The only way to get where I needed to go in the long, narrow stable was passing by the back end of a horse.
But drummed into my head sometime in my past was the warning to “never walk behind a horse.” I pictured a rearing hind hoof breaking my femur, so I hung back while young stable hands freely moved back and forth behind the horse.
I could have used a program like this when I was a kid. Growing up in a Philadelphia suburb, I wasn’t around horses much, save for the Girl Scouts’ trail-riding trip in which my runaway, let’s-see-how-fast-I-can-gallop pony had to be chased down by the lead rider, an experience that undoubtedly fostered my present-day fear of those mighty hooves.
On one of this spring’s rare sunny days in early April, my 9-year-old daughter was participating in a children’s program at an equestrian center located amid the wooded hills of the Palatinate Forest in the village of Gossersweiler-Stein, Germany, about 45 minutes south of Kaiserslautern.
The goal of the four-hour session at Reiterhof Pelz was to help children learn to feel comfortable around horses, said the facility’s owners, Axel and Birgit Pelz.
“The idea is to have first contact with a creature like a horse,” said Axel Pelz. “We often see kids from big towns, such as Munich and Berlin; they have a little bit of fear of horses.”
Children in the program get many chances to interact with horses, and riding is only a small portion of that “first contact” of which Pelz speaks. Kids are also put to work: They groom the horses, remove caked mud and hay from the bottom of their hooves, learn how to put on the horse’s bridle and saddle and sweep out the stable.
Most of the horses seemed accustomed to children, displaying patient, easygoing temperaments, as they were poked, prodded and patted by small hands. The exception was Timmy, a small horse who had a tendency to nip and endured many scoldings as a result.
The best part of the program “is riding the horses outside,” said 8-year-old Lucas Greenwood, an American from the Kaiserslautern area who was at the center for a second time with his sister.
On this day, however, the riding was held indoors, in an enclosed area with a soft dirt floor. The children didn’t seem to mind. In the morning, older kids with more experience with horses led them on slow saddle rides on several different horses.
In the afternoon, after pizza for lunch, Birgit Pelz worked with them individually. The children rode Fips, a chestnut Haflinger, in small circles, with Pelz keeping Fips on a long rope. They trotted, some hands-free, then worked up to a brief gallop. Some practiced turning around in the saddle, and Pelz encouraged them to scoot across the horse’s back and jump off when their turn was over.
The Pelzes hold the program every Thursday that falls on a German school holiday, including summer break, from spring into the fall. The last program day this year is on Oct. 17. They’ll hold a total of nine “saddle days” this year for kids 6 and older. The cost is 20 euros per child.
All of the dozen or so kids in attendance on the day we went, including the Americans, spoke German. But Axel Pelz said English speakers are welcome. One suggestion: Bring a friend, as there is some unsupervised time in between the structured portions of the program; my daughter would have preferred to have had a pal for company.
Though the riding was only a small portion of the day — less than an hour in the saddle — my daughter unknowingly gave it a ringing endorsement: “I want to do this program again,” she said, as we headed to the car to go home.