Riding school founded by 12-year-old to celebrate its 50th birthday

  • A riding school that has welcomed generations of riders through its door will celebrate its 50th birthday this summer.

    Sunfields Equestrian Centre was founded by Sandra Ward, now 61, who became “hooked” on horses after sitting on a pony for the first time aged 11. From then on she “always knew what she wanted to do”, and she bought her first pony aged 12 after raising money from cleaning shoes, selling vegetables, and making pillowcases.

    A farmer later gave Sandra another pony and she started offering pony rides for 25p. This was the beginning, of Woodside Stables at its former site, and it “escalated” from there.

    “It’s been hard work, but we’ve built it up over the years. We have a nice set up here with an indoor and plenty of land,” Sandra told H&H.

    “It’s lovely and I’ve always enjoyed it. To reach 50 years feels like an achievement, and you realise how quickly time passes – but it’s nice to think that I still enjoy it after 50 years, I think that’s an achievement in itself as well.”

    Jo Bagley, 52, was Sandra’s first client, enjoying a pony ride for her third birthday on 4 June 1973. Jo grew up riding at Sunfields and spent a period working there, and her daughters Abigail and Lily now keep their horses there on livery, having learned to ride at the riding school as children.

    Pictured: An article about then 17-year-old Sandra in The Star newspaper

    “I remember as a young girl leaving school she made the newspapers for starting her own business, because it was practically unheard of for somebody her age doing that,” said Jo.

    “Sandra is exceptional in the way she runs the riding school. The ponies have homes for lives, and lessons are made affordable. It doesn’t ever come down to money, it’s always about the ponies and the children – she does it for the community.”

    Jo no longer rides after being treated for cervical and breast cancer, but she continues to spend much of her time at Sunfields helping her daughters with their horses, and running the riding school’s Facebook page.

    “I went to the yard every day during my chemotherapy, and Sandra looked after my horses when I went for surgery,” said Jo.

    “When I woke up from theatre Sandra sent me a video of my daughter riding as if to say ‘Chin up girl, this is what you have to come back to’. I owe Sandra a lot, the riding school has definitely got me through some dark times.”

    Sandra added that she has met many “amazing” people along the way, and has watched generations of riders come through the riding school’s doors.

    “People I taught as children are now bringing their grandchildren. It’s like a big family,” she said.

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