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Soccer, softball, baseball, basketball, hockey, lacrosse, and football. Ask people in Fairfield County to name the most popular youth sports and those are the standard responses.

Horseback riding? Not so much.

“It has a reputation as an expensive sport to get your children involved in,” said Janie Weber, the longtime owner of Stepping Stone Farm in Ridgefield. “But that’s just not true. It can get expensive if you move on to advanced levels, but the initial costs are not high. They are comparable to other sports that kids play when they are young.”

Case in point: Stepping Stone’s own seven-week program for pre-school (ages 3-6), youth, and adult beginner riders. The lessons are offered throughout the year and conducted in small groups, with riders placed in beginner, advanced beginner, intermediate, or advanced groups, based on experience.

“When we started in 1974, the lesson program cost $390,” said Weber. “Now, more than 40 years later, it’s only gone up to $425. We want to make the lessons both enjoyable and affordable.”

Another misconception, according to Weber, is the perceived price of introductory clothing and equipment. “Kids can wear bicycle helmets, long pants, and a shoe boot with a heel,” said Weber. “There’s no need to spend a fortune to get started.”

In addition to providing aerobic exercise and the chance to improve balance and coordination, horseback riding also offers less obvious but equally important positives. Numerous studies have linked riding and stable management (horse grooming, etc.) to life skills such as responsibility, patience, compassion, and dedication.

“We give young riders an opportunity to make decisions on their own,” said Weber. “There is no peer pressure, and riders don’t have to worry about parents yelling from the sidelines, which can happen in team youth sports.

“Our staff includes eight professional trainers who are either active horse show riders or have been active riders,” continued Weber. “They all offer positive reinforcement but they don’t coddle. Part of our goal is to have young riders practice problem-solving.”

Recent research has found links between horse riding and improved cognitive ability in children. Scientists at the Tokyo University of Agriculture found (through an experiment involving 34 boys and 72 girls ages 10-12) that riding can contribute to memory and learning by activating a part of the brain associated with cognitive abilities.

A separate study commissioned by the British Horse Society pointed to the psychological benefits of riding. More than 80% of questionnaire respondents reported that horseback riding made them feel “quite a lot” or “extremely cheerful, relaxed, happy, or active.”

This is no surprise to Weber.

“There’s a connection, a mystique, between young riders and horses,” she said. “When my daughters (Juliana and Amanda, professional riders who operate the Starbuck Equestrian program at Stepping Stone) were younger they would spend hours brushing their horses and talking to them. When I go into barns now, I still see kids talking to horses about their problems and woes. The horses become their friends.”

Since 1974, Stepping Stone has opened its doors for 10 weeks each summer so area children have a healthy place to spend school vacation time. The farm’s summer camp has many working students that are helping hands for the 100 campers that enjoy the equestrian camp  each year.

For more information, call (203) 438-7749.