`Heels down, toes up, chest out, eyes front'

Rupert Isaacson gets into the saddle and finds that learning to ride a horse can be fun and that instructors don't always crack the whip
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The Independent Travel
If You have always fancied learning to horse-ride, or if you have ridden a bit and want to hone your skills to something more elegant, there can be few better places in Britain than the Yorkshire Riding Centre, at Markington, near Harrogate. Why here? Because at this riding school the instructors start from the premise that riding is difficult - like learning to play an instrument that thinks and feels for itself and can say "no".

They don't shout at you if you're not amazing in five minutes: riding instructors (in fact, horsey people in general) can often put people off. Many of us still recoil from sour childhood memories of being yelled at while trying to cope with an unco-operative mount. But it doesn't have to be that way. Unlike many other riding schools, Markington Hall's instructors will explain why they're asking you to keep your heels down, toes up, chest open, eyes front. This is one of the few riding centres I have found where the basic lessons are actually fun, which makes the inevitable difficulties easier to overcome.

Riding is more physically demanding than it appears - you'll be amazed at how much you heat up during even the most basic lesson. For this reason learning to ride is better done in the winter, when you won't overheat with the physical and mental exertion, and can actually enjoy the cold weather. There is none of the standing-around-getting-cold that can make most other winter sports miserable at beginner level. And if the day turns really nasty you can always ride in the indoor school.

Horses apart, Markington Hall is a rather wonderful place to be for its own sake. An old Queen Anne manor with a surrounding estate, the place sits in the western part of the Vale of York where the flat country starts to roll up towards the Dales. A large-scale equestrian complex, Markington is run by Chris and Jano Bartle, two of Britain's most successful international dressage riders. Their courses are residential and can be tailored to suit individual requirements. Although dressage - the art of teaching a horse full obedience and balance (basically teaching it to dance) - is the speciality, the school consistently turns out good riders from its beginner courses. If you decide to get serious, they run career courses preparing and assessing students taking the British Horse Society's instructor exams, internationally recognised as the best in the world, and a way into the ivory tower of international horse training.

But even if you want to learn to ride at only the most basic recreational level, the school will accommodate you. Be warned though, riding is very addictive - a lot of people who start learning in their adult life become fanatics, sticking at it for longer than your average horse-struck 11- year-old girl. Perhaps the reason is that riding is so mentally absorbing. Climb into the saddle and all other cares - emotional, financial, whatever - vanish. You have to concentrate too hard on keeping the animal between you and the ground to think of anything else. As the Greek writer Xenophon, the first riding teacher to put together a book on the subject, wrote: "Nothing is so good for the inside of a man as the outside of a horse."

riding fact file

Basics

Learning to Ride, Yorkshire Riding Centre, Markington, Harrogate, North Yorkshire, HG3 3PE; tel: 01765 677 207; fax: OI765 677 065.

Season

Courses run all year round.

Accommodation

There are two levels of accommodation on offer. You can either sleep in twin rooms in the main house (expensive), or in the student hostel (fairly cheap). For more details, see tariffs of charges.

Food

Vegetarians and special diets are catered for by prior arrangement.

Children

Unaccompanied children can be accepted by arrangement. Family groups welcome.

Disabled facilities

There are none.

lnsurance

Clients should arrange their own personal policies to cover accidents.

Safety

First-aid trained staff.

Affiliations

British Horse Society.

Tariffs

Courses include the price of all tuition, board and accommodation. Residence in the main house costs pounds 748 per person per week; residence in student hostel costs pounds 488 per week.

Booking

A deposit of pounds 40 must be submitted with the application form. Balance is due four weeks in advance of the course date. Payment by cheque or cash.

Access

Markington Hall is about two miles west of Wormald Green, sign-posted west from the Al. From Harrogate, take the A61 north, via Ripley, and look out for the signs off to the right. Clients arriving by rail at Harrogate can be collected by prior arrangement. A small charge to cover the petrol will be made.

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