Riding High

8th July 2011

Is the horse the new dog? Heather Harris discovers that equine ownership is on the increase

Previously the preserve predominantly of the landed gentry, owning a horse or a pony has now become increasingly popular at all levels of society. According to the British Horse Industry Confederation (BHIC), one million households in this country contain at least one person who is responsible for the daily upkeep of a horse – an increase of 20% on 1999 figures.

“And horse ownership seems to be recession proof, with people preferring to give up their expensive holidays rather than sell their beloved pony. It’s a unique relationship,” says a spokesman for the British Horse Society (BHS), adding that 4.3 million people now ride regularly, making it more popular than rugby, cricket or fishing.

Certainly with crippling fuel prices, swapping wheels for hooves is an attractive way to reign in the country’s rising transport costs. And there’s always the added benefit for our roses. On my road alone three households are currently undercutting each other in a thriving manure-selling frenzy, with prices ranging from £1 to £3 a bag. And, judging by the amount of cars that are stopping to buy, the bottom has certainly not fallen out of this particular market.

As my friend, Helen (mother of a pony-mad 11 year-old) explains, “When we moved to the country the neighbours automatically assumed we would buy two things – a horse and a horse box! It’s certainly far more common than when I was at school.”

She recalls dreaming of owning a horse as she lay in bed in a small terraced house in the middle of Leicester. “I devoured those paperbacks about girls heroically winning their local gymkhana despite their horse going lame or getting stolen or escaping the night before,” she says, admitting that it is very tempting to buy one when you’re surrounded “by owners of all ages and backgrounds, who see it as just as straightforward as buying a dog but with the added benefit of being able to ride it.”

The fact is that today’s UK equine industry is riding high and is now worth an estimated £4 billion per annum and it’s not just farriers, tack sellers and riding instructors that contribute. A quick glance at our local Further Education College prospectus reveals more horse-related courses than human ones. Everything from Equine Tourism and Equine Dentistry to Equine Business Management and Equine Science. Training to be a Vet is positively passé when you can study for three years to make sure our four legged friends make the right holiday choice, floss properly, invest their money wisely and learn how to use a Bunsen burner…

There are even entire educational establishments totally dedicated to learning about horses. And try telling my daughter that she should revise her German, Geography and General Studies when the only GGs she’s interested in studying are the ones at the local Equestrian College.

“It is the best form of contraception out though,” explains Jane, a mother of two teenage daughters and three horses (“they grew out of one but we couldn’t bear to part with it!”).

“While all my daughters’ teenage friends are staggering off to discos in mini skirts and make-up, my two are more likely to be covered in manure and could not be more unattractive to the opposite sex if they tried!” It’s a valid point, and many a parent would be glad of it.

“Spending their Saturdays at the stables must be healthier than in front of the TV or wandering around Primark?” Jane adds, while admitting that she originally bought a horse because it was something that, like Helen, she’d always wanted as a child.

Anthea (recent seller of her daughter’s pony) agrees, “It’s very easy to get carried away with the romantic notion of owning a horse. But just like a puppy, the reality is that horses may live on long after your daughter has bolted! Too many people go into it without thinking it through.”

Or checking how stable their finances are. The cost of horses may have come down over recent years because of an increase in supply but that initial outlay is just the start.

Julie bought a horse for her 12-year-old daughter after her local riding stables closed down and she was forced to drive 40 minutes for a 30 minute ride. “It’s definitely more expensive than I expected. A basic pony saddle costs over £300, rugs cost £25 each just to be cleaned and re-proofed and did you know horses need to see a dentist?”

Numerous equine organisations including the BHS regularly trot out figures that estimate the average cost of owning your own pony at around £4,000 a year. And this is just for the bare essentials of accommodation, feeding, bedding, vets fees, farrier and worming (about the same as a cheap toddler, but with more expensive shoes).

Add in the cost of transporting them (as sadly they can’t go under their own steam and canter around the M25 to events) and it’s another £3,000.

“My husband always describes horses as creatures that turn money into poo. Shovel pound notes in one end and hey presto it comes out as manure at the other,” says Jane.

There are alternatives to actually buying outright, including pony share: not unlike job share and often equally fraught. As popular website ukponies.com advises, ‘The benefits of sharing all the responsibilities – financial and practical – are obvious, but it’s wise to draw up a written agreement to ensure all parties understand and commit to their responsibilities.”

After all, it’s no good metaphorically trying to shut the stable door after the horse has bolted and ending up in a financial wrangle. ‘Pony Wars’ can get very ugly, with muck buckets at dawn guaranteed to make the closest friendships disappear quicker than Shergar.

Borrowing one is another option: a bit like an engagement to see if you really are suited and ready to take the plunge. It avoids the initial lump sum but you still need the time and money to meet the day to day needs of your future ‘intended’.

A handy tip passed on by my local riding school owner as she heard my daughter yet again nag to get a nag, was to undertake a loan in the depth of winter “when your ‘horse mad’ children get home from school in the dark and have to crack the ice on the horse’s water bucket and get hypothermia trying to groom them!”

Or there’s Livery. Basically this means throwing money at someone else to look after your horse in their stables, instead of setting up yourself. “Having done both, I prefer livery,” explains Julie. “It’s more sociable for horse and rider and there’s a wealth of knowledge from other owners and better facilities including jumps – to buy your own costs hundreds!” (And I thought you could just use two buckets and a broom handle).

Whichever ways you choose to do it, the advantages of horse ownership come from the heart (plus toned thighs and spot free complexion) while the head tells you that it’s a huge financial and practical commitment. You can always take a dog with you when you visit Granny; a stallion is a rather different proposition. And even a Shetland won’t fit into the back of the biggest hatchback, no matter what the salesman tells you. Similarly, you can persuade your neighbour that while she’s walking her dog she might as well walk yours – but even if she possesses the widest bottom, riding two horses at the same time is anatomically impossible.

And no matter how deep into dedicated horse country you live, tying your pony up outside the local Tesco Metro, along with the odd Labrador or two, is simply asking for trouble. One tractor backfiring and it’ll be bolting along the fresh fruit aisle faster than Red Rum.

Like all things in life, a successful relationship builds slowly. So for our daughter we started with a goldfish, moved up to a hamster, progressed to two guinea pigs and last month a puppy. I’m just hoping now that she discovers boys very soon. After all once we’ve broken him in, I’m sure a two-legged addition to our family will be less trouble than a four-legged fourteen hander.

Shame about the roses though…

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