Author Archives: Penny Church

Let’s look after our riding schools


Can you remember your first riding lesson? Mine was light years ago, but I can still remember every detail, writes CAROLYN HENDERSON.

The small riding school in Lincolnshire was run by two dedicated sisters called Daphne and June. They introduced me to a 12.2hh strawberry roan pony called Amigo and explained that I’d learn not just how to ride, but how to tack up, groom and muck out.

When my Dad told them I could draw a saddle and bridle and label every part, and knew the name of every piece of grooming equipment and what it was for, they nodded in approval.

There was so much to take in on that first lesson. At the end, Daphne told me I must pat Amigo’s neck to thank him; the poor pony must have thought he was being patted to death.

Lots of you will have similar memories of special riding school ponies. But will your children or grandchildren have the same chances?

Unless you’re born into an equestrian family and are brought up in jodhpurs, a riding school offers the only chance of getting close to horses and ponies. Yet riding schools are under threat because of massive hikes in business rates and insurance cover, the latter due to a change in the law.

What happened to all those official declarations about riding being such a valuable activity? And what happened to all those promises about the Olympic legacy?

Times change and businesses have to adapt. Many riding schools no longer take pupils on hacks because the roads around them are too busy. And whilst some of us saw graduating from a school’s safe starter ponies to feistier ones as a badge of honour, today’s riding school owners know that some clients have their solicitors on speed dial in case their children fall off – which means feisty ponies are out of a job and children miss out.

Those who run riding schools do it for love. They certainly can’t do it to get rich – you only have to look at the costs of feed, bedding and shoeing, let alone rates and insurance, to work that out.

The latest British Horse Society statistics show that there are just under 900 BHS-approved centres worldwide. Prices vary, but private lesson prices starting at about £20 for half an hour. At one legendary school, you can have a 45-minute lesson on a dressage schoolmaster, with an equally legendary instructor, for about £80.

At my local cinema, it costs £20 for an adult and one child to see a film. So how come we still hear claims that riding is an expensive, elitist sport?

Unfortunately, until the powers that be wake up to the fact that riding schools should be treasured and helped, not rated out of existence, that’s what will happen. Some schools will close and others will have to put up prices so much, a lot of families won’t be able to afford them.

I hope things change, and that the children in your family have the chance to meet their equivalent of Amigo.




First competitions of the season.

Well, our first squad assessment with horses has now been and gone.  It was, as usual, a considerable drive away for us which I guess is the penalty for living in such a wonderful and usually quiet part of the World.  This was in Milton Keynes at a riding stables and livery yard where I could stable Fantom overnight.  It was a slightly anxious drive up there as our old Shogun was beginning to tire of pulling our massive Equi-trek and started making rather unpleasant smells.  However we made it without incident and settled Fantom into his stable and went to find our hotel in Milton Keynes.

The following day was the assessment in the indoor school.  As most of the horses weren’t yet in work or had just come back into work, this was mostly in hand with a short ridden assessment just in walk and trot.  Fantom’s behaviour in hand left something to be desired.  Since his 3* qualifier last year he has been a little ‘difficult’ to handle at times: strutting around, galloping here and there in his field and inclined to leap and push when being brought in from the field.  He did, I’m afraid, demonstrate a little of this when being led up and down for the squad management team.  Since then we have been trotting up and down the road in hand, changing the side to lead him from.

Meanwhile Chiara’s final preparations for the first ride of the season were completed and consisted of some pole work in the school to gain her attention and some long slow work around the lanes.  The first ride was local to us, only half an hour away so without getting up too early, we could arrive early at the venue.  This was at the Royal Cornwall Showground, the site of Chiara’s first ever competition last year.  Last year we had problems with keeping her calm for the vetting inside the big livestock shed and her pulses were quite high.  This year, however, she stood quietly for almost the full minute of pulse taking both at the beginning and the end.  She has since then been on Steady Up Advance which seems to have made a difference.

