If you're thinking of learning to ride, or your kids have finally reached the 'Can I have a pony? Can I? Can I?' stage, then perhaps the most important factor for you to consider is choosing a good riding centre at which to do so.
How well you progress, your safety, and how much you enjoy the overall experience are all reliant upon it! So here are some guidelines to ensure you get off to a flying start.
One of the best ways to find the perfect place for you and your family is by word of mouth recommendations from other horse riders in the area- But if you're totally new to the equestrian world, you may not have anyone to ask.
First of all, consider what you want from the experience... Would you like to have a structured lesson on a well schooled horse or pony in an arena, or would you prefer to go out on a supervised hack (pleasure ride) to see if riding is something you wish to pursue?
If you are looking for the latter, either a riding school or a trekking centre should be able to help you. But if you are keen to learn to ride competently from the basics upwards, then you will need to find a reputable riding school to help you achieve this.
Begin by compiling a shortlist of nearby riding schools in the local area. In order to find the perfect fit for you, it's important to consider all of the local establishments and not just pick the nearest one, or the one with the flashiest advertising.
Particularly look for any centres which are displaying the A.B.R.S. (Association of British Riding Schools) logo, or are a B.H.S. (British Horse Society) approved centre.
The A.B.R.S. is an organisation solely committed to the standard of welfare, level of training and good horsemanship in British riding schools. They also have a list of member centres on their web site.
The B.H.S. is the larger umbrella body for equine welfare, as well as everything related to hobby riding in the UK. B.H.S. approved centres are all inspected regularly, and verified to be well run and reputable. A list of B.H.S. approved centres is available on their web site.
Once your initial list of prospective riding schools is complied, it's time to start phoning around for some more information, with a view to an inspection visit.
Explain to them that you are a novice rider and that you'd like to ask them some basic questions.
Topics such as the qualifications the riding instructors hold is a good starting point. It's not unusual for part- qualified instructors to teach beginner classes, but do make sure that your instructor is at least part- qualified with the British Horse Society, and that a fully qualified instructor is present at the centre in a supervisory capacity.
You will want to find out what facilities the riding school has- for instance, will you only consider a centre that has a covered indoor arena in case of bad weather? This is vitally important to some people, while others are simply happy to be on horseback come rain or come shine!
Ask what format your first lesson will take, and how much you will be able to do in it. Generally for complete beginners, you may well be 'on a lead rein' which means one of the assistants at the yard (often keen young volunteers who are gaining more experience with horses) will walk with the horse or pony on your lesson, and be able to take control of the horse or pony if you are having problems.
Don't expect to be told that you'll be able to canter, gallop, and go over jumps... At the novice stage and particularly on your first ride, a reputable yard will keep you mainly at a walking pace until your skills improve, possibly introducing you to trotting towards the end of the lesson.
Finally of course, check out the cost of riding lessons and confirm if that is for a group lesson or one to one session (group lessons are great to begin with, and usually significantly less costly than private lessons) and for how long that is. Expect beginner lessons to run from 40 minutes up to one hour - Any longer and you'll be pretty sore!
If by the end of the conversation you are happy with what you have heard so far, ask if you can make an informal visit without obligation to see their facilities and have a look around. No reputable riding centre will refuse an initial visit. Some riding schools will be happy for you to just drop in during business hours, while others will ask you to come at a specific time when they will be less busy and able to show you around.
When visiting a riding school for your initial visit, ask yourself questions such as 'do the horses and ponies look well cared for?' 'Are the stables generally clean?' 'Is the tack (equipment for the horses such as saddle and bridle) well maintained and safe?'
When on your inspection visit, ask what equipment the centre is able to lease or loan to you for your lessons. All riding schools should be able to furnish you with a BSI Kitemarked riding hat that fits, and some will also be able to provide boots and gloves.
You will need to supply your own footwear if this is not the case- Plain soled shoes or boots with a short square heel. Riding gloves with grip padding such as 'pimple palms' can be bought relatively inexpensively (under £5) and you should consider buying a pair if they are not provided.
One of the main things to remember when looking around the yard is not to judge the quality of the teaching or the standard of equine welfare on the outward appearance of the stables. Some of the most reputable riding centres which provide excellent instruction and maintain the highest standards of care for their horses and ponies, are housed in less than salubrious buildings.
Similarly, don't let amazing presentation and lots of high tech gadgetry sway you into deciding a centre is definitely the best one for your personal needs.
You will get a feel for the 'right' riding school for you once you start looking around... Don't settle for less until you find it!