A friend asked me for some ideas of games to do with her toddler. Her daughter has always been pony mad, wanting to do “be like Mummy” and is lucky enough to have her own Shetland whom she goes on walk hacks, does a bit of trotting on the lead rein, and “jumping” (poles on the floor). Until a couple of weeks ago she had that typical, innocent confidence as she bounced around the saddle. But then she took a tumble. Since then she has still been keen to ride but has clung on tight in walk and not been quite so keen to trot.
Obviously she doesn`t want to be seen as a pushy parent, but if her daughter wants to ride then she should still be encouraged, but it`s difficult to find things that you can do to build confidence without losing interest because she has a limited vocabulary and physical strength or coordination.
My friend approached me, and I thought I`d already written a blog about entertaining children in the saddle, but it appears that I`ve only done exercises like “Round the World” – see here.
The first thing I feel you need to do with small kids is to take their mind off holding on. She is obviously capable of letting go in walk, but is feeling insecure at the moment so is holding on tight. If you take her mind off holding on, then she will let go and build her confidence again, but subtlety is the key.
One thing you can do is ask kids to “high five” you. Holding a hand up invites them to slap palms with you, so they have to take one hand off. The offer of a high five usually means a hand will come off the pommel, and you can make the exercise harder or easier. Start in halt, with your hand close to theirs, then gradually move it further away and progress to walk, and eventually trot. If they get used to high-fiving it can almost be a distraction when they`re worried or nerves kick in, and then also as a reward when they do something well.
Another game I like playing with young children is Simon Says. It can be in halt or walk, with one hand or two. If Simon Says to put their hand on their head they are more likely to do it. So you can build up to touching their shoulder, knee, hip, elbow, and then parts of the pony too. Again, this game can be built up to reach parts further away, and to speed it up, which should help improve their flexibility and balance. They could also stand up, sit down, lean forwards, lean back (right down onto the hindquarters if they`re brave enough) , do aeroplanes and windmills with their arms, and any thing else you can think of.
With a group of children I often get them to stand up and have a competition about who stands up the longest. Again, it can be in halt, walk, one hand out, two hands out, or with their eyes closed.
Whilst talking to my friend, I had a stroke of genius. Stick pictures of animals up around the arena, or colours, or any other themes you can think of, and the rider has to find the animal you tell them to look for. Which hopefully involves them pointing, and then incorporating a bit of steering if they`re old enough, and when you reach the animal they have to halt, touch it and say the noise the animal makes.
This should be lots of fun, as well as being educational, and more importantly the focus in on the picture, not holding on. You could build in trotting between animals, or stop the pony a little bit further away from the picture to incorporate a bit of stretching. Hopefully, if you`re trotting between pictures, in their excitement, children will lift a hand off the pommel whilst still moving and before you know it they won`t be worried about holding on.
I guess the only limits you have when thinking up games for young children is your imagination. So long as it`s fun, they will give it a try, and you can easily push the boundaries by asking them to stretch further, hold for longer, or go faster. Then, with the focus on having fun they will forget about any fears they have!