Meet the stunt rider whose horses all cost under £1,000: ‘We want the horses that can escape from a field’

  • Benjamin Atkinson of Atkinson Action Horses began his stunt career at just 11 years old. Now aged 24, Benjamin and his father, Mark Atkinson, travel around Europe providing breathtaking displays and horses for film and TV work including Peaky Blinders, Poldark and Victoria.

    Last week Atkinson Action Horses performed at the opening ceremony for the FEI Pony European Championships at Bishop Burton, where Benjamin was a former student, to huge crowds.

    “I have grown up with horses since day one. My father and grandfather are exceptional horsemen and growing up I did everything you can imagine with horses — my grandfather taught me how to drive and I’d be harrowing the garden with my Shetland pony,” said Benjamin.

    Mark Atkinson started the business when he provided a Highland pony for a battle re-enactment and the business naturally grew from there. Benjamin now runs the live displays and specialist training while Mark runs the film work side of the business.

    “At 11, I had a New Forest pony my dad brought home and I started playing with him. I fell in love with liberty work — my party trick was jumping a five-bar gate with no saddle or bridle for my dad’s friends! Liveries would laugh at me saying I needed to start working horses properly while I was in the indoor playing with my ponies.”

    At 14, Mark Atkinson was working closely with English Heritage, which offered sponsorship for Benjamin to learn from the world-renowned Cossack trick rider Guido Louis who Benjamin spent two years learning from.

    The philosophy of Atkinson Action Horses is “work the horse you have today, not the horse he will be in 10 years or the horse he was yesterday”.

    With that philosophy Benjamin said: “You don’t train a horse in an hour a day, it’s a lifetime.”

    Interestingly, the horses Atkinson Action Horses trains never cost more than £1,000.

    “We’re a business — we can’t be going out and buying horses for £10,000. That horse then has to make £10,000 plus what it costs me to keep the horse for us to have a made a penny. Most of the time a horse is only worth thousands and thousands because someone else has put the work in. Everything you want to pay for, you can probably do yourself!”

    “When I get in a horse for £1,000, they don’t arrive as Valegro. It sounds cliché but the horses find us. Some of the horses come because owners have had a difficult time with them — you open the door and they’ll try and flatten you, but generally the reason we like those horses is because they are the intelligent ones. We want the horses that can escape from a field, or open their stable doors, the horses that throw buckets over doors — the ones that have something about them. They have awake eyes that really see the world.”

    Benjamin enjoyed performing at the Bishop Burton European Championships.

    “It was fun to be there. Every show is a bit different — you’ll never know what the atmosphere is going to be like.”

    Benjamin compares training his horses to his own struggle with learning.

    “I was not the most enthusiastic student. I found it very difficult, as I’m cripplingly dyslexic. It reminds me of training horses, I’d be at the back of the classroom and I’d feel so lost. So often I now see someone schooling a horse and I see how I felt, in that horse’s eyes.

    “We try to break everything down when training horses. I’ll teach horses from the floor — we’ll teach it how to use its hind legs, balance, then when it comes to under saddle you’ll use aids that the horse has already learnt from the floor. You then don’t have the argument; you don’t make a bad memory. Everyone is happy and everyone is a winner.”

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    Horses at Atkinson Action Horses spend a long and happy retirement at the East Yorkshire-based yard.

    “When horses come to us, they come to us for life,” says Benjamin. “When they are retired – they’re retired. My biggest fear is if I was to retire one and sell it and I tell someone ‘don’t make the horse do tricks any more’, but then they have a visitor and want to show a trick and make the horse rear. And so they stay with me — they never leave.”

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