Apparently riding doesn’t have the draw for my kids that it did for me. Here are some other ways to keep the kids out of trouble at the barn.
When I first had kids, I really looked forward to raising them at the barn. I had visions of them hanging out at the barn, learning to take care of horses, riding, and becoming those bad @$$ little kids you see taking their ponies around barrels in videos on social media. I thought, “This will be great. They will become the natural riders that I could never be.”
Note: this is NOT my child.
Fast forward a few years. I lug my reluctant kids to and from the barn when I can’t find a sitter or a willing partner to keep them entertained while I enjoy some much-needed barn time. Sure, they ask to ride and pet the pony, but that distraction lasts for all of 20 minutes before they are whining, begging to go home, or asking for something to eat or drink. In the early years, there was no way I could ride with them with me. Everything from the electric fence to the stairs to the hay loft spelled certain doom. As a result, I had to come up with ways to keep the kids busy so I could at least groom my horse without fear of a trip to the ER.
If you find yourself in a similar situation, here are a few ways – other than riding – to keep your kids entertained while they accompany you to the barn.
1. Mucking stalls. This seems really obvious, but bear with me. As small children, my kids weren’t very effective stall muckers. However, they were quite enthusiastic. Never underestimate the power of poo to keep kids entertained. Maybe your children are more refined than mine, but my now four-year-old twins love to giggle and laugh as they pick the manure out of the stalls. They’ve gotten fairly decent at it (as long as there isn’t a lot urine) and love to exclaim that the stall apples came “out of the horsey’s butt” as they use the kid-sized pitchfork to move manure from the stall to the wheelbarrow. To be honest, a large amount of manure and bedding still ends up in the barn aisle, but hey! At least this keeps them busy for about 10 to 15 minutes while I work with my horse.
2. Spray bottles. For some reason, my son is obsessed with spray bottles – especially if he can observe the track the water leaves on something. The great thing about having horses is that I tend to have an abundance of empty or near empty spray bottles lying around. Fill one with some water, and my kids can spray the arena dirt, the barn walls, the gravel in the driveway, the horse trailer, and the list goes on. Bonus: this is excellent training for when I trust to fly spray the horses (as opposed to each other’s eyes).
3. Picking hay out of the arena. At our barn, we have a small arena that connects one portion of the barn to the other. When horses are stalled in the back portion, hay must be taken through the arena to those stalls. As a result, hay sprigs will fall to the ground. Picking them up is time consuming and tedious, especially for those of us who aren’t as close to the ground as my brood. I’ve tried to make a game out of it by challenging my kids to pick up as many sprigs as they can. Admittedly, the see through my ruse and their interest in this activity tends to wane. It tends to devolve into the kids just playing in the dirt. Be that as it may, the children are safe, happy (if in dire need of a bath), and content to let me hang with my horse for a while.
4. Mock riding. Despite the availability of actual horses to ride, my children somehow are much more entertained by riding pretend horses around the arena and over obstacles and jumps. They fashion stick horses out of nearly anything available and pretend to ride around the arena. I don’t get it, but it doesn’t matter. They’re happy and distracted, so I’m happy (and hopefully slightly less distracted).
5. Setting up obstacles. This one probably won’t work if you’re at a barn that sets up specific courses and leaves them up for schooling. However, in my world of mostly casual riding, setting up obstacles in and around the arena is a great way to keep the kiddos entertained and desensitize the horses. We have tarps, noodle gates, standards (for jumps or gates), kiddie pools, and all manner of things to get our horses used to going over and through obstacles. The kids love it. The noodle gate yields countless minutes of entertainment (yes, minutes – my children are easily distracted). We use pool noodles to construct the obstacle, and the kids like to arrange, rearrange, and discuss rearranging the noodles. These obstacles especially are entertaining if they’re in the mood to ride their stick horses around the arena (see number 4).
6. Playing with the barn cats. At least this lived up to my expectations — my kids love the barn cats. They spend a fair amount of time following the cats, narrating their activities, and renaming them. Thankfully the barn cats are tolerant.
I never cease to marvel at the fact that the kids aren’t entertained by the mere proximity of horses as I was as a child. Fortunately, there seem to be ample things around the barn to entertain them. The key is focusing their attentions so that they don’t decide to draw a mural on the side of your truck with a hoof pick (yes, that happened) or cause damage to other people’s property. Use your creativity and accept that picking up the products of their creativity is a small price to pay for your time with your horse. Whatever it takes to go riding!
Disclaimer: Unless you have a heated barn, these activities are really only useful in the warmer months. As for the winter months… Godspeed, my friends.