A Different Kind of Sport

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As the rocky gravel road crunches beneath your feet, you’ll hear the rhythmic thud of horses’ hooves ahead. Getting closer, you’ll see the determined but joyful expressions on uniformed children’s faces as they ride around the oval-shaped enclosure. This is McDonogh’s equestrian program.

At McDonogh School, kids of all ages gravitate toward horseback riding for a variety of reasons. For Madison Watson, 11, who has been competing in equestrian events since age 5, it’s for the spirit
of competitions.

“They make me feel free,” Madison says. “I don’t worry about anything, I just focus.” Though they add some pressure to the mix, she says, they’re also a lot of fun.

The private co-educational college-preparatory school in Owings Mills offers riding basics for students beginning in prefirst, and has seventh and eighth grade varsity riding teams—joining many riding programs across the country in a sport that continues to grow.

Now in its 21st season, the Interscholastic Equestrian Association (IEA)—a national nonprofit that serves grades four to 12 and has 10 teams in Maryland—just set its 19th membership record, having grown from 175 riders and 13 teams in 2002 to the largest youth equestrian organization in the country.

With Hunt Seat, Western and Dressage events, horseback riding has a number of athletic skills to offer kids and teens, but it also has a unique element that sets it apart from other sports: animals.

A Different Kind of Sport

Micah Jones, a riding instructor at Windsor Mill nonprofit City Ranch, has been riding for 5 years and working as an instructor for three. In that time, horses have taught Jones a lot. In training at City Ranch, Jones learned that while horseback riding is similar—as far as fitness goes—in many ways to other sports, it’s different in the most important way.

Mariah with her horse, Duncan | Photo courtesy of City Ranch

Horseback riding teaches empathy like no other sport, Jones explains, because to ride effectively, you have to think about what the horse is thinking. “You realize he (the horse) enjoys it as much as you’re enjoying it, and [horses] need that connection too,” Jones says.

The relational bond that forms between a horse and its caretakers and riders is unique for each horse. “They each have their own personality, and it’s fun figuring each one out,” adds McDonogh training instructor Miranda Grabill. Even though most riders who take lessons don’t own their own horse, every one of them has a favorite, she says.

For McDonogh student Lauren Lanza, 18, that horse is Cass. “He’s never done anything wrong. He has such a good personality and he loves being around humans,” Lanza says.

Kimber Whager, director of communications at IEA, says her daughter has been riding for seven years and she’s seen the benefits of working with horses firsthand—learning not just the skill of riding, but also responsibility, safety and compassion.

Working with an animal teaches life skills at a young age, Grabill recalls. She took to the sport instantly, and now, as an adult, she reflects on the values and lessons it taught her.

“I started working in a barn at 13,” Grabill says. “It taught me how to have a job and be responsible.” She is thrilled to now be able to shares these lessons with the next generation of riders at McDonogh.

With IEA, the kids are heavily involved in the care of the horse. Taking care of a horse is hard work, and it often teaches the kids just as much about the animals as the lessons do. Horse care involves making sure the animals have access to clean water, clean shelter and food. Riders provide exercise and groom the horses. Grooming the horses improves blood flow to the horses’ skin and massages large muscle groups, which helps the horses perform more comfortably.

Horse care has been recognized in the medical field as beneficial in occupational, physical and mental health therapy. According to WebMD, therapeutic riding programs have also been used to help people with a variety of different needs including autism, Down syndrome, spina bifida, cerebral palsy, amputations and more.

Athletic and Health Benefits

Of course, training to become a champion rider at a young age also builds athleticism and good health—which many students maintain even into adulthood.

“There are so many benefits— cardio, core strength, arm and leg muscles, fresh air,” Grabill says.

The American Heart Association (AHA) supports horseback riding as a way to maintain and improve cardiovascular health. For the last 41 years, AHA’s beach ride has served as part of a campaign to raise awareness that cardiovascular disease remains the number one cause of death for Americans. Other health benefits like burning calories, lowering blood pressure and reducing stress make horseback riding ideal to do alongside your child as an investment in your family’s health.

Ridgely Scott riding Fonzie at McDonogh School | Photo by Heather M. Ross

Health benefits aren’t the only reason to stay in the saddle.

Young riders stick around for college scholarships or, for Grabill, her longevity as a rider can be attributed to how it makes her feel—stress-free and focused.

For many riders including Grabill, who worked with horses since age 7 and returned to her alma mater to train students 16 years ago, horseback riding becomes a lifelong commitment.

But What About the Cost?

Some families might be wondering, “Can we do this?’”

Horseback riding has a reputation for being expensive, but this is mostly due to the cost of buying and maintaining a horse. With financial aid programs, talent-based scholarships and accessibility-centric riding barns, the reins are in reach for more children now than ever before.

The average cost of horseback riding lessons is $55 an hour, and most riders practice once a week, according to lessons.com, which tracks local prices to get yearly cost estimates.

Like most other sports, there is some equipment your child will need. A riding helmet that fits snuggly and a pair of boots with a heel are important for safety. Other recommended personal gear includes riding gloves, a body protector and riding breeches. While this list is not exhaustive, most other equipment is owned by the riding barns, such as saddles and grooming tools.

Photo courtesy of City Ranch

As a parent, Whagner wants other parents to know that horseback riding is attainable. IEA and other programs like McDonogh’s and City Ranch all allow riders to gain experience and work with a variety of horses without owning one personally.

Nonprofits including City Ranch also have outreach programs for those who might not have easy access to horses to learn. City Ranch works through Baltimore City Recreation and Parks and its own School Program to bring horses to approved parks, family homes, workplaces or neighborhood centers.

With summer camps and other annual riding programs opening up soon, now is the perfect time to register your child for a chance to try out the sport. Just remember, riding a horse is like driving a car. If you want to remember what you’ve learned, you have to do it regularly.

“That’s one of the unique benefits to weekly lessons,” Whagner says. “You build on principles.”

Horse Profile

Name: Invesco
Favorite food: Peanut butter and crackers
Likes: Attention, neck scratches
Skills: Competition

Ivanesco at McDonogh | Photo by Heather M. Ross

An Evening at the Brewery: 16th Anniversary Fundraiser

To help keep riding accessible, City Ranch is celebrating its 16th anniversary with a fundraiser. The event will take place on April 27, from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Farmacy Brewing at Willowdale Farm at 3100 Black Rock Road in Reisterstown. Tickets, which can be purchased at thecityranch.org, are $100 and include an
open bar, lite fare, music and a silent auction.

About Heather M. Ross

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