Horse riding is not only an extremely enjoyable activity that gets you into the great outdoors, but it is great for fitness and teaches children about responsibility, patience, balance and coordination. But for many, owning a horse or pony, or even taking weekly riding lessons, is too expensive.
There are, however, ways in which you can enjoy the pleasure of and reap the benefits of working with these beautiful creatures without breaking the bank.
If you or your child are new to riding, a short course of lessons is a cheaper way of finding out what it's all about and discovering whether it's right for you. Many riding schools offer six or ten-week courses for adults, and they also often have short summer courses, or even 'own a pony' days for kids, giving them a taster of what it takes to look after a pony as well as riding lessons.
Owning a horse or pony is undoubtedly expensive, and riding lessons can also become quite costly. But volunteering is a great way to help where help is needed and still work with horses. For adults or experienced teens, volunteering at a rescue centre will improve your knowledge and skills in terms of horse management, while charities such as Riding for the Disabled will welcome volunteers to help with lessons. If you are struggling to find the cash to pay for your child's lessons but they are already keen, it is worth asking local riding school about the possibility of working for rides. This will mean that they commit to the responsibility of working, say, on a Saturday, in exchange for a lesson or hack.
Because owning a horse is not just a pricey business but also hard work, many owners seek to share the cost (and the responsibility) with other like-minded and similarly experienced folk. It may be that a pony is up for loan because it has been outgrown or a student is heading off to university, or it could be that an adult or parent is looking to share the cost of a horse in exchange for a few days riding and mucking out.
If you are tempted to go down this route though, think of it as though you are buying the horse or pony. Before you tack up and head out into the countryside, ask to try the animal, and see it ridden in a variety of settings, as well as in the stable or field, to make sure it suits your own abilities and experience. And do make sure that a clear contract is drawn up to clarify the split of responsibilities and costs.
Once you or your child are sure that riding is a long-term hobby, you may want to think about owning your own horse. Here again there are ways to save money. For example, the stunning Arab or Thoroughbred you've seen advertised might look pretty, but it will need stabling, feed, and may be suitable for the experienced rider. Instead consider a native breed pony, such as the Dartmoor, Exmoor or New Forest, for children, or a cob or cob crossbreed for an adult.
These native breeds are built to withstand everything the British weather can throw at them, and since they can live outside all year round, you could save a fortune on livery and feed costs. It is advisable, however, to buy from a reputable breeder or via a friend's recommendation. It's all too easy to 'fall in love' with a pony only to find out it has a host of health problems that could cost you a fortune in vet's fees.
With that in mind, it will be much cheaper and easier to find somewhere nearby to keep your pony. For instance, a local smallholder or farmer may be willing to rent you a field, which will be considerably easier on the pocket than an expensive livery yard, as long as you have the time and commitment for all the hard work involved.
If you buy a horse or pony that lives out all year round, you will still need to pay for hay in the winter, and it is best to buy in bulk during the summer if you have somewhere to keep it under cover, as prices rise when supply becomes limited later in the year. You may also be able to save on farrier costs, since many hardy breeds can go without shoes quite happily. Do be aware that you will still need to pay to have their feet trimmed regularly though.
And for all the expensive kit that goes with owning a horse - tack, rugs and so on - always consider buying second hand. There may be items that you need advertised in the local paper or at a nearby tack shop, and there are horse auctions up and down the country that usually include a tack sale as well. However, don't ever be tempted to buy a secondhand hat - a previous drop or fall could have done more damage than is visible.
Owning a horse can be a rewarding experience, and for many a horse is considered part of the family. But don't rush into buying a pony - it requires a lot of hard work, commitment, and no matter how you manage to save cash, vet's fees, feed and so on can quickly mount up, so it's important you have the funds to take proper care of the animal for as long as you have the privilege of owning them.
Do you own your own horse or pony? What advice would you give to those interested in getting into riding or ownership? Leave your comments below...