Which discipline you wish to start in is a good place to start. There are two main styles of riding, English and western. Within these disciplines are many, many more disciplines but for a beginner they do not matter. Once you or your child start riding and develop skills you will understand more of what you would be interested in doing but for now just go basic.
The basics of riding are the same in both English and western, the only true difference at the beginning is what type of saddle your behind is seated on. Both are equally as hard work to ride in, don’t let it fool you. Western saddles are generally the ones used on trail rides for the general public as most of their clientele hold on to the horn for support as they flop around. When you are riding you will not be holding on to the horn, they were designed to tie-off your ropes to, and your coach will show you how to balance without it.
English saddles appear to be more difficult to stay in because they are not as bulky and don’t “lock” you in. They are equally a secure as a western saddle and some styles of English saddles do hold you in place. Search online for videos of each style of riding or better yet visit a local fair or show to see both in person to help you decide. Remember, your decision is never set in stone and you can change disciplines if your first choice is not for you!
Once you have chosen a discipline you can start looking into which barn or stable is right for you. Many riding schools are listed online and you can read up on each one from the comfort of your home. Also many coaches are members of provincial (or state) equestrian federations or associations. This means they have passed a standardized test to prove their abilities as a teacher. Many equestrian federations insure their active coaches which is also something to look for in a coach or school.
This is not to say coaches who are not members of these federations are not good coaches, they may be better than those of federations. These “backyard coaches” may be poor instructors, teach improper methods or have dangerous styles of teaching. The best way to start into riding for a family who is not an equestrian family is to find riding school with one or more accredited coaches to ride with.
The next step is to find the riding school. Word of mouth is still a main means of advertisement in the horse industry. Go to a show or fair and start talking to people. Talk to riders (when they are not busy), coaches and people helping around the show. Get as much input on as many different schools as possible. Make yourself a list and start calling the schools that interested you. Ask the schools as much as you can about their schools, their horses and their other riders. A list of things to ask about could include:
-cost of lessons
-how many lessons must you buy ahead of time
-what are the students expected to wear to lessons (are helmets provided or do you buy your own)
-how many students in a lesson
-ask them to tell you about their school horses
-are there age groups for lessons
-how many lessons do they give a day/week
-what are the safe precautions the instructors take to keep everyone safe
-are there any showing expectations
-(for children) is there any “fun days” to learn while playing with the horses
-is there any lessons about horse care, tack, etc.
With information like this you can tally up things you liked about each school and what you didn’t like. For example some children would enjoy a barn that has many lessons in a day as they can meet friends after their ride while some children would excel in a quiet barn with fewer distractions. Maybe if you are unsure riding is your thing try a barn that rents out helmets as they can be a costly purchase only to discover you are turned off by the smell of horses and leather.
Choose a barn that takes safety very serious as horses and ponies are very large animals with a lot of strength behind every movement. Horses and ponies can be enjoyed immensely without a rider’s safety being compromised and if you believe an instructor or employee of a stable is acting in an unsafe manner or children are not being taught the safe way of horse handling do not be afraid to speak up!
Good luck to you on your hunt for a riding school! Feel free to post questions as they may help others as well.