What clubs should kids do?

This blog post is by Nicola Baird sharing ideas about thrifty, creative and eco-friendly ways to raise children. What skill do you think all children might benefit from? In praise of riding ponies… For more info about parenting see my book Homemade Kids, or for my website click here 

A life coach friend, Karen Liebenguth, has just had a Q&A in Psychologies magazine. It’s really interesting how she finds her clients are surprised by how much they benefit from doing outdoor sessions, whatever the season. Mostly they go for a walk in the park. Sometimes the client even tries feeling the grass barefoot… See the article here.

For the past five years I’ve been teaching children to ride at a stables a five minute walk from the penultimate stop on the Picadilly tube line. Being with horses is always wonderful for me, but it’s great for the children. If there was only one club (and I could raise the cash) then I’d want every child who showed interest to have a go riding.

As riders they learn to control an animal that weighs about a tonne! They learn to be brave and empathetic. They have times when it’s frustrating, and other sessions when the pony does all they want including a neat little canter to the back of the ride. They learn so many skills, not just how to rise to the trot. Even though none of them will have their own pony, they learn responsiblity – by realising that animal care is incredibly hard work and a day-on-day task, even if you are ill it simply cannot be missed.

Part of nature
This week Anna saw a mouse by the side of the “school” (riding ring) and Rhiannon went into some detail why she doesn’t like birds in buildings (pigeons and magpies often take advantage of the high roof beams) because they can spook the ponies. Several times I’ve stopped a lesson so we can all watch a fox padding across the paddocks. And in high summer the swallows are out in force, coming back year after year to nest in the stables. It is a delight to untack your pony while watching those noisy swallow babies being fed by their busy parents.

Whether on or off the horse they have fun outside. Walking to the riding school the pavement is by a large verge – there’s nothing like that in Islington where we happen to live. On the verge we saw coltsfoot come up, then alcanet, then the plants you can eat – dandelions and jack-by-the-hedge (a garlic mustard you can use in salads). Obviously you see the buds come out. Thanks to seeing a little bit of green regularly Nell,11, is confident identifying oak, silver birch, hawthorn, horse chestnut, sycamore and some other trees – whether they are in winter drabbery (but with buds) or full summer leaf.

After the younger children’s lesson they have to wait for me to finish teaching. Sometimes they help with the ponies, or indulge in hot chocolate sold in the cafe. This week they took advantage of a sudden dry spell and played in the wind by a huge oak tree arranging twigs for the fairies, caught up in a fabulous imaginary game as the sun set red.

Riding is hideously expensive in London, and not that much cheaper elsewhere, but if it’s something you can offer your children do it. I’m not even joking when I say “it’s the ultimate low carbon sport”, but it’s also one ideal for speed freaks – horses can gallop very fast, enough to bring tears to your eyes as the wind whistles past.

Anyone can do this
A contemporary of mine when I was at university, Rupert Isaacson, has written an amazing book about his autistic boy’s special abilities with horses. It’s now a film, The Horse Boy. Have a look at the trailer here.

TIP: If you are lucky, Grandparents may sometimes pay for riding lessons (it’s a skill after all) if you ask very nicely.  Budget at least 10 lessons to get your child confident enough to stop, start, turn and rise confidently to the trot. That should mean they don’t fall off – and instantly lose their nerve -when they then start cantering.

Free lessons
At the centre we go to (like most) once you are 12 and reasonably competent you can come and help out, exchanging that time for a free riding lesson. You could also look for a list of British Horse Society registered riding schools. Every now and then free lessons are offered – so put your name down on an email list to get early warning for this. Just make sure that when you ride (even if it’s on a holiday in France or hacking in Turkey) that you wear a proper hard hat. No one is too good to ride without a hat. Except the Queen for some reason!

Over to you
Is there something you learnt as a child that you’d love all kids to know how to do? If so what? Do share….

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6 Comments on “What clubs should kids do?”

  1. rachellplatt Says:


    Stan has recently expressed an interest in horse riding and I saw there was a school up near Trent Park – is this th esame one? Do you think he is too young at 4? I don’t want to put him off. Also, we’ve just found out that his medical condition may make him prone to obesity and so we have to try to think of innovative ways to get him to exercise. Is horse riding aerobic in any way? (Sorry, I am such a city girl, I have no clue). The trouble with Stan is that his condition also makes him very tired so hard to get him to walk anywhere, so any ideas for fun exercise gratefully received!


    • nicola baird Says:

      Four is very young as he won’t be that strong [but horsy families start their children even earlier (and I started at 4)], but only if you are willing to pay for it so early (book a half hour individual maybe). Yes I teach at Trent Park – there are more than 100 ponies/horses there! Riding is aerobic, but it’s a good way to be less tired – main work is balancing and when kicking with the legs. A great thing to teach him as then you can plonk him on a pony (eg, pony treking on hols) and walk or run along beside him. Actually get your dad to do that! I think if he was my boy and I understood his condition I’d be getting him riding. It’s a way of being special too, and of course getting to know a v big animal in a lovely way. Good luck!

  2. When I was at school, my friends and I were mostly split between those that did dancing lessons and those that did horse riding. I was with the dancing lessons group. Neither of my children have taken horse riding lessons either, so the world of horses is a little alien to me, but I can certainly appreciate its value from the way you have described it here. I don’t have a specific thing that I would like all children to try, as long as they are doing lots of physical activity and getting outdoors as much as possible, then whatever tickles their fancy! If I were to pick one thing, it’s not a club, but I would say owning a pet for the same sort of reasons that you mentioned with horseriding – learning about responsibility, caring etc.

  3. nicola baird Says:

    From Facebook:
    Howard: “I taught myself to ride late in my teens after watching ‘Survivours’ a very bloke response. I kept at it as I enjoyed the atmosphere & it turned out to be a great way to meet girls. I ended up teaching at the stables I learnt at. Now I get to teach my kids on a loaned pony. She’s right – it instils confidence – controlling all that horseflesh – and responsibility towards another too. Also a sensible approach to risk is developed. And finally – not only do we have endless supplies of fertiliser, when the oil runs out we’ll be one step ahead in the transport stakes!”

    From Claire: “A lovely blog. Eve and James adore horses – they are calming and inspirational forces for my kids. x”

    • nicola baird Says:

      Bit more from Howard on Facebook: “one of Maddy’s friends came for a sleepover last night – they didnt get to ride as the school was waterlogged, but her friend had so much fun poo picking – who’d have thought?!”

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