In the spring of 2004, we had a newly-opened barn with two lesson ponies, six regular students, and very few expectations.
By spring of 2005, we were teaching close to thirty students a week and scrambling to expand our school horse string before the two old ponies burned out! This happened with little to no advertising; most of our students arrived via word of mouth.
We didn’t have a show team, prestigious credentials or affiliations, or a fancy facility.
But we did have something that none of the other local stables offered: a Rising Rider program.
More than your typical pony ride
In the beginning, we agreed with the conventional wisdom that students needed to be eight years old or older. After all, small children and horses are a combination full of safety concerns, even when the kids are able to focus!
But we got contacted by a lot of parents of five- and six-year-olds.
Since the barn we were leasing was technically considered to be an amenity of a resort community, we decided to offer what we called a “Pony Ride Experience” – essentially a 15-minute pony ride, with more interaction than provided at your typical county fair ride.
These mini-lessons could be used to gauge a child’s interest and readiness, and to appease children too young to fully participate in regular classes.
Little did we know that within a few months, our weekly bookings would include as many Pony Ride Experiences as full-hour lessons, if not more. Within a few more months, we had repeat customers asking if their little one could come on a weekly or biweekly basis.
We’d also figured out that while creating a safe, fun experience for the younger kids was challenging (and not the most mentally stimulating work for our ponies), it was also satisfying. The kids had fun. The parents were delighted. And we were building a client base likely to stay with us for the long haul.
Our small fry became "Rising Riders"
In 2007, we officially launched both the Learning Levels and our Rising Rider lesson program, featuring leadline lessons for children aged 4 through 7. This coincided nicely with USPC’s Junior Pony Club program, and allowed us to involve students of ALL ages in our satellite Pony Club.
Most of our young students were too small to control a horse or tack up on their own, and a few were physically incapable of posting the trot. So these lessons were taught mostly on a private or semi-private basis.
With the help of volunteer Ground Buddies, we also hosted a monthly group lesson so the kids could play games and make new friends.
We were able to keep them engaged with half-day summer camp programs, special classes at in-house schooling shows, and leadline divisions in our mounted games competitions.
The vast majority of our Rising Riders moved up to hour-long lessons when they grew into their legs – and turned out to be good little riders!
But we realized that the Learning Levels needed to grow, too
The requirements of Red Level – while easily attainable for older children – were unfair for children unable to hold a bridle off the ground or to keep their pony trotting on their own.
We wanted to involve Rising Riders in our unmounted program, but the program of independent study we used to award HorseSense ribbons didn’t work for the little kids.
Most of them couldn’t even read!
Young students require a different approach
Teaching Rising Riders is a very different experience than teaching older beginners. It also comes with a list of special requirements, such as:
Rainbow Level was created to bridge the gap between “first ride” and “regular student”, giving our Rising Riders a way to measure their achievements.
Unlike the rest of the Levels program, Rainbow requirements cover mounted AND unmounted topics, introducing simple terminology and horse care knowledge along with skills such as riding in two-point and walk/halt transitions.
Occasionally children above the age of 8 ask to participate in Rising Rider camps and lessons. We allow it but make it very clear that the lessons and activities are taught in a different style and tone, geared toward students with short attention spans and more enthusiasm than physical ability.
Will it work for you?
Programs for young children are not a good fit for every stable and every instructor.
But we think that with all the right ingredients, they can also be fun and valuable addition to a riding school… and that when Rising Riders grow up with a balanced seat, compassion for the horse and enthusiasm for the sport, you will enjoy their business and company for years to come.
After all, at the end of every rainbow is a pot of gold!
FIND RAINBOW LEVEL RESOURCES:
*Affiliate link: if you purchase this resource, we earn a teensy percentage of the sale — at no extra cost to you. It helps with the hay bill, and our ponies thank you!