7 ways to keep boys keen on riding

  • My Little Pony, National Velvet and Jill and her ponies all have one thing in common besides horses: girls. Where is Action Man Polo Player, or Just William Goes Hunting? Three-quarters of Britain’s riding population is female, according to the British Equestrian Trade Association’s (BETA) National Equestrian Survey 2015.

    But despite pony toys being marketed towards girls and an absence of like-minded testosterone at the Pony Club rally, there is a hard core of keen boys going against the grain. They are our Brashes and Fox-Pitts of the future.

    So how do parents prevent ambitious sons from fleeing a world of pink numnahs and high-pitched giggles?

    1. Find the perfect pony

    The pony is paramount. Sophie Funnell’s son Theo, 11, is passionate about eventing, but a few years ago lost his confidence after a few falls. “He wanted to ride but I could see he was clinging on so we stopped for a few months, then bought a lovely new pony,” says Sophie. “It makes a huge difference. We never buy expensive ponies, but they must be fun and a good match.”

    2. …or the wrong pony

    But other boys seem compelled by the challenge of righting a wrong pony. Eventer Bert Bolton (pictured above as a child), now 21, is now on the cusp of breaking into senior ranks with several three-star finishes under his belt, having started with some mounts that tested his tenacity. “We started with an unsuitably green, naughty Welsh pony that he fell off more than stayed on,” says his mother, Fizz, who then found a schoolmaster for a year to encourage him. “He then had the original pony back, as he was determined to prove he could ride him, which was the point at which it was clear he wasn’t going to give up. He’s had a soft spot for a quirky horse ever since.”

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    3. Give them a taste of winning

    “It was all about success; winning and being competitive. As long as I was winning, then that drove me forward,” says eventer Matthew Wright.  Harry Pitt, 12, is extremely competitive, which overrides any concerns about being the only boy. “He loves the thrill of tight jump-off turns,” says his mother Emma. “He’s the only boy on the [school] jumping with style team, but he’s much braver than the girls. He suffers in the style part as his toes point down, but he rides very quietly and ponies go well for him. His idol is William Fox-Pitt, and I’ll always point out to him at Badminton or Burghley that many of the top riders are men.”

    4. Focus on the fun factor

    While Emma believes all children need strong encouragement at first, once they’re up and running, the family has a lark. “It’s not much fun falling off, and riding is hard to start with,” Emma says. “I bribe big and hard at first: lots of sweets, then maybe £1 if they go clear. I really try to keep it fun for them. Out riding we love making courses jumping thistles and hedges. And I’m happy to clean tack as Harry hates it, but he’ll have to do something else, like unload the dishwasher.”

    5. Pick the right sport

    Polo is a godsend for sporty boys like Harry, who plays with the Grafton branch of the Pony Club during the summer. “It’s hard and fast, and there’s no flatwork. It’s like rugby on ponies and he just loves it,” she says. “The variety is great for boys — he’d get bored just doing one discipline.”

    6. … and finally — turn the girl-boy ratio into a plus

    “You’re the only boy in a girls’ world — what is better than being surrounded by loads of girls?” says dressage rider Michael Eilberg. And showjumper Tim Stockdale agrees: “Being among so many girls was certainly not a bad thing. And I had an idol — Harvey Smith.”

    Read the full feature about keeping boys keen on riding in the current issue of Horse & Hound magazine (7 January 2016)

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