Developing Safety and Control

By Nancy Faulconer


As a parent, it is YOUR responsibility to keep your children safe. This includes proper footwear, attire and education. No matter how good the helmet is, it cannot take the place of preparation and education. There are lots of kids out there riding unsafe horses.

The most basic rule of safety is to make your children AWARE of personal space. A good way to explain this is to children is to stand them inside a hula hoop. The hoop represents their personal space and gives them a physical boundary (rather than an imaginary bubble). 

The horse (any horse) should not be allowed to invade their space. Unconsciously, many of us move backward when a horse crowds us. To a horse, this indicates submission! The horse becomes higher in status when he moves your feet. Teaching kids this basic rule will prevent a lot of other problems from ever even occurring. As always, seek professional help if you are unsure of how to proceed.

This article is written directly from my personal experience in developing my horsemanship using natural methods, studying psychology and communication of equines, and incorporating the aspect of having young children underfoot while learning. There are a few good natural horsemanship programs available, and the internet has many more resources. Please visit if you need some direction on where to look for a good horsemanship program.

Girl & Horse

As you progress along your horsemanship journey, you will realize there are many parallels between parenting and horsemanship. I am presenting this as an attempt to invite you to think along the lines of what worked for my family, and hopefully spark your imagination and creativity where your own family is involved.

Some important considerations are safety and environment. If you expect your child to wear a helmet during their horse interactions, then you should be wearing a helmet. That decision is up to the parent, and must be enforced by the parent. My children have repeatedly shown me that my example is more powerful than my speech, and so I believe that modeling the behavior that you want them to learn is a top priority.

In the end, it’s not what you put ON your head that keeps you safe, it’s what you put IN your head, and ultimately, in your children’s heads. Knowledge and preparation will keep you safe.

In summary, safety and environment are going to play a major role in the success of your child’s horsemanship.


Things to Think About:

Horses have their own set of priorities! Things that are important to horses are:

- Safety (Horses are PREY animals… they are unsure of PREDATORS, which is what PEOPLE are!)
- Comfort (Horses gain comfort from defined leadership roles. They don’t WANT to have to be the leader. They will be very happy if you are the leader, but you have to earn this position.)
- Play (Horses move each other’s feet to establish dominance, they do this in every day interaction, and they make a game of it. It is wise for the parent to understand this, and to be very aware of what the horse is telling us.)
- Food (Again, leadership at feeding time is critical.)

Following are some of the most important points that I have had to address:

A relaxed, comfortable horse is a safe horse. By becoming a good leader for your horses, you will create relaxed, willing and cooperative animals. Using prey animal psychology is an excellent way to accomplish this. With children helping tend the horses, everything takes on MORE significance. Therefore, at feeding time, it is very important that you build RESPECT into this routine.

My children like to help me feed the horses, so the method that I found to be safe and effective is lining the horse up to be fed.

What this means is that you approach the gate, stall door, or fence where the feeder is kept, and you protect your personal space. Do not allow the horse to push into you, or your children, in an effort to get to his breakfast faster. Using a broom or training stick like a windshield wiper is very effective. Most horses will only run into it once before they get the idea and wait patiently out of your 4 foot “bubble”.

What is most important is that your horse waits until you have put the feed in his bucket, and his ears are up, before you allow him to come and have it. If he tries to drive you by putting his ears back or snaking his head down, just keep blocking him with the stick until he backs up and gives you a nice look. If your horse is particularly difficult, DON’T ENTER his space! Stay on the outside of the stall or on the other side of the fence. If he absolutely refuses to wait, go back in the house! Try again a few minutes or an hour later. The difference this makes is amazing. All of a sudden, all of the other things I wanted to do with my horses became easier when I started defining leadership roles at feeding time.

Regarding play, watch how horses interact with each other!

One is a leader, and one is a follower. The leader decides what game they are going to play, at what level, and for how long.

One of my favorite things to watch horses do is work out the pecking order of the herd. The one who moves his feet is demoted to lesser status, and the one who did the bossing is elevated. There are no equals in a horse herd.

There are NO EQUALS in a horse herd. That is important to remember when you are handling horses. I try to provide interesting objects for developing my horse’s trust and respect in my leadership.

When you are a good leader, you will find that introducing strange and exciting objects like generic pool toys (blow up octopi, noodles, balls, etc.) make excellent toys for use with your horse!

My yearling likes to bite them, so I can’t turn him loose with them or they don’t last long. Tarps are excellent for simulating crossing water, for hanging on fences and from trees, and some kites have been good toys when the kids are finished with them. Also, beach canopies and umbrellas are good overhead things to go under.

The main point is, use your imagination! These props can all be used for developing your horse's acceptance and tolerance to new things, and provide mental stimulation for him. By introducing new toys you will keep your skill development fun for your horse and pique his curiosity as well.

With all this in mind, it should be apparent that safety and control begin on the ground.

It is important that you are able to direct your horse’s feet while you are on the ground, BEFORE you ever consider riding him.

Catching and Haltering:
It is important that your horse WANTS to be with you. He should stand quietly, and bend his head toward you
while he is being haltered.


When you are leading your horse, he should match your speed and walk WITH you, not pushing ahead and not dragging behind.


Pre-riding Checklist:
Can you:
Gently push your horse’s shoulders away from you?


Can you:
Gently push your horse’s hips away from you?
Don’t forget the other side!

push hips

Can you:
Stop and back up, and your horse stops and backs up WITH you?

stop & back up

Can you:
Stand even with his ribcage, (where the saddle goes) and still direct his feet as well as you want to when you are riding?


Can you:
Approach a scary object and investigate it?

scary objects

Can you:
Ask your horse to go over or past the scary object and have him remain relaxed and curious?
Once these pre-riding items are great, you will be surprised how good your riding can get!


Can you:
Ask your horse to come stand beside a block and wait for you to get on?
If your horse says, “No” you may want to do more exercises on the ground before riding.

stand next to object

Can you:
Have someone else hold the rope while you ride without stirrups or reins?
Get it good at the walk before you trot!

walk first

Can you:
Relax and enjoy this? This is VERY IMPORTANT to develop your seat. And your horse will say “Thank you!” for not leaning on his mouth for your balance.

relax aand enjoy

There is no limit to what your imagination can develop for you and your horse!
Remember, have someone help you, until you are confident and independent enough to explore a little on your own. More resources are available. There are a lot of great books on natural horsemanship and resistance free training.

no limits

Remember, every minute you spend with your horse, you ARE teaching him. It is your responsibility to learn as much as you can, and to keep learning. hoofprint

teaching always

About the author:
Nancy Faulconer, author of "Living with Horses and Children" and its related workbooks, is the proprietor of Cloud9 Ranch in Naples, Florida where she lives with her two children, one husband, 16 horses, 2 Great Danes, 3 cats, 2 goats and a Chihuahua.

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