Is equestrianism in danger of losing the interest — and investment — of riders to other sports because of a lack of accessible facilities?

Leading figures in the equestrian industry believe so.

Ashley Parasram, co-founder of Riding Club London (RCL), which caters for people in and around London who may or may not have their own horse, believes that a lack of riding schools providing decent horses and quality instruction is causing fallout from the sport.

“There is simply not the means for more experienced riders, who don’t have their own horse, to enjoy riding at a reasonable level,” said the former treasurer and chairman of the Civil Service Riding Club and who was a key figure in the Olympic equestrian legacy’s consultation process.

“The feedback from members is that people are consistently drawing a blank when it comes to finding places to ride.”

Meeting needs of riders

HOOF, the Olympic legacy project, has made a concerted effort to grow the sport, but its energies have primarily focused on encouraging new participants to sign up for lessons rather than meeting the needs of existing riders with a desire to improve.

Laura Graham was an active member of Edinburgh University’s equestrian club and was confidently jumping round 90cm courses by the time she graduated.

She was keen to continue riding when she left, but struggled to find a facility near to her base in Leeds that could provide high-quality tuition on good horses.

“The first place I went to I was put on a 14.2hh cob that had two speeds — slow and slower,” she told H&H. “I stuck with it for a few weeks, but I soon became bored. I tried a few other places, but none ticked the box. I sometimes ride a friend’s horse, but it’s not the same as having proper tuition.”

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H&H’s acting digital editorial director Carol Phillips has had a similar experience. “A while ago I wanted to find somewhere local [on the Herts/Beds border] to have some schoolmaster lessons, but there seemed to be nowhere that could cater for a rider at my level,” she said.

H&H columnist Pammy Hutton, (pictured, top), proprietor of Talland, has long championed the riding schools’ cause and strongly believes in the importance of accessible, top-quality training and tuition for all.

“Many a top rider across all disciplines has sprung from a riding school,” she said.“As the growth of cycling has proved, it’s all about accessibility, but yet again the British Horse Society has confirmed a fall in the number of approved establishments.”

Is there a solution?

Mr Parasram believes that existing riding schools need to adopt a more focused, strategic approach.

“There appears to be a disparity between the service establishments are delivering and what riders are expecting,” he said. “Generally, riding schools are run by people with a passion for what they do rather than a CV bursting with business acumen; we need to train passionate people on how to grow their business rather than get by on a day-to-day basis.”

He would like to see more riding schools with horses capable of carrying adults (including men) over 1m-plus fences, and preferential young person riding rates to encourage new graduates who like horses to keep riding rather than finding a new sport.

But it works both ways.

If riders do not continue to support riding schools once they reach a certain level, it won’t be financially viable for riding schools to continue to cater for them,” pointed out Andrew Stennett, owner of Grove House Stables near Doncaster and head of education for the Association of British Riding Schools (ABRS).

Buying and keeping advanced schoolmasters is expensive.”Mr Stennett also believes that the industry still struggles to shake off the riding school label.

“As a brand, the British riding school is respected worldwide, but it is still often associated with shaggy ponies. The truth is that many yards now have very modern facilities, are tech-savvy, and offer riders real value for money,” he added.

Some centres seem to have struck a successful balance between delivering high-level tuition and tapping into alternative sources of revenue. Talland has opened its doors to overseas students and has become the UK’s first non-college provider of education and training up to the BHS instructor qualification, while Quob Stables in Hampshire has invested in a state of the art dressage simulator.

Chessington EC in Surrey provides hirelings for the Surrey Union Hunt and horses for modern pentathlon.

“We have a good mixture of horses here and I’d say the split between novice and more experienced riders is roughly 80:20,” said the centre’s manager, Donna Candeland.

We listen to what our clients want and have a good selection of horses that can jump reasonable-height fences.”

Everyone agrees that while there is no one solution to providing riding on tap, to whoever wants it, equestrianism can learn much from other sports.

Where I do feel we are missing a trick is getting our star riders to become more involved with riding schools,” said Andrew Stennett. “If you look at cycling and rowing, there is a lot more interaction between the top level and the grassroots end and this is good for the industry as a whole.”

Ref: H&H 16/10/15