"A horse will respect you only if you respect them back," says Victoria Kelly (11) as she grooms a pony called Jake in a stable at Cherry Orchard Equine Centre in Dublin.
Not only is it important to get any sand off a pony’s coat before putting on the saddle, so it doesn’t rub, but the brushing also “grows the bond between you and the horse”, she explains.
Victoria, from Clondalkin, is one of 16 children – 15 girls and one boy – taking part in a week-long summer pony camp here. She also has weekly lessons all-year round at the centre, which is endeavouring to ensure that access to horses, and all the benefits that go with that, are not a luxury beyond the reach of less well-off families.
As yard manager Michelle Leonard points out, there is a long-standing culture of horses in the Ballyfermot area. Opened in 2003 and a neighbour of Wheatfield Prison, this equine centre is a smart, purpose-built complex with indoor and outdoor arenas, a suite of classrooms and an L-shaped stable block housing 24 horses and ponies.
Funded primarily by the State, it has an integrated youth service, runs training courses in riding, horse and stable management for early school-leavers, as well as offering riding lessons to adults and children in the community six days a week. There is also a Cherry Orchard branch of the Irish Pony Club operating here, for which members can use the centre’s animals.
There is huge demand for the week-long summer pony camps. Most participants are children who ride here regularly, but they try to allocate some places to beginners currently on the 140-long waiting list for lessons at the centre.
Not only is riding a physically active pastime, but it teaches children “responsibility, patience and loyalty”, says Leonard. “It’s a nice way to spend time and they get back what they put in.”
And, when there are so many pressures on youngsters, ponies are refreshingly non-judgmental. "It is relaxing," grins Victoria, sporting an eye-catching pink cover on her obligatory crash helmet, while Ellie Bray (10) agrees it's both fun and calming: "You feel free, with the breeze in your hair."
The centre is obliged to make sure at least 60 per cent of its clients live in Dublin 10 and the waiting list for regular riding lessons is so long because, once children try it, they rarely drop out. Almost always Leonard sees nicer, more rounded youngsters, who are team players, emerge during their time there.
In the stable opposite Victoria, a grey mare Flora is being saddled up by Clodagh Geoghegan-Rabbitte (11), who lives across the road from the centre and says she started riding at the age of four or five. Her uncle owned stables but when he died, her favourite horse, Smoky, went to another home and she came to ride here instead.
Flora is not being too co-operative this morning and Clodagh calls over instructor Vivienne Kschinka to help her get the bridle on.
“Slip your thumb into the side of the mouth where there are no teeth,” says Kschinka, deftly getting Flora to open her mouth to get the bit in and the bridle on within seconds.
Victoria, Ellie and Clodagh are in the first group of four to lead their ponies to the indoor arena, where they mount for a 45-minute lesson of walking, trotting and cantering.
Meanwhile another group is learning stable management, the topic today being “how to handle your muck heap”. Turning it regularly is essential if it is to become sought-after fertiliser for use in gardens.
Arts and crafts
The third group is doing arts and crafts, with Daisy, an ever-patient piebald pony, seemingly impervious to the multi-coloured hand prints in paint being pressed on to her coat by a gaggle of girls. “She doesn’t mind what you do as long as she has her food,” observes Leonard of Daisy, who is quietly munching on a net of hay tied to a fence. Getting ponies of the right temperament for the centre is very difficult, she adds.
Callum Kelly (12), who has no problem being the only boy on this camp, spends every day during the summer holidays at the centre anyway – "from 9am to 8pm, except Tuesdays when I go at 6pm". He is a designated junior leader, who leads ponies ridden by beginners or children with special needs, and also helps out around the stables.
“If you lead at six lessons and help with special needs, you get a lesson for free,” he says. It was through a “Follow Your Dream” programme at his school, St Joseph’s Boys’ National School in Clondalkin, that he was able to start lessons at Cherry Orchard. “You can do anything; I picked horse riding.” Every month, he says, his parents were reimbursed for half the cost of the lessons.
He dreams of being a jockey some day or, if he keeps growing, a farrier instead.
But in the here and now, on a warm summer’s morning before he starts secondary school, he loves being at the centre, “bonding with the horses and meeting new people”.
Read: The many benefits of riding