How to find the perfect first pony and make riding fun for tiny tots: top tips from the pros *H&H Plus*

  • Taking tumbles, grappling with tack cleaning and discipline are all par for the course of a child’s initiation into ponies – even when your parents happen to be famous equestrians, finds Madeleine Silver

    Eagle-eyed Pony Clubbers at the Beaufort Hunt branch last summer would have spotted a five-star eventer in their midst; the 16hh gelding Lebowski. Aboard the retired Badminton ride was eventer Beanie Sturgis’ 10-year-old son Sid. But such an illustrious mount is certainly not the norm for our top riders’ offspring, whose often ordinary-looking ponies would easily mix in with the melee of hairy children’s ponies having a Thelwell-style outburst.

    “That was me being self-indulgent really, because I wanted Lebowski to do something,” admits Beanie, who steers clear of hefty price tags for her children’s pony power. “I’m not the kind of person that would spend £5,000 on a child’s pony. I think people go a little bit overboard about having something that can jump a metre. As a first pony you want something with three legs, that’s nearly dead,” she says. “[The child] needs to be able to bring it in from the field, brush it, lie under its tummy, slide off its bottom down its tail, and do all the things that you’re not allowed to do.”

    Lambourn-based trainer and father-of-three Richard Hughes is equally frugal in finding his latest pint-sized stable stars – the most recent, 22-year-old Crunchie, was bought for £1,200 from a local vet.

    “People paying £7,000 or £8,000 for a pony is madness, because even then they can misbehave now and again,” says the former Flat jockey. “I’m a realist. Ponies will always do something when you turn your back – and a child has to be prepared to fall off. It’s as simple as that.”

    Word of mouth

    With inflated cheques out of the question, the secret to finding their progeny’s next ride, say top riders, is word of mouth. Just the news of Beanie’s engagement to Beaufort field master Rupert prompted a call from an old hunting friend to say that their future children’s pony was waiting in the wings. “I wasn’t even married!” she laughs now.

    Nellie, “a wonderful Welsh section A,” proved the perfect launchpad for Sid and his younger sister Ruby’s riding careers, and moved on to another local hunting family once the Sturgis children had outgrown her.

    “People that are switched on, see a child getting tall on a pony and then ask to be added to the waitlist — the good ponies will have a list with 10 or 15 children on it,” says Beanie.

    Eventer Francis Whittington was fortunate to find ponies for his two children without having to traipse around the country; one of the latest is the “godsend” Simon, “a proper, old-fashioned Pony Club pony,” says Francis.

    “We are very lucky that ponies have been offered to us, it helps massively. I think the best way to do it is on the grapevine, via word-of-mouth. For us it is more about what the pony has done and the reputation they have [rather than breed or type]. Reputation is key.”

    But even with their bulging contact books, the sport’s biggest names don’t necessarily find that locating the perfect equine partner for their child is plain sailing.

    “I thought it was going to be a hell of a lot easier,” says showjumper Chloe Breen, wife of Irish team rider Shane, and mother of four. “They’re like unicorn poo. When they come along you grab them, and you store them somewhere until you need them. We’re always trying to look one or two ponies ahead so that if one of the children suddenly grows you have something ready.”

    With her brood ranging from a six-year-old to a 12-year-old, Chloe has found it has been a process of trial and error finding the right ponies.

    “What works for one kid doesn’t always work for the others. Ponies that Lorna really hasn’t got on with, Darcy, who is number two, has completely bonded with. They ride very differently and so it really is horses for courses.”

    There are, of course, those coveted ponies that any child can find their feet on – and they subsequently rack up a star-studded alumni list, as well as an enviable resilience.

    “You often find with these ponies that they go three or four times round the block,” says Chloe. “My older sister Lizzie [Bunn] had a pony called Ziggy, whom she took to Wembley doing mounted games. He died in the yard one day when he stood on a clipper cable and his heart stopped. But the vet was there and brought him back to life,” she remembers in amazement. “Fifteen years later, someone said to Lizzie that Ziggy was still going strong and he came back to me as one of my first ponies.”

    In the Breens’ Hickstead yard today, it is the 22-year-old “dippy-backed” Tim – who arrived off the back of teaching young Irish showjumper Cora Sharkey to ride – who has garnered legendary status.

