how to ride

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School holidays still not over and running out of ingenious ideas? If you think you can face what may turn into a long-term commitment, you might try a day at the stables somewhere like Rycroft School of Equitation, on the border of Berkshire and Hampshire.

For a day (or a week) your child rides, grooms, feeds, generally dotes on a pony, has a gymkhana and learns all about stable management - including mucking out - which, once hooked, they take to with gusto. A word of warning, though: if they do get hooked, this is not an inexpensive sport.

However, for a special holiday treat it's hard to beat and the school takes children from five upwards. City kids are often particularly thrilled, hardly ever seeing large animals, let alone coming into physical contact with them. And riding is a very physical sport - aching is virtually guaranteed when you first start.

So, with firm instructions that this was a special day out and Mummy couldn't afford to buy him a pony, I tried out my three-year-old, Christian. Although he is a bit on the young side for a full day at the stables, he's not too young to get on a horse, according to Bill Hundley, Rycroft's proprietor. With one girl to lead his pony and another to stand next to him in case he should lurch sideways, he was ready for the off.

It was hard to see him under his enormous safety hat - but riding schools are much more safety-conscious than they were when I was a child, when a hat was worn principally for show and continually fell off because it was naff to put the elastic under your chin.

At this age, complete lack of fear is an added bonus and the same holds true for most young children. And if three seems rather too young, it has to be said that, in the horsiest circles - look at Prince Charles - it is the usual age to start children off. Christian was put through his paces on a tiny grey pony called Jenny and it was love at first sight. The first half-hour in the indoor riding school was just about getting used to walking and trotting. Then things really hotted up - he leaned forward to touch the pony's forelock and then back to touch its tail and then - his piece de resistance - he did a "round-the-world", taking his feet out of the stirrups and turning 360 degrees in the saddle. Later, we all went for a leisurely ride down country lanes to a river, for Jenny to have a drink.

The second part of our tailor-made day followed the royal lead again, this time Prince Philip's. I have rarely felt that the Duke of Edinburgh and I had a great deal in common but I can now see why he's so enthusiastic about carriage driving. Bill Hundley is a top competitor in the sport and teaches driving at the school. He will also take you out for a drive in the "scurry" and this is exactly what we did. If anything, Christian found this even more exciting than riding, notably when we drove through a river, which was such a success we did it twice.

Even though people usually associate horses with 11-year-old girls, they're not the only ones who take up riding. According to Bill: "We do get a few who are really serious and want to take exams and make a career of horses. But in the daytime we get a lot of housewives, and in the evenings people come to unwind after a hard day in the office. A lot come from London at the weekend, too."

There are a surprising number of people, in fact, who take up riding as adults. And who can blame them? As well as communing with animals and nature, you get to dress up in very fetching breeches (pronounced britches) and romance no doubt blossoms on those summer evening rides through the woods. Perhaps it's a new alternative to the singles club?

Some people get really enthusiastic and work themselves up to a level where they can take part in the Rycroft Challenge Cup, billed as "Rycroft's Mini-Badminton", with dressage, cross-country, show-jumping and road work. Personally, I'm not sure whether to go for the romantic evening ride in the setting sun, or a day out complete with picnic. There again, there's a really convivial outing - the pub ride. And if things get a bit too jolly, thankfully there's always the chance of the carriage to take you back.

Rycroft School of Equitation, New Mill Lane, Eversley, Hampshire, RG27 0RA (01734- 732761). `A Day at the Stables': pounds 21.50; `Own a Pony Week': pounds 110