The ride went smoothly with Chiara relaxing into a regular, rhythmic canter on the forest tracks and settling into a fairly reasonable trot where canter wasn’t possible.  All in all, a huge improvement was seen since last year and she finished the day with a grade 1.

Next up was Dilmun.  He has been prepared for his first competition of the season by beach work, lunging, even some detested schooling and trotting over poles.   Yesterday we went up to Dorset to do the Hardy’s ride.  I entered for the 43 kms distance as I felt that was the minimum we needed to do to assess whether Dilmun will be ready in 5 weeks to compete at Royal Windsor.

We were so lucky with the weather, a bright sunny day with a slight breeze.  There was no mud which pleased both of us and, although we had to take care on some stony stretches, the going was generally perfect with seemingly endless stretches of grass to canter over.  Both Dilmun and I loved it and he felt as fresh at the finish as he was at the start.  I am now happy to enter him for Windsor although there is plenty of work to be done before then.

My own fitness at last has taken a turn for the better and my efforts are beginning to pay off.  I am doing plenty of Pilates exercises, paying attention to my legs and core and have started jogging again.

Plans for the next couple of months are still a little fluid with Dilmun planned to go to Windsor for the 1*, Fantom to Euston Park also for a 1* and Chiara’s first FEI competition at King’s Forest.  However, this could all change as this year everything has to revolve around Fantom and his chances of team selection.

Why ‘some old guy’ means so much to everyone.

Even those who don’t know one end of a horse from another have probably heard that showjumping stars Nick Skelton and Big Star are retiring, writes CAROLYN HENDERSON.

The announcement flooded across websites and social media and made mainstream TV. That’s important, just as it was when our dressage riders at the London Olympics wowed those who didn’t know a Piaffe from a pit stop, and the non-horsey world became aware of dancing horses.

It’s an irresistible story – the 58-year-old man who is lucky to be alive, let alone ride. In 2000, Nick fractured his first cervical vertebra in two places, an injury known as the hangman’s break, and was told that another fall could be fatal. In 2016, he and Big Star captured the general public’s imagination, and now they’ve done it again.

Nick Skelton and Big Star jump to Olympic Gold in the individual final at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on 19th August 2016.

When asked to sum up why so many fell in love with his story, Nick was down to earth and disarming. “I think it’s the age factor,” he said. “Some old guy doing what I did ended up winning gold.”

As an afterthought, he added: “If you want something, and you fight for it, you will get it.” Many will say that’s not true, but if you’re realistic, it should be.

So let’s hope that the widely publicised retirement of Nick and Big Star will prompt a few more people to wonder if there might be something in this horse riding stuff, after all. If some of those aren’t in the first flush of youth, that’s even better.

Few people can power round huge showjumping courses when they’re Nick’s age – with apologies to John and Michael Whitaker, of course, who are slightly older. Whatever they’ve got, they should bottle it and sell it.

But just about anyone of any age can learn to ride, or pick up the reins after a long break. Don’t be worried about looking silly, because if contemporaries take notice, it will be in envy and admiration.

As for the partnership’s personal futures, there is a popular educated guess. Nick’s son, Dan, is a racehorse trainer in his fourth season and before that, spent nine years as assistant trainer to Paul Nicholls. What’s the betting that Nick will be spreading some of his expertise around his son’s already successful yard?

Big Star is set to concentrate on what stallions do. If you have a worthy mare and want to breed a Big Star baby, now could be your chance – just don’t get trampled in the rush.

Finally, there is still hope for those of us who don’t bounce as well as we used to. Nick might be hanging up his competition boots, but John Whitaker, who will be 62 in August and his  57-year-old brother, Michael, can still show younger riders how it’s done.

Andrew Nicholson at Burghley Horse Trials. Credit:

In the world of eventing, Andrew Nicholson, aged 55, is a name younger riders fear. So too is Sir Mark Todd, aged 61.

