Youth Sports Profile: Equine Sports

Equine sports options abound for kids who love horses and riding.

Equine sports - girl on horse jumping
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If your child loves horses, riding lessons are just the beginning! There are many equine sports and styles to choose from if she'd like to compete along with her horse.

The Basics

Two main styles of riding are English and Western; they have different equipment, attire, types of horses, and associated gaits and sports (see that link for a list of sports for each style). Participating in any kind of riding also means learning how to groom and care for a horse, including keeping its stall clean.

There are eight equine sports governed by the Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI):

  • Combined driving, in which competitors drive horses (alone or in pairs or teams) through a series of events as they pull a carriage or cart
  • Dressage, in which horses perform specific maneuvers to demonstrate flexibility, balance, and responsiveness to riders
  • Endurance, trail races of 50 to 150 miles
  • Eventing, a three-part competition that includes dressage, stadium jumping, and cross-country jumping, in which horses must navigate a course that includes obstacles such as logs, fences, and streams
  • Paralympic, dressage competition for riders with physical disabilities
  • Reining, similar to dressage but designed to demonstrate the qualities and skills of ranch horses
  • Stadium jumping, in which a rider must guide a horse through a course of hurdles and jumps inside an arena
  • Vaulting, also called voltige, in which riders (individually or in pairs or teams) perform acrobatics moves on horseback

    Age kids can start: Some stables may offer riding lessons to kids as young as 5 or 6, although 7 is more common. For kids this age, an instructor needs to lead the horse since the child will not have the physical strength to manage it. The earliest lessons will focus on basic safety around horses and grooming.

    Riders from 7 to 21 years old can join the Pony Club, which has both English and Wester tracks. Teens can become Young Riders, part of the U.S. Equestrian Federation; the federation sponsors competitions in both English and Western styles as well.

    Skills needed/used: Balance, coordination.

    Best for kids who are: Horse lovers, and who are mature enough to work with and care for these animals.

    Season/when played: Year-round, depending on available facilities and type of event.

    Team or individual? Individual, although stables or schools may sponsor teams that earn points collectively. Girls and boys compete against each other on equal footing.

    Levels: Each equine sport has its own levels (for example, height of jumps) and points systems. The Pony Club has a series of ratings that members can progress through. Dressage, eventing, and jumping are all summer Olympic sports.

    Appropriate for kids with special needs: Very! Riders with physical disabilities (including vision impairment) can compete in Paralympic events. Equine assisted therapy, or therapeutic riding, has benefits for children and adults with cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, Down syndrome, autism, and other special needs. Find a therapist through the American Hippotherapy Association or the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH).

    Fitness factor: Medium-high. Riding, including saddling, grooming, and mucking out stalls, can burn 200-300 calories per hour. Riding works muscles in the legs, core (abs and back), shoulders, and arms.

    Equipment: Aside from the horse or pony itself, riders need a helmet and boots, plus specific saddles and other equipment depending on the type of equine sports they choose.

    Costs: These will vary quite a bit, depending on the type of equine sports your child is interested in (and required equipment for them), whether you own your own horse, and whether you have land to keep your horse. About's Guide to Horses, Katherine Blocksdorf, estimates the minimum annual cost to care for a horse at about $1,400/year, not including shoes, treating illnesses or injuries, or boarding.

    Boarding a horse can start at about $100/month.

    Private lessons start at $25 to $50 per hour. Participating in events or shows will mean additional costs, for entry fees, travel, and coaching.

    Time commitment required: Again, this will depend on whether you have your own horse and where you keep it. Daily care takes about 30 minutes; to this add travel time to the stable (if applicable), lessons once a week or more, and so on.

    Potential for injury: High. Risks include falls (leading to broken bones, sprains, spinal injuries or concussion) and kicks, bites, or other injuries caused by the horse's behavior. To help prevent horseback riding injuries, riders should always wear a helmet. The saddle, stirrups, and other equipment should be properly fitted and in good condition.

    How to find a program:

    Governing bodies:

    If your child likes equine sports, also try: Bicycling, track and field, swimming

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