The equestrian world is full of unsung equestrian heroes, devoting their lives to horses. Sara Walker talks to Geoff Bell, District Commissioner of the East Cheshire branch of The Pony Club, about keeping the show on the road
“I think I married into horses rather than being born into them,” laughs Geoff. “My wife, Jill, had had ponies as a child but the nearest I’d ever come was a donkey on Blackpool Beach! I met Jill in 1974 and we both went for riding lessons then started going on trekking holidays. I love adventure riding — we trekked in Northumberland in the 1970s and in Scotland and Wales — proper trail riding where you ride from venue to venue.
“Towards the end of the 1970s Eloise, the first of our three children, was born followed by the boys Bobby and Chris. We started taking horses on winter loan from a local riding school and riding out as a family. When the children were old enough, they started to go on riding holidays by themselves and once came back having fallen in love with a pony called Sparkle, whom they insisted we buy. Sparkle was quickly followed by Jumbo and then Sunshine, who came from a local Pony Club family. All our three children joined The Pony Club in the mid-80s, and ended up getting into polocrosse — we spent many a family weekend at events at that time!
“I was on the Branch committee, and when my children grew up and left the Pony Club it had become second nature to me and I didn’t really think about giving it up. A wonderful lady called Jenny Benoy was DC then, and she’d been asked to become Area Representative so I stepped up as DC although there wasn’t a lot of competition for the role!
“I’ve now been involved with East Cheshire for about 25 years, most of it at the same time as working full-time as a solicitor. I think the way I organise my branch might be unique — we’re a large and active branch, so I’ve had to become very good at delegation. We now have people responsible for each individual area, such as dressage and health and safety. One of our big events is the Cheshire Shield, an eventing competition which is open to non-PC members. That’s a lot of organisation — we need over 100 volunteers to make it work, doing everything from drawing up the schedule and booking the venue to arranging toilets. Ultimately, I’m responsible for it all coming together. It’s become quite financially successful — last year we were able to donate £3,000 to the Air Ambulance, who do such essential work for riders.
“Although The Pony Club has been going since 1929, I see it as still very relevant to today’s young riders. It’s evolved with the times — these days, you can get achievement badges just like Scouts or Guides. It’s a cost-effective way of learning skills such as flatwork in a safe environment, and it’s very sociable too. Our members learn a range of non-horsey skills as well, such as how to be respectful of other people’s feelings. All children need discipline in their lives, and The Pony Club gives them that on some level — I always insist on simple things, like shaking hands properly when they come to accept an award or certificate.
“I suppose one of the hardest things about my job is the constant struggle to find enough volunteers — although most people are very supportive, they seem to have less time these days. I suppose more families have two parents who work, and they seem to be keener to hold onto the leisure time they do have rather than spending it at rallies! One of the best things about the job is when all that constant effort gets rewarded. For example, our musical ride team have won the championship several times and have been asked to demonstrate at local events, and our games team recently had their photo in our local county magazine.
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“I’m a great believer in everything being fair and above board, and I have a policy of making sure there is a rule and that everyone knows what it is. I’ve been asked to write various policies for the area, such as the ‘respect’ code which sets out everyone’s responsibility to promote high standards of behaviour in equestrian sport. We currently have around 160 members, and although there’s the odd issue with ‘Pony Club parents’ it’s much easier if people are clear where they stand.
“We still have five horses at home, including 28-year-old Tarek who was my daughter’s showjumper, and my son Bobby is still a keen polo player. Do I ever think about retiring? Every night when I put my head on the pillow! I generally wake up with renewed enthusiasm, though, and the show still goes on.”
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