Remember what the man said. If you want it, and fight for it, you’ll get it.

The season has started!

It’s been a long time in coming, but the 2017 endurance season has officially started. I can’t tell you how good it felt to finish an 80km ride with Elayla; no matter how many amazing horses I ride, there is no better feeling to riding your own.


I think Tilford took us all by surprise this year; the persistent rain meant that the going became very difficult in places and we had to make the speed up where the ground allowed. Despite this we had great fun, and it was the perfect ride to start Layla’s season and to finish with a grade one was the icing on the cake.


The first ride of the year can also be a bit nerve-wracking because horses can change over the winter and it’s the first true test of any minor adjustments you have made over the off season. For us the biggest change was Layla’s feeding regime and I’m really pleased to say she has thrived on it, and I can only thank the team’ at Baileys and Feedmark for ensuring she has the best diet for her job. I’m really impressed with the Stamina and Endurance supplement, it is the first time I have fed it to any of my horses and it definitely ‘does what it says on the tin’ – providing slow release energy and proteins for optimum performance, and also aiding the horses’ main systems to ensure they are in the best condition.


The recovery of horses post ride, is just as important as their care pre ride and because Tilford was more difficult than I had first thought, I booked Layla in for a last minute massage two days after the ride. This was the perfect way to help her muscles recover, by ensuring she didn’t suffer from any particular muscle tightness. She also enjoyed some time out in the field, which is a great way of keeping her mind going whilst she’s not in work and also to keep her moving.


Layla has since come back into work and is looking onwards and upwards to our next competition at Kings Forest in April. Her 2017 season will be tailored towards her condition and performance for the World Endurance Championships for young riders in Verona, Italy in September. This ride will be different to anything we currently have in the UK, due to the nature of the hard, stony tracks and cobbled roads, and so its paramount that I condition the mares’ body to be able to cope with the demands of the going and the concussion that her legs will receive.

Keeping traditions in the right place.

We horsey folk live in a funny old world, writes CAROLYN HENDERSON. Sometimes, it seems like an alternative universe.

While everyone else has been pounding keyboards over Brexit, sections of the horse world have been getting hot under the collar over dressage riders wearing brightly coloured boots and show horses sporting the wrong browbands. The latter might sound like a Wallace and Gromit film, but feelings run high.

Adult side-saddle riders usually wear silk hats or bowlers when showing. Image: Carolyn Henderson.

It all comes down to tradition. In some cases, there are acceptable reasons behind mysterious rules – for instance, chunky show cobs wearing brightly coloured, ribbon-bedecked browbands look like elephants wearing tutus, whilst plain leather bridles with broad nosebands and browbands complement their workmanlike looks.

I’ve been writing about horses long enough to remember the days when wearing the wrong boots in the show ring was the equivalent to riding in your PJs. I’ve passed on professional show riders’ tips about having garter straps sewn to the tops of your boots and counting the number of plaits your horse should sport.

For the record, garter straps go back to the days when breeches were made from non-stretch fabric. They were designed to help keep your boots up, and your breeches legs down.

And while we’re playing Trivial Pursuit, tradition dictates that there should be an odd number of plaits down the horse’s neck, plus one for the forelock. Perfectionists always aimed for nine, but although gurus now advise putting in as many plaits as suit your horse’s conformation, the style police won’t arrest you if you have the “wrong” number.

As new enthusiasts from non-horsey background entered the equestrian world, many traditions were questioned or ignored. Dressage riders started it with blinged-up browbands, and when Charlotte Dujardin admitted that she “loved a bit of bling” the rest of us felt no guilt about releasing our inner divas.

Some traditions were made to be broken, and I’m glad they’ve gone. After dandy brushes at dawn on social media pages, showing riders accepted that in most cases, they had to wear hats with three-point safety harnesses.

Charlotte Dujardin chooses a safety hat. Image: Kit Houghton.

