Hands forward, knees bent, and ready to go, 12-year-old A.J. Galiotos flies over the jump mounted on his favorite horse, Mr. Pony. A.J. started riding a few years ago when his mother, Bobbie Galiotos, told him he’d have to take horseback riding lessons if he wanted to trail ride. The lessons have stuck ever since.
“He loves animals,” said Bobbie. “He comes out to love on the horses and take care of them, giving them their treats. He knows what he needs to do and takes it very serious.”
Horseback riding is an excellent way to be active and enjoy the outdoors, and many farms throughout Tidewater offer a variety of riding experiences from pleasure to jumping and eventing. As riding continues to gain popularity, more children and adults alike have begun to discover a love for these large, intelligent creatures.
On a nearby ranch in Chesapeake, father and daughter, Patrick and Hannah Heafner, 10, work on trotting their horses over a series of ground poles as part of Triple R Ranch’s riding program. The pair have been riding since last January and do not plan to stop anytime soon.
“I enjoy all of it,” said Patrick. “The study and even the smell.”
Patrick had ridden once several years ago, and when Hannah expressed an interest in riding, he decided it would be a great opportunity to get back in the saddle and learn alongside his daughter. Riding is unlike any activity they’ve ever done together and incorporates their love for animals.
“I like that I get to bond with an animal,” said Hannah. “And it’s not just riding. You have to teach the horse.”
Many families like the Heafners come to Triple R Ranch for their first riding experience—whether it’s an organized trail ride, lesson, or summer camp. Wranglers instruct children and adults during lessons on how to control their horse at the walk, trot, and canter as well as basic care and handling. For those who are more advanced, private lessons are available in addition to being able to volunteer or work on the property as a wrangler or member of the barn staff.
“I started at the ranch when I was seven and just keep moving up through the lines,” said Marilyn Obie, director of horsemanship at Triple R. “A majority of our junior staff comes from our riding programs. They enjoy being around other friends their age that have a passion for horses.”
Something about being around horses sticks with people throughout the years and even those who rode decades ago can still recall the names of their favorite Triple R horses.
“Horses are a spark in your life,” Marilyn explained. “They can change a bad situation into a good situation. Just feeling loved by another animal, something big and powerful, that you are responsible for taking care of—that partnership is cool to see.”
Love of horses and riding is often passed down through generations from parent to child. The experiences and the values that horsemanship teach are vast and impact other areas of our lives.
“It would have meant everything to me if I had done it when I was younger,” said Patrick. “Riding is one of the greatest things you could do to create a bond. It’s a real memory-maker.”
VALUES OF HORSEMANSHIP
Through years of working in the horse industry, co-owner and trainer at Hawkesbury Farm in Virginia Beach, Sugi Dewan, has seen the positive effects riding can have. She encourages her students, as well as her family, to continue the tradition.
“My mom taught me to ride and now I teach my two kids,” she said. “I love it when it’s multiple generations.”
Animals have often been thought to encourage responsibility in children by teaching them how to care for another living being, but horses entail so much more. For starters, the average horse weighs roughly a thousand pounds, which is a large animal for a small child to control. Children must learn to respect the horse in order to care for it properly, let alone to ride or engage in equestrian activities.
“Responsibility is the biggest thing—and the commitment,” said Sugi. “They grow so much emotionally through it.”
Those who have been riding for many years are quick to agree that it is not simply a matter of moving on top of a horse, but rather a partnership. The horse and the rider must work together as one—both learning how the other thinks and acts.
“I’ve learned a lot about myself and self-confidence, but also a lot of patience,” said Sugi’s student, Kara Walters, 14.
Kara has been riding and competing for several years, including at the state and national competition levels. In order to make it this far, she has to practice and learn constantly. Every move the horse makes must be accounted for, whether she is riding on the flat or over jumps feet high.
“It’s a lot harder than it looks,” Kara said. “People think it’s natural, but you really have to train for it.”
Sugi considers competitive horseback riding a form of aerobics and says many universities and colleges with equestrian competition teams also require CrossFit training in order for their riders to be at the top of their game.
“Horseback riding has become more of a hardcore sport,” said Sugi. “It takes an enormous amount of leg muscle and core strength.”
SENSE OF COMMUNITY
For those who believe horseback riding is not a sport, they may want to talk to A.J., who will be the first to challenge you to jump three feet in the air and over an obstacle. While spectators might think the horse does all the work, this is far from the truth.
“If at first the horse doesn’t jump, it teaches you that you have to get it right,” explained A.J. “It doesn’t come the first time.”
Most of the students at River Run Farm in Chesapeake, where A.J. rides, take weekly lessons and ride additionally throughout the week to prepare for upcoming shows. It is not unusual to stop by the farm and see a group of kids riding their horses over a course of jumps.
“With other sports it’s ‘Do I have to go?’ but with horseback riding it’s ‘Do I get to go?’” said Bobbie, A.J.’s mom. “He’s in better shape from being in sports and active out here.”
But the physical aspect is not the only benefit to equestrian competition. The nature of the sport also creates a community. Riders will often encourage their competitors and help each other whenever it is possible—from giving advice on technique to fixing broken gear.
“Our competition series has a great group of youth that support each other, whether they’re from the same barn or not,” said Elizabeth Fields, trainer at River Run Farm. “In an age where you hear so much about bullying, it’s refreshing to see so many involved in horse showing, supporting and building each other up.”
Horses will never judge their riders and will always be the first to say hello after a bad day. They teach life lessons and help create memorable experiences. For children, horseback riding can be that escape to a magical world where it is just they and their horse—always learning, always doing.
“I think the lessons children learn from riding horses can build skills they’ll carry through life,” said Elizabeth. “I recommend finding a well-known barn with a good set of school horses that follows strict safety rules.”
For more information, contact these local farms that offer lessons:
• Calypso Run Farm - 757-679-4327
• East Coast Equestrian Training Center - 757-270-5228
• Hawkesbury Farm - 757-721-3819
• River Run Farm - 757-237-2968
• Untamed Spirit - 757-288-5999
• Triple R Ranch - 757-421-4177