Saved from closing for good, these London stables are back in business with two international showjumpers at the helm.
It’s the most unlikely location for a hack. To my left the street is blocked as a group of protesters denounce Donald Trump’s visit to London. Sirens shrill above the thrum of the capital’s traffic. Behind me is the Ferris wheel of Winter Wonderland, and all the while buggies, joggers and cyclists zip by. This is Rotten Row, a broad, sandy track in the south of Hyde Park — an avenue originally established in the 17th century. Over 300 years on, aboard a trusty piebald cob, Ivan, I trot down this same 1,384 metres of sand, and marvel at the thought of all the horses through history who have trodden this path — and the utter bombproofness of Ivan.
Rotten Row remains a bridleway through central London, and is in daily use; by the Household Cavalry and the only two riding stables in zone one — Hyde Park Stables and Ross Nye — both situated in Bathurst Mews, the only working mews left in London.
In October 2018, Hyde Park Stables looked to be consigned to history when its owner of 30 years, Dick Briggs, sold the property and horses. However, showjumping mother and owner Mandy Hall intervened.
“I felt that if we didn’t try to make a go of it, no one would, and it would just become housing,” says Mandy, who ran a large riding school, Strangeways in Borehamwood, 12 miles north, until six years ago. “I wanted to have a riding school again, and I was interested by the idea of keeping horses in central London. I gave up the old one because I was concentrating on my girls’ careers and it got too big, but that’s one problem we can’t have here.”
They bought the property in April last year, managed to secure insurance — no easy task given the risks of teaching novice riders in central London — and the council’s licence in August, and opened the stables’ doors again for business in the autumn. Mandy flits between her farm in Borehamwood and Hyde Park, with the day-to-day practicalities of the yard run by manager Maja Neel Kay and assistant manager Krissie Freed, with a total team of around 12 grooms and instructors.
Mandy’s daughter Jodie Hall-McAteer, 19, who has just won the under-25 championship at Olympia, laughs: “I thought my parents were nuts when they decided to buy it. We used to drive through Hyde Park and see the horses, and Mum would say, ‘I’d hate to do that!’”
Eight months on, however, Jodie is in charge of the social media side of the operation, and as a top international junior is the ideal flagbearer for the riding school.
Mandy adds: “It’s a good challenge and we wanted to keep going with the tradition — I love being able to open up horses to more of the public. It’s an investment — it’s a house in a London mews, it will keep its value.
“It’s rewarding and I enjoy seeing riders of every level get pleasure. My girls and I grew up in a riding school environment. It keeps the sport going — it’s not all about the elite.”
The cost of a lesson seems steep, starting at £115 per hour, but it is the going rate in the city centre (see box, p36), where every activity costs more than out of town. Mandy has simply stuck to the Briggs’ pricing system.
Bright and happy horses
Many of the logistics and costs involved in keeping inner-city horses are alleviated by the fact that the family still run a 100-horse livery yard in Borehamwood. They have CCTV linking to their home to keep an eye on the horses, and they buy in bulk and load up the lorry to bring as much down to Hyde Park as they can store there in a garage below the stables. It sounds like an organisational nightmare, but the horses are bright and happy, the grooms smiley and relaxed, the atmosphere upbeat.
As you turn into Bathurst Mews, just five minutes’ walk from Paddington Station, there’s no indication that nine horses are hidden inside one of the pretty painted houses. There’s no “eau de manure”, no wisps of straw, no whinnying or banging doors. Then suddenly, where you’d expect to see another front door, there’s a horse’s head, with a rabbit-warren of stables behind, and a throng of jolly stable girls chattering as they muck out, just like any other yard — except in an extremely tiny space.
In fact, the new owners have enlarged the stables to give the horses more room — “there used to be three in what’s now the office,” laughs Mandy — but it’s an impressively efficient and tidy use of space. The horses are exercised at least twice a day, whether or not there are clients, and take regular holidays up at Borehamwood as, rather obviously, there’s no turnout on the streets of Paddington.
Queuing at traffic lights
We head out for our hack mid-morning. Krissie has lent me her horse, Ivan. She is riding another piebald, George, while Mandy’s daughter Ellie, 17, is on a brown cob, Charlie. Ellie may be used to international showjumpers, but she seems just as happy with a riding school pony.