Common sense prevails in dressage and eventing, too. Even riders who are permitted to wear top hats often choose to wear stylish safety helmets instead. That includes the lovely Charlotte Dujardin, who sets trends as well as breaks records.

I wouldn’t wear bright blue boots in the dressage arena, but I can’t find a sensible reason why anyone who wants to should be permitted from doing so. The 2017 British Dressage members’ handbook makes no stipulation on the colour of riders’ boots, and says: “As long as the core dress rules are adhered to, embellishments and additions to any item of dress are permitted as long as they do not pose a welfare risk to the horse.”

So, is tradition best consigned to the dustbin? Not always.

At one time, competitors were always polite to judges and officials, even if they went home and moaned about people with failing eyesight. Private moans stayed within a small circle because that, of course, was before social (or anti-social) media had been invented and people didn’t need reminding to engage their brains before they engaged their keyboard fingers.

Some traditions are rooted in safety. Riding left hand to left hand when two or more horses are in a school avoids accidents, as does jumping practice fences only from the direction where the red marker is on your right. Yet some riders either don’t know, or don’t care.

Traditional values of courtesy and common sense? Yes please.

Tradition for its own sake? It’s up to the individual. But whatever side of the fence you choose, please be kind to each other.

Racing into a new future.

There was plenty to set racing fans’ hearts fluttering at the 2017 Cheltenham Festival, writes CAROLYN HENDERSON. But for me, the most emotional moment wasn’t seeing Sizing John power home to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

Instead, it was the sight of eight wonderful ex-racehorses being paraded by the riders who have taken them on to new careers. All had more than earned their keep on the racecourse and some –  like Denman – had become household names.

However, it wasn’t their racing lives we were celebrating. It was the fact that they and ex-racehorses we’ve probably never heard of thrive after they have retired from their first job, thanks to dedicated owners and registered charity Retraining of Racehorses.

At one time, many ex-racehorses had no future. Then RoR was formed, a charity which has done so much to boost the profile of ex-racehorses. It gives help and advice to those thinking of taking on one of these horses and offers prestigious competition series especially for them.

Now, some riders look for ex-racehorses specifically to take part in these competitions. That’s great, but – as with any breed or type – these horses aren’t for everyone. Re-training them takes skill and you need to understand the lives they’ve been used to as you introduce them to their new ones.

Horses are, of course, individuals. I admit that many years ago, before RoR existed, I did something I would never dream of doing now.

I bought a little three-year-old out of a Flat racing yard in Newmarket because a friend knew the trainer and said she deserved a chance. We turned her straight into a field with my other horse, who immediately fell in love with her, and couldn’t understand why she grazed a perfect 15-metre circle.

Then we realised that for the past two years, she’d only been allowed to graze in a round pen. After three days, she got braver and seeing her canter around the field for the first time was wonderful.

Four years later, after a successful showing career, she broke a hock in the field and had to be put down. I never had another ex-racehorse because I didn’t think I’d strike gold twice, but I’ve
met and heard of so many lovely ones since then – including ones belonging to Feedmark customers such as Kathy Boothman, who is a member of the RoR Musical Ride on her stunning 16.3hh ex-racehorse Middlebrook.

Don’t take on an ex-racehorse on a whim, but if you’ve thought it through – and have read all the advice and information on – you could be starting a rewarding journey. There are ex-racehorses excelling in all fields, from hacks to competition animals, and trainers who can help you build a bond with your new partner.

Temperament is everything, and that applies to you as well as to the horse. Patience and calm persistence always pays dividends, but if you know you have them, you could be on to a winner.

Victory for Gorgeous George!

Good evening!

