Crazy about horses

Saddle up for some equine adventures in Wales
By David Mullahey

Rebecca pictured jumping on Alfie at the Aberconwy equestrian centreUnderstatement, it should be said, has never been a conspicuous tool of the worldwide tourism industry.

Hence the sweeping statement inscribed at the entrance to the Kentucky Horse Park — the 1,200-acre working farm and museum complex dedicated to all matters equine probably rarely, if ever, raises any eyebrows.

“History,” it reads, “was written on the back of the horse.” It is tempting to dismiss this as yet another weary illustration of American insularity, the indigenous notion that civilisation, to all intents and purposes, dates from the times when the pioneers saddled up their steeds and drove their wagons across the west.

Yet whether by accident or design, the inscription has a global validity that would be difficult to contest. Indeed, the western hemisphere was horse-free until around 30,000 years ago, the earliest known horse-riders’ being reputedly the Brahmans of the Indian sub-continent.

The demography of horse populations subsequently became a pivotal factor in the growth or civilisations. Those in areas where there were no horses — Australia and sub-Saharan Africa, for example — became restricted in their mobility and development. Conversely, those of Rome, Byzantium and Macedon, for instance — where horses offered scope for travel, trade and exploration — were able to expand and prosper.

Today in western society, of course, the role of the horse has become largely recreational. Even so, closer analysis reveals an intriguing, perhaps even atavistic connection as regards the relationship between man and horse in the modern and ancient worlds.

In this context, the word “man” should be construed in terms of denoting gender. Historically speaking, men, more than women, have always been more likely to ride a horse for practical purposes. And according to Doris Bowen, who runs the Aberconwy Equestrian Centre at Llandudno Junction, this is something that holds true even today.

“Boys who take up riding tend to begin at a later age than girls but, when they do, it is nearly always because they want to pursue it as a career,” she says. “It’s never a hobby for them. They want to become jockeys, riding instructors or show-jumpers.

“Girls, on the other hand, want to ride because they just love horses. But when they get to 14 or 15 and they start to get interested in boys, they drift away. That’s why most of the top show-jumpers tend to be men.”

Dorris Bowen, who runs the Aberconwy equestrian centre in Llandudno JunctionWell that’s part of the picture anyway. The good news for the equestrian industry is that as their own children get older, many women who have abandoned riding in their youth return to it, particularly if they have daughters who have developed an interest. Adults also have other reasons for taking up riding. “With most of them, their parents didn’t have the money to let them do it when they were children,” Bowen explains. “But the interest has never gone away and they get around to it in later life.

“The good thing is that age does not matter. The oldest beginner I have ever had was a lady who took up riding at the age of 75.”

While age may not be a factor, to start riding you need to be in an acceptable physical condition. “Basically, you have to reasonably fit and have a little bit of balance,” says Bowen.

“A lot of people come to me and say, ‘I want to take up riding to lose weight’. I just tell them to go to the gym. I say, ‘when you have lost weight, come back here’.”

As a rule of thumb, the upper weight limit for a beginner is 13 stone, although this is not a hard and fast rule. Generally speaking, the taller you are, the greater the weight you can carry. “The problem is that as a beginner, because you don’t initially have the right balance, you tend to ride effectively a stone heavier,” Bowen says.

The first half-hour lesson at a riding school is usually a make-or-break. Bowen says: “We have a natter, then put people on a calm horse and take it from there.

“After that first half-hour, people will either say, ‘this is fantastic’ or, ‘never again. This has frightened me to death’. You either love it or hate it. There are no two ways about it. But I would say that only about five percent decide it’s not for them. You have to have an interest and a desire to ride to come here in the first place.”

Private lessons at a riding school cost around £14-£15 per half hour. Group instruction comes in at around £10-£12, although the latter is only suitable once the basic disciplines have been mastered. Most people ride once a week but twice-weekly lessons are not a bad idea in the formative stages. “It helps to break the body in!” says Bowen.

Either way, instruction — ideally at a British Horse Society approved centre — is essential. “Riding is a very dangerous sport,” she warns. “You are trying to control an animal that weighs 500-600 kilos. It’s not for the faint-hearted.

“Even if you only want to go out hacking (riding along roads and paths), you should have a couple of basic lessons. Horses can be very unpredictable and you need to know how to start and stop them, especially with the traffic on the roads nowadays.

“Otherwise it’s the equivalent of me handing a learner driver my car keys and saying, ‘go and drive up and down the motorway’ until you get the hang of it.”

The provision of a hard hat is usually included in the cost of lessons and the only essentials for the beginner are a pair of comfortable trousers and shoes or boots with a heel, which will prevent the foot slipping through the stirrup.

After three or four lessons, people have usually been bitten by the bug and think about buying their own riding gear. Around £120 will cover the basics: a hat, riding-breeches, jodphur or rubber boots.

From about a year onwards — once the disciplines of walking, cantering and jumping have been mastered thoughts sometimes turn to owning one’s own horse. A word of caution here, though.

“The commitment of having your own horse is rather like that of having a child,” Bowen says. “You have to look after it 365 days a year — birthdays, Christmas, New Year. You never have a day off.”

The financial commitment is hardly less substantial. A suitable horse will cost around £1,500, a pony around £1,000. Saddles and bridles will set you back another £800 or so, although second-hand tack sells for about half that price. Then there is stabling (£15-£20 per week) or grazing (£10 per week), insurance (£300 per year) and vet’s fees (upwards of £40 per call-out).

There again, the rewards of riding ought not to be understated either: fresh air, general fitness (particularly in terms of toning the the leg, arms and back muscles, which are used for ‘driving’ the horse) and the opportunity to enjoy the countryside. “When you have the sort of scenery there is in North Wales, riding can be fantastic,” Bowen says.

“And when you ride regularly you begin to bond with your horse. It is a wonderful form of companionship.”

DAILY POST April 24, 2003