Owning a horse could leave you saddled with debt

People of all ages are taking up riding. But be sure you understand the costs of owning a four-legged friend, says Kate Hilpern
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The Independent Online

Picture a true horse lover and there's a good chance your image is of a schoolgirl from an affluent, middle-class family. Nevertheless, according to the British Horse Society (BHS), it's a stereotype that may finally start to change as horse-riding gains increasing appeal among people of all ages and social backgrounds.

"We have noticed that a lot of women are taking up horse-riding in their thirties," says Margaret Linington-Payne of the BHS. "Many learned as children but gave it up to have families or careers, and they get to the point where they have the time and spare income to take it up again."

Others are learning for the first time in their lives. "This group comprises adults of all ages, particularly sixty-somethings," she says. "Both men and women, often retired, decide they want to take up a good sport. Things like football and tennis are generally out of the question and they realise that horse-riding doesn't have to be quite as expensive as they'd feared."

Indeed, group horse riding lessons start from around £15 an hour in the sticks and from about £25 for half-an-hour in central London. Some riding schools are even cheaper, although the BHS warns that opting for unlicensed riding schools as a way to cut costs is unwise.

The only other essential outgoing is your basic equipment - hat, boots, gloves and jodhpurs - and a lot of riding schools even loan out hats and boots for newcomers until they are sure the equestrian life is for them. Even better news for older learners is that many riding schools now provide adult-only lessons on their most forgiving horses.

The third main group of people currently into horse-riding is the good, old-fashioned hardcore of school-age girls, most of whom Ms Linington-Payne admits still come from wealthier families: "We are committed to getting horse-riding introduced to a broader section of youngsters, but it's still early days," she says.

Little wonder that parents generally need a bit of money behind them when you consider that lessons for children often aren't any cheaper than for adults, and the very fact that children are growing up means a new kit may be needed every year.

There is also the inevitable day when the little darlings will want a horse of their own more than anything in the world. This is far from easy on the purse strings, with buying a horse or pony costing anything from £100 for a youngster to several thousands of pounds for a more experienced horse. "But buying the horse is not the expensive part," says Ms Linington-Payne. "It's the upkeep that costs, and it's a lot more than most people realise, which is why so many get into financial trouble."

Lorraine Hill, who runs the website www.equine-world.co.uk, agrees. But, she points out, there are plenty of options for young and old horse-lovers that don't have to involve full-time and sole care of a horse. "There has been a real expansion in horse tourism, for example - reflecting the decision of a growing number of people to spend their money on riding holidays rather than horse ownership," she says.

Joanna Rolfe-Smith, a consultant at In The Saddle, which specialises in riding holidays, says business is booming. "More and more people are coming back year after year, with some wanting to ride in ranches in Montana, while others want to ride on safari in Botswana. Riding on the beach or through the mountains in Spain is particularly popular at the moment, and with some of these holidays starting at £595 for a week's full-board, it's increasingly affordable."

Isabella Boyce, 32, learned to ride six years ago so that she could join her partner, Hamish, on such holidays and they have since ridden in Arizona and Australia. Initially, Ms Boyce, who lives in Southgate, opted for group lessons at £17 per hour, but she found she learned very little - something the BHS says is a common complaint, particularly when the group are at different levels and ages.

"So I moved to one-to-one lessons at £30 per hour and they were so much better," says Ms Boyce. "When I'd reached the same level as Hamish, he came with me, at £40 per lesson."

Like many horse-riders, they still have lessons every few months and plan to carry on doing so. "There's always so much to learn," she explains.

The greatest cost, apart from the holidays themselves, is the kit. "Mind you, that's partly because we've gone for high quality. We also have more than one of most things. For example, I had a traditional pair of long riding boots, but when I went on one holiday, they advised I get shorter, chunkier ones, which are so much easier to walk in."

Aside from going abroad to ride, Ms Boyce and her partner have also done a fair amount of riding around the UK - either for a few hours hacking or on holidays: "We both work all week, so it makes much more sense for us than owning a horse," she says. "It's a lot cheaper and the more you do it, the more ways you find to cut costs.

"Hacking in Scotland is much more cost-effective than in the South-East of England, for example, even with flights. We also learned that it's a lot cheaper to book your own bed-and-breakfasts when doing riding holidays in England."

For people more keen to focus their passion on building up a relationship with an individual horse or pony, there are also alternatives to ownership, says Lorraine Hill. "I share my horse with a local girl. I bought him and own him but, like many people, I don't have the time to ride everyday, so this girl looks after him and rides him in the week for me.

