Six tips for parents of horse-mad children
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Truly horse-mad children often think of little else beyond their equine obsession. Sheena Grant, who speaks from experience, offers some tips to parents, who may not be horsey themselves.
More years ago than I care to remember, I was a horse-mad child.
My obsession started early, fuelled by a family background in horse racing, and involved more excitement than is probably normal about a number of horse-related things, including the annual television screening of the Horse of the Year Show, the Adventures of Black Beauty, collectable models of Dream Ponies and my all-time favourite toy, a jointed rider and horse called Anna and Happytime, which came with a range of accessories.
Despite my parents’ best efforts to dissuade me (probably something to do with the expense and perceived risk), I eventually graduated to real ponies, frequenting the local riding stables before moving on to befriending random people and offering to help with their horses; probably, in retrospect, not such a great idea for all sorts of reasons, but, hey, this was the 1970s.
Anyway, I survived, largely unscathed. Along the way, I also picked up some wisdom that may be helpful, especially as the summer holidays approach, to the not-so-horsey mums and dads of a new generation of horse-mad children.
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1. You can’t hold back the tide
Your child may well grow out of their pony obsession or it may turn into an interest that will bring life-long pleasure. What’s certain is that parental resistance, even with the best of intentions, is futile. Far better to put aside your worries about safety, cost, lack of knowledge, or anything else and be positive about helping them pursue their interest.
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2. Get some proper instruction
There are plenty of ways to learn about riding and caring for horses, even if you’re not horsey yourself or on a limited budget. Many riding stables offer affordable lessons, where children can learn and make friends. One of the best ways to learn is through the Pony Club, which isn’t just for children called Tarquin whose parents have, as Keeping up Appearances’ Hyacinth Bucket might say, a Mercedes, swimming pool and room for a pony. The Pony Club bills itself as “‘the’ starting place for anyone with an interest in horses and riding, who wants to learn and have fun in a safe and caring environment”. Membership is open to anyone up to 25; branch membership is for those with access to a horse or pony, and centre membership is for those without access to a horse or pony. Go to www.pcuk.org to find your local centre, many of which offer activity days and the chance to earn badges and take achievement tests.
4. It could improve learning
Ok, this isn’t one I learned in my own pony-mad childhood but interesting nevertheless. According to research by Tokyo University’s Professor Mitsuaki Ohta, horse riding may help improve memory, learning and problem solving in youngsters. Prof Ohta and his team found that vibrations produced by horses’ movement during riding could improve learning in children by activating the sympathetic nervous system. Researchers examined the effects of horse riding by asking children to complete simple response and mathematical tests before and after taking part in the activity. The 2017 study found that riding horses greatly improved the ability of children to perform behavioural tasks, meaning horse riding could actually improve cognitive ability leading to better memory, learning and problem solving.
5. Use it to your advantage
Horse-mad children often can’t enough of horses in any form. They will draw pictures of them, talk about them and devour books and stories about them. In my personal experience, there’s no such thing as a reluctant reader if you’ve got a book of pony stories to hand. Growing up, many of my personal favourites were written by the legendary Pullein-Thompson sisters but there are plenty of others, from Monica Dickens’ Follyfoot series to Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse.
6. Share the love
You may eventually feel inspired to saddle up yourself but if not that doesn’t mean you can’t get involved in other ways. There’s a Wacky Wednesday family fun day from 10am to 4pm at World Horse Welfare’s Hall Farm near Snetterton on July 25, with pony grooming, craft activities and tractor trailer rides. Redwings Horse Sanctuary is supporting Norfolk Day at its Aylsham and Caldecott centres from July 27 to 29 with a host of family activities. Redwings visitor centres will also be hosting free summer clubs for six to 11-year-olds this summer to give children a taste of what it’s like to be a Redwings vet, field officer, farrier and dentist with hands-on-activities (www.redwings.org.uk). There’s also a family ‘horseplay’ Summer Saturday race day at Newmarket Racecourse on August 18 providing role-play and interactive games for children to learn more about the sport. Tickets from £12 per person and children go free (www.newmarket.thejockeyclub.co.uk).