homes & money: A stable existence

Penny Jackson on the dream of a house with a paddock
Any keen young rider who has to beg, borrow or pay large sums of money for a few hours on a pony will know exactly why a house with a paddock is such a dream. The thought of popping through a gate at end of the garden to catch your own horse is not just the stuff of teenage literature, it is what drives parents into the countryside with the inevitable demand for "something with a bit of land".

In fact, estate agents find it is nearly always women who call the shots where horses are involved. Men have been known quietly to mutter in an agent's ear about tennis courts being a priority while the women, often with their daughters, nurture plans for immersing themselves in the local equestrian life.

Geraldine Pearson is no exception. The family moved to their house in east Northamptonshire primarily because she had become fed up with driving her young daughter to where her pony was stabled. "We used to have to get into the car with all the tack every time she went riding or had to feed the pony. Now we can walk straight into our paddock and from there ride for miles through fields without ever crossing a road." Mrs Pearson paints an idyllic picture of the country life of a family that could choose between the stables, tennis court or swimming pool all within the grounds of their Georgian rectory. After 11 years the house is now on the market with Strutt & Parker for a guide price of pounds 650,000.

Geraldine Pearson has been riding since she was six and was able to dispel any notions her daughter may have had about avoiding her responsibilities. "She would do the mucking out before going to school". Nor was Mrs Pearson dismayed when her daughter threw in the towel at 17 "when the boyfriends took over". She still uses her paddock and stables, not least by organising riding for the disabled. But disappointed parents are by no means rare. Stephen King of Strutt & Parker's Market Harborough office has seen people buying somewhere with 10 or 12 acres and then wondering what to do with them. The child that has insisted so passionately on having a pony loses interest in a short time. "Some will take to it like a duck to water, but it can be a shortlived experience. Stables are mothballed while various capital elements, like the tack and horsebox, go. They tend to hang on to the land and house until the daughter is married and then sell." In such good equestrian country - home to the the Burleigh Horse Trials and a number of hunts - it is not surprising that the demand for appropriate homes is insatiable. The fact that it is within commuting distance from London adds a certain spice to prices, although it is generally considered good value for money. Among the romantics, Mr King finds a hard core of buyers who clearly know the business. "As soon as they start talking about a minimum acreage, water supply, avoiding north-facing slopes, I know I am dealing with someone who understands horses." Given that there are something like 750,000 equines in the UK, with growing numbers of people wanting to ride, it is hardly surprising that land is under pressure. The minimum that a horse needs for grazing is one and a half acres and since they do no good to the land, not many farmers welcome them as tenants.

Ian McConnel of Savills says that in the Banbury area you pay a premium for pony paddocks. "Even if you don't use them, they are easier to lock up than large gardens. Not many people regret having the land." The greatest demand, he says, is for a relatively modest house - pounds 200,000 to pounds 300,000 with a few acres. The land may not be adjoining the property and could be sold as a separate package. If it is a pony paddock, the pounds 2,500-an- acre agricultural price is likely to be doubled. New houses with land are a pretty rare commodity, although Berkeley Homes has just sold one with three-quarters of an acre. However, that is half the size recommended for grazing a horse. The British Horse Society (BHS) is becoming increasingly worried by the numbers of people dropping unthinkingly into buying one. Money is no protection from ignorance. Jeff Herrington, welfare officer for Devon, has just rescued a horse abandoned in a field by its wealthy London owner to occasional visits. "They treated it a bit like an expensive sports car that they expected to start up at the touch of a key. Buying land, stables and the horse is the easy part - it's the commitment that counts." When buying land for a horse, he suggests that someone experienced should check the fencing, the quality of the grass, the water supply and whether it has a shelter. "There are too many people with young daughters who look at owning a pony through rose-coloured glasses. The ongoing costs can be extremely high."

It is hardly an estate agent's job to advise on horse welfare, but those in rural areas will often know how suitable the land is. They are certainly aware that there is more money around for those extra acres than a few years ago. But perhaps the reluctant parent of a daughter in the throes of a love affair with horses should take the advice of the BHS. "Send her down to work in the local stables every morning for six months, and every evening, rain or snow. If she still wants one then you are not likely to go wrong."

Buying land for a horse

Check it is large enough: At least one and a half acres would allow a rest period for part of the field.

Check the water supply: Main supply or a running stream that will not dry up in first dry spell.

Check state of fencing: It can be expensive to repair. If it is not adjoining the property, be assured that it is secure. There should be some shelter for the horse. If you want to build a stable on the land check first with the relevant authority. Go to the British Horse Society for advice about a horse's needs.

Tell the estate agent exactly what you want: "A bit of land" is not good enough.