With an estimated 1,800 riding schools in Britain, how do you choose the right one? Obviously proximity helps: nobody wants to add a regular three-hour round trip to their weekend plans, but neither will the most convenient place necessarily be the best. A few pointers will help you find the perfect place for your particular needs.
For starters, a riding school must have a licence, obtained from the local council, which does a basic inspection of the premises before they issue a permit. For more specific assurances that you’re going somewhere professional, however, you should try and find a yard that has been approved by the British Horse Society, the Association of British Riding Schools, or both.
This gives you a guarantee that the school offers a high level of expertise, has great standards of health and safety and takes excellent care of their horses and ponies. As Chris Doran from the BHS approvals department points out: ‘The BHS sends inspectors who specifically look at the condition of the equipment and horses, and the proficiency of the staff.’
Once you’ve made a shortlist, you can ring the different riding schools to find out what kind of lessons are on the menu, how much they charge, whether they specialise in any particular discipline and what the facilities are like. You can also read reviews online, although this experience is a lot like TripAdvisor: opinions of a place can vary wildly.
Some riding schools are huge operations with outdoor and indoor arenas, showjumps and cross country fences, as well as a wide range of horses with different abilities. Other, smaller places might have less posh kit, horses or facilities, but remember that size isn’t necessarily an indicator of quality.
Before you start, it’s important to have a think about what you’d like to achieve: if you want to enjoy beautiful countryside on horseback, are there good bridleways nearby? Perhaps you’re eventually aiming to compete: do they offer advanced tuition? When you explain your goals, the instructors will be able to say how they can help.
When you’ve made your choice, you should pay a visit to the stables to get a feel for the place and hopefully watch a lesson in progress. Make sure you see one of the instructors who will be teaching at your level and also have a good look around to check that everything is clean and well-presented and the horses seem happy and relaxed.
Your first visit may seem overwhelming. There will be a lot of people confidently sashaying around with tack and kit, and horses coming and going in every direction, but hopefully everyone will be friendly and welcoming. It helps if people don’t take themselves too seriously: you certainly shouldn’t be made to feel out of place if you don’t yet know the difference between a snaffle and a gag.
Joining a riding school is enormous fun, and as long as you start somewhere which is accredited and where you feel comfortable with patient, professional instructors, you’ll be off to a flying start in no time.