My daughter is a nag – especially when it comes to horses. She can’t get enough of them on TV, in books or escaping on her trusty steed in games of ‘princesses and dragons’. I, however, need to be converted. Apart from being allergic, I’m suspicious of anything that has a bigger head than me, not to mention the safety concerns of pairing a four-year-old with half a tonne of muscle and legs.
But the pestering persists, so when we hear about the Pony Club at Al Ahli Horse Riding Club, I succumb. Actually, this course appeals because the kids aren’t simply plonked on a horse and left to get on with it. Specifically designed for children aged four to six years, Pony Club introduces them gradually to all things equine – and not just riding.
‘You often see children who ride competently but are terrified of walking their horses back to the stable,’ says operations manager and Pony Club leader Trina Mole. ‘We introduce kids to horses on the ground so that they can learn how to communicate and understand their basic needs – how to groom, feed, take care of them and love them.’
I dose up on antihistamines for the first lesson and, as the kids get stuck into some horsey drawings in the club’s café, Trina chats about why horses need food and what treats they like (apples, carrots and the occasional polo mint apparently). Explaining how to feed a horse (flat hand, no up-turned fingers for nibbling), the little Pony Clubbers are all ears, if a little nervous when it comes to putting their new-found knowledge into practice. ‘Don’t be scared, horses won’t bite you on purpose, but you have to keep your hands flat,’ Trina assures.
‘What’s this horse’s name?’ asks five-year-old Maria. ‘That’s Edward,’ says Trina, ‘he’s a bay with a white spot on his forehead. We call that spot a “star”.’ And so begins the next part of the lesson, teaching the kids how to recognise horses by their colour, (it’s chestnut, not orange), their face markings (blazes, stripes and stars) and the ‘socks’ and ‘stockings’ on their feet. Putting it into practice the following week, most can remember the terms and can point out Malcolm, Barbie and Bob trotting around.
Trina uses craft combined with hands-on activities in the stables to impart all sorts of fascinating horsey facts. Surprisingly, it’s the mundane ‘chores’ that prove most popular. Washing and grooming is the favourite by far – thanks in part to the liberal use of the hose – but it’s also a perfect opportunity for Trina to hammer home a few safety messages, like how to approach a horse safely (walking up to him and talking to him in a friendly voice, not running and shouting). We look at the horse’s face and Trina notes how his eyes are on the side of his head.
‘He can’t see you if you stand right in front of him, so you need to talk to him kindly and wait for him to look at you. You must respect his space,’ she says. One of the most important lessons the kids learn is to never walk behind a horse, ‘because he doesn’t have eyes in his bum and if he can’t see you he might kick you – but only because he’ll be startled,’ the children chant. ‘Do we ever walk underneath a horse?’ asks Trina. ‘No, because he might wee on your head!’ is the cheeky reply, but the messages are certainly getting through.
Simply being around horses teaches kids confidence, mutual respect, discipline and communication, says Trina. ‘Horses have got something magical inside them,’ she insists. ‘Even the most highly-strung, hyperactive child is able to deal with a horse in a calm manner – and horses are particularly good for kids with special needs. And for a little kid of four to be walking around with a huge, powerful animal, well, that takes confidence.’
By week five, all nervousness has gone, and Trina reckons they’re ready to enjoy a short riding lesson. Equipped with body protectors and hats, the kids are lifted onto their horses for a walk around the paddock. They are led at first, but by the next session, they’re able to try riding on their own. True, they’re just walking around in circle, but they manage it well, bobbing up and down and holding their arms out like mini dressage pros. I ask Trina about the horses, who are incredibly placid and gentle. ‘Almost very single one of our horses is a “last chance” horse,’ she explains. ‘If we hadn’t taken them, who knows what might have happened to them, which is why some of them look a bit skinny or scruffy.’
Many have been mistreated or abandoned because of health problems. Nurtured back to health by Trina and her team, they’ve been re-trained for the riding school. ‘It upsets me when people say our horses are rubbish,’ says Trina. ‘Yes, they’re worth nothing in monetary value, but for me, in this job, they’re irreplaceable because I can trust them with even my youngest rider.’
The youngsters are all keen to end their final lesson by washing down the horses and thanking them with treats and kisses. As they do so, I wonder if they enjoy the sessions as much as the kids.
I watch Bob, a flea-bitten grey (that’s his colour, not his condition), standing perfectly still, his ears floppy and his eyes half-closed, and I have my answer. ‘Look at him,’ says Trina. ‘He’s more than content. He’s loving it.’
Friday Pony Club has sessions for kids aged four-six. Horsemanship and riding lessons are available for children aged seven and up. The six sessions (taken within an eight-week period) cost Dhs450. For more information, contact Al Ahli Riding Club on 04 298 8408; email@example.com, www.alahliclub.info