Too young to ride? A study of riding school activities for pre-school children from safety and horse welfare perspectives

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Susanna Hedenborg Malmö University
Annika Rosén Malmö University
Oskar Solenes Molde University College
Gabriella Thorell Strömsholm

Introduction and aim

A few years ago, media reported on a 7-year-old girl that was killed during a riding lesson in Sweden. Equestrianism is one of the sports most affected by serious accidents (Ball et al, 2007; Carmichael et al 2014; Carrillo et al 2007) and the accident with the young girl raises questions about children, horses, and safety. Children are small and horses big, and the horse is a herd and prey animal whose behavior is partly controlled by instincts. Today, many riding schools in Sweden and Norway offer riding for pre-school children. There is, however, no research on pre-school children and horse riding. In general, there are few studies of younger children in comparison to studies of older children, adolescents, and adults (Söderlind & Engwall 2005). This also applies to research in sport sciences (Hedenborg & Fransson 2011). It is therefore of crucial importance to collect data on how activities for pre-school children are carried out and can be adapted to ensure rider safety and horse welfare. The aim of the project “Too young to ride?”is to increase knowledge of horse and riding education for pre-school children with the objective of developing safer horse environments in Sweden and Norway. The project poses research questions pertaining to the organization of activities in relation to children, parents, riding instructors, and horses, as well as safety precautions in place and perceptions of safety. Furthermore, ideas of the welfare of horses will be studied. The research questions can be divided into three areas:

    1. Current status in Norway and Sweden: How many riding schools organize activities for pre-school children in Sweden and Norway; in urban and rural areas? Who is involved in these activities (social class, gender, ethnicity and age patterns)? How are activities for young children presented and carried out, and how much do they cost?
    2. Safety, risk, and horse welfare: Do accidents occur in connection to these activities? If so, how many, and of what kind? What kind of safety equipment is used in activities with pre-school children in the stable? Who provides the equipment? How is the safety equipment that is used perceived by parents and riding instructors? What kind of horses are used in these activities? How are these horses kept and cared for?
    3. Understanding the social construction of childhood and gender constructions: What are the perceptions and motives of these activities among parents and riding instructors? How is the notion of childhood socially constructed in parents’ and horse-riding instructors’ thoughts about stable activities for pre-school children? How is gender constructed in the stable activities for these children?

Objectives and expected results of the study:

    • Increased knowledge of the number of activities for pre-school children, and how these are carried out in Sweden and Norway in urban and rural areas.
    • Increased knowledge of who is involved in the activities.
    • Increased knowledge of how parents and riding instructors view these activities.
    • Increased knowledge of safety and risk in activities organised for pre-school children in the stable.
    • Increased knowledge of horse welfare in stable activities for pre-school children.
    • Contributions to the development of educational tools and programs for riding instructors and parents in activities for pre-school children in the horse-riding schools in Sweden and Norway.Contributions, together with the Swedish and Norwegian Equestrian Federations, to guidelines for how the social and physiological environment at the riding schools can be adapted for pre-school children.
    • Contributions, together with the Swedish and Norwegian Equestrian Federations, to the development of safe horse environments and pedagogical tools for stable activities for pre-school children.

Theory and method

Firstly, the analytical framework of the project is based on concepts used in previous research to explain the characterization of equestrian sports and stable environments. Secondly, the project applies gender and sociology of childhood perspectives. Research has shown that the learning environment of riding schools is inspired by a traditional military discourse (Thorell 2017). An important issue for this project is whether such a discourse affects the activities of the pre-school children. Studies have also shown that the concepts used by sport science to understand association sports – competitive fostering and democratic fostering (SOU 2008:59) – are insufficient for describing the education that takes place in a stable. Instead, caring for horses – care fostering – has been seen as an important aspect of what young people learn in the stable environment (Hedenborg 2009). The changing gender patterns of equestrian sports, from masculine to feminine, can be linked to this education (Hedenborg 2013; Greiff 2008). However, the gender structure is complex. In the stable, there are women who perform strenuous and dirty work, and who develop leadership skills, characteristics commonly associated with masculinity (Hedenborg 2013; Forsberg 2007; Thorell et al. 2016; Butler 2018; Opsahl 2009). The complexity is also evidenced by the social construction of men and masculinity (e.g. Linghede & Larsson 2013). Gender constructions are also apparent in movement activities for younger children in general (Fagrell 2000), and a question for the study is therefore how gender is constructed in the stable activities for pre-school children.

A point of departure for the present project is that children should have the opportunity to play, discover, and learn with all senses and the whole body.

