BIG READ:Â Why not take off your blinkers and saddle up in 2018?
LargelyÂ seen as the preserve of little girls, WAGS and the Jilly Cooper set,Â horse riding is often dismissed by many as an expensive hobby, out of reach of ordinary folk.
But the Peter Ashley Activity Centre, on Portsdown HillÂ turns those stereotypes on their head.
The stables cater for people of all ages and ability. And with prices from Â£11 a session to a maximum of Â£30 for adults itÂ proves horse riding is so much more than just a pastime for the wealthy.Â
It's a great way of keeping fit, but also boosting confidence and forging life-long friendships with other riders and treasured horses. Â
The stables currently has 42 horses and was opened in the 1980s.
Stable manager Lisa Wheatley has worked at the centre for 18 years. SheÂ says: 'We have a wide variety of people who ride with us '“ from the very young, to the disabled and the elderly.Â
'It provides people with confidence, outdoor exercise,Â and improves mobility and flexibility.'Â
The stables run a Saddle Club for the under-16s. For just Â£11 a session, on Saturday and Sundays youngsters canÂ learnÂ to ride, groom, care for the horses, and help out in the yard.
Lisa's daughter Beth, 12, attends the stables and Lisa's delight in watching her follow in her footsteps, and progress, is obvious.Â
She says: 'I like spending time with the horses and jumping them is my favourite.'
Â 'BethÂ was quite under-confident but being at the stables with the horses has really helped' says her mum.Â
'We see it a lot. Children come through who are not so confident and are scared to make friends. But having the horses as a shared interest means there is something to build their friendship on.'
Lisa began riding aged eight at the Peter Ashley Activity Centre. She is still friends with those she trained with as a child.Â
She adds: 'Horse riding is such a good way to make friends because everyone here has a shared interest.'
Older people alsoÂ gain huge benefits from riding and Lisa has seen marked improvements in their mobilityÂ '“ especially people with hip problems.Â
Jean Urry is one of the many older riders at the stable, where she has a working livery.Â
She says: 'I have been riding since I was 15 years old and as an older rider now it brings me such a joy.
'It is a really great way to escape daily life '“ toÂ come up here and lose yourself for a few hours with the horses.Â In some ways, it is spiritual.'
Jean's horse Bess is six years old. She ridesÂ up to three times a week.
'For the older riders it is great for fitness and keeps you moving and in the outdoors', she says.
'It is great for us to be around the animals, it's something different for people to try.'
But there is more to it than simply riding.Â
'Coming to the stables is also great for people who are lonely as there are always people here', says Jean. 'There's always time to have a cuppa in the kitchen and a chat to someone '“ or a horse, which I often find myself doing.Â
'It is a truly lovely place to come.'
The centre has a partnership between the Riders for the Disabled Association to enable more peopleÂ to take up riding.
Lisa says: 'Every Sunday and on Thursday evenings we have dedicated sessions for disabled riders to help them improve and gain confidence.'
Fort Widley has two mechanical horses for disabled riders to learn the reins before heading out on real horses. They simulate a trotting action at varying speeds.
Lisa says: 'Some have never been on a horse before. So instead of getting straight on a horse, and so no one gets hurt, they can practice mounting and dismounting on the mechanical ones as much as they like to build up their confidence.
'It is great to have everyone being able to do horse riding.'
Trainers at the stables are currently helping a team entered into the Special Olympics.
The sporting event, which started in 1968, provides opportunities in for people with learning difficulties, and now supports more than four million athletes in 200 countries worldwide.
Regional competitions take place throughout the year and every four years teams compete in the National Summer Games, hoping to qualify for the European and World Games.Â
Lisa says: 'It is great to help out with this and we have had a few people come through our school who have gone on to compete or want to.'
The under-16s Saddle Club helps to progress the riders from beginners and enable them to jump and become more advanced.
Throughout the year young riders take part in displays to music which showcase their new skills to their proud parents.Â
Saddle Club member Harriet Erridge hopes to become a professional show jumper and practises hard on her horse, Belle.Â
The 11-year-old has been riding since she was four. She says: 'I like riding,it is really enjoyable.
'You learn lots of new things. I have learnt how to care for horses and what you can and can't do with them.'
Lisa is justlyÂ proud of the achievements of the inclusive centre and how they have helped get so many more people into horse riding.
She believes whatever your age or ability, horse riding provides benefits mentally and physically.
So, what are you waiting for? SaddleÂ up.
Go toÂ peterashleyactivitycentres.co.uk.