One of the first things that we did when we moved out of London was to sign up for horse riding lessons; Saturday afternoons for Balthazar and Lysander and Sunday mornings for me. Most riding schools are able to accept children only from the age of four so although Olympia and Embla are desperate to join their brothers, they’re actually not able to start riding until the summer. Sometimes I bring them along to watch their brothers ride, but mostly, it’s valued me-and-the-boys time where we get to chat on the way there and back and I’m able to fully concentrate on observing their lesson.
When I was a child, ponies and the riding school was my absolute world. I doodled horses in the margins of my classwork, ‘cantered’ 20-metre circles in the garden and carefully assessed every passing wall for jumping gratification potential. I had plastic stables full of plastic ponies, and a dog who obligingly crunched her way through carrots and polos, and I dreamt of the day that I would have children of my own to ride fat, Thelwellian equines in the first instance and later, conquer Pony Club on chestnut arabs from their own yard.
Lo and behold and we have far too many children to afford a pony for each of them, and it transpires that the children have varying levels of interest on devoting their young lives to horse ownership. I’m not ready to give up on the dream of sharing one of my biggest loves with my offspring, and riding lessons have proven to be a more than acceptable compromise that allows me my pony fix and enables the children to explore the opportunity of learning to ride in a lower-pressure environment.
We all ride at the Alkham Valley Community Project, in Hougham. It’s a ten-minute drive from Folkestone, up in the Aklham Valley, and the AVCP is hosted by Minnismoor Stables and is dedicated to making horse riding ‘affordable, accessible and achievable’. There are lessons for people with Special Educational Needs and, although we pay the full price, there are also funded projects for children with Special Educational Needs or who are looked-after that lower the cost of riding to the equivalent of a cappuccino in London. It is rated as a five-star riding centre by the Dover Council, and we love it for the enthusiasm of the teaching, the indoor facilities that come in handy over this rainy winter and the ponies themselves, who are gentle and very calm.
The boys have a 45-minute lesson that costs £11 each. For that price, they ride with a small group of children of a similar ability, with a qualified instructor and a young helper leading the pony for safety whilst they focus on learning to balance and steer. In a typical lesson for beginners, which my children are, they practice walking and trotting and play games in order to keep the lessons fun and motivating. One of my boys rides because his brother is riding and he hates to miss out, but his brother, Lysander, is developing a keen interest – he tells me enthusiastically about his lessons, which he especially loves because they enable him to spend time with older children (the helpers). They have been riding for four months now and we have noticed definite progress in their riding – they are more knowledgeable and confident and vastly more balanced.
If you are local and your children might benefit from structured activity or time with sweet and patient animals, then perhaps horse riding would be of interest to them as a hobby – and the Alkham Valley Community Project would be a great place to start!