Once upon a time, owning a horse was reserved for the rich and elite. World War I saw a million horses leave for the Western Front and only 60,000 returned, leaving horses in short supply. Today, private horse ownership is so commonplace that anyone and everyone may own an equine, from full-time workers to the unemployed. Yet there still remains the perception that to own a horse means wealth or being born with the proverbial silver spoon in the mouth.
So what has changed? Surely horses are expensive to keep, even more expensive to buy and as for the saddlery, rugs, hay and feed, well that all must cost an arm and a leg! How do horse owners manage and why have horses become so accessible to people from all walks of life?
Without dwelling too much on the past, there have been financial and lifestyle changes over the past one hundred years that have helped to open the (stable) doors to horse ownership. In the Sixties, after a long recovery from the effects of World War II, employment changes meant a shift from manual jobs to those in the service sector, and previously emancipated women shook off the 'little housewife' title and went out to work.
With many families enjoying the effects of two incomes, there was now money for pleasure, and as many started to buy domestic appliances such as washing machines and vacuum cleaners, leisure time became available. An increase in private car ownership thanks to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher gave people the opportunity to move away from the cities and take up country living. Consumer borrowing tripled in the Eighties and with access to cash for hobbies and fun, previously denied luxuries became available. Riding schools began to flourish as pony mad children were allowed to indulge in lessons and often the parents joined in.
After the First World War, Britain set about replenishing the population of horses. Importing horses became easier too, and soon accessing horses for riding purposes became easy. When DEFRA decided that stallion licences were no longer compulsory, many amateur breeders decided that producing foals was an easy way to make money. There is now a glut of horses and ponies on the market, and rescue centres are full to the brim with unwanted animals. Horse prices continue to drop except for well-bred competition horses, for which there will always be a market.
Riding for the Disabled
An interest in using horses and ponies for therapy increased after a post World War I programme for rehabilitation of wounded soldiers showed positive results. British physiotherapists quickly discovered the benefits of riding and interaction with horses for all types of handicaps and with the support of the Royal Family, with Princess Anne showing especial interest, the Riding for the Disabled Association was born in 1969.
With continual fundraising, gifts of land and ponies, the RDA now owns many centres of its own throughout the UK, and local authorities have stepped in to assist with projects. Riding is truly available to anyone now, whether able-bodied or physically challenged.
Extending the Benefits of Therapy Horses
The positive results from those suffering from both mental and physical difficulties led to the realisation that interaction with horses and ponies could be beneficial to those from all walks of life. Charities like Horse Back UK have sprung up to aid those who have suffered mentally or physically whilst serving in the armed forces and the Emile Faurie Foundation aims to bring riding to underprivileged and city dwelling children, who would not normally have access to horses.
Private Horse Ownership Escalates
As public interest has grown, the previously inaccessible world of horses has opened up to allow everyone to indulge in horse related pleasures and horse ownership has completely lost the stigma of being something only the privileged few may enjoy.
When the farming industry was hit with the horrors of BSE in the Nineties, followed by Foot and Mouth disease in 2001, the increase in record keeping and tightening up of regulations caused many farm owners to reconsider their future in agriculture. With Farm Diversification grants becoming widely available, many have taken advantage of the increase in equestrian interest and diversified into livery yards, riding schools and equestrian related country stores, making it even easier to keep and kit out horses with essential equipment.
The new Countryside Access regulations, which came into being at the beginning of this century, have created a new interest in riding, with those wishing to explore the countryside now being able to do so without having to encounter busy roads and traffic. Farmers, once again, have capitalised on the new Rights of Way rules by developing equestrian facilities on their premises and offering off-road hacking and trail riding.
Local authorities are also encouraging equestrianism by supporting the use of bridleways, to keep riders and walkers safe. Groups such as FARAG have been set up to increase access to riders and carriage drivers and liase closely with local authorities.
Social Media and the Internet
Since the turn of the 21st century, more and more people have been able to access the Internet due to most households possessing either a computer or laptop. Social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook have intensified interaction between like-minded individuals and finding horses to buy, loan or share is proving simpler by the day. Accessing low cost saddlery is also made easier due to the introduction of online saddlery stores, many of which are also accessible in person, and second-hand shops found through sites like Ebay.
In just ten short years, the amount of horse riders in Britain has increased by 1.1 million according to BETA, with the British Horse Society giving current figures of over 3.5 million people in the UK riding or driving a horse-drawn carriage. The amount of privately owned horses has reached almost a million, and adding the animals kept in professional establishments, the 1.3 million total gives Britain the highest number of equines in Europe.
The popularity of horses continues to flourish in modern times. Many owners are currently facing financial uncertainty due to the economic climate and whilst some have had to give up their much-loved equines, others have tightened their belts and cut back on luxuries in order to keep on riding. With 'sharing' and loaning options proving popular, more riders are becoming involved in part-time horse ownership, with even those on low incomes finding it possible to pay part of the costs of upkeep.
Riding schools and trekking centres flourish, schools offer horse riding as part of activity packages and rescue centres, petting farms and studs open their doors on a regular basis to allow the public to make contact with equines. The modern horse world is now truly available to anyone.