Such schools - or equestrian centres - can, depending on their emphasis and geographical location, supply virtually every form of fun on horseback, from basics to advanced coaching in show jumping or dressage, or even, at specialist centres, activities like polo or carriage driving. Or, if you do not want a lesson, you can simply go for a ride, anywhere from Hyde Park to the Devon moors.
Riding schools are almost invariably privately run businesses offering a service. Riding clubs are different in concept to golf or sailing clubs, merely being folk who get together locally to organise competitions and instruction. A club can be based at an equestrian centre and, with a few exceptions, membership subscriptions are minimal and waiting lists non-existent.
Any establishment in Britain which offers instruction must have a local authority licence, but that is no guarantee of quality. Consult the British Horse Society's list of some 700 approved centres. The BHS, a charity based at Stoneleigh, in Warwickshire, is the sport's main organising body, responsible for training and examination of instructors, the promotion of equine welfare and road safety. It also governs some sections of competitive riding and runs the Riding Club and Pony Club movements. The society offers advice on every aspect of equestrianism to anyone, member or not.
The BHS publication Where To Ride, which details all approved establishments in Great Britain and Ireland, is a most useful starting point for finding a suitable school.
Riding is traditionally a country sport, and though many equestrian centres are easily accessible from cities, there are few in wholly urban settings. The exception is London, where most of the city's green spaces have horses in them; there are 16 establishments with a London postcode listed in Where To Ride.
According to the latest figures, some 3.3 million adults and children ride regularly in Britain, 600,000 of those more than three times a week. The BHS membership - the benefits of which include public liability and personal accident insurance - is at an all-time high of around 64,000.
Most equestrian centres welcome new clients and do their best to dispel the notion that horses are only for the rich and privileged. There are some sections of the horsey community who look down their noses - the exclusive hunts in the shires have a poor image, and there is a tendency to play polo just to prove you earn pounds 500,000 a year - but mostly the sport really is for all, and you only have to spend a couple of hours at any riding centre to realise it.
Trent Park, 200 yards from Oakwood Underground station in north London, is a typical school. One of the instructors there, Nikki Harland, says: "Our riders are multicultural, multiracial and of every age, from young children to a pensioner who wanted to learn to ride as a surprise for his granddaughter. We have housewives who ride, we run pony days for kids, we teach disabled and handicapped people and we hold affiliated show jumping, when some of the big names turn up."
Ross Nye's, in central London close to Hyde Park, caters for tourists as well as its regular client base, which includes the only affiliated Pony Club - a 60-strong group of youngsters - attached to a commercial stable as opposed to a hunt. Riders go out into the park in groups of up to a dozen, with two experienced outriders, and are given instruction as they go along. Nye's daughter Kirstie says: "All our horses are extremely well-behaved and used to the routine, so even if someone's never ridden before, they'll be OK."
Charges for lessons or rides vary, but an adult can expect to pay upwards of pounds 15 an hour for individual tuition. Because riding is a physical sport, it is advisable to start off gently. You should expect to be taught - ideally in an enclosed arena - by a BHS-qualified instructor, and to be matched to a horse suited to your height, weight and ability.
There is an element of danger in riding, though a reputable school will do everything to minimise risk. But horses - which weigh up to half a ton - can be unpredictable, and although falls are exceptional, accidents will happen and you should realise and accept this. Most establishments carry third-party insurance, but in the case of personal injury it is up to the victim to prove negligence, which can be difficult.
The other danger is that you will get hooked, and want to own your own horse. This is the wealth-warning stage; you're talking pounds 2,000-plus for a reliable "first horse". Livery (boarding) fees will set you back upwards of pounds 100 a week and then there is tack (pounds 300 plus for a decent saddle), transport, vets' fees and assorted other items. Ownership is a huge commitment not to be entered into lightly. If in any doubt about your resources or competence, do not.
The beauty of riding is that, uniquely among sports, it is a partnership which can be appreciated and enjoyed at any level.
Horses do tend to attract their share of posers but most people who ride are perfectly normal, and to get involved it is not necessary to have been photographed at the age of two being held up in a basket saddle by Nanny when hounds met on your ancestral lawn. Most of the rules of behaviour are based on common sense; horse sense comes with experience. Horses are the greatest levellers in the world, so:
1 Do not turn up for your first lesson in full hunting kit, brandishing a whip and blinding all eyes with the shine on your top-boots and the whiteness of your breeches. You must wear a crash helmet - which will be supplied if you do not have your own - but until you know whether you want to ride regularly, a pair of stout shoes or boots with heels (to prevent your foot slipping through the stirrup) and comfortable trousers (jeans not advisable; the seams will rub) or leggings will do.
