I often say that I was born on a horse when I describe my life long horsemanship education. And yes, there are several pictures of me as a child precariously perched on my mom's horse or astride the neighborhood pony while the adults around me momentarily stepped out of the picture. By no means does this mean I was actually able to ride a horse independently - nor was I taking riding lessons.
I didn't actually have my own horse that I could handle on my own until I was nearly 11 years old. I did, however, spend a lot of time playing in the barnyard while my mom did the chores. I learned how to scoop poop, brush my mom's horse, and I was routinely allowed brief pony rides. This lasted till I was at least 7 or 8 years old.
So to help answer the question, "how old does my child need to be to take riding lessons?" I offer the following guide lines:
1) The question isn't so much about age, but more about size. A child needs to be tall enough to use the right equipment. Properly fitting boots, helmet, and saddle must be available to our junior riders in order to ensure basic safety and enjoyment. There's nothing more discouraging than getting tossed around on a horse's back when you're not yet strong enough to steady yourself. Children must have enough muscle control and balance to participate in typical beginner riding lessons.
2) The next safety 'must have' is the ability to follow verbal instruction. A child must have the cognitive ability to listen to my instructions and put them into action in a reasonable fashion. For example - my lesson horses are trained to speed up when their riders bump or squeeze their sides with their legs. Imagine a scenario where a young rider becomes nervous and squeezes their legs to hang on despite my instructions to relax. Or what if a horse spooks unexpectedly and startles their young rider and they drop their reins? Are they able to follow verbal instructions in order to regain control of their horse?
3) Finally, our young riders need to be mature enough to maintain focus and behave well enough to participate for an hour without needing repeated redirection from a parent or guardian. Some riders come to us expressly for the purpose of learning these skills and they are invited to enroll in our therapeutic services. Most riding instructors are not experts in child development and it's inappropriate to expect them to have those skills. The education required for those skills is costly and is reflected in the cost of therapeutic services such as occupational therapy, behaviour intervention, and social work.
Very young children can, however, learn a lot about horsemanship in a safely planned environment with activities designed to help them develop the skills they will need to safely horse around once they're a little older.