As a trainer, teaching a 7-year-old, I would immediately put him or her on a pony.

To start, the size is the best fit, safety-wise. I have always felt that part of riding is learning how to groom and care for the animal, so in saying that, many 7-year-olds can’t reach the top of a horse’s back. The falling off-factor is also something that is a given for a child that age, and falling from a pony is way safer for that height of a human than falling from a horse. I have always felt the best way to learn for young children is to be mounted properly, which includes matching the size/physical stature between horse and rider. With that in mind, I have all my young ones on ponies.

Now I am also big on the American way of starting kids on hunters and then moving on from there (up the divisions or into the equitation, jumpers, etc.), so my students always see the pony ring first when they start showing. I would say some trainers with a more European background will start them in the jumper ring, but still on a pony. So, in that sense, no matter if it is in the hunters or the jumpers, the ‘size factor’ is still safe.

Then, the question for trainers becomes the timing of how fast the kid grows and moves onto a horse. Of course, that depends not just on physical considerations, but how fast he or she learns, too.

As a judge, I love seeing little ones mounted on great, safe ponies. It makes me smile when their legs are flopping and kicking, and the old, wise pony is staying right there where they should be, allowing the kid to learn. Saying that, I also cringe, as a judge, when I see a big kid on a tiny pony… and I cringe when I see a tiny child on a naughty, green (or just naughty) pony.

As I’ve said so many times, suitability is so important! And, as a judge, the need for safety is high. For these reasons, the leg-flapping kiddo in jodhpurs and bows who does the add in the line will always outweigh the running, scared, little one; or the big kid in tall boots on a small pony to me.

I also have to say, when a tiny kid comes in on a big horse, I hold my breath. That’s not to say that if they both are perfect, and safe, they aren’t rewarded by me. But so often in my experience, the horse is too much for that little kid to handle; it takes a pretty seasoned child rider to be able to navigate on a horse when you are that small. Usually, the horse’s athleticism will outweigh a little kid’s capabilities—at least that’s what I see when I’m judging!

As a mom, we’ve had ohhh so many naughty ponies! But, saying that, I was never as worried when my 4- to 6-year-old was on a pony, even if that pony she was riding misbehaved.  When my daughter started riding horses, the fear factor was REAL; both the fear of her falling off and just the possibility of one of them stepping on her.

Saying that, my kid rode from the time she could walk, so she, for sure, was on a horse or two as a 7- to 9-year-old, and was very capable. But my worries, as a mom, were still huge in those early years. That fear when she rode ponies was not there—although the anger of the politics and the anger of the naughty ponies was greatly there!

The lessons my daughter learned in the pony ring and the fun she had was wonderful. There is nothing better than the time your kid has with her pony…nothing! Once he or she gets on a horse, things get real.

‘Real’ because, as we all know, the best horses are unicorns, and unicorns can break your heart.  Ponies, for some reason, can’t do that in the same way. Things are also ‘real’ in the sense that once kids are on horses, they are essentially considered ‘adults’—at least in the horse show world—so try to wait as long as you can for that day to come!

No one knows why, but that step up to horses is a true fear when you are a parent, and I don’t think I would ever have my kid start showing on a horse if he or she were physically tiny. Even though we all hate the politics of the pony world, we love it for the fairy tale it provides for our kids.

There are many days I wish I could go back to my pony world days, breathe deep, and enjoy them for what they were—and the pure joy they actually do give our little ones!

Dana Hart Callanan is a successful hunter, jumper and equitation coach, an ‘R’ judge, and a sales broker. In this column, she answers common questions about A-level sport. Send your questions to for consideration in a future column.