Perspectives derived from the sociology of childhood will also be used (Hedenborg 2006; James & James 2004, 2012; Prout 2005; Qvortrup 2009). A starting point is that notions of childhood are socially constructed, as well as historically and socially contingent. As noted above, a question for the project is how childhood is socially constructed in parents’ and horse riding instructors’ thoughts about stable activities for pre-school children. The dominant construction of childhood in modern educational theory is that of the competent child (Samuelsson & Carlsson 2003). The child is considered an active agent with the ability and possibility to develop and learn. The construction of childhood influences ideas about learning. Experiences of coping, and to some extent mastering a body, are seen as important for children’s involvement, learning, and motivation (Jensen & Osnes 2009). Educational research oriented towards movement activities for pre-school children deals primarily with pedagogy. A point of departure for the present project is that children should have the opportunity to play, discover, and learn with all senses and the whole body. This is believed to stimulate curiosity, self-esteem, understanding, and motor skill development (Fjörtoft 2000). For younger children, play and learning are indistinguishable (Samuelsson & Carlsson 2003; Lillemyr 2002). Excitement is viewed as a driving force in all games, and is considered as a feeling and experience that lies somewhere between fear and lust (Asbjörn Flemmen 1987). Nonetheless, the learning environment should not be too dangerous. The project will pay attention to whether ideas about the competent child exist in the stable environment, or whether childhood is constructed in other ways in relation to safety and risk.

The project will utilize four different methods: text analysis, survey, interviews, and participant observation.

  1. Horse-related activities for pre-school children in Sweden and Norway will be mapped out based on an analysis of the websites of riding schools and riding centers (as less is known about Norway, this will include a mapping of riding schools overall, whereas in Sweden focus will be on riding schools that are members of the Swedish Equestrian Federation).
  2. A survey will be distributed to riding schools found in step 1 of the data collection – that is, riding schools offering activities for pre-school children – focused on why and how these activities are offered, planned, presented, organized, and the safety precautions in place. In addition, questions related to the kinds of horses used, how the horses are kept and taken care of, and how horses are used and trained for these activities will be posed.
  3. Twenty of these riding schools (ten in Norway and Sweden, respectively) will constitute a sample for the interviews. Semi-structured interviews will be conducted with the riding school instructors and/or owners of riding schools, as well as with parents of children involved in the activities. The interviewees will be asked questions related to experiences of horse-related activities for pre-school children, perceptions of safety, and the welfare of horses.
  4. From the twenty riding schools, a sample of eight will be selected for participant observation (four in Norway and Sweden, respectively) of activities for pre-school children will be conducted. Activities for pre-school children at the centers will be studied during one month per riding school. The observations will focus on horse welfare, the kind of activities offered, safety precautions in place and the pedagogical methods used.


In Sweden, approximately half a million people ride regularly and 154,000 are members of the Swedish Equestrian federation (SvRF). The federation encompasses approximately 900 associations, around half of which are riding schools. Riding is the second largest children’s and youth sport, and the biggest para-sport. In Norway, the Norwegian Equestrian Federation (NRYF) is the 13th largest sports federation with 30,000 active members in 340 registered clubs (NIF 2017). Some clubs offer riding school activities, but most of the riding schools are not organized in NRYF. According to a survey conducted in 2014, clubs organized in NRYF only owned 16% (n=220) of the riding schools, while the vast majority (73%) were privately owned (stakeholders for the privately owned riding schools are planning to start an organization working in their interest), and 10% were owned by municipalities (Hatlevoll 2014). Nonetheless, studies about equestrian activities are scant (Hedenborg 2013; Thorell et al. 2016).

In both countries, riding schools (like other sports associations) are presenting themselves as important agents in creating social sustainability. Due to urbanization and densifications of cities, access to riding schools can be difficult. Equally, an increased migration from other countries and cultures entails new demands on the horse industry. Simultaneously, these processes enable new opportunities and target groups where horses can bridge differences. The national horse-riding federations in Norway and Sweden both stress that riding schools shall be venues where families and children will be able to meet around the horse. Safety constitutes a challenge in connection to these activities, as horses and riding instructors are not specifically trained for the teaching of pre-school children.

More than a quarter of the damage is caused by contact with the horse (other than during riding).

‘Statistics from a Swedish insurance company show that they receive about 500 reports on horse-related injuries from riders and parents annually. According to the statistics, riding is the most risky activity, closely followed by horse care (Agria 2015). Previous statistics from Norway, collected 1989–1997 (Lereim 1999), and Sweden, collected 2001–2005 (Konsumentverket 2006), show that the most common injury is “falling off horses”. For children aged 5–10 years, seven out of ten injuries in Sweden were caused by falls from the horse. More than a quarter of the damage is caused by contact with the horse (other than during riding). In Norway, nearly 70% of the injured were below 17 years old (38% were 13–17, and 31% 7–12 years old). Head injuries amounted to a significant number, but due to the use of more adequate helmets a decrease from 18% to 14% was observed during the time period under study (Lereim 1999:91). Interestingly, nearly half of the registered injuries happened outside an organized activity, where the injured were not members of any club or federation. The statistics do not include children below the age of five in Sweden, and seven in Norway, possibly as pre-school age children only amounted to a small share of children involved in horse-riding activities when the statistics were collected. This has, however, changed, and whether the inclusion of younger children in stable activities has changed patterns of horse-related injuries has yet to be studied.

