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City ponies lift lockdown spirits in London

An urban riding school is bringing cheer to residents on lockdown by touring their ponies through local streets.

Park Lane Stables in Teddington, southwest London, has a unique location — the 300-year-old yard has survived intact despite all the surrounding area being built up with housing.

Although the Covid-19 outbreak has meant the stables, which are both a Riding for the Disabled Association and Pony Club centre, have had to close to customers, manager Natalie O’Rourke has tried to ensure that they remain at the heart of the community.

Although most of the school’s ponies have been turned out to grass 10 miles away, some of their elderly and laminitic inhabitants have had to remain on site.

Last week, while social distancing measures were in place, Natalie was taking the ponies out in hand to visit residents who had put in requests. Now the country is on lockdown, she is exercising them around local roads and letting householders know when to look out of their windows instead.

“Last week we were visiting people’s houses when they were in self-isolation and standing outside their window and delivering messages from their family,” Natalie said. “We went to visit an 81-year-old lady who was having treatment for breast cancer — her family asked us go to her house and hold up a sign saying they were thinking about her.

“Now the situation has changed we can’t go to specific addresses but we are taking requests for which neighbourhoods they would like us to exercise the ponies in. It breaks up the day up for children as it’s a long day inside for them.

The ponies are used to working  and this way they are kept busy and we’re also managing to contribute to the community a little bit.”

“Today (26 March) we went out for a little girl’s birthday,” she added. “The people were looking out to wave and take pictures.”

Natalie said the community was also giving back to the riding school, which, like many equestrian businesses, is facing hardship as it loses its income.

“We have an elderly pony who can’t go out with the others as she’s a bit doddery and would get bullied, and someone has offered their garden for her to graze in — it’s lovely to see people doing a double-take when they spot her and she’s loving the attention,” she said.

“We have also launched a sponsor-a-pony scheme on Justgiving to help us cover some of our costs, as our overheads remain much the same despite having to close — that launched three days ago and has already raised £3,000, people have been very kind.”

The riding school has also been encouraging customers to keep credits for lessons, rather than ask for refunds, and has made the most of the help on offer.

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“Our landlord has given us a rent break and we have already received our local authority grant — it’s amazing how fast they turned that around, my local authority seem to be prioritising businesses with livestock, so it’s great they recognise that we have to feed them,” Natalie said.

“People are being absolutely brilliant,” she added. “I’m hoping the community help us get through this so we’re still there when it’s all over.”

Natalie has also extended a helping hand to other establishments in trouble, and has taken in 10 of the 18 horses at Sister Mary Joy Langdon’s Wormwood Scrubs Pony Centre.

“I have been able to put all my ponies in one of the fields we rent so the horses can have the other one,” she said. “The equestrian world is helping each other out and hopefully we will weather the storm and come out the other side.”

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