Family fun days including six of the best shows for children *H&H Plus*

  • Braving events with tots in tow can feel like a military operation, but pick wisely and you can avoid tears and tantrums. In the show guide, on sale Thursday 27 February, H&H brings helpful tips and favourite venues sourced from well-known mums and dads across the equestrian world

    Standing in the toilet breastfeeding at a race meeting last November, in Arctic conditions, it dawned on me that the arrival of children might have temporarily negated the charm of going racing. In that moment, a sofa and ITV Racing would have been preferable. But expert parents, with the battle wounds of prams stuck in mud and children wailing ringside, harbour the secrets of keeping pint-sized spectators happy.

    “It is more stressful taking children to the polo, but because I really want to go and the other option is not going, you just suck it up,” admits mother-of-two and polo reporter Aurora Eastwood. “On the days that aren’t so prestigious you can pull up your car on the sidelines right next to the pitch. I often put them in the boot with the bottom half of the tailgate up and the top open, and they’ll play in there quite happily. I know they’re safely away from a loose horse that way as well. Now Flora is three it’s easier than last summer, when she kept running off and not looking back.

    “After the Queen’s Cup final at Guards two years ago, I was walking to the prize-giving thinking she was right behind me, when I heard this Argentine groom shriek and lunge at her as she was minesweeping glasses of champagne,” laughs Aurora, who swears by copious snacks, colouring books, a packed lunch (to avoid buying overpriced burgers) and a willingness to cough up for the fairground.

    Nirvana for five-star eventer Harry Meade’s wife Rosie has been in the form of Tattersalls International Horse Trials in Co. Meath.

    “There used to be two children’s areas — one near the main arena, and another in a good spectating loop on the cross-country,” she says. “Parents could sit and watch, with one eye on the children, who had the happiest time.”

    The popular bouncy castles, face painting and animals can now be found in the centre of the action alongside the shopping village.

    Arming her children Lily, seven, and Charlie, five, with their own money keeps them busy as they budget for ice creams (“eventing without ice creams is a disaster,” says Rosie) and she never skimps on clothing (“cold children are not fun”). But plans can still go awry.

    “When Harry finished third at Badminton in 2014, everybody scarpered when it was the prize-giving. Having had tonnes of support all weekend, I was left with a nappy to deal with and missed the lap of honour,” she says.

    Equestrian broadcaster Aly Vance, who has an 18-month-old daughter, admits that “breastfeeding and nappy changing areas at racecourses can be hit-and-miss”.

    “Goodwood has a lovely room in the March Stand which is dedicated to feeding and changing, which makes a difference, especially when I’m smartly dressed for the races. But it’s not always plain sailing and there can be a lot of mess,” she says. “India, who was never sick, always saved her best efforts for when I was smartly dressed and about to go on television. I recommend always wearing a light colour as it doesn’t show the milk stains so much.”

    With India no longer happy to sit in her sling for hours, the crèche at the Goodwood Festival was a godsend for Aly this year. Similarly, National Hunt trainer Charlie Longsdon’s wife Sophie, who has a nine-year-old daughter, Milly, and seven-year-old twin boys, has mastered the art of making the most of Newbury Racecourse’s crèche.

    “I’ve managed to time it so I dropped the kids off, went to see the owners, saddled a horse, watched the runner, had a drink and then picked them up on the way out. And they loved it,” she says.

    Now her children have outgrown the crèche, standing up close to a fence is a tactic to keep them interested, and meetings at Stratford have become a highlight, with face painting and a bouncy castle. But keeping track of teddies will forever be high on the agenda after an incident at Worcester.

    “The twins were babies, and Milly was two, and we thought we’d had a great day until we were packing up and realised we’d lost Bear Bear, Harry’s comforter,” Sophie remembers. “In the end we had to phone Ian Popham, who was the last jockey still there, who had to go and find it. It was very dramatic at the time and we’ll be forever grateful to Ian.”

    For grand prix dressage rider Steph Croxford, it has been far-flung shows on the Continent that have provided some of the greatest fun for her two children Annabelle, 12, and Ben, nine.

    “I think the European shows are often far more accepting and understanding of kids squealing and running around. They just sort of absorb the children into the show,” says Steph. “But we would always pick somewhere we knew we could go off and explore. Biarritz in France for example is fantastic because the showground is a stone’s throw from the beach.”

    By her own admission, asking a small child to sit through a dressage test is like forcing them to watch “paint dry”, which is why on home turf, the CDI at Hickstead ranks as one of the most popular.

    “At Hickstead, you walk along the field from the dressage and there’s another world, with the showjumping, all the stalls and fairs,” she says. “And Bolesworth is the same — they have other stuff going on.”

    For the Hickstead Derby meeting and the Royal International, performer Tomfoolery takes centre stage in the family zone, with hobby horse jump-offs, magic shows and a Derby course walk.

    “Hickstead is a bit different to some of the indoor shows. It’s not a set few hours so you can come at whatever time you like and it’s not as strict as, ‘This is your seat and you
    must sit here,’ which as a mother I can understand is quite stressful when you take children to shows,” says Hickstead’s press officer Victoria Goff.

    “You can sit right by the ring, in the stands, or go and have a picnic by the side of the arena. It’s very relaxed and there would be space to leave a buggy in front of your seat.”

    And so, while the days of luxuriously sitting through a whole showjumping class — or even one dressage test — might be on hold, parents needn’t resign themselves to being armchair spectators.

    “People have to remember just to embrace it,” says Steph Croxford.

    And if all else fails?

    “There’s Peppa Pig and an iPad,” adds Rosie Meade.

    6 of the best equestrian events for children

    Tattersalls Horse Trials & Country Fair, Co. Meath 27-31 May
    The peace-keeper: a kids’ area that includes farmyard pets, carnival rides, a bouncy castle and a merry-go-round, as well as a novelty dog show and mini pony rides. Plus, a convenient mound from which to watch the water complex.

    Staffordshire County Show, Staffs
    27-28 May
    The peace-keeper: the Big Pete Monster Truck Team’s “leaping” trucks are a star attraction in the main ring. There are hound parades, a steam railway, vintage machinery and medieval crafts, such as rope- and clog-making.

    Gloucestershire Festival of Polo, Glos
    6-7 June
    The peace-keeper: a tasteful array of free fairground rides. Plus, a laid-back atmosphere for noisy children, and pitch-side picnic spots close to the action.

    The Royal International Horse Show, Sussex
    21-26 July
    The peace-keeper: the family zone with a funfair and entertainment from performer Tomfoolery. For older children, there’s Wild West-themed crazy golf, a climbing wall and laser clay shooting.

    Goodwood Festival, Sussex
    28 July-1 August
    The peace-keeper: a crèche for newborns to three-year-olds in the Lennox Enclosure and a mother-and-baby room for nursing mothers in the March Stand. And, as at most racecourses, you can breathe a sigh of relief as you manoeuvre your pram on tarmac.

    Blenheim Palace Horse Trials, Oxfordshire
    17-20 September
    The peace-keeper: a kids’ entertainment area with an array of inflatables, conveniently close to the food court. Little spectators can get the best view
    of the cross-country from the bank on top of the main double water crossing of the River Glyme.

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