I grew up owning horses and ponies in a (then) rural part of Queensland Australia.My sister and I aged 7 and 8 learned to ride bareback on an ex stock pony about 14.2.We learned to stay on because we couldn't stop the bugger!.
We would ride out across country for hours often from first light to dark.We swam horses in the dam and helped out with musters (knew someone who ran bulls and unbroken horses for Rodeos) It was very relaxed and free, a really amazing time.
My D now five has been totally pony crazy since she was two and she has recently has started going for walk outs at the local school.I would love her to grow up with ponies (maybe even have one of her own in a few years) but I feel that riding in the uk seems very formal and I am feeling quite intimidated.I am looking for a bit of reassurance
Wherever you are, learning in a riding school vs mucking about at home with ponies is always going to be a very different experience. Your experience doesn't sound like the Saddle Club! Riding schools have to deal with safety inspections, insurance and anxious parents. DD's pony lives on our friends' farm, she and their kids enjoy the UK equivalent of the sort of thing you describe (and which many people may regard as risky or irresponsible). That said they compete at a high level so get formal instruction too and the mix works well for us.
It's not always been like this. It's just the insurance companies - because of the claims culture springing up in the UK - that causes so much formality in riding establishments. I think having your own pony is probably the only way around it.
I think also your Aussie experience was on your own horse. Similarly over here if you have your own ponies things are much more relaxed. DD will go riding for a couple of hours in a local forest and it's all good.
The difference, as Dappleton says, is that if you go to a riding school environment then insurance and nanny state to kick in.
When we were young, around 10/11 my mother used to send me, my sister and a friend on our ponies up to a wood about 1 mile away, with a picnic and instructions not to come back until tea time. We used to gallop around playing cowboys and indians for hours!
Yes,having your own pony means that you get to set the rules.My DDs spent yesterday afternoon herding sheep on dpony,followed by galloping across the fields jumping sheep troughs.As long as they have a hat an BP on,I don't really mind what they do.The first time they rode bareback,their little faces were a picture.