Third time lucky they say and, when it came to finding a four-legged friend for our seven year-old daughter it seems – touch wood – to have been the case.

We started our search two years ago when we were put in touch with a lady looking for winter homes for her seaside donkeys.

We’d been told he would be fine on his own but the first hang up with him was that he was constantly braying for company. Divorce was mentioned more than once by a rudely awoken husband. Finally he cottoned onto the fact that his field was surrounded by mares – glamorous former racehorses – and his true colours as a sex maniac were shown.

“What’s that?” our children would say, pointing at an item that – no kidding here – touched the ground.

We’d been left his saddle and bridle but there was no way we’d ever have sat our little ones on him so (the final straw came when he attacked our hens) he was sent back. In spite of everything we were pleased to be re-acquainted with him at the seaside last summer. Apparently he’d changed beaches and was a reformed character. Although pleased to hear about his rehabilitation observant by-standers would have noted that my children were quickly plonked on the backs of others before his empty saddle could be offered.

Next, a nearby veterinary practice – driven mad by the ee-awing of the donkey – gave us a tip-off about a pony. He was 15 and had been at a riding school since a youngster. The wear and tear of the routine had taken its toll and he had an arthritic knee. While not up to riding school life he was, we were told, more than capable of plodding up and down with our children onboard.

Girl with horse

Having spent almost all his life at the riding school he took an absolute age to settle and drove me nuts whinnying for his companion whenever we brought him into the stable or took him out for a ride. Although ever such a bonny pony he never really formed any sort of real bond with us. It was almost as if life at the riding school – being ridden by countless different kids – had made him emotionally incapable of being tuned in to just one person. Being a sensible farmer’s daughter this sounds like the sort of psychobabble usually mocked by yours truly but it really did seem that way.

But the real duck in the hedge was his knee. It just seemed to get worse – whether it was because he wasn’t getting as much work, because he was fatter, or simply one of those things – we’ll never know. The final straw came when he fell on top of me – just seconds after the children had been underneath him putting hoof oil on. His owner was superbly understanding and, we hear, found him a great home as a friend for another horse – with no riding involved.

We ploughed on ponyless, going to the riding school for lessons. But it seemed such a shame, when we had the land, not to try again. Also, while my little boy is happy simply to sit on and have a ride, our daughter likes all the faffing of grooming, mucking out and so-on. All the peripheral stuff that you don’t get at regular lessons because of the modern blight of health and safety implications.

We went to see a few. One kicked, one bit. They all had some unsavoury trick up their sleeve.

Then a lady in the village told us about a friend of hers who was looking for a good home for a pony. We nearly didn’t go and see Darius because of his age. At 21 he is certainly no spring chicken. But he was as bright as a bobbin. Turned out he was still owned by a friend of the friend (are you keeping up?) and had only had three homes in his whole life.

When he first arrived – on our daughter’s seventh birthday in January – he seemed too sharp. I got on and rode him for five minutes first for fear she’d come a cropper. But we’d been told that he “adjusts to the rider” and it really is true.

While he can jump about like a youngster when I lead him out to the paddock, he never puts a foot wrong when his young custodian is at the end of the rope. It really is as if he knows. My daughter has got better at riding, getting the odd few strides of canter and so-on, and he visibly changes down a few gears when her four year-old brother clambers on. Likewise, there’s no doubt in my mind that if a keen 11 year-old was to take him around a cross-country course or out hunting he’d rev right up.

He can be a bit bargey in the stable doorway. This is, of course, all tied-up with the ponies’ perennial love of food. Likewise, we had to teach his new young friends pretty sharpish that he doesn’t like a cuddle when he gets his tea. It’s down with the bucket and quick exit. Oh yes, he’s also got a shoe habit. While many ponies don’t need any adornment to their hooves he needs some metal on his plates of meat. It’s a very small price to pay for such a perfect pony.

“He’s my best friend in the whole wide world,” concludes our daughter. It’s almost enough to bring a tear to the eye of those old girls among us who can remember that feeling.

Tips for the big day

Lee Hackett, the British Horse Society’s head of welfare, ranks trying a horse more than once as the most important thing potential purchasers should do.

“Not only try the horse more than once but try it in as many situations as you can,” he explains. “If you want to hack it take it out on the road, if you want to jump make sure you try it over some poles.

“A horse that goes perfectly on the first time of being ridden may be completely different the second time for no other reason than the weather being a bit windy.”

Hackett adds that it is all too easy to be pressurised into making a decision on the first try of a horse, with the seller mentioning “they have somebody else interested”.

“If it’s sold before you get time to try it again just forget it and move on. Take the attitude that it wasn’t meant to be.”

Finally, Hackett warns that there is very rarely such a thing as the perfect horse.

“But there are probably quite a large number of suitable ones,” he says. “It’s really important that you invest some time in finding the most suitable one for you. Face up to the fact that it’s probably not going to be found in the first three that you see. Too many people rush in and regret it later.”

Advice for horse buyers

The British Horse Society (BHS) has a leaflet available about buying a horse. Key questions it recommends include:

  • Why are you selling the horse?
  • Age?
  • Temperament?
  • Does the horse have any conformational faults?
  • What is the horse like hacking (both in traffic alone and in company)?
  • How does the horse behave with other horses, both when ridden and turned out?
  • What is the horse’s breeding and does it have a passport?
  • Are tack and rugs included in the price?
  • What is the horse like to load, catch and clip?
  • How does the horse behave with the farrier and the vet?
  • How long have you owned the horse? Where did you get the horse from?
  • Has the horse ever suffered with laminitis or sweet itch?
  • Would you class the horse as a novice or an experienced ride?

For more information visit the BHS website or call 0844 8481666.

Horse facts and figures

Horse owners and riders spend around £4bn a year on their leisure activity according to the 2006 National Equestrian Survey commissioned by the British Equestrian Trade Association (BETA).

The survey showed that the number of horses kept in Britain, by both professional and private owners, is around 1.35 million. They are cared for by 720,000 people or 1.2% of the UK population.

Around 2.1 million people ride at least once a month, with a further 2.2 million having done so during the previous year, making a total of 4.3 million participants.

Research has shown that a shortage of places to go riding and lack of opportunity are often cited deterrents.

Although leisure riding remains the main activity, up by 5% since the 1999 survey, the number of riders who school their horses has almost doubled. The amount of competition riding, both affiliated and unaffiliated, has also increased. Riding has become less seasonal with more riders remaining active all year round.

Hunting was also found to have attracted more followers, with the number of mounted participants increasing from 10% to 18% of regular riders over the last six years. Yet the number keeping horses mainly for hunting has gone down by around one third.

BETA, which represents about 800 manufacturers, distributors and retailers of equestrian goods and services, is keen to promote riding as a leisure activity that can be enjoyed by all ages and on a wide range of budgets. For more information visit www.beta-uk.org or call 01937 587062.