I hope you all hugely enjoyed watching the Cheltenham Festival, what a feast for the eyes it proved to be! I very unfortunately didn’t manage to get my tips up last week, but naturally knew that Buveur D’Air, Special Tiara, Nichols Canyon and Sizing John were the way forward! There is nothing more endlessly thrilling than watching those wonderful battles up that hill, and it was fantastic to see our owner JP McManus have such a brilliant week with his horses, who were in sparkling form. Giant Redwood was particularly awestruck by the performance of Premier Bond, who shares his MPR colours, who defied his inexperience to run a fantastic third in the Kim Muir and looks a real horse to watch out for in the future – Giant now has his game face on and is determined to get to the Festival next year! He has a long way to go, but at this stage (not yet run due to waiting for decent ground) the dream is still very much alive!
Whilst the cheers were ringing around Cheltenham, our own team were making a hell of a noise up at Newcastle racecourse on Wednesday night, where Percy (Prancing Oscar) (left) and George (Epeius) did well not to break the lorry under their combined weight on the way there! First up was Percy, one of the most handsome (according to the fillies) colts around, who was going for his second start in a mile maiden. Looking at the runners, we would have been very happy with 3rd or 4th, as he is a big clown who is still growing into himself, so we were absolutely over the moon with him when he ran on well into 2nd. Though well beaten by an experienced winner, the rest of the field was well strung out behind him and the experience will have done him loads of good. Hopefully, he is a horse who will have a nice future for us and his MPR owners, though I am ordering a DNA test as he is supposedly by sprint sire of forward two year old’s Sir Prancealot, yet a step up in trip may be in order for this quite backwards three year old.

The last race of the day saw Gorgeous George (right) stepping up to the plate, and he looked as typically stunning as ever. We have worked on him hard over the winter after all his near misses last year, finding lots of little niggles that may have been holding him back, so we were hopeful of a good run as we now felt we were on top of them. He nearly had Graham Lee over his head on the way to the  start, which we took as a good sign! He travelled nicely throughout the 6 furlong sprint, and a furlong out I was worrying we might be filling 2nd or 3rd spot yet again! Luckily, Graham is the master of his trade and knew all was well, unleashing him in the last half furlong to run out a cosy winner by 1/2 length. I cannot tell you how much this victory meant to us all – he is a horse that Ben has always liked and it has been quite frustrating for us and his owners Trojan Horse so far, with all of us scratching our heads a little as to how he hadn’t won yet. However, I must thank Lynn and Gary for their faith and patience with us, and we were over the moon to be able to provide them with a first winner in their colours. Hopefully, George has a bit more to offer this season and will keep us all crying for the right reasons!

With any luck Newcastle will continue to be a happy hunting ground for us as we head back there on Friday night, possibly with Loopy (Rey Loopy) and Percy in tow. Loopy is very fresh and well at home, and we are hopeful he will put in a nice show in the 7 furlong handicap, having hopefully learned plenty from his last experience there when he finished a green 4th a couple of weeks ago, only just getting rolling at the end. Percy may go for a mile maiden, but we will monitor how he is this week, though he was giving his rider plenty of jip this morning so looks fresh and well after his run!

Saturday may see our newest arrival, Cup Final, heading to Kelso. We were delighted to be sent this really classy horse, who runs in the JP colours, and he has settled in nicely at home. We don’t know an awful lot about him yet, other than he finds the work easy, so will be looking forward to learning a bit more at the weekend. Door (The Doorman) will be joining him, and hopefully we will do a George and change the seconds into a first, as will Hawk (Hawkhurst), who we hope is steadily improving.

We were really sad this week to say goodbye to Nicola, who has been a hugely important part of the team here for the last year or so. Unfortunately, we were rather keeping her from her family, with racing hours and young children not being very compatible, so it was with a huge amount of reluctance we agreed to let her return to them! At least George, who she has always looked after and cherished, rewarded her with a win before she left, and I am sure she will still be up to visit plenty! We had a good joint leaving do/celebrating George party on Saturday night, and the whole team definitely enjoyed the evening, though possibly the Sunday morning less so! Silly me forgot the camera, but here is a gratuitous photo of the whole team on parade (left), ironically excluding Nicola to whom I apologise! The horses have someone new to get used to now, as we were very pleased to welcome Chris to the yard a couple of weeks ago, and he is already proving a great asset.