"In our case she pays nothing, although people are often asked to contribute something towards costs."

Horses and ponies are also available for loan. "This happens when an owner doesn't want to sell, but they want someone else to take responsibility for a period of time - perhaps because the owner becomes pregnant," explains Ms Hill. "The borrower pays for the upkeep and it's a great way for someone who's considering buying a horse to try out what horse ownership really feels like. After all, it can involve getting up at 6am every day, even when it's minus five degrees outside."

For people set on having their own horse, Ms Hill recommends private advertisers, where you can gauge whether the price is good by comparing it to other ads. "Private advertisers generally have a full history of the animal," she explains.

But, she cautions, be aware that this method may mean travelling many miles for months on end, and you'll need to vet any horse or pony you decide to buy. This can cost between £50 and £180 and if a potential purchase fails, it may be necessary to start again.

Above all, says Natasha Simmonds, editor of Your Horse magazine, potential horse-owners should consider the long-term costs - preferably through talking to other horse-owners - and expect the unexpected. "There's always a chance you'll end up with monthly vet's bills, and it's important that you're comfortable with this because we're talking about animal welfare," she says.

Aside from vet's fees, there's insurance, hay, straw and shavings to think of, as well as feed, worming and farrier fees. You may also want to join a riding club. But the most important - and probably the biggest - cost will be the horse's home.

The cheapest option is renting a field, which can be as little as £10 per week. But these usually have very few facilities and you may be expected to maintain the field, so most horse-owners keep their animal at livery yards, where there tend to be both good facilities and fully maintained fields. Alternatives are sharing someone else's stables or, if you've got enough land, building your own.

"Horse ownership is expensive," says Julie Ivelaw-Chapman, 50, who pays £500 per month on livery costs in Buckinghamshire. "But when my husband suggested we move from London back into the country, I said 'I've got to have a horse', and despite the costs, I don't regret it one bit."

Lindsay Morgan, 49, who keeps a horse in London, agrees. "Having ridden as a child, I returned as an adult to have some 'me-time'. And even when I'm picking up poo in the field or paying out huge sums of money on upkeep, it's worth it.

"The relationship you can have with a horse is unique and quite extraordinary."

'In spite of the high costs I wouldn't have it any other way'

Jackie Webb, 39, who owns a horse and pony and lives in Buckinghamshire, says: "I started riding when I was five. We lived in Suffolk and after I'd been having lessons at the local riding school and had joined the local pony club, I got my first pony - a dapple-grey called Pickles. I rode a lot until I was 19, when my career, and later my family, took over.

"The house we live in now has five acres of land and a paddock behind it, so we decided to buy Rupert, our current pony, in 2002. He is 12 hands, was four years' old and cost me £800. He wasn't broken in to ride, but part of my interest was to get him ready for my daughter, Katie, who is now five years' old.

"A year ago, I decided I wanted to ride too and saw an ad from a local woman, Kate, looking for someone to ride and look after her horse during the week. We came to the conclusion that I should take Rupert over there to keep her horse company.

"Then I decided to get my own horse, Archie, who is 15 hands and cost £1,800. He was a bargain and was worth £3,000, but the owner was a girl going off to college who wanted a quick sale. I've built stables for them and go down there every morning to sort out all three animals and go for a ride.

"It's a really great arrangement because there's so much land and no road where the stables are. Twice a week, I get to ride with Kate and, increasingly, I ride there with my daughter. It also means there's someone else on hand to help out when I'm on holiday.

"Together, the pony and horse cost me around £120 per year on annual inoculations and having their teeth checked. Then, there's £60 per year on worming and £85 every six weeks for shoeing. On top of that, there's hay and food in the winter at about £16 per week and £600 per year on insurance.

"Katie is in pony club, which costs another £40 per year. That includes three free lessons, but any extra are still much cheaper than riding schools - about £5 or £10 each time. But you need a trailer to be involved in pony club, and that was £2,000 second-hand, with a Discovery to pull it at £22,000. Then there's the kit which has cost several more hundreds of pounds, but I've found that buying online keeps the price down considerably.

"Despite the high costs, I wouldn't have my life any other way, and in many ways I see it as an investment. I'd rather Katie hangs around horses than on street corners wearing lip-gloss when she's older, and if it means paying out for that now, I really don't mind."

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