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Many of today's new riders were once little girls who yearned for a horse: Now they can buy one and ride, ride, ride

MARGARET NOLAN discovered the world of horseback riding 15 years ago while paging through an adult education catalog. ``It was between that or fencing,'' she says with a broad, beaming smile.

Mrs. Nolan, a switchboard operator at a hospital in the Boston area, is among a growing number of first-time adult riders who have been bitten by the horse bug. ``I'm very hooked on it,'' she says, tugging on the reins to keep her horse, Beau Cheval, in line here at the 21st Annual Stoneleigh-Burnham Horse Trials.

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Event announcer Brian O'Connor says he's noticed ``a great increase in the number of people who are starting at the lower levels'' of the Combined Training event? (jumping, dressage, and cross-country).

Numerous horse associations contacted in the United States report that they have added novice and amateur divisions to their show and eventing circuits. And along with new riders, these lower-level divisions are welcoming former riders - people who rode as youngsters and came back to the sport after a hiatus to raise a family or pursue a career, adds Mr. O'Connor.

Here at Stoneleigh-Burnham School, impeccably dressed riders from as far away as Tennessee mill around on horseback in this pastoral setting, awaiting their turn in the ring. Men and women don hard hats, tall English riding boots with spurs, breeches, primly pressed white shirts, and jackets.

Francis O'Reilly stands near a trailer, braiding ribbons into a horse's mane. A Combined Training teacher who owns a 30-horse farm in Glover, Vt., Ms. O'Reilly says many of her students are middle-aged newcomers to horses.

``I would say when I started teaching it was about 90 percent kids and 10 percent adults,'' O'Reilly says. ``Now it's half or more adults. ... Women are working, and they have the income.'' She has been teaching for 20-some years. ``They're willing to put the time and energy and money into doing something that takes work - into commitments,'' she adds.

Behind the stable doors, where competitors frenziedly shine tack and polish hooves, Donna McNulty busies herself with her horse, Abecedarian. She recalls the many years of her childhood that she pleaded with her parents for a horse. ``I got pictures, posters, statues,'' she says with a laugh. ``We would go on our family vacations - my sister loved horses, too - and would ride once a year.''

It wasn't until her children entered high school that the Wayland, Mass., mother of five started taking riding lessons.

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``When my horse came into the barn, it was love at first sight,'' says the grandmother of three. ``Financially I could afford it, finally,'' she adds. She works in her husband's insurance business. But more than economics, ``it might be the time - when your family is grown and you have more time to yourself,'' that makes owning a horse possible, she adds.

Carol Alm, an executive committee member of the American Horse Council, and executive vice-president of SRI Gallup Poll in Lincoln, Neb., says Mrs. McNulty fits the profile of a growing number of women taking up horseback riding in later years. Based on her conversations with those in the industry, ``The part of the market increasing the most is the 35-year-old woman with expendable income,'' she says.

A typical new rider is a woman who ``always wanted a horse and now has a job and is able to afford one,'' says International Arabian Horse Association spokeswoman Jan Greer, when referring to an IAHA membership survey taken in 1988. ``There are so many people out there that have the horse dream, and have not been able to realize that dream until they were a little more settled in other areas of their life.''

Membership at the US Dressage Federation in Kansas City, Mo., has more than doubled since 1980. The membership is 85 percent women, the average age between 30 and 39.

``The dressage ranks are swelling and swelling, ... becuase jumping isn't involved,'' says Victor Hugo Videl, a professional horseman in Laguna Niguel, Calif., who has judged events and horse shows nationally for 30 years. Dressage especially suits older women who have children because it is less dangerous, he adds.

SUE PALM of the California State Horseman's Association says that, on the West Coast, she has seen ``definite growth in the amateur adults division.''

Mr. Videl notes that older people in California are being introduced to riding through friends or community stables. The large stables with perhaps 400 stalls are ``so different than in the East,'' and that makes it easier for enthusiasts to pursue the sport, says Videl.

The mild California climate also allows people to keep horses in their back yards, even in a suburb, he adds. ``People have found ways to beat the cost, ... so now it doesn't need to be an elitist sport.''

But opinions vary on whether owning a horse saps the wallet dry.

``I said `nothing can cost this much!''' says Emily Austin, a magazine sales representative. She took up riding three years ago, at age 30. ``But it's like an addiction. I'm fortunate. I have a good job,'' she adds.

``It doesn't take a lot of money. I'm a pretty good case on that,'' says 34-year-old Lise Parker, owner of Freeze Frame. ``I'm a full-time rider and a part-time nurse,'' she says, referring to the double shifts she works in an emergency room in New York City. She commutes from West Grove, Penn., where she lives and manages a barn the rest of the week.

Arabian horses, for example, can cost from $500 to $500,000, says Ms. Greer of the IAHA, depending on lineage, sex, age, training, and use. She says a quality Arabian competition horse can cost $1,000 to $5,000, depending on where you buy it. Boarding (including feed) may run about $1,000 per year - more near cities. A new saddle (often a one-time investment) might cost $1,000-$2,000, a used one half that. Add in bridles, veterinarian bills, shoeing costs, lessons, horse-trailer rentals....

BUT more than money, time is the commodity most in need, say riders. McNulty spends three hours a day with her horse: ``An hour to get him ready, an hour to ride, and an hour to bathe him and cool him off - which is part of the enjoyment, for me,'' McNulty says. ``I find a great peace in it'' and a ``sense of unity'' with the horse, she says.

``I think it's a greater commitment than most people realize - to be really good at it. Six days a week, minimum, the horse has to be ridden,'' says Bob Greer, owner of an FM radio station in Laconia, N.H. He took up riding at age 42.

But Mr. Greer says the time spent is worth it: ``Somebody once ... said `There's something about the outside of a horse that good for the inside of a man.' And it's true. There is. I don't know what it is, but I know it's there.'''

His horse's name? ``Fred,'' he says with a smirk. ``His real name is Bold Endeavor. I think that's a little presumptuous.''

Greer says one reason he took up riding was to spend more time with his wife. ``I really believe if you can do something together, it's great for the marriage,'' he says. ``You know, the golf widow story? I think that's not good.''

But for the husband or wife who doesn't ride, the disappearing-spouse syndrome can be maddening. ``I was a horse nut when I was a kid,'' says Ms. Austin. ``I used to play horses, and I had a hundred of those toy horses - the plastic models.''

So in later years, when she had a lucrative career, she took lessons and ``got into it with a vengeance. I'm already on to my fourth horse in three years,'' she says.

But the time required to commute to stables outside the city was causing strain at home. So she and her husband ``totally changed'' their lives by purchasing a farm in Warwick, N.Y.

``It's a give and take. I mean, I don't have supper a lot,'' says Nolan of the time constraints. ``I don't spend the time doing the housework, I don't cut coupons. ... I go into the store and I go whoosh, whoosh, whoosh - I just throw anything in. I don't care what kind of cookies they are.''

She admits that horse-ownership has its bleaker moments, too: ``Especially if it's like zero degrees out and I gotta think about riding.'' But, she says with assurance, she'll keep riding for the rest of her life.

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