Until next time






In praise of happy hackers!

Riders who choose not to compete are often looked on as inferior to those who do, writes CAROLYN HENDERSON. Even worse, they often look on themselves as second class citizens of the horse world.

We’ve all heard it: “I’m just a happy hacker.” Maybe you even say it, with the accepted tone of self-disparagement.

Please – just stop it. There’s no reason why riders who hack can’t be just as competent as those whose weekend isn’t complete unless they’ve added to their tally of rosettes. Nor are their horses necessarily less well-schooled.

Many riders, like me, keep a foot in both camps by mixing hacking and competing. In one week, my riding buddy and I have turned a corner to meet deer crossing the track just in front of us; ridden past a field of pigs who rushed at us, squealing, because they thought we were bringing breakfast; and met a convoy of tractors and trailers.

I live in what’s often called great hacking country. We’re lucky in that we don’t encounter much traffic, but vehicles we do meet are usually large, noisy and sometimes driven by people who seem blind to high-vis clothing and either don’t know or don’t care about slowing down when passing horses.

While I admire the finesse of top dressage riders, the athleticism of their showjumping counterparts and the boldness of those who power around big cross-country courses – they know what’s coming. They’ve learned the test, walked the course and (hopefully) know how their horses are going to react.

Out hacking, you must be ready for anything and everything. And that’s where some dedicated competitors miss a trick.

Horses like a change of scene, just as we do. And as show producer Allister Hood reminded participants in his brilliant clinic for the British Skewbald and Piebald Association recently, you can school on a hack as well as in an arena. Get an active walk, practise transitions, work on straightness…the list is endless.

After all, we school to help make our horses safer and more pleasurable to ride. Hacking helps and reinforces that: I know one of my horses can perform decent lengthened strides, because the ones he showed going past the pigs would have earned us at least an 8 in a dressage test.

It works both ways, because schooling can help hacking. We proved that on our Christmas Day hack, when a local farmer fastened an inflatable Santa to his gate. If it hadn’t been for our nifty bit of shoulder-in, we’d never have got past.

Some riders don’t have access to safe hacking and some riding schools can no longer take pupils off the premises. But if you can get your horse out in the open, even if you have to box up to a nearby bridleway, it’s worth the effort.

Please be a happy hacker, in the literal sense. Just don’t apologise for it.

The First Outing of the Endurance Season 2017.

The horses’ work is continuing to be full on with Dilmun and Fantom having now completed four weeks’ steady walking work building up to 1.5 hours per day, Chiara alternating between schooling, lunging and groundwork sessions and faster training sessions and Wizard ticking over being ridden approximately three times a week.

There is, however, light at the end of the tunnel as ‘the boys’ move into the next phase.  They are still being exercised by riding and leading for the most part but now I will introduce short spells of trot work and mini schooling sessions.  It is, however, important to not trot for more than five minutes on the road in a session to avoid unnecessary and unproductive concussion but rather to introduce the trotting on more giving surfaces.

Chiara’s schooling in walk and trot, transitions, leg yielding and turns on and around the forehand appears to have improved immensely and is almost established.  Reining back on command is also coming on well and should be good enough to try on gate opening which, after all, is the main reason for teaching it.  Longer training sessions are, however, still a little problematical as once Chi has been somewhere she reckons she knows it and the next time she needs to go as fast as possible, throwing caution to the wind.  There is not an infinite amount of variety in our routes so some kind of compromise must be reached.

The first outing of the endurance season was all for Wizard; the much-promised pleasure ride around the beautiful Colquite estate and along the Camel trail.  This was only about half an hour away as we are so lucky in Cornwall to have such a variety of different types of ride.  This one is mostly woodland, tracks and a little farmland.  Although at this time of year it was pretty muddy, Wizard didn’t mind this one bit and tackled the whole thing with his customary enthusiasm.  I hope I will be able to get him to another one later in the year but with the packed programme involving the other three, I can’t promise him that.

