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For the Love of Horses

Learning Horseback Riding and Life Lessons at The Woodlands’ Equestrian Centers

“Horseback riding has tremendous benefits,” Anita Varadaraju says. “With horseback riding, my daughter Ria focuses on something besides herself. It has made her more empathetic, more compassionate. A better human being.” It has also made Ria and Peanut Butter, her American Saddlebred horse, top competitors in English Country Pleasure riding.

Horses have roamed the earth for 55 million years, granted some were the size of dogs rather than 16.1 hands tall like Peanut Butter. Over 4000 years ago, man decided to harness the power of these majestic creatures. Horses carried men into battle, brought settlers West, and worked the fields.

Horses could have gone by the wayside with the invention of cars and machinery. Instead, they garnered a more esteemed position. They became beloved partners in the sport of horseback riding.

Sometimes horseback riding is seen as an activity rather than a sport. “If it wasn’t a sport,” Kris Harrelson of Two Stride Farm in Spring says, “it wouldn’t be in the Olympics.” Four-horse chariot races made their Olympic debut in 682 B.C.E.

It’s easy to underestimate the sport’s athleticism because the best riders make it look effortless. It isn’t. “You’re dealing with a thinking, feeling being,” Kris says. “It’s not a robot or a carousel horse.” Your horse has a mind of its own. Learning to communicate with your horse takes hours of practice to make a ride look easy.

But parents say there are no battles of will over putting in the time. You know how sometimes a kid doesn’t want to go to softball practice? This never happens with riding lessons, one grandpa says. For one thing, the common love of horses makes kids fast friends. A mom watching her daughter canter around Two Strides’ arena agrees. We tried all types of sports, she says. Horseback riding is it!

Kris and fellow instructors, Erin Harrelson and Micah Cranford, teach English hunting and jumping. They use eight lesson horses, some rescued and given a new lease on life. With individual personalities and behaviors, “every horse has something to teach,” Kris says, “and every student has something to learn.”

The instructors also train, coach, and accompany riders to local, regional, and national hunter and jumper events. Like other equestrian centers, upper-level students lease or own their horses. “We don't just teach horseback riding,” Kris says, “we teach horsemanship.” Kids linger after lessons caring for and pampering their horses.

Augusta Pines Farm is primarily a show barn with riders who compete year-round on pampered European warmbloods. To get a taste for the sport, owner Cindy McCampbell offers beginner lessons in hunter and jumper horseback riding. Kids learn on school horses and compete in local events. If they fall in love with the sport and advance to the show program, students take part in prestigious regional and national events. With this level of commitment, kids jump in with both feet and their parents lease or “buy four feet that all need shoes!” Cindy says.

At equestrian events, riders compete based on their experience level rather than age or gender. This is one of the many aspects of horseback riding that Monique Rideau, the lesson program director, appreciates. In fact, Olympic equestrian events are the only ones in which men and women compete against each other. Gender doesn’t matter.  

Brute strength won’t control a horse. Nonverbal communication with the reins, your legs, and your seat will. As students learn to “ask” clearly and their horses respond, confidence grows. Along with boosting confidence, horseback riding teaches kids to be patient, pay attention to details, and take responsibility. “Sometimes you need to accept that there’s no one to blame but yourself,” Monique says, “and learn from your mistakes.”  

Carli Kirsch, co-owner of North Houston Horse Park, likens horseback riding to being a pilot. The rider needs to guide and be in control of the horse.  Unlike an airplane, though, the rider needs to earn the horse’s trust to reach the team’s full potential.

Carli and Melanie, her mother and the equestrian center’s co-owner, teach hunter and jumper disciplines. “We take students as far as they want to go,” Carli says. “There’s no pressure to compete.” If they do choose to compete, though, Carli and Melanie coach and accompany riders to competitions.

For Melanie, the greatest value of horseback riding is developing a strong work ethic. She quickly adds that horseback riding does wonders for a child’s self-esteem. Some kids are shy; some have been bullied. Successfully piloting a 1000-pound animal in a safe, bully- and drama-free space is a tremendous confidence booster.

Horseback riding is a way to connect with nature and cut back on screentime. Many new students arrived during Covid for this reason and continue to enjoy the “sunshine, happiness, and horses,” Carli says. Whether they ride for recreation or to compete, being astride a horse boosts kids’ self-esteem and gives them a new — and higher — perspective.

May Chadick, owner and trainer at Vantage Point Farm in Tomball, teaches English saddle seat, Western and hunter pleasure riding, and carriage driving. She uses Hackney ponies and American Saddlebred horses. She’s adopted several from Saddlebred Rescue. The variety of lessons means there’s something for everyone.

Students may ride for recreation or compete in equestrian events on one of the school’s show horses or a horse of their own. “I very much believe in empowering kids,” May says. To that end, she structures lessons so a child can succeed and be empowered, no matter what her abilities are. May wants the child to “gets off the horse feeling like a rock star!”

With three decades of teaching and coaching, May is thrilled with the horse show successes, including Ria and Peanut Butter’s impressive record. Whether they win or not, May has pride in her students. “We have never had a student that ended up in a bad place or chose the wrong path,” she says, knocking on wood. “We have great kids. . . I am incredibly proud of how they've grown up.”

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