Is it safe for small children to ride or is it too risky? The equestrian establishment does not have official guidelines on when children can learn to ride.

The Pony Club states that “approximately the age of six is appropriate”, but some branches have mini-camps for four-year-olds.

“It depends on the size of the branch and whether it is viable to put on events for children of that age,” says Clare Roberts, Pony Club spokesman. “There are no hard and fast rules.”

The British Horse Society (BHS) concurs: “The age suitable for starting to ride depends very much on the particular child and the environment they are in,” says Margaret Linington-Payne, BHS director of standards.

“It will depend on factors such as how co-ordinated the child is, their attention span, how well they can concentrate and the child’s balance. Riding schools tend not to take children under a certain age because of insurance restrictions. It depends on the individual centre’s policy, but it is usually between the ages of four and six as a minimum.”

“I would be very surprised to find any riding school teaching below the age of five or six,” says Julian Marczak, chairman of the Association of British Riding Schools.

“Children don’t have the co-ordination before that, but, of course, you can put them on a horse or pony from a very early age so that they get the feeling for it. In my opinion, it doesn’t matter how early you sit on a pony as long as you’ve got a hat on and have good supervision.”

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Nikki Herbert is the Pony Club’s director of training. She is also a qualified BHS instructor and an accredited trainer and British Dressage judge. For her, one of the crucial factors when dealing with very young children is their confidence and keeping them comfortable.

“They tire easily at a very young age so you only want short sessions,” she says, “and you have to be careful about the weight of crash hats. They can be heavy and put pressure on a young neck. And you need to avoid them falling off — they must be correctly mounted in the first place.”

Sports psychologist Jenny Killilea believes it depends on the personality of the child, how experienced the parent is and the reasons the parent does it.

“If children start very young, they have no choice in the matter so it can become innate. But if they sense pressure from the parents it can go awry,” she says.

“The dilemma is knowing whether if they start early they will end up loving it because they are good at it, or resenting the parental influence. If a child chooses an activity themselves they are less likely to reject it later.”

H&H 5 August 2010