Elijah Schatz had ridden an elephant, a dog and a pony. But never a horse.
The 4-year-old from Greenville finally got in the saddle on Monday at the N.C. State Fair. After a free, five-minute lesson at the Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. Horse Complex, Elijah raised his arms and shouted, “Yeah!,” when his dad, Jonathan, asked if he had a good time.
“He’s a Type-A personality; he shows no fear,” Jonathan Schatz said. “More than likely, he’ll get into this.”
The N.C. Horse Council hopes the free horse-riding lessons, which continue Tuesday and Wednesday, will inspire more children to grab the reins and go.
The state’s equine population, which includes horses, ponies, mules, donkeys and burros, grew by 40 percent from the early 1980s to the mid-2000s, when researchers found that there were more than 300,000 in the state. But like many pastimes rooted in agriculture, horse trainers say fewer young people are getting involved.
Free riding lessons are one way to show what North Carolina’s horses and trainers still have to offer, said Sue Gray, the executive director of the N.C. Horse Council. The lessons are part of a larger Year of the Horse celebration this year, which also includes professional shows and demonstrations at the Hunt center through Saturday.
“We are trying to expose more of our urban dwellers to all of the different ways they can get involved with horses,” Gray said.
Trail riding is one option. In the Triangle, public parks like the American Tobacco Trail in Wake and Chatham counties and the Howell Woods Environmental Learning Center near Four Oaks are open to horses. Across the state, more than 100 public and private trails are available to horseback riders.
Other forms of riding are also taking hold with young people, including equestrian vaulting – a form of gymnastics and dance on horseback – as well as Arabian Native Costume and side-saddle styles.
Leasing an option
Cost can be a burden for some prospective riders; buying and caring for a horse aren’t cheap. In addition, as developers turn more open land into residential neighborhoods or shopping centers, finding space for the animals can be difficult.
But Gray said less expensive options are available, such as leasing a horse or renting space at a stable. Websites such as HorsesforLease.com allow prospective riders to find a horse nearby, while individual stables also use the Internet to promote “try before you buy” deals and other promotions.
As for buying a horse, Gray said, different costs come with different levels of involvement.
“If you get into it and you want to buy that big show horse and travel at the state, regional and national level, it can be costly,” Gray said. “If you want to get into it and enjoy and get a taste of it, it is not any more costly than any other sport your child gets involved with.”
Kent Kilpatrick of Raleigh said his 3-year-old daughter, Jules, may take up horseback riding after watching her smile ear to ear during her five-minute lesson. It was Jules’ first time on a horse, he said.
“We are going to have to buy one now,” Kilpatrick joked. “I didn’t know how she would react, but she’s a pretty brave kid.”
Anyone can take a free lesson, but many of the participants are children. They sign up and are fitted for helmets before trainers from across the state guide each rider through the basics.
Claudia McCauley, a certified horsemanship trainer from Wade, said she focused on starting, stopping, turning and safety.
“Horses are for everyone,” McCauley said. “I would hope they all pursue this further.”