Previous research has indicated that riding schools and instructors are embedded in a traditional military adult culture (Hedenborg 2009; Thorell & Hedenborg 2015; Thorell 2017). Whether this culture favors risk and safety education for pre-school children and their parents is unclear. One of the primary tasks for riding schools is, however, to educate riders (and parents) so as to render them less likely to be injured in contact with horses (SvRF 2013), as the risk of injury is higher among people lacking knowledge of horse ethology and behavior (c.f. Thompson, McGreevy & McManus 2015). In addition, the riding school should educate riders in safe horse management that meets animal welfare legislation, and focuses on the well-being of the horse.

For the stakeholders in the equestrian industry (e.g. insurance companies, instructors and owners of riding schools or centers, horse breeders), it is important to increase knowledge of activities in which pre-school children are taught how to engage with horses and how to ride, in order to ensure rider safety and horse welfare. A goal of this study is to develop safe horse environments and pedagogical tools together with the Swedish and Norwegian Equestrian Federations, and to present guidelines for how the social and physiological environment at the riding schools can be adapted for pre-school children.

Previous research

One hundred years ago, equestrian sports were foremost an activity for military men, or men and women of the upper classes. In Sweden, riding schools existed as early as around the year 1900 to satisfy the demands of the urban bourgeoisie. After World War II, the number of riding schools increased (Borgen 1979; Hedenborg 2013). From the mid-1980s until the beginning of the 21st century, the number of riding associations in Sweden increased from around 100 to over 1000. About half of these are riding schools with activities for children and adolescents, as well as for adults (Thorell et al, 2016). Over time, equestrian sport has followed a general pattern in sport – childification – in which sports associations and agents in the commercial sports sector increasingly offer activities for (younger) children (Lindroth 1991; Goksøyr 2008; Solenes 2009; Carlsson & Fransson 2006:2). In 1988 the book Att lära barn rida (Eng. “Teaching children how to ride”) was publishedas the Ministry of Social Affairs had tasked the Swedish riding association (Ridfrämjandet) with developing educational materials aimed at teaching children (Ståhlberg 1996). Increasing riding instructors’ knowledge of how teaching methods could be adapted to children was seen as an important priority. Despite these changes, research shows that the riding schools’ learning environment in actuality continued to be strongly inspired by a traditional military discourse centering on commanding, as illustrated by the instruction “Forward march!” (Thorell et al. 2016).

Tentative results

A pilot study focused on Sweden, financed by the Swedish Research Council for Sport Science, demonstrated that until recently, many Swedish riding schools have had a minimum age requirement of seven years to attend classes. The argument for this restriction was safety, and it was also held that pre-school children were not old enough to follow instructions and learn how to ride. This has changed, and today about half of the Swedish riding schools (members of the Swedish Equestrian Federation) offer activities to pre-school children. In addition, tentative interviews with managers at Swedish riding schools demonstrate that pre-school children are included as riding schools need new customers. Teenagers tend to drop out of the organized activities, and by marketing horse-related activities to younger children, instructors aspire to increase the number of riders (c.f. Thorell 2017).

A strategy for this was to use storytelling and to tell fairy tales during the riding lesson.

In the interviews, managers discussed the importance of reaching children from 2–3 years, with activities stressing the role of play in learning and relationships. This prepares them with horse, stable and communication skills for further riding. The content of the activities and the instructors’ education varied, which may have had an impact on safety and pedagogy. The managers pointed to the importance of using safe horses for young children. The horses used were older, experienced, well-educated and several of the horses were living outdoors.Some of the managers call the activity “Pre-school for riding school” and they stressed the importance of having fun. A strategy for this was to use storytelling and to tell fairy tales during the riding lesson. Managers stressed that safety aspects were important and that these included aspects of learning how to communicate with the horse, the behavior of the horse, basic horsemanship, balance, keeping a distance between the horses when walking and standing in the riding hall, how to move inside the stable and to not walk behind a horse. Equipment as helmets and safety jackets/vests were also seen as important.

Thus far, no systematic data have been collected for Norway, and there is less research on equestrianism in Norway in general. However, it has been established that activities for younger children are organized in stables, even though NRYF recommends seven years as an age limit. The present project will conduct a more systematic analysis of the stable activities for pre-school children in Sweden and Norway. For Norway, this includes a mapping of the activities, interviews with instructors and parents, and ethnographic research; for Sweden, it includes more interviews with riding instructors, new interviews with parents, and ethnographic work.The outcomes of this project are useful for riding instructors, the Equestrian Federations, and for pedagogical content in education of future riding instructors in both Norway and Sweden. Results will be communicated through workshops, lectures, conferences, articles and Facebook.

The project will soon announce a PhD position at Molde University College and Norwegian School of Sport Sciences.


Particular gratitude is extended to the funding agencies, Swedish Research Council for Sport Science and The Swedish horse Industry Foundation, for the financial support, and to Manon Hedenborg White for language review.

Copyright © Susanna Hedenborg, Annika Rosén,
Oskar Solenes, Gabriella Thorell 2019


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