Horse & Hound’s eventing editor Pippa Roome takes her “sports pony” to try out Slades Farm, a new cross-country schooling course in Surrey — and gets Lucinda Green’s verdict on the facilities
There are plenty of perks to working at Horse & Hound, but when our features editor suggested I go and review a new cross-country schooling course, I knew I’d hit the jackpot. Take my horse and ride him over some nice new cross-country fences, in the sun, rather than sitting at a desk and answering emails? Oh, I expect I could just about manage that.
When I say “my horse”, I really mean “Mum’s horse”. Alfie arrived last October, after a long search. He is her pride and joy. He’s barely allowed out of her sight. “Will it just be you or is your Mum coming?” asked Rachel Lewis, who was setting up my visit to Slades Farm. Oh Mum will be coming. There is no way Alfie would be allowed to jump solid fences without her in attendance. And frankly, if he was, who would take the videos? Reader, you know you want to see videos.
I call Alfie the sports pony or the sports cob because he’s a Connemara, 15.1hh and up for a bit of anything. Mum thinks this is vaguely insulting, but I mean it as a compliment. Who doesn’t want a sports pony?
The sports pony had had a few quiet weeks before this outing. Mum had been away and I had been a touch busy with that little event called Badminton. But because he’s an obliging sports pony, Alfie accepted his role as a prop in an H&H feature with aplomb, tucked up his little tummy (yes, he has been put on a mini diet after we viewed the photos and videos from this day) and hopped into the trailer.
Getting to Slades Farm
First point to note if you are heading to Slades Farm, which is five miles south of Guildford, in Surrey. Do follow the instructions on the website about which way to approach (off the A281 at Palmers Cross or via Lodkin Hill just north of Hascombe on the B2130). Some of the routes in are very narrow and we found ourselves squeezing between parked cars and an unforgiving wall at one point, having disregarded the instructions. Luckily Mum is made of stern stuff as a driver and we made it unscathed.
The parking area is a good size, on gravelly hard-standing. Riders are asked to book online and then sign the visitor’s book and a disclaimer on arrival, standard stuff. The course is through a gate — sensible, so that horses are not loose onto the road in the event of falls and I’d suggest one on the entrance to the car park might not go amiss either. The sports pony has been known to untie himself and wander off if not watched at all times.
Owners Ed and Lulu Hutley appeared for a chat before I headed out on the course. They are both joint masters of the Surrey Union and the inspiration for this cross-country schooling course grew out of the hunt putting up jumps across their land. Having decided to go for it, they chose top names to realise the course, with Badminton course-designer Eric Winter as the designer and Dominic Moore of Jump 1 as the builder. Dominic counts Tweseldown’s course among his credits.
The course was started last autumn, with the aim of being finished by March, but as with so much this spring, wet weather de-railed things somewhat and it actually opened in mid-April. One of the first clients won a one-day event soon after her schooling session and things were off to a flying start.
It’s worth pointing out at that Slades Farm has considerably more than just a cross-country schooling course — New Zealand event rider Hollie Swain will be based here and is running clinics, plus there is a trekking business and accommodation for both horses and humans for holidays, with horses also available to hire. Cross-country schoolers can pop into the club house overlooking the lake for coffee and biscuits afterwards and of course there’s a loo — because who doesn’t need a wee before cross-country schooling?
Ok, enough about the biscuits and the loo. Let’s get to the action.
Lucinda Green’s verdict
Lucinda Green recently visited Slades Farm and said she was delighted to discover the course is on grass and undulating.
“I often get asked to teach on flat, all-weather courses, but this isn’t realistic,” she says. “Cross-country is not naturally flat; your horse needs to build the skills required for natural terrain, and all-weather surfaces take away the skill of riding. Slades Farm gives riders a chance to have a realistic experience.”
The course is in a natural bowl, with great grass cover. The going is sandy and free-draining and the Hutleys are aware they will need to work on maintaining the going — a few places were starting to become set in firm ruts when I visited and they plan to put down wood chip on the take-offs and landings where it’s needed.
This is designed as a schooling course, so everything is convenient and an instructor could easily see their pupils. The fences are from 50-100cm level and there is great variety, including several open ditches, an extensive set of steps up and down, a big water pond and a couple of corners.
Don’t just take my word for it — Lucinda says: “The three fundamentals of training your horse in cross country are ditches, banks and water, and Slades Farm has them in spades. The large water jump offers huge possibilities for competitors.”
Some of the fences are flagged to be jumped both ways, some one way, some are not flagged at all. I would have liked to see the second little corner flagged as although the sports pony has never shown a desire to run out, I do prefer jumping narrow fences with flags.
As you can see, Alfie and I had a fabulous time cruising around and trying out all the fences. And before anyone asks, yes, I know he needs to go forward a little more (forgive me, I’m really a writer, not a rider) and no he’s definitely not for sale!
The Hutleys are restricting the course to four horses per hour session (£35 per horse per hour, with at £25 offer until the end of June) which should allow good access. Those organising clinics and bigger groups can contact them directly via the website.
Also on offer is a 900m grass gallop, situated on top of a hill high above the cross-country course. We strode up to take a look and admire the view, both out over the surrounding countryside and back over the cross-country course, although I admit I felt the sports pony had done enough so I didn’t carry out an action test.
Overall this is a great new facility for grassroots horses and riders — find yourself a sports pony (or horse) and give it a go.
Find out more at sladesfarm.co.uk
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