Tailor Made: Fine-Tuning Our Expectations of Raising a Child in the Equestrian Sport

By Troy Anna Smith

The tradition of parents enrolling their children into extracurricular activities has been a generational duty for centuries. Early morning soccer practice starts young, not to mention the after school rush to gymnastics followed by baseball at six. When it comes to the fun of horseback riding lessons and the discipline that can be involved, those who show interest early on often seem to dip out before they can even keep their heels down. 

So we turned to the pros: Those with experience in the arena, and out, who have also raised babies and kept up with their training. We asked, “How can we foster a love for horses when it isn’t love at first sight?”

Over at Our Day Farm, based in Elgin, IL and Wellington FL, top trainers Alex and Maggie Jayne have worked with students of all ages throughout the years. Alex, also grandfather to young rider Oliver Rolfe, age 5, has also trained his children and now professionals Haylie Rolfe, Charlie Jayne and Maggie, alongside many others in the top arenas from a very young age. In addition, father to Oliver, Nathaniel Rolfe (husband to Haylie Rolfe) also took some time to discuss the work as a parent with a non-horseman perspective when it came to encouraging his son to stay in the saddle! (Did you follow all of that?!)

What is Right is not Always Easy.

Introducing young children into the equestrian world reaps various benefits beyond pony nuzzles and a check mark for your college application. Parent and horse “outsider,” Nathan talks about how he has had the opportunity to watch his son Oliver learn life lessons at such an early age. “There is no better sport for learning ‘grit’. You learn to stick to it. It has its benefits, for the ability to teach a kid grit and determination, which I’ve come to appreciate how important that is, and at times, humbling. We rub shoulders with a lot of wealthy people in this business, and I will tell you, it’s not always the smartest ones in the room, it’s the ones who don’t give up and are determined who are the most successful and that’s why horses are just a 10/10,” he tells me.

Alex Jayne agrees. Having coached hundreds of young children, his philosophy is understanding that kids will lose their way, supporting them on their journey to ride, and to not allow them to quit. “A lot of parents will tell me that their son or daughter does not want to ride anymore, and I just say ‘too bad’. They probably don’t want to take out the trash either. It will never hurt anyone to learn how to ride a horse, and it provides some of the top life lessons in any walk of life,” he says. 

Maggie recalls as the oldest of three on the farm learning responsibility early on. Though she remembers the hard lessons were not always easy, she is now thankful for the strength and accountability that help her everyday. “I look back on my childhood, and I think about how I always rose to every occasion, it was an amazing way to grow up and I am so thankful.”

Teaching a child to never give up is a skill set we hope to introduce as early as possible as parents. Whether it be through education, relationships, sports and more, when exemplifying determination and strong will, a person will benefit most in the long run. “My most successful riders and best students went on to be CEO’s, and extremely successful people in life, I truly accredit that to the work ethic that was achieved in the equestrian world,” Alex continues. 

Smoke and Mirrors.

When it comes to a riding program, Alex and Maggie both agree that from a young age, kids should be having fun. The competitive aspect of any sport will always be there, so there is no reason to rush. “The position and the strength always come, but you have to keep their interest,” Alex tells me. 

Nathan has been  able to watch Oliver grow up around horses essentially since he was born.  The philosophy for the family was to always keep it light, as form comes later and functionality would come first. “We started by stitching leather sheaths for his Nerf swords. This began his love for jousting on horseback. We made velcro pole rings   and integrated play all while learning to balance. Truthfully, he would be so ignorant of the horse, yet spend hours riding without even having to think about riding,” Nathan shares. “We built a ninja warrior course and multiple obstacle courses, and placed wooden ladders across standards to make monkey rings and it would all be incorporated into the riding. Eventually he was looking forward to riding!” 

Both Alex and Maggie agree on a strong equitation based program, but rushing the process will not help any rider develop. Maggie adds, “If you watch Oliver now, he doesn’t even realize, he already knows how to do an opening rein, and is accomplishing inside turns from pushing himself to be faster …  but has no idea that that’s what they’re called!” Alex also discussed the joy of watching his son Charlie grow as a rider, similar to Oliver. Charlie eventually won the equitation finals in 2003, but when he was 10 years old, “he was fast, but he was not going to win any equitation classes!” 

Kids Just Wanna Have Fun. 

Additionally, many parents have found a substantial drop in participation when it comes to their sons wanting to ride versus their daughters at a young age. When attending a horse show, the arenas are filled with little girls sporting the hunt coat and pigtails, and more often than not there are few little boys to be found. Ironically, when we watch at the highest levels like our Summer Olympics, overall, from 69 countries, there have been 2,131 equestrian participants of which 1,753 have been male riders and only 379 were female riders. 

(Data collected from Olympics.com

Maggie shares a similar experience. Some riders are hungry early, ready to jump in the show ring and the majority show less interest, “We aim to keep it action packed and fun for them, this keeps them interested and in the sport for the long term.” She tells me. “Riding for the youngsters can last up to 15 minutes or an hour. The important takeaway is the time spent with the horse.” 

Many fun activities like spa days with bubble baths, trail riding, gymkhanas, and group challenges combining skill sets that can bring together horse and rider provide new exercises that can still pursue similar goals and maintain interest for the customer. 

By incorporating different teaching styles based on the developmental pace of the gender or person, this could contribute to the longevity of interest in the sport, therefore acquiring not only the values and skill sets but physical and mental benefits that come from a well developed horse person.

Integrating different ideas and teaching methods could contribute to the longevity of interest in the sport, therefore acquiring not only the values and skill sets but physical and mental benefits that come from a well developed horseman. “Choose your battles, it is not worth fighting over small things like time at a young age,” Nathan agrees. It should be about the experience and time spent with the horse, the love will develop when not forced with discipline and lecture. 

Our Day Farm caught on quickly, by learning to adapt to the needs of each rider in hopes to keep it fun, and exciting for every child. The benefits to building a relationship via horseback are ones every rider will carry for a lifetime, personally and professionally. Equestrianism is a sport that thrives on its traditions, yet will continue to grow with its riders and their trainers as they progress and adapt to the needs of the future.

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