Pupils at a south London primary school who have been reading War Horse this term were treated to a surprise for World Book Day when their headteacher took assembly on horseback.
Co-head Serena Hemmings and Holly Nye, who works part time at the school, brought their warmblood eventers Bea and Mia to pose as characters Joey and Topthorn.
All forms at Castle Hill Academy — which is based in the New Addington housing estate in Croydon — were asked to assemble on the playing fields, where the horses galloped across to meet them.
“It was my assistant head Claire Bracher who came up with the idea,” said Ms Hemmings. “Holly said she was also free to bring her horse that day so we met in the school car park.
“We warmed up in the bottom field before galloping the horses up through the playing fields. It was a horse lover’s dream — once I got over the guilt of leaving hoofprints, I felt a bit naughty even though I’m the headteacher!”
Ms Hemmings said the horses behaved impeccably in front of the more than 500 people assembled and that her 17.2hh 11-year-old Dutch warmblood Bea was also useful for keeping an eye on the naughty ones at the back.
“The horses just stood and studied the children, I could do with Bea for every assembly, she was great for crowd control. Her ears just pinned on things — it made me wonder how many times mounted police get alerted to something because of bonds they have with their horses and what their attention turns to.” she said.
“There were two boys at the back doing horse impressions and Bea pointed her ears straight at them, so they were quickly spotted!”
Ms Nye said she was also thrilled with her five-year-old mare Mia’s attitude to the job — and revealed that both riders were able to get in some sneaky pre-event interval training with a few extra laps of the field.
“It was amazing, we honestly didn’t know how she would react but she didn’t bat an eyelid and seemed to absolutely love the attention. She liked it even more when the dinner ladies came out with a bucket of carrots!” she said.
The headteacher said that the children — many of whom live in flats with limited outdoor time — were mesmerised by the horses and eager to ask questions about them.
“They wanted to know why we patted them whenever we stopped, what they like to eat and what the foam around their mouths was,” she said. “Their observations were also great – one girl asked if they were unicorns and their stars were where they had their horns removed.”
Both Ms Hemmings and Ms Nye were due to compete at Tweseldown this weekend in the BE90 and also talked to the children about eventing.
“Some of the older girls were especially interested to hear that it was a sport when men and women competed on equal terms, and they’ve decided to research it,” she said.
“It will be something that is talked about for some time — it will also be used in other school projects. Some of the other children were planning on taking casts of the hoofprints for art.”
Castle Hill Academy is based in an area that scores among the lowest 5% in the country for several markers on the IDACI index of deprivation and the school has suffered from poor attendance among other problems. The postcode is also susceptible to gang activity.
We asked H&H readers to send in their best fancy dress efforts. Here are some of our favourite costumes from
The foal who hit headlines last year has made an ‘amazing recovery’
Take advantage of our sale on Horse & Hound magazine subscriptions today
“Despite the problems it is an amazing community and they really got behind this idea,” Ms Hemmings said. “It was great to be able to introduce a bit of awe and wonder for the children.
“It was a real lift for the school and in the end, it all came back to the book — you have to give thanks to Michael Morpurgo for inspiring children to read, what an amazing book it is.”
For all the latest news analysis, competition reports, interviews, features and much more, don’t miss Horse & Hound magazine, on sale every Thursday.