smart riding and we remind our team of that every day.

What can riders of all ages take away from these methods? 

In a world of entitlement and perfection-seeking, the idea of embracing flaws and accepting responsibility is a difficult sell. If this mentality is constant, yet encouraging and productive… there are gains that measure far beyond the saddle. There is no age limit on that.

How do you think this might vary from other styles you see at shows or have kids come to your barn with? 

We pride ourselves on a curriculum that is teachable to all ages. We choose not to limit information or goal-setting based on age. Fun is important, but remember what they say about fundamentals. We also are big believers in group learning. Within our own stable this promotes a team mentality and sense of comradery that is blind to age, skill level, status, or anything else that may separate barn peers or competitors.

How do these lessons translate to bigger life lessons for kids? 

Empathy and emotional intelligence are becoming more recognizable traits and skills today than they were in years past. Teaching young people to identify (in sport or performance) their strengths, weaknesses, insecurities, etc… gives them a strong sense of self-awareness. Ultimately that awareness will navigate through every part of their life. It is overwhelmingly special to be a small part of that. Our girls amaze me every day and I can’t wait to see the incredible competitors and people they become.

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