The changing face of riding schools [H&H VIP]

  • As equestrianism fights for its place in an ever more competitive leisure market,
    riding schools are being forced to think laterally to gain — and retain — custom.

    The number of riders in Britain is declining, according to figures from the latest British Equestrian Trade Association’s (BETA) equestrian survey.

    BETA estimates that in 2015 to date 4.3% of the British population has ridden a horse in the past year — a proportion that equates to about 2.7m people.

    The overall number of those who ride has fallen from 3.5m in 2011 to 2.7m in 2015. The number of regular riders — defined as those who ride at least once a month — has also declined.

    “We estimate there to be 1.3m ‘regular riders’ in 2015, compared to an equivalent figure of 1.6m in 2010,” said BETA’s Claire Williams.

    Yet the survey showed there are an estimated 446,000 horse-owning households in the country — similar to the figure in 2011, when there were 451,000.

    Cost, access to horses and lack of time were cited by riders as the main reasons for giving up, with 18% giving cost as the primary cause. However, of the ex-riders, 34% said they would be interested in returning to horse riding in the future.

    Diversification is key

    At Wellington Riding School, Hants, parents can watch their children having a lesson from the comfort of a new glass building complete with sofas and a restaurant, plus changing rooms with showers and hairdryers.

    Non-riding siblings can make use of the free wi-fi, and business people can hold a meeting in the upstairs conference room.

    The new 4,000sq ft open-plan building, which opened in March, is a far cry from the days when riding-school onlookers sat on dusty steps clutching polystyrene mugs of instant coffee for warmth.

    But back then, schools were not competing against the myriad other sports which today vie for time and money.

    “Proprietors realise they are now in competition not only with other riding schools, but also other sports which may offer a high level of customer service and, in some cases, excellent facilities,” Julian Marczak, chairman of the Association of British Riding Schools (ABRS), told H&H.

    Wellington was set up 41 years ago by John and Nereide Goodman and was sold to the Wellington Estate in 2000.

    Diversification into residential riding camps helps pays the wages in the less-busy winter months, while during term-time the school runs riding academies for local private schools and offers voluntary work experience for children doing Duke of Edinburgh awards.

    Manager David Sheerin believes firmly that riding schools are the best way for students to learn practical skills.

    “The equine industry is growing all the time and I would like to see a lot more support for riding schools,” he told H&H.

    Christine Pollitt, 58, set up Wrea Green Equitation Centre in Lancashire in 1981 because she thought “every little girl or boy should have the opportunity to ride on a nice, safe pony”.

    Her 24 stables house horses and ponies from 11.2hh to 16hh, and riders aged three to 81 years old come for lessons.

    The school is a Pony Club centre and a Riding for the Disabled Association centre, and offers side-saddle riding.

    You have to be proactive, look at new ideas, help staff with qualifications and know what’s going on in the yard,” she said.

    “All of our riders will never own a horse and — week-in, week-out — we have
    to come up with the goods to keep them coming.”

    Fighting rising overheads

    For Pat Shepherd, the deciding factor in deciding to buy Croft End Equestrian Centre was that it was located near well-populated towns.

    Mrs Shepherd set up the centre near Oldham with her sister Carole in 1998, with two ponies. There are now 48 horses and ponies and 16 liveries.

    She charges £23 an hour for a child’s lesson, but fears she will have to put prices up later this year for the first time in two years to meet rising running costs.

    “If you are not constantly upgrading, you will have a tatty place. We look at it like any sort of business. When people come down the drive, it looks professional and friendly. There are flowers in pots and everything is always tidy. You could come to my yard with high heels on,” she told H&H.

    “If you wanted to earn money in a business you wouldn’t do this. In 17 years I’ve had one week and two weekends away,” she added. “But we’re very proud of what we have achieved. There are days when I would happily give up, but I keep going because I love the horses and seeing the pleasure children get from riding.”

    In more remote rural areas, riding schools face even greater challenges.

    Finding it harder and harder to find good qualified instructors, Caren Jones was forced to change the focus of her Cimla Trekking & Equestrian Centre in Neath, West Glamorgan.

    Last year, more than 2,000 children visited her Santa’s grotto where they had a 15-minute ride, and visited the animals and elves’ workshop. “If five percent come back for riding lessons, that’s 100 new clients,” she said.

    With 70 horses including liveries, Cimla is one of the few remaining large riding schools in Wales.

    “Riding schools have to diversify and offer something extra,” she added.

    A five-acre field that wasn’t ideal for grazing has been turned into a Battlefield Live (laser combat) venue, and those who don’t want to wield a laser gun can set off on a cycle trail or pop into the centre’s restaurant for lunch.

    The world of riding schools is certainly changing. Who would have thought that managers should worry about where the hairdryer should go, or how to tame the reindeer?

    Ref: H&H 21 May, 2015