The equestrian world is full of unsung equestrian heroes, working with equine charities, teaching, training, breaking and schooling and generally devoting their lives to horses. Sara Walker talks to Joy Toomer, a founder member of the Border Bridleways Association, about keeping Britain’s rights of way open for riders and living life to the full.
“I firmly believe that horses are good for people,” says Joy. “Yes, there can be danger and heartbreak, but it’s so rewarding. When you have horses, every day won’t be a great day, but they enrich your life so much. I feel very privileged to have spent my life doing what I love.”
Joy’s life with horses began in the 1960s, when she started riding aged six.
“When I was eight, my parents bought me a pony, and looking back it was completely unsuitable!” she laughs. “It was a different time back then — my friends and I would take a picnic and stay out all day.
“Eventually, when I was 14, my parents bought me some riding lessons, which did me so much good. I got a beautiful chestnut mare for a 21st birthday present, and lost her to navicular three years later, which was devastating. I was married by then, and my husband and I went to a sales with the insurance money and bought a black thoroughbred fresh off the track. We hadn’t really intended to buy anything and were left standing in the yard with him, having to beg transport home. He was sold warranted, so the following day I rode him for the vet and was asked to gallop — we shot off into the distance and I didn’t know if we’d ever come back!
“That horse, Statesman, became my showjumper and we competed until I had my children when I switched to dressage. Statesman was followed by a thoroughbred x Clydesdale mare, who I trained to advanced medium level.
“My son and daughter rode too, and at one point we had nine horses! I was on the committee of Cheshire Pony Club for 10 years, so it was horses all the way. This was the 1990s, and traffic was starting to build up on the roads. We had two incidents in quick succession. A bridle path called Lambert’s Lane in Congleton, Cheshire had been illegally closed by a farmer using barbed wire, and then two local children had a near miss with traffic crossing a road. These two things inspired me to set up the Border Bridleways Association, called ‘Border’ as it operates on the border between Cheshire and Staffordshire.”
“We were lucky enough to have Pat Amies as our research officer, who’d also worked for the BHS. We eventually got Lambert’s Lane reopened after about four years, and that resulted in a lot of other claims being put in. The Cheshire council have always been extremely helpful, Staffordshire rather less so, but we’ve probably got about a dozen routes reopened over the years.
“The BBA has always had a strong membership of 70 to 100 people because we run a lot of social and training events. Our aim is always to make a small profit which goes into our fighting fund, then we can help councils with funding and legal fees if they have no budget.
“A lot of the work we do is just about reminding councils that horse riders both exist and matter. At a recent meeting, we found that the council had no idea what height the parapets on a bridge should be to make them safe for riders! After all, drivers may not want us on busy roads but they don’t realise that we don’t want to be there either. As riders, it’s important that we keep getting together as a group because then we talk. Someone might have seen a planning application notice go up near a bridle path and we can then keep an eye on it and talk to the council to make sure they’re aware.
“Although we don’t really appeal to competitive riders, as a group we’ve run flatwork and jumping lessons for members for a long time. Partly for fun, and partly because, for me, improving your riding is important as it improves safety and welfare.
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“A few years ago, with my big mare getting arthritic, I decided it was time to downsize and bought a Connemara. Pat Guerin, a friend from the BBA, was a keen endurance rider and she talked me into doing the Riding Club Championships. The qualifier distance was 30km and the championship 40km. We entered a team of four, all grandmothers, all in our 60s — and to our absolute amazement, we won! That was definitely a highlight for me as we definitely weren’t expecting it. I still do long pleasure rides but no longer compete as it was too difficult to balance that with jumping and dressage without being unfair to the pony.
“I’ve had so many lovely days with friends and horses, I can’t begin to tell you. I simply can’t imagine doing anything else.”
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