    “He’s been the first off-the-lead-rein pony for all of the kids and has five legs. When Wolfie, who is the youngest, is on him he’s docile and yet if you put the oldest, Lorna, on him, he turns into a mini racehorse. He adjusts – he’s a total saint.”

    The tumbles

    But even top riders’ families can’t escape the quirks of the saintliest of ponies. “The only thing is you can’t catch Tim, he’s a devil in the field,” says Chloe. And however tolerant the pony, there will always be tumbles.

    “If you’re willing to put your kids on ponies, you have to be prepared that there will be accidents; you can’t expect them to never fall off. If you go down that route they’ll never learn,” says Richard.

    For high-goal polo player Charlie Hanbury, who succumbed to his wife’s suggestion that they take on two American miniature horses that she found through Radio H-P – an upmarket Gumtree – for their two daughters, not dwelling on the falls is key.

    “When three-year-old Cara fell off the side, I put her straight back on and quickly started trotting again. She soon forgot about it,” he says.

    Getting involved in daily life on his Berkshire yard keeps his daughters interested, says Charlie, who takes his three-year-old on gentle hacks aboard his polo ponies.

    “They see me doing the horses all day, every day. At five o’clock we feed the horses and they count the scoops out, so they see what goes on behind the scenes, which makes them want to get involved in the riding.

    “For example, my daughter woke up this morning and said: ‘Can I go fast on one of your ponies today?’”

    When it comes to the hard graft, Richard sticks to a straightforward mantra with his children: “If they’re not prepared to look after the ponies, then they’re not having them,” he says. And Francis swears by the Pony Club for instilling an early work ethic.

    “The Pony Club is not just about the riding; it’s the caring, the friendships, the training from different people and the stable management,” he says. “They have to clean their tack; help muck out and get things ready. We’ve been out poo-picking the fields this morning.”

    And Max and Amber are yet to be treated to rides on Francis’ string of eventers. “Definitely not,” Francis laughs. “We had to work hard at it and they’re going to have to as well if horses are what they want to do.”

    How to keep ponies fun – according to the pros

    Join the Pony Club: “Trying to do it all yourself and teach your kids is a recipe for disaster – I learnt that instantly,” says showjumper Chloe Breen. “The most important thing for my kids has been the Pony Club. “The headquarters for the Southdown Hunt West branch is at Hickstead [where the Breens are based], which helps, but it makes riding fun and puts in those really good basics.”

    Time it right: “What’s important is not to have a pony that is going to scare them when they’re little,” says eventer Beanie Sturgis. “It’s much better that they need to kick, rather than having to pull. If you have a slightly nervous child and you give it the wrong pony then it’s game over. “Ditto if you have a really ambitious child and you have something that won’t jump a thing, that can put them off too. You have to know when they are ready to go up to the next level. It’s a finely balanced thing.”

    Keep it casual: “I don’t teach ours at all,” says Beanie. “Instead we go for rides around the farm and head down to the river for a picnic. We have a tree that I used to sneak up and hang doughnuts off, which they still call the doughnut tree. When they were tiny, they’d look up and see the doughnuts and have to stand up in their saddle to get them. “I think it’s quite important not to drill them. My mum always said to me that exams are for school, so I’ve only got my Pony Club D test — I haven’t even got my Riding and Road Safety badge. So, if my children want to do the tests they can, but I actually think their ponies are for fun.”

    Let your imagination run: “Max didn’t have structured lessons in his early years,” says five-star eventer Francis Whittington about his son, now 11. “Instead he used to ride around the school pretending he was a cowboy. We’d have him leaning over the side pretending to shoot from under the neck, and that taught him balance.”

    Don’t push it: “If you have the ponies, you have to ride them and put the hours in, but it’s important not to take it too seriously or push them. If the children want to do it, they will,” says Chloe. As Beanie says: “A lot of children up to the age of 10 or 11 are doing it because their parents want them to and then they suddenly get to the age where they say I really don’t like this, and I’m old enough to say so. But then if they’ve ridden until that age, they can always get back on later in life.”

    Ref Horse & Hound; 4 June 2020