“I’m a city girl,” she says. “I just love it here.”
We set off through the quiet backstreets before queuing at a traffic light on the edge of the park. A Jaguar gets a bit close to Ivan’s tail and Krissie politely mimes at them to back off.
“We have to be assertive to ensure drivers give the horses respect,” she says. “The horses have to be bombproof because the park isn’t just a park — it’s bikes, sirens and helicopters.
“For most of our clients, riding in the park is a one-off. It’s not so much about learning, but the experience of going for a ride in central London. So as instructors, we’ve learnt to be tour guides as well.”
Krissie recognises the value of advertising the stables every time she steps into the park. Their saddlecloths and jackets are emblazoned with “Hyde Park Stables”, which means they need to be impeccably turned out and behaved.
“Our employee style and safety has to be beyond reproach,” she says. “The first time clients go out, there’s no cantering. We head to the park on a lead-rein, whatever their ability, and check they can trot properly in balance. You’d be amazed how many people overrate their riding experience. And we’ll always do the first canter in an arena.”
We head towards an arena, hidden by hedging, and do some light schooling, before trotting down Rotten Row and up over the Serpentine bridge. Ivan is a lovely, level ride, soft in the hand and forward-going.
Although Krissie jokes that Mandy’s trying to source some non-coloureds simply for appearances’ sake, the ones they have are far from the riding school stereotype. Talking of equine class, as we amble towards a second arena, we spot that Jodie has brought her Olympia-bound Fantom down from Borehamwood for a change of scene. Ellie’s horse Crisanta is also there and she swaps horses, handing Charlie over to Krissie to lead him home.
I’m surprised that the girls have brought their top rides to such a buzzy environment the week before a big show, but both horses seem unfazed by the hubbub and enjoy a short pipe-opener along Rotten Row.
“I’d happily move my horses here,” says Ellie. “We’d love to be able to find a block where we can have proper indoor stabling, and I have plans for the garage area. Perhaps we could have a treadmill, maybe a horse walker, perhaps we could dig down and create more space! I’m a dreamer…”
Plenty of celebs
Back at the mews, Popcorn, a fluffy 11.2hh grey is being readied for three-year-old Isla to ride. Isla had fallen off her own pony the previous week and needs a confidence boost. She heads nervously out to the park flanked by instructors on each side, and comes home beaming. Winter may be the quiet season, but there’s a steady trickle of clients even on this frosty day.
“Most of our clients are one-off, although you can book a course, and we get plenty of celebs, such as Hugh Grant’s kids, and Beyoncé’s choreographer recently,” says Krissie, who used to work at the yard during Mr Briggs’ tenure. “In the summer we’ll have a two- to three-week waiting list. With the new owners, we’ll be able to keep some horses up at Borehamwood and bring them down just for the day so we can fulfil the demand for clients.”
For Krissie, 23, the experience of working alongside riders and trainers with the international expertise of Jodie, Ellie and Mandy makes this traditional stables a cutting-edge career move.
“I’ve worked at places with better facilities, but the sense of progression you have here and the team I work with make this a brilliant job,” she says. “If I want to teach a horse how to do flying changes, I can. We are a young team and it’s exciting to visualise the future.”
A year ago, Hyde Park Stables didn’t look to have a future. Now it seems to be flourishing, with hooves clattering down the mews just as they have done for hundreds of years.
As I leave, I pass the office door, adorned with photos of Jodie and Ellie’s international successes, the likes of Salt’N Peppa, Fantom and the wonder-pony Tixylix, who has embryo transfer foals due by Je T’Aime Flamenco and Big Star. The stables’ main market may be one-off clients for now, but this calibre of rider could be just the inspiration that’s needed for riders in the heart of London.
Open seven days a week (rides 9am-3pm).
Semi-private ride or arena lesson: £115 per hour (course of 10: £1,030).
Private ride or arena lesson: £145 per hour (course of 10: £1,300).
Children’s half-day camps: £260.
Visit: hydeparkstables.com; 020 7723 2813