As the COVID-19 uncertainty and disruption continues into its third month, there’s no escaping it; around the world, riding schools are taking a monumental hit.
A plea for our Riding Schools
In the UK, and indeed most of the northern hemisphere, spring has sprung. Plentiful grass, decent weather and significantly less mud, has made turn out a viable option to reduce costs. However, given the UK's ever-expanding city limits and the need for stables to be located near people, how many actually have access to the one to two acres required per horse to make this a practical option?
Gillian Elliot BSc (Hons). PG Dip in Professional Practice in Sports Coaching and manager/head coach at Burnbank Equestrian Centre, a 50-horse facility in Scotland, believes they’ve been lucky thanks to various factors. “We’re a family-run stables in a great location, and we’re lucky enough to have extensive summer grazing, a ‘fleet’ of really good-doers and we all live within our means,” she says.
“The yards with bigger overheads are the ones I sympathise with,” she says, “when you see their outgoings, it must be impossible to sustain these kinds of sums without an income, certainly for any length of time.”
In the UAE the situation differs. Firstly, there is no grazing, instead, forage is shipped in from Oman, Pakistan and even further afield. While there’s no available data on increases in shipping costs, we can only imagine to what extent the implementation of COVID-19 protocols has impacted the shipping process.
There’s also the issue of timing. COVID-19 could not have come at a worse time for UAE stables, With March playing host to not only the finals for many disciplines but March through to May historically being the time many equestrians races to get as much ‘riding time’ in as possible, before the unbearable hot summer months.
hile the lock-down protocols differ from country to country, so too do the resources and financial obligations faced by each individual facility. Yet the long-term outcome for many seems depressingly similar.
Riding schools are so much more than just places to get on a horse. For city-dwelling children especially, they can be one of the main points of access to the great outdoors. They are also a place where friendships are made (both horsey and human), where skills are learned, and where exercise takes place through activities so fun and absorbing, they rarely notice they’re actually even doing it!
They’re also an essential refuge for the kids who don’t fit-in or enjoy school. Stables offer another world, far removed from the daily peer pressures and cliques, filled with new friendships, successes, and opportunities to learn outside the classroom setting.
Germ met with The Show Hub on a recent visit to Dubai.
Numerous studies have shown the profound benefits children gain from horse riding and even simply being on the yard. From better decision making and problem-solving, to increased confidence and empathy; there’s a myriad of benefits obtained from only a few hours per week spent with horses.
For the schools themselves, while the doors might be shut, there’s still food to be bought, hooves to shoe, vets to call, staff to pay, buildings and equipment to maintain and of course, the endless stream of bureaucratic obligations and payments, from insurance to association memberships and taxes.
While many other businesses can simply turn off the lights and wait it out, horses still need daily care. Having ‘boots on the ground’ during COVID requires additional organisation, planning and often expense.
Today, three months into lockdown, we’re seeing the many UK riding schools buckling under the financial pressure. In fact, some of the biggest names in equestrian training have announced they will be closing their doors.
“When you hear some of the biggest names in equestrian training are announcing the cessation of lessons, it's a shock, "says Gillian. “You would think it would be the weaker schools that would go, but clearly cutting welfare comes easy to some… really if Contessa (the best school in UK) can announce it’s closing the majority of its operations, then I think we are seeing the opposite effect.”
In response, many are reaching out to their communities for help.
Alison Clinton, owner of The Phoenix Riding School in Calder, Scotland told the Daily Record newspaper that with overheads around £1000 pounds per week and zero income, she was launching a ‘Just Giving’ page for donations. A quick look through Justgiving.com shows Alison is not alone, the platform currently hosts over 60 UK riding stables hoping to raise funds.
Jaye Montebello’s Dulwich Stables, England in operation since 1961, is also under threat. The family-run enterprise owns 18 horses, offering lessons, hacks and training apprenticeships for school-leavers planning to go on and work with horses.
Also reaching the end of her financial reserves, Jaye has turned her attention to social media, focusing on lively updates, regular video content and online quizzes. She told the Southwark News recently, “she’s been touched by how supportive and loyal her customers have been during the crisis, buying vouchers for future lessons, sending photos, and posting questions online about horses and stable management. “It’s those customers who keep us going. I do hours of research – I really enjoy it”, she says.
Daily ‘Facebook Live’ posts and highly engaging video content is something Cannon Hall Farm in Yorkshire has been doing exceptionally well for years. The community farm might not be a riding stables per-se, but it is still home to numerous horses, from Shetlands to Shires. With the doors now firmly closed, the team have not only taken social media interactions to the next level, but interestingly, they have also launched an adopt an animal scheme, allowing followers to adopt individual animals and receive unique photos and updates from their new ‘farm-baby.’
What you can do right now to help your local riding school?
Regardless, of where you’re sat reading this right now, and irrespective of your current financial situation, there are numerous things you can do to help.
Increase your stable’s social media reach and boost their algorithms by liking, commenting and sharing their content. Maybe you’re a whizz with Excel, social media or a marketing guru, why not offer some time to help them remotely?
And of course, now more than ever they’ll be missing out on the chatter and chaos of a busy working yard. Give them a call or drop a quick message, you never know, it could make their day!
For those who are still financially worry free, there’s a whole host of ways to show your support. Book a pony themed birthday party or a new set of lessons, or you could offer to pay for some feed or shoes for your favourite horse. Not only does every penny, fil and cent help, but your act of faith in their future really and truly means a lot right now.
As our riding schools fight of their lives, we sit here in limbo, waiting out lock-down and muddling through home-learning. It’s still not clear when this will end, what the world will look like or even how we could all be fundamentally changed by the COVID-19 experience.
But I for one, hope our riding stables find a way through all of this. Because when our cooped-up kids are finally set free, they’re going to need their old refuge more than ever. After months indoors they are going to want, no in fact, need, that reconnection with animals and nature, and to re-establish old friendships, rebuild confidence, connection and self-worth. They’re also going to need physical activity, learning opportunities not based on laptops and iPads, and certainly their immune systems will relish the natural boost that comes from time spent in the great outdoors.
Your local riding stable offers all this and more, I just really hope for everyone’s sake it’s still around when all this finally ends.
The Henswoude facility is extensive and has a reputation for breeding Friesians of the highest calibre.