Learning to ride
Learning to ride on ponies may be the norm for British children, but not so across the globe. How does riding horses instead of ponies affect children in the long term? Stephanie Bateman investigates
Horses vs ponies: who is the greatest teacher for children?
‘As soon as we could do the basics, we were put onto horses — I remember there being a good few twists in the stirrup leathers’
EVENT RIDER ALEX HUA TIAN
IT’S hard to imagine children in the UK learning to ride on anything other than a Thelwell lookalike, but for many riders who learnt to ride abroad, horses were the only option.
“As soon as you were deemed competent enough, you were straight onto horses,” says Chinese eventer Alex Hua Tian, who started riding, aged nine, in Hong Kong. “We did have some great little ponies, but they were rare and used for the real beginners. Once we could do the basics, we were put onto horses. I was pretty small until I was 15, and I remember there being a good few twists in the stirrup leathers.”
Looking back now, Alex believes riding horses from a young age put him in good stead for his eventing career.
“Clayton and Lucinda Fredericks used to come to Hong Kong and teach clinics,” he says. “When I was 10, my mother sent me to their place for two weeks and they put me on their horses because I was used to riding horses in Hong Kong.”
Portuguese dressage rider Luis Principe had a similar experience as a child.
“I grew up in Portugal and never set eyes on a pony as a kid because there just weren’t many,” he says. “I learnt to ride when I was
12 at my local riding school near Lisbon, and the horses were a mixture of well-schooled part-bred Lusitanos and warmbloods. We still followed the traditional walk, trot and canter around the school one after the other, but we never had issues with naughty ponies going one way and the kids going the other.”
Size wasn’t too much of an issue for Luis, who was tall for his age.
“Lusitanos aren’t particularly tall — the biggest were around 16.2hh — so we didn’t feel totally overhorsed,” he says. “You got used to it, and we preferred to ride the bigger ones anyway — it was more macho.”
H&H polo reporter Aurora Eastwood started riding in England on ponies, but it wasn’t a positive experience.
“I remember being bolted with on a pony called Juno on Salisbury Plain,” she says. “It was totally terrifying and I fell off a lot.”
Aurora’s family then moved to Portugal when she was 10.
“I rode Lusitanos — they didn’t geld them back then so they were all stallions, but they were so mannerly and well schooled, and I never got carted.
“It was easier to sit to their paces, and they gave me confidence and improved my riding — I knew that they wouldn’t tank off or drop a shoulder.”
DESPITE having access to ponies, Arabian stud yard manager and artificial insemination technician Lyndall Kramer began riding on horses.
“I learnt to ride at my local riding school in London on a 16.1hh coloured mare,” she says. “I was really short and couldn’t get on from the ground, which made my B test tricky.
“All the other kids rode ponies and I was jealous when I couldn’t vault on during gymkhana games, but at Pony Club camp one year, I won a bravery award because I was the smallest kid on the biggest horse.”
Lyndall believes that riding horses as a child has given her a good seat.
“I’m glad I learnt to ride on horses,” she says. “Heights of jumps weren’t as dramatic and you develop a stronger core riding big-striding horses. You can better feel what’s going on underneath you.”
Event rider Claire Deuten learnt to ride in Dubai when she was eight. In those days, riding schools there were mostly made up of ex-racehorses and polo ponies.
“They weren’t very well behaved and I often asked myself: ‘Why do I want to ride horses?’” she remembers. “The arenas were always round, which I reckon was to stop the horses from getting up enough speed and bolting. There were also tall white railings around the outside, probably to stop them from jumping out.
“I remember I didn’t know my left from my right and whenever I used to drop my reins to try to work it out, the horse would bolt.”
Claire spent summers riding in the UK until she relocated here, aged 16.
“I’ve always been quite tall and didn’t know any different when it came to riding the taller horses, so it’s hard to say if there were any advantages,” she says. “As an event rider, I get jealous of people who came through the UK pony eventing system, because they were a step ahead of me and I feel it put me at a disadvantage when launching my eventing career.”
Selene Scarsi, a dressage reporter for
H&H, grew up in Italy and began riding in the early 1990s.
“My riding school, like all the others in the area, only offered lessons on horses, even for tiny beginners like me — at the time, ponies could only be found in the posher, larger yards near major cities,” Selene says. “My very first lessons were on a gentle giant called Lollo, a schoolmaster in his late teens, who was more than 17hh and never put a foot wrong. I never found him intimidating — he was the kindest, most forgiving horse, and I still remember my first canter and jump on him.
“I don’t feel my equestrian education suffered because of it — for sure I missed out on the more playful aspect of the sport, such as fun pony games, which I would have loved, but I don’t regret learning to ride on horses.”
PONIES are plentiful in Britain for children to learn on, but what do those who’ve had a taste of both scenarios make of our leaning towards them as the ideal teachers?
“It totally depends on the individual whether they are better off on ponies or horses,” says Alex. “Some taller kids are far better on a small horse than a big pony.”
Aurora adds: “If I had a choice, I’d give a child a well-schooled horse over a naughty pony any day. Not everyone learns from a naughty pony, and they can be total confidence-killers. I don’t subscribe to the ideology that being repeatedly bucked off or having a pony constantly refuse fences will make you a better rider in later life. There’s
plenty of time to ride difficult horses when you are grown-up — why put a child through that and risk putting them off?”
Being able to learn to ride on ponies is less important than being able to learn to ride, says Selene.
“In an ideal world, children should learn to ride on ponies, but ideal scenarios don’t happen so often and if the alternative is not riding at all, then thank God for horses — no matter how big,” she says.
“Britain is such a horsey country that the biggest advantage British children have is not so much the availability of ponies, but the accessibility of riding, both financially and geographically. There are so many yards all over the country and equestrian equipment (especially for someone starting out) tends to be significantly cheaper than elsewhere in Europe. Riding here is far less elitist than in other European countries, which is a huge advantage.”
Olympic showjumper Graham Fletcher fully endorses children riding ponies and believes it’s a great way to teach them how to be good competitors.
“My kids learnt to ride on ponies and good ones do a great job teaching them how to ride,” he says. “Riding stylishly is one thing, but to be really good, kids need to learn to be good competitors and they only get that from riding an experienced, competitive pony.
“Learning to kick a bit and win — it’s that development of the athlete that makes future winners and it’s very important, says Graham.”
‘i was jealous of people who came through the Uk pony eventing system because they were a step ahead of me,’ says Claire deuten, who learnt to ride in dubai
lyndall kramer is glad she learnt to ride on a 16.1hh horse: ‘heights of jumps weren’t as dramatic and you develop a stronger core riding big-striding horses’