A guide to… Getting into horse riding

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I receive a lot of emails and messages from people who want to get into horse riding and don’t really know where to start. So I thought I’d write a post and cover the basics on which steps to take and what to expect. I’m not too familiar with the way people do it here and what the general approach to beginner riding is because I started as a child and in a different country. So writing this post did feel a bit odd at first but the more I typed the more I realised I was actually in this exact situation not too long ago when I went back to riding as an adult, as I kinda had to go back to basics too, look for a new place to ride, buy new gear and even learn English equestrian terminology believe it or not. There are a lot of misconceptions about equestrian sports and I will blog about these one of these days. Things in the equestrian world aren’t always rosey but my honest opinion is that the sport is much more accessible than it’s made out to be. So I’ll just give you a few pointers, you can then adapt it to your own needs and riding goals.

1. Find riding centres near you and pay them a visit

Do a quick search online for the riding centres in and around your area. Pick 2 or 3 schools and pay them a visit. Most centres won’t mind the occasional visitor, some will want you to call in advance so if that’s what’s stated on their website, make sure you book.

Things to look out for when visiting:

Happy and healthy-looking horses

Friendly staff

Well-maintained facilities.

2. Is the school BHS-approved?

It’s also worth checking that the centre is approved by the BHS (British Horse Society) which is the organisation that sets the standards for equestrian centres in the UK. If if it approved, it will be listed on the BHS website with enough details to help you make an informed decision. There are other types of accreditation that I don’t know much about – Google and online forums will give you sufficient information on any riding centre in the UK.

Selecting a school that operates on high standards is of course very important but some riders will tell you that sometimes it’s about the general vibe you get from a place. I’ve ridden at places where the standards were very high but the environment wasn’t pleasant at all, full of pretentious shoutey horsey people… although to be fair most riding centres have them. It’s just one of those things.

3. Ask questions, find out as much as possible

During your visit make sure you find out about their beginners lessons: How do you want to learn? Group or private lessons? Early morning, daytime or evening lessons? Find out the costs. In London, lessons start from about £35 for a 45min lesson but prices can go up to £75 or more depending on where you ride. Schools in central London cost a lot more. Some places will allow you to book several lessons at discounted prices although you may have to be a regular rider there to get concessions.

Another question I get asked very often is the issue of weight restriction. Some riding centres have a weight policy, e.g. maximum weight for a rider is 12 stone (76kg). This doesn’t mean your weight is an issue and you won’t ever be able to ride. It might just be that this particular riding centre doesn’t have the right horses to accommodate heavier riders, so never take offence if that is the case – just look for another place. Once you start at the school they will ask about your weight in the initial form you have to fill in so you’ll know whether or not you can ride there.

4. So you’ve picked a riding centre, what now? 

I always suggest doing one or two lessons to see if horse riding is really for you. In fact the school will ask you to come in for an assessment of some sort, not just to determine your level but also to let you decide for yourself if it’s something you really want to take up. The thing about this sport is that if you’ve never ridden before it does look like a lot of fun especially when you watch other people do it with so much ease and confidence. But contrary to popular belief riding itself is quite physically demanding. Not everyone actually enjoys it. Just bear that in mind. Horses are such endearing and beautiful creatures but learning to handle them is a whole other skill that just isn’t for everyone.

It’s also very important to know why you want to ride. I’ve written about riding goals in this post, take a look.

Your first two lessons should give you a clear idea of whether you want to pursue the sport or not. Or perhaps you don’t want to ride on a regular basis – only once in a while. That’s fine too, but make sure you let your school know, so they know not to expect you every week and can tailor their teaching around your learning pattern. At this stage, you don’t need to buy any riding gear yet. Your school should be able to lend you a helmet (riding hat) and boots.

What to expect during your first lesson:

You will be taken through a few safety steps. Your instructor will check that your riding hat is well secure on your head and will adjust your stirrups once you’re in the saddle. You will learn how to get on and off your horse using a mounting block.

Novice riders are usually lunged during their first lesson, meaning the horse is attached to a lead (rope) although this is down to your instructor. Some instructors let their pupil ride free on the first day – different people different methods. You will learn to walk, halt and steer. Again depending on who is instructing you they might let you trot (usually rising trot). I won’t go into too much detail about what you will and will not learn as this really does depend on the school.

Get to know your instructor and ask him/her questions when you are unsure of something.

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5. You’ve decided horse riding IS for you…

Now is the time to get a bit more involved with the sport. Find out about any equestrian stores near you or alternatively, go online and start looking at gear to buy. Do not buy horse tack until you actually own a horse (!) Just thought I’d mention that, as the temptation to buy your own saddle cloths and bridles very early on is sometimes too strong to resist. No one will let you use them!

Here’s a list of what you will REALLY need when you first start out:

A riding hat

Riding trousers

Riding boots

A whip (Optional but some schools prefer when riders bring their own)

You can wear pretty much any top/T-shirt/jumper you feel comfortable in.

6. Budgeting and planning for a steady learning curve

Horse riding is an expensive sport don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. But just like with anything else you want to do well, you will need to set aside the right amount of time and money for it. I have no tips on actual budgeting I just know you will need to budget for it. It’s not one of those sports you can just decide to go and practice in the park next to your house or in the free-to-use court at your local lido. Horse riding is taught by highly qualified instructors in (usually and ideally) highly maintained facilities, with high maintenance animals. All this costs a huge amount of money to run so no wonder lessons don’t come cheap.

What I would say though is that people who really want to ride do eventually get to a stage where they can afford to ride. And that’s through sheer determination. If you want to get into the sport you are gonna have to set aside money. This may mean making a lot of sacrifices elsewhere but it will all be worth it in the end.

7. Progressing, increasing your knowledge and skills

Make use of every resource or avenue you have access to, to increase your knowledge of horse riding and horses in general. This is a sport that requires you to trust and rely on a [sometimes temperamental] 450kg animal, so it’s worth learning about horse behaviour, how to handle your horse and of course… how to actually ride. Yes your instructor will teach you all the skills you need but do that little bit of extra work – get on Youtube and watch videos. I recommend the Your Riding Success Youtube channel although it is focused mainly on dressage you can learn a great deal by watching the amazing Australian Grand prix rider Natasha Althoff. She’s pretty much my virtual trainer!

I mean if you’re really serious about horse riding and want it to be more than just a hobby, not quite a profession (!) but a sport you genuinely want to excel in, then by all means buy books if you have to, read Horse & Hound Magazine… There is no such thing as too much knowledge when it comes to learning about horses and the industry.

Additional skills e.g. horse care and stable management

Some schools have strict policies when it comes to their barn and/or horses and won’t actually allow anyone in the barn (not to be confused with the arena – where the actual ride/lesson takes place). It could just be that the riding centre’s insurance policy doesn’t allow riders to get the horses tacked up and ready for the arena. So you might not be allowed to bridle your horse and prepare him before each lesson but if your school does allow it, then make the most of it because those are valuable skills for an equestrian to learn.

You could also take stable management classes, most riding centres run them – you can learn how to care for horses and manage stables.

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8. Enjoy it!

After every ride you will feel like you’ve just had a 5-hour work out (trust me on this one). But you’ll love the bond you form with your lesson horse(s), you’ll enjoy learning all the different gaits there is to practice and most importantly, you’ll love seeing the progress you make from one lesson to the next. Enjoy it and come back and tell me how you’re getting on!

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