By Bridget Kirkwood

Martha JoseyKarnack, Texas

11-time National Finals Rodeo qualifier over four decades, 1980 Women’s Professional Rodeo Association World Champion, clinician, trainer and host of the Josey Junior World and Reunion Barrel Races.

0716 YouthHorsesMarthaPhoto courtesy Martha Josey.

Safety and consistency are my No. 1 criteria helping me determine if a horse might be suitable for kids. A good youth barrel horse must have no bad habits. I usually say teenage horses that have been there and done that are the best horses for kids, but there are always exceptions to the rule. 

If a 7-year-old child is at the stage where he or she can walk, trot and lope a horse, then the type of horse they need is a babysitter. A babysitter is an automatic horse that will make the same pattern over and over and not make any mistakes. It’s important that the horse makes the same pattern, because the young person doesn’t need to be thinking about training—they need to be thinking about learning. 

When you think your child is ready to progress, be careful that you don’t get a horse that is too advanced for the child. Even though you want a faster horse, you still want the horse to be automatic and have that consistency. Speed-wise, it’s a lot easier to upgrade your horse than it is to have too much horse and then have to go and get a slower horse. Too much horse too soon could also result in a discouraged and scared rider. 

You’ll know a child is ready for a faster horse when they’re doing everything right on every run, but they’re getting out-ran on the clock. On his or her particular horse, the rider might not be clocking right if they’re not hustling enough, if they’re off-balance, if they’re not using their hands correctly or if they’re not taking care of their horse properly.

All horses need the right feed and must have the right care taken of them to keep them competitive. Both can always be better. When caring for your horse, think about an athlete preparing for the Olympics.

When you get a student’s hands right, it will help their times tremendously. I usually teach people to ride to the barrel with two hands and go to the saddle horn for the turn. When you go to the saddle horn, you should do that smoothly because it can offset your horse. If the horse is very automatic, then you can use one hand on the saddle horn and one hand on the reins during the entire run. That way, when you get to the barrel, your hands are already correct. You change hands leaving the first barrel. The child needs to learn how to change hands very smoothly. 

A laid-back horse is usually better for a hyper child, but a laid-back horse needs a rider who knows how to push them, also. 

Once the child is ready, riding a lot of different horses will help them progress. They’ll learn different things from each horse, but always remember they must ride safe horses. It’s always important to remember that too much horse too soon is a big mistake. 

Always get professional help when you’re buying a horse for a youth rider so you are certain to get the right horse for the level of competition your child is currently riding.

Jordon Briggs Lott, Texas

NFR qualifier, Barrel Futurities of America World Futurity champion, professional horse trainer and coach. Spent her youth on the road riding her pony every day while her mother, Kristie Peterson, won four WPRA World Championships

I have a lot of kids under age 10 who ride my horses, so the main thing I want is for the horses to be very easy to ride and very honest. The horse should also be calm, because kids tend to make a horse a little excited.

Barrel hitters are not suitable, because kids are still developing their timing. A nervous horse that anticipates running barrels isn’t suitable for a child, and I don’t think you should put them on hot or timid horses, either. 0716 YouthJordonBriggsJordon Briggs and the great Frenchmans Future. Photo by James Phifer.

Kids need a confident horse that knows what it’s doing, one that goes down the alleyway and knows its job. A horse that knows its job will stay in position even if the rider drops to one hand too soon before the turn. Ratey horses that are honest—that will run up to their spot even if you ask them to turn too soon—work well for kids. I like ratey horses because kids can get pretty loose in the saddle and they don’t weigh much, so the horse doesn’t feel them sit down as much as they’d feel someone who weighs 130 pounds. 

It’s really important for kids to learn how to ride. Whether they go and take English lessons or whatever, they need to know how to ride before they start running barrels. They also need to continue to improve their riding. At the barrel races I see a lot of kids who are strapped onto their horse, and I don’t have a problem with that as long as when they’re at home they ride without the straps and are trying to build their skills and improve.

Practicing is important for children. Working the barrels at slow speeds builds confidence, so the horse should be good-minded enough that the child can practice the barrels on him. If the horse gets hot and crazy and the kid can’t trot and lope the pattern on him, that will intimidate the kid. If I was a parent and I was looking at a horse, I wouldn’t want a horse the seller says, “You can’t work him on the barrels, you can only run him.”

I like horses to be really broke so the kids riding them learn what a broke horse is right off the bat. When a kid rides a horse that isn’t broke—that they have to pull and kick and tug on all the time—that’s the foundation they’re getting as a rider. It will be a lot harder for them to develop good feel as a rider in the future. 

Sometimes it can be hard finding an older barrel horse that is broke, because with a lot of those older horses, the only thing they know is the barrel pattern. I don’t think age matters as much as if the horse has a good mind. If a younger horse has a really good foundation and is confident in what it does, then it can suit the right child. 

It’s important that kids learn horsemanship, not just how to run barrels. I got to ride “Bozo” (French Flash Hawk) when I was 11, and that may seem young, but I’d been riding my pony every day for years before I did that, so I was a good rider by the time I got to run him. The sport has gotten expensive, and it’s tough not to want your child to win, but remember they need to stay within their comfort zone. I stayed on a pony for a lot longer than I thought I needed to, but that helped me learn how to ride well enough that when I stepped up to the next horse, I didn’t get intimidated. 

Florence Youree – Addington, Oklahoma

As an NFR qualifier herself, the mother of NFR qualifier Renee Ward and grandmother of 2003 WPRA World Champion Janae Ward-Massey, Youree has spent a lifetime helping youth riders become successful both as children and as adults. 

0716 YouthFlorenceYoungThree WPRA World Champions from the same family: Florence Youree, her sister Sherry (Price) Johnson and grand-daughter Janae Ward Massey. Photo by Kenneth Springer.For a beginner, the first thing I look for is an old horse. I don’t care if it’s over 20 years old, but they’ll usually be about 16. That first horse is so important, because it has to teach the kid to ride and go around the barrels. You want a horse that’s true and honest. It doesn’t have to be a big-time winner because you’re not trying to win, you’re trying to teach a beginner. Horses like that are seasoned, gentle and trustworthy. This type of horse will go just as fast as the child wants to go.

A lot of parents make the mistake of saying, “I want the horse to grow up with my kid, so I want a young horse.” In my opinion, that is the biggest mistake anyone can make because children need older horses. 

I like older horses because they’re so used to doing it that running barrels has become a pattern in their mind. At the very first, I’d like the horse to go around the barrels by themselves—they’re teaching the child to go around the pattern. Once the child can do that, the child will start to learn to use their hands and, even though the horse can do it by themselves if they need to, the child will learn how to help the horse. 

A horse for a youth should always make the same run. You need to pay attention to what the horse is doing to see if the horse needs to get tuned on. A horse is like a human, and it will do whatever it can get by with. The main thing they will do that indicates that they’re not being true and honest is that they’ll run by the first barrel, or sometimes they won’t stop real well. If the horse is going by the barrel a full stride or further, then you need to get some help with that horse. Be observant of things like that so you can take steps to correct them—you don’t want to wait until it’s a habit. 

I’ve always preferred geldings. There are a lot of great mares, but for me, we have so many horses it’s easier to keep geldings. If the mare acts witchy like a mare can, then I’d prefer not to have that for a child. 

Even though we all love our kids and want to see them progress and win, we also have to think of their safety. I suggest that beginners wear helmets. I think helmets can save them from bad injuries. My grandchildren wear helmets when they’re riding at home and they’re beginning to wear them when they’re competing away from home as well. 


Bridget Kirkwood is a regular contributor based out of Texas. Email comments on this article to [email protected]

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