"T-r-r-ot, trot," bellows 7-year-old Tyler Evans MacLane as he sits atop a brown pony named "Simey." His voice grows louder when the horse continues walking at a slow pace. "Come on, Simey," he pleads, rolling his eyes and smiling in response to the amused grin on his father's face as he watches from a bleacher at ringside.
"Relax your hands," advises Beth Jennings, Tyler's riding instructor at the Yale Polo and Equestrian Center. "Good, Tyler," she comments, watching him loosen some of the tension on the reins. "Now put your heels down and try again."
This time, Simey begins to quicken his pace as Tyler rides him around the equestrian center's indoor ring. Tyler can hardly contain his glee as he again passes his father's ringside seat. "T-r-r-ot, t-r-r- ot," the youngster continually commands the pony, trying to keep up the brisk pace.
For Tyler, the experience of trotting on a horse is one of the most exciting aspects of "Pony Tales," a class for beginning young riders and their parents that is being offered for the first time this year at the Polo and Equestrian Center. Beth Jennings, an experienced horseback rider, was hired by the Athletics Department to teach three sections of the new class to a total of six children and their parents, who learn the basics of riding and horse handling and care over the course of 10 weeks. For some of her students, the class offers their first real opportunity to ride a horse themselves.
"A lot of times, kids just know that they like horses and want to ride them but their parents don't have any background," says Ms. Jennings. "So 'Pony Tales' is designed to be an introduction for both of them." One of the main goals of the class is to help children and their parents feel as comfortable as possible about how to handle horses, while also impressing upon them the importance of safety and the kind of commitment having a horse takes, she says.
"Owning a horse is a real labor-intensive activity, and sometimes kids don't realize that," Ms. Jennings says. "But it's also a tremendously enjoyable experience, and kids usually take as much pleasure in being on the ground with horses -- feeding or grooming them -- as they do riding them. Kids can just spend hours in a barn with horses."
In the hour-long weekly classes, Ms. Jennings teaches such basic skills as how to groom a horse; tack care; how to walk around horses properly and how to get on and off them; as well as the fundamentals of riding. Class size is purposely kept small so that children get individual attention and for reasons of safety.
Since the start of the "Pony Tales" sessions a month-and-a-half ago, Ms. Jennings has devoted much of the class time to riding, often outdoors. "I figured we should take advantage of the weather when it's still warm enough and get the kids to ride as much as possible; when it gets colder, we'll spend more of our time in the barn focusing on the care of horses," she explains.
Having so many consecutive lessons focused on riding has met with the approval of both Tyler and 9-year-old Letha Muth-Kimball, who are enrolled in a Sunday afternoon "Pony Tales" class.
"I love to trot," says Letha. "And at my last class, I cantered by accident and I like that even more than trotting!"
Letha signed up for "Pony Tales," she says, because she thought it would be "neat" to follow in her mother's and sister's footsteps. Her mother, Karen Muth, an assistant administrator at the Boyer Center for Molecular Medicine, learned how to ride at the Yale Polo and Equestrian Center some 20 years ago, and Letha's 17-year-old sister also became an avid horse rider, according to Letha's father, Gene Kimball, a recording engineer and lecturer in sound recording at the School of Music. "Now it's Letha's turn," he remarks.
Tyler travels from Huntington to take part in the "Pony Tales" class. "I've been on horses before but I had never driven one," he says. "I'm very interested in animals and I like to learn about them, and that's what I like about this class."
In Letha's and Tyler's recent class, Ms. Jennings -- who also teaches an "Equine Management" class at the Polo and Equestrian Center for adults who are interested in learning more about horses -- emphasized to the youngsters one of the most important elements of successful, and enjoyable, horseback riding: "Remember that you have control of the horse, and make sure you let the horse know that you are in control," she told the children. "They can't take you wherever they want to go; you have to let them know where you want to go."
Getting that message across is particularly important with the pony "Simey," who has been lent to the Yale barn for the year by Cynthia Kirby in exchange for his care. "Although he can be a bit stubborn, Simey is the key to 'Pony Tales,' because he's the ideal size for teaching the kids," Ms. Jennings says. "And he gives the children the opportunity for showing who's really the boss," she quips.
"When my daughter is on Simey, I feel she's pretty safe," says Sara Rosenblatt, who accompanies her 7-year-old daughter Danielle
also the daughter of Dr. Melvin Rosenblatt at the School of Medicine , to a Wednesday afternoon "Pony Tales" class. For Ms. Rosenblatt, safety is the number-one issue when it comes to having Danielle ride. "At first, I was a little reluctant about letting her ride, and felt especially nervous because of what happened to Christopher Reeve," says Ms. Rosenblatt. "But Danielle really loves horses and she persevered. So now I'm learning a little bit, and I'm beginning to feel a lot more comfortable about the whole thing. Of course, I probably won't ever be as fearless as Danielle, but we'll see."
The Yale Polo and Equestrian Center offers other riding programs for children and adults during the school year and in the summer. All of the programs are open to the public. For more information, call 432-1431.
-- By Susan Gonzalez