2 Remember pride often does come before a fall, so do not brag about your ability. Riding is a risk sport, and if you pretend to know more than you do, you will not only look stupid but could put yourself in danger. Having once sat on a beach donkey without capsizing does not mean you can ride.
3Be confident. You are sitting on a living creature which is sensitive to the moods of the rider. Some riding school horses are cunning beasts when it comes to doing their day's work and can take advantage of a novice; so be firm without being rough. Shouting and shrieking achieves nothing, but a soothing word can work wonders.
4 Do not drone on to your non-horsey friends about how you have finally mastered the rising trot. There is nothing worse than a horse bore (unless it is a golf bore). An expression of quiet bliss when asked why you do it is perfectly permissible.
5 When you do get around to buying jodhpurs, you will find a whole new world of fashion. For formal occasions - such as competitions - white or cream is de rigueur, but otherwise they come in every colour of the rainbow, most desirably in soft stretch corduroy.
6 If you are male, do not refer to your instructress as a "pretty filly, what?". Nothing is better guaranteed to get you put on Black Witch for your next lesson.
7 Get the basic jargon right. Your sport is riding, not horse-riding (unless you are American, when it is horseback riding). The thing you carry in your hand is a stick or whip, not a crop. Geldings are not "it"; all horses are he - unless they are a she.
8 And on technical terms, do not be daunted. Ask questions if you do not understand. If your instructor tells you to "change the rein" or "go large" during a lesson without first explaining the meaning (change direction; resume riding round the edge of the arena), the fault is his, not yours.
9 If you are out hacking on a road, thank any driver who slows down for you with a nod and a smile if your hands are too occupied with the reins for a wave.
10Be civil to the grooms and stable hands at your chosen centre. Your fun is their hard work.
SIX CLUBS AND HOW TO BECOME A MEMBER
Bathurst Mews, London W2
Proprietor: Ross Nye
Fees: pounds 25 per hour's hack/instruction
Facilities: Rides in Hyde Park; use of outdoor arena in park for jumping; summer holiday courses when the school ups sticks to Guildford.
Telephone: 0171-262 3791
Trent Park Equestrian Centre
Bramley Road, Southgate, London N14 Proprietors: Keith Bevan and Sue Martin Opened: 1970
Fees: Basic adult group lesson from pounds 15; private lesson from pounds 22; child's lesson from pounds 12; hacking pounds 16 per hour.
Facilities: Indoor arena; two outdoor arenas; cross-country course; off-road hacking; lecture room; BHS training; liveries; affiliated shows.
Telephone: 0181-363 9005
Gleneagles Equestrian Centre
Proprietor: Gleneagles Hotel
Fees: Adult lesson: from pounds 21.50 (group) to pounds 42 (private, with chief coach). Trail rides, up to pounds 35 (90 minutes, adult). Horses/ponies: 33
Facilities: Two indoor arenas; outdoor manege; cross-country course; trail riding; affiliated shows; BHS training centre; carriage driving tuition; liveries.
Membership scheme (up to pounds 490 per annum) gives discounts and privileges.
Telephone: 01764 663507
Bold Heath Equestrian Centre
Heath House Farm, Widnes, Cheshire Proprietor: Janet Baker
Fees: Adult private lesson, pounds 15 per hour, pounds 9 per half-hour; group lesson, pounds 9 per hour; hacking, pounds 15 per hour. Horses/ponies: 45
Facilities: Two covered arenas; outdoor manege; cross-country course; lecture room; tack shop; liveries; off-road hacking; BHS training; BHS novice events; affiliated dressage and show jumping.
Telephone: 0151-424 5151
Forest Lodge Equestrian Centre
Motcombe, Shaftesbury, Dorset
Proprietors: Richard and Midge Roberts Opened: 1988
Fees: Private adult lesson, pounds 25; group lesson, pounds 15; adult residential course, pounds 300.
Facilities: Covered arena; outdoor manege; cross-country course; lecture room; riding for the disabled; hacking; holidays; courses for schools and overseas students; BHS training; liveries; affiliated dressage; unaffiliated show jumping.
Telephone: 01747 851685
Moorhouse Equestrian Centre
Gap Farm, Moorhouse, Doncaster
Proprietors: Wilf and Val Hobson
Fees: Adult lessons: class from pounds 7; private from pounds 12. Hacking: pounds 10 per hour.
Facilities: Two indoor arenas; BHS training centre; lecture room; tack shop; liveries; affiliated show jumping; hacking.
Telephone: 01977 642109
British Horse Society, British Equestrian Centre, Stoneleigh Park, Kenilworth, Warwickshire CV8 2LR (01203 696697)