As a sport, horse riding has a reputation for being expensive and time consuming -- something that I certainly can't argue against.
For parents with no equestrian experience, the prospect of getting up close and personal with a big, four-legged animal can be more than a little bit daunting.
However, a new project, developed by Horse Sport Ireland and the Association of Irish Riding Establishments, aims to give children and teenagers the opportunity to ride horses at an affordable price through their school.
The HSI/AIRE Introduction to Horse Riding Schools' Pilot programme is already under way and is designed to give students aged 10 and older the opportunity to experience horse riding in their local AIRE-approved riding establishment.
For those who may never have seen a horse up close before, let alone ridden one, it is undoubtedly an unforgettable experience.
A subsidised price per lesson of €10 a child has been negotiated for the programme, while HSI is also offering participating schools the opportunity to avail of an €8 a student travel subsidy.
Typically, a one-hour lesson will include a riding demonstration by expert tutors, talks on safety around ponies and horses, care of the horse and tack and the opportunity for each child to try horse riding in a supervised environment.
Twenty AIRE riding establishments have signed up for the programme, which began on September 1 and will continue until December 31.
Around 60 local schools were selected to participate in the pilot programme and, so far, the project has proven particularly popular with Transition Year (TY) students.
From the schools' point of view, the programme is an affordable way for students to try an extra-curricular activity that may be a brand new experience for some, as well as giving teachers and pupils a break from the classroom routine.
For the organisers, the programme has multiple benefits.
Joe Walsh, chairman of Horse Sport Ireland, said the programme could ignite a passion that could one day turn into the pursuit of Olympic medals.
"While we focus on Team Ireland Equestrian's pursuit of medals in London 2012, it's important to remember where it all starts," he said. "HSI is committed to supporting the development of the equestrian leisure industry and giving children the opportunity to try horse riding for the first time.
"Some students will discover a lifelong interest in horses and, for others, it could turn into the pursuit of medals in years to come."
The programme will also be beneficial for local riding centres.
As AIRE's Linda Young said, generating new business is critical for many riding centres.
"Obviously, we are hoping that some of the students who take part in the programme will return for more lessons in the future," she said.
"The introductory lesson is divided into around 20 minutes in the tack room discussing care and equipment, 20 minutes in the stable talking about the horse and another 20 minutes riding.
"For the beginners, 20 minutes is probably enough for the first day but they might want to come back for a longer lesson at another time."
As with all leisure businesses, riding centres are feeling the pinch in some areas.
"The recession has affected some areas more than others," she added. "But, generally, the centres that have built up a good business, make it fun for children and care for their clients will have no trouble keeping their business going."
First established in 1974, AIRE now has around 230 members who own and/or operate riding establishments all over Ireland. Its function is to promote the sport of amateur horse riding and encourage the highest of standards in the management and operation of horse-riding establishments.
All AIRE members are inspected annually under 10 main criteria, including horses and ponies, records, saddlery, grazing, stabling, facilities, equipment, fire prevention and accommodation.
As the first port of call for any parent whose child is keen to try horse riding, AIRE riding schools are full of youngsters and teenagers.
"Young children, those still in primary school, have a youthful love for horses," said Linda. "They are still happy with the romantic 'Pretty Pony' picture.
"However, young children often have loads going on -- swimming on Monday, GAA on Tuesday, piano on Wednesday, so they may not stick with horse riding.
"As they get older, teenagers have more inhibitions and horse riding is affected by whether it is 'cool' or not.
"However, the TY students are really taking advantage of this scheme. In TY, they are relaxed after their intense Junior Cert year, they can enjoy their time, have fun and laugh at these lessons. At that age, they can also be more receptive to a new sport," she added.
Annette Ní Chatháin, a teacher from Colaiste Muire in Tourmakeady, Co Mayo, was one of the first to enlist her class in the Introduction to Horse Riding Schools' Pilot programme. She brought 34 pupils to Ballyjennings Stables, run by Sinead and Fintan McGrath in Ballinrobe, Co Mayo.
"It was a very positive experience," said Annette. "So positive that we have gone back for two extra lessons.
"It was amazing how much the students achieved in just three lessons. After just two sessions in the arena they were out trotting on the trails last week."
The Colaiste Muire students' experience with horses was quite diverse. The group included some students who had breeding horses at home but had never ridden, some who had no experience with horses at all and one or two who ride regularly.
"Some students were initially afraid, even terrified, but it is amazing how confident they have become in such a short space of time," Annette added.
"From my perspective as a PE teacher, it is a demanding sport which has the students constantly moving, raising the heart rate and concentrating. It's great for them."
Annette claims the HSI travel subsidy and discounted AIRE lesson rates were critical for the school to take part.
"Without the subsidy we wouldn't have been able to do it," she said.
Students Ailbhe McConnell (15), Grace Heneghan (16) and Christina Lyons (15) were effusive in their praise for the scheme and Ballyjennings Stables.
"I was dodgy at first but there was always someone watching you and making sure you were OK," said novice rider Christina. "It was a brilliant experience and the horses were lovely."
Grace and Ailbhe had a little more experience, having ridden before.
"It was great because there were horses for every level and even the students who could already ride were challenged," said Grace. "I would love to become a natural at horse riding but I need a bit of guidance."
Ailbhe said: "I hadn't been riding for ages so it was brilliant, really good. I would definitely do it again."
Aideen Mimnagh, from Eureka Secondary School in Kells, Co Meath, took 46 TY and fifth-year students to a training session at the Kells Equestrian Centre.
"I had a few that were apprehensive and some that could ride already and were keen to show off their skills to their friends," she said.
"They all loved it but one lesson is a short time so we are planning to go out again. If the subsidy was available next year I would bring out all of the TY and fifth-year students."
At the moment, HSI and AIRE are keeping a close eye on the pilot programme and its effects.
HSI chairman Joe Walsh has already said that depending on the level of interest, the organisation would consider running similar programmes next year.
As it stands, the pilot programme seems to be hitting the spot for students, teachers, riding centres and the wider equestrian industry. It would be a shame for such a win-win scheme not to be expanded in future years.