Whether you’re new to ponies or are a hotshot budding event rider, a childhood spent mucking out and mucking in with ponies is one to cherish. Tessa Waugh finds out how to make the most of these years
WE are all aware of the dream; Cupid-faced children on mischievous fluffballs laughing riotously as they take on the world. A pony-filled childhood ticks so many boxes in our fast and modern world; getting children outside and away from screens, challenging them through ups and downs, teaching them to care for animals and put something first before themselves.
While the dream is endlessly appealing, the reality can be challenging for even the most knowledgeable people, and the financial and time demands are considerable. How can you ensure that your offspring get the best out of a childhood with ponies?
Tracy Duffy never predicted the journey she would go on with her daughter, Merci, when Merci started learning to ride.
“We took Merci to the local riding school every weekend,” recalls Tracy. “It got to the point where Merci’s teacher, Caroline Stewart, told me that it would be cheaper for Merci to have her own pony.”
The Duffys took Caroline’s advice and bought Merci a pony, finding a place for her at a livery yard outside the town where they live. Caroline continued to give her lessons and was on hand to help them throughout.
“Caroline is more than a riding instructor, she has become a friend,” says Tracy, who has valuable advice for parents embarking on pony ownership for the first time. “If you don’t know a lot about horses, find someone you can trust to guide you.”
Merci has now joined the Pony Club and is competing regularly on her second pony which she keeps with Caroline.
“As a family we’ve invested a lot of money and time into Merci’s interest, but we don’t regret it at all,” adds Tracy. “If your child finds something they love, it is wonderful to be able to give them that opportunity.”
VERY few conversations about children and ponies do not include a mention of the Pony Club, which continues to play a crucial role in educating young riders in Britain and worldwide. In the past, membership was inaccessible to children who didn’t have their own ponies but since the Pony Club set up their centres in 1998 this has all changed.
Of their 30,000 UK members, 10,000 are centre members who attend 420 affiliated riding schools where they can enjoy all the benefits of a Pony Club education; learning how to care for ponies, work towards tests and badges and compete across a range of disciplines.
Amelia Morris-Payne, a UKCC level three coach within the Pony Club, began helping at Pony Club centres 15 years ago and has had a long association with the Mill House, a Pony Club centre in Belton, Leicestershire.
“The reason I became so passionate about the centres was because of the children,” Amelia says. “They didn’t have the opportunities my children had [Amelia’s children had their own ponies from the age of two] and the thing they yearned for was ponies. Centre membership gave them that opportunity.”
Amelia explains that there are options for parents who wish to dip their toe into pony ownership rather than committing outright.
“Ponies are sometimes available to loan from the riding school with an arrangement where the child can ride them so many days a week: that way parents can get a feel for having a pony under the umbrella of the yard. If they go on to buy their own, I would point people in our centre in the direction of a livery yard and coach who could help and support them on their journey. There are working liveries where the riding school gets the benefit of using the pony and the benefit of teaching the child.”
WHEN choosing a riding school, Debbie Maclean of the Association of British Riding Schools (ABRS) cautions: “If the riding school is ABRS or BHS [British Horse Society] approved they can be certain that they will have all the necessary first aid, safeguarding and insurance in place.”
When it comes to children helping out, this too should be carefully monitored. While some parents may remember filling haynets all day in return for a short ride, this arrangement is less common now.
“Some riding schools have rules whereby children of 13 and over must have a work permit from the council signed by a proprietor, teacher and parent,” says Debbie. “There are strict rules about employing children and how long they can work for.”
Fortunately, there are plenty of people like Amelia and Caroline who can help children from non-horsey backgrounds bring their dreams alive. Natalie O’ Rourke is the manager of Park Lane Stables in Teddington, south-west London.
“Many of our children come to us having only seen a pony in a book”, explains Natalie. “I always encourage them to come to the stables before they commit to lessons because in my experience, people’s expectations and the reality of ponies are very different.
“When children come here for the first time, they can see the ponies, touch them and smell them. Sometimes they are overwhelmed by the smell.”
Natalie prides herself on a “holistic” approach, introducing children to all aspects of a pony’s care alongside riding lessons, “rather than just get on and go”. She is also strongly aware of the pitfalls that occur when children are pushed out of their comfort zone.
“One negative experience and you’ve lost them, so we do it incrementally and then we retain them,” she says. “We want them to have a love of ponies for life.”
Children aged two, three or four are started off in “mini-muckers” when they can come for an hour, fill up a water bucket and a haynet and have a little ride. After mini-muckers, Natalie encourages children to become members of the Pony Club because the riding school is also an affiliated centre.
“We do offer riding lessons without Pony Club, but I always advise parents not to do that,” she explains. “They need to understand why a pony might bite and why their ears are back and half an hour a week isn’t enough to get the full picture.”
The riding school is open on Saturdays and Sundays, after school on Thursdays and Fridays and every day in the holidays. Children are given shifts where they come in and work, often with an older teen; boys are paired with older boys.
“We can’t keep up with the demand,” she says.
PONY CLUB also provides a framework for children who are lucky enough to have ponies at home. Melanie Lowdon-King is an experienced rider who enjoyed Pony Club as a child. She has three children aged 14 and under and has kept ponies for them since they were small.
“When they are young, they need all the help that they can get and they don’t listen to their parents,” she says. “Pony Club provides rallies and activities all through the year which keeps them using their ponies, even through the winter months when it is cold and icy.
“There is something for everyone. My son likes tetrathlon and games whereas the girls enjoy dressage, showjumping and polocrosse.”
When it comes to training, Melanie complements Pony Club training with extra lessons which, she says, “give them so much confidence.”
Melanie cautions that you cannot underestimate the cost of embarking on a pony-filled lifestyle, but living on a farm helps, with access to land, hay and straw.
“Every six weeks the blacksmith comes. It costs £165 for the lot and I always think I wouldn’t dream of spending that money on a pair of shoes,” she laughs.
And there are great advantages for those who are able to keep the ponies at home.
“The ponies live in a paddock less than a stone’s throw from the house, which makes it very easy,” she says. “The children often fall out of bed and ride in their pyjamas. My sister had hers at an [external] yard, but you have to be prepared to drive there every day.”
IF you are lucky enough to have a relative or partner who has a pony, this can work well, too. Abbi Houlker has heroically taken on the teaching of her niece Harlie and partner’s daughter Emilie, who are both seven, and her Rupert the Pony blog on Instagram has all the ingredients of pony heaven.
“Harlie is not academic and her confidence has grown enormously since she started riding,” enthuses Abbi.
“Things do go wrong but she gets back on and learns that an animal is not a machine and it’s not all about winning rosettes.”
Abbi has recently moved Rupert from a small yard to a bigger one, which has some benefits, she finds.
“After riding Harlie will sit in the arena and watch other people ride,” she says. “There are lots of other children there, which has been great for building friendships.”
There is always help on hand if you embark on the path to a pony-filled childhood and the rewards are manifold.
5 top tips for the perfect pony childhood
- Find a yard where there are other children for your child to ride with.
- Join your local Pony Club branch or centre for a framework of training activities throughout the year for all levels.
- Contact your local riding school or Pony Club for recommendations about local instructors.
- Seek out friends with ponies and get together for trips to the beach or competitions.
- If you aren’t horsey, find someone knowledgeable to help and guide you.
This feature is also available to read in Horse & Hound magazine, on sale Thursday 3 June 2021
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