Campaigners working to highlight riding schools’ desperate reality *H&H Plus*

  • H&H speaks to riding schools about the reality of a midwinter lockdown, as well as those campaigning and supporting them during this time of crisis

    CAMPAIGNERS are working hard to highlight the desperate struggle faced by riding schools across the country during lockdown, and push for more support and reopening as soon as possible.

    Centres that have not been able to operate fully for the best part of the year are having to fundraise to keep their heads above water. Unlike last spring when many horses could be turned out, this lockdown has come during the worst of the winter.

    This means higher costs for bedding and forage, which is more expensive in some areas owing to last year’s lower yield, while businesses cannot take advantage of the furlough scheme as they need staff to care for the horses.

    Emily Randall, owner of Monarch Farm Riding Stables in Cambridgeshire, told H&H she is surviving thanks to family support and her “amazing” staff, who have agreed to take pay cuts.

    She thanked her clients for sponsoring ponies, and those who have contributed on JustGiving.

    “I set up my page, and thought I’d see who else had done the same,” she said. “I found 40 other stables in a very easy search, all appealing for help to get them through the next month. I know authorities are pushing for us to be able to open as soon as possible, and of course we want, to but we’re in a global health crisis and we have to be closed.

    “I think we all get that but it’s very hard.”

    As Emily has always taken a very low wage, investing money into the business, she was only eligible for £1,300 from the self-employed support scheme.

    “That’s all the help I get, and I’m sure I’m not the only one,” she said. “People appealing for help aren’t doing it because they want to, it’s because this is a crisis.

    “If every H&H reader could go on JustGiving and find their nearest riding school and give a few pounds, it would help us so much, and we might all be here afterwards.”

    Ben Mitchell-Winter, manager of Littlebourne Equestrian Centre in Middlesex which has 130 horses on site, agreed that each lockdown has been tougher.

    He told H&H the riding school would normally welcome up to 400 people a week; livery clients and the general public, as well as running British Horse Society (BHS) training and exams, shows and school groups.

    “We’ve lost an extortionate amount of money from the pandemic,” he said. “Everyone’s in the same boat, and it feels like banging your head against a brick wall. I think a good few that have closed will never reopen because they don’t qualify for the help they need.

    “We have had a great response from our clients through our JustGiving appeal, which of course helps, but nothing like the income we would have from lessons.”

    BHS chief executive James Hick told H&H the total made available for the BHS’s hardship fund, to which society-approved riding schools can apply, has totalled £1m in the past year.

    “That’s phenomenal; a big thank you to our regional committees, members and the wider community, who have made our Covid appeal our most successful fundraising appeal ever,” he said.”

    Mr Hick said the BHS is an active part of the British Horse Council, which has been working with government departments to try to secure as early a reopening as possible for riding schools. The BHS also met the all-party parliamentary group for the horse last week; group chairman Saqib Bhatti said he will also take the plea to the Defra and sports ministers, for schools to be allowed to give Covid-safe group lessons, not just one-to-ones, at the earliest opportunity.

    “We’ve been encouraging riding schools to lobby their MPs too,” he said. “It’s been great to see them really galvanised to raise their profile and highlight their plight, and it’s great to see how people have come together.”

    Mr Hick said he is “very hopeful” riding schools will be able to reopen when normal schools do, the aim for which is March.

    “That’s what we’ve been pressing for,” he said. “All the ministers and officials are very sympathetic and we’re confident they’ve heard our message.”

    He added that the aim of the hardship fund is short-term support to ensure survival, and that the BHS is working on plans to support recovery, and build the industry back up.

    H&H has contacted health secretary and rider Matt Hancock, Pony Club dad and chancellor Rishi Sunak and the Treasury to highlight the issue.

    We also asked Buckingham MP Greg Smith if he could fight the sector’s corner in government.

    “I’m very happy to,” Mr Smith told H&H. “I’ve got a lot of equestrian businesses in my constituency; if any of the riding schools want to get in touch with me, I’m happy to make their specific cases, and happy to raise it more generally with the Treasury, because I don’t want to see anyone going under.

    “I’m very happy to represent 335 square miles of rural communities but we’ve got to preserve rural identity and life, in which equestrian businesses play an enormous part.

    “I can’t promise to deliver as I’m only a humble back-bencher, but I will make the case as strongly as possible.”

    A government spokesperson said: “We’ve invested £280bn throughout the pandemic to protect millions of jobs and businesses, and extended our self-employed and furlough schemes to April to give businesses the certainty they need to plan over the winter months.

    “We understand the challenges facing riding schools during these unprecedented times, but we have come to a critical juncture and must work together to get the rate of infection down.

    “Staff who work at riding schools and people who keep their horses there can continue to visit in order to care for and exercise their horses. However, like other outdoor recreational spaces, riding schools must close to the general public as we all stay at home to protect the NHS and save lives.”

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