THE owner of a major riding school that has been forced to close after 40 years hopes the “difficult” decision will spark debate about the future viability of equestrian businesses.
Pennie Cornish had a waiting list of clients at Greenacres Equestrian, Hertfordshire, which had taught generations of riders, and been a Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA) centre for decades.
But she told H&H the combination of health and safety regulations, licensing requirements and “mountains” of paperwork, spiralling costs of business rates and recruitment issues have made the business unviable.
“I’ve had other businesses saying to me, ‘You’re a big, well-respected riding school; what chance do we have?’” Pennie said. “Lots of people have been saying riding schools were their lives when they were kids, and we’ve always had the RDA; what happens to all those people now?”
Pennie cited one example of the bureaucracy and paperwork riding schools face.
“We had 40 horses and ponies here before Covid, and we’re supposed to get the weight tape on all of them weekly, record the measurements and send them to the council, to show we’re looking after them,” she said. “They want you to document every single thing in every way; it’s time-consuming and pointless, most of the time, because the people they should be looking at aren’t the ones being checked.”
Pennie said business rates are a huge issue. H&H has reported on the issues faced by equestrian businesses in this area; some faced a 350% increase in the most recent revaluation.
“We’re in a high-ish bracket for rates but some places near London are charged £100,000 a year,” she said. “That’s terrible.”
Other issues include health and safety regulations that limit what pony-mad children are allowed to do on the yard, Pennie said, “although they were probably far healthier and safer on the yard than on the streets or in front of a screen”, so limiting their opportunities.
“We had one lad who showed up aged 13 as teachers said he needed something, he was angry – he left last year aged 32,” she added.
“The Government should subsidise riding schools, like they do in European countries, because without them there’s no industry. Racing is massive money, let alone showjumping.”
And Pennie added that without riding schools, there would be far fewer top riders, citing Phillip Miller, who has been at Greenacres since he was seven, and Ben Walker, who learnt at a riding school and came second in the Horse of the Year Show grand prix this year.
“It’s the beginning of the end,” she said. “If this goes on, we’ll have nothing but dodgy dealers at one end and an elitist sport at the other. Something has to be done.”
Association of British Riding Schools trustee George Baber told H&H it is always concerning when a riding school closes.
“It is a loss for the owners, staff and clients, and can leave a local gap,” he said. “The closure of large schools is even more of an issue because they often also serve as venues for training, competition and other events. Our members are seeing cost pressures, including the high cost of horses, and the increase in basics such as feed and hay.
“We are expecting business rates to be waived for next year, announced in the Budget, but the details of applicability are to be confirmed. While this is welcome, costs are likely to increase, creating real risks in a low-margin industry. We would encourage all schools to look at their operations and at additional ways to raise income, on and off horse.
“That said, we have also seen encouraging signs also. Our members have been incredibly busy following the lifting of Covid restrictions, and we have recently had new members join, as livery yards have converted to combined schools and livery yards. It is too early to determine whether this is a trend or not.
H&H asked the Government whether it would consider any subsidising of riding schools and was told that “the Government absolutely recognises the importance of sport and physical activity towards the nation’s mental health”.
A spokesman added that riding schools had been eligible for much funding related to the pandemic.
Councillor Mandy McNeil, of St Albans City and District Council, told H&H: “I’m very sorry to hear that Greenacres riding school is closing and gather that this is due to a number of reasons.
“As regards animal welfare regulations, these are set by the Government and a new Act came into force three years ago to improve conditions for animals in places [including] riding schools.
“We have a duty to ensure businesses comply with these regulations. We are very supportive of our local businesses and are always happy to discuss any concerns they may have to see what help we can provide.”
Cllr McNeil also cited Government grants, distributed by the council.
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