To do my bit to assist my horses by making sure I am riding straight and in balance, I booked myself a session on a mechanical horse with a lesson by Felicity Mann BHSI who also practices the Alexander Technique.  Although I had an hour and a half drive to Felicity’s immaculate yard, it was well worth it with slight but important adjustments being made to my position whilst riding ‘Eric’ the mechanical horse, in all three paces.  I now feel much more confident of my ability to remain in a central position and to make any small adjustments needed to ensure that I am as ‘in tune’ with the horses as possible.

A couple of weeks ago we had our first International squad session.  This was a get together without the horses where we listened to our Chef and the Management Team and gleaned much information on training methods, prohibited substances, for both horse and humans; shoeing and physio as well as exercises to improve rider fitness.

All four of my horses look so well at the moment and are clearly feeling extremely full of joie de vivre.  Thanks in part must go to Feedmark for the wonderful supplements.  Dilmun and Chiara are on Hardy Hoof as they are prone to soft feet, especially with all the mud at the moment.  Their feet are now rock hard and they seem able to just float over the stony tracks much of their work is done on.  I am thinking that maybe Fantom, although usually with iron hard hooves, could probably do with some as the mud has definitely made his soles softer and his frogs more prone to thrush.  Dilmun and Wizard, as they spend a lot of time inside, have Clarity to help keep their airways clear and this is working so well for them, not a cough or sniffle between them.

This weekend Fantom and I are off to our first squad assessment; all the way to Milton Keynes.  Fingers crossed everything goes well!

Horsing around is good for you!

New research from Japan shows that riding improves children’s ability to learn, writes CAROLYN HENDERSON. This reinforces something Feedmark customers will take for granted – that horses are good for us.

Scientists at Tokyo University of Agriculture have found that riding activates the sympathetic nervous system, so improving learning. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean an hour’s schooling will help us acquire new skills, but it does prove that the time, money and love we devote to our horses is worthwhile.

It’s also the perfect comeback to the comments every horse owner will be familiar with. You know, the disbelief that we spend £65-plus every six weeks on shoes for a horse but wear our own until they fall to bits.


Then there’s the really annoying one; “You must be rich, because you’ve got a horse.” The best answer to that one is meant to be a joke:

Q What’s the best way to make a small fortune in the horse world?

A Start with a bigger one…

Most of us make sacrifices to keep our horses, even if we don’t begrudge them. However, the fact that horses pay back everything we give them – whatever our age, way of life or experience – is recognised by researchers and therapists.

A British Horse Society research project showed that recreational horse riding benefits physical and mental health. More than 80 per cent of those surveyed reported that riding boosted their happiness.

Chartered psychologist and horse owner Dr Dorothy Heffernan isn’t surprised. She points to two ways in which bonding with horses may help.

One is that it may stimulate production of the hormone oxytocin, sometimes known as the ‘cuddle hormone.’ The other is that it can help get us into the flow state, when we focus on interacting with our horse.

When oxytocin is released in our brains, we feel comforted, which is why stroking a dog or cat lowers blood pressure and pulse rate. Little research has been done looking at horses, but it’s logical to assume that the same benefits apply.

Ever had a bad day, felt too tired to ride, then got on your horse and felt much better for it?  That’s because exercise boosts levels of serotonin, a ‘feel good’ chemical in the brain that helps ward off depression. It can also improve fitness, stamina and flexibility and help in a weight loss programme.

There are also those magical moments when you feel that you’re on the same wavelength as your horse and that nothing else matters. This is what scientists mean when they talk about being in a “state of flow.” It might happen during a riding session, or it could be that you’re watching him graze or grooming him and it seems as if nothing else matters.

It’s good to know that science can prove what every horse lover knows. Time spent horsing around is precious, so make the most of it.