Stand out schools for.... horsey children
Which schools stand out for combining an excellent education with equestrian pursuits? Kate Hilpern provides the ultimate guide for parents of horse-mad children.
If your child has spent every waking hour of the summer holidays in jodhpurs, pinning new rosettes to their bedroom wall, they probably don’t find the prospect of heading off to school for a horse-free academic year very inspiring. Fear not as a surprising number of prep and senior schools have the facilities to ensure that pupils get their academic and equestrian fill. Here’s The Good Schools Guide horse’s mouth on some of the best.
‘Delightfully rural, the school is off the beaten track – situated up a long, winding drive, surrounded by playing fields, woods and parkland,’ says our reviewer of this independent school for boys and girls aged from 2 to 13. ‘Pupils make the most of the grounds, whether they’re playing sport, climbing trees (yes, they’re allowed to here) or riding (the school has its own riding department, complete with an outdoor ménage, show-jumping paddock and cross-country course, and children are allowed to bring their own ponies).’
It is, in short, a horse-lover’s dream and not surprising that over a third of pupils ride, with a handful bringing their own ponies, even pupils as young as six. Better still is the fact that all riders, regardless of whether they have their own horse at the school, are encouraged to learn about everything from grooming to mucking out, and there’s no shortage of competitions, with the school’s name a common feature of the national finals.
‘We have quite a few ponies to suit all abilities, from beginners to competition riders,’ says Frances Cattell, Head of Riding, who adds that riding, training and mucking out fits seamlessly into the pupils’ day here, with lessons available as part of the curriculum, as well as opportunities most mornings and evenings, with competitions or hacking on offer every weekend. ‘Children are always welcome to visit the stables during break times, to help with the ponies,’ says Cattell.
Sandroyd – which has 500 acres, including the American barn with four stables and eight stalls – hosts the national prep school’s tetrathlon.
The oldest prep school in England, founded by Humphry Walwyn in 1614, is something to behold when it comes to equestrian life – with 150 acres of stunning countryside and stables for 20 ponies (boarders can also bring their own), plus a new outdoor floodlit riding arena with wax fibre surface and cross-country course.
Expect hacking around the Malvern hills, riding in games and brushing ponies at break times, as well as riding on Sundays and summer evenings and an overall dreamy horse-focused school life. There are daily private, shared or group lessons and advice and support is on hand to parents if needed. Pupils have plenty of opportunities to compete for the school – there’s a school lorry to take the ponies and children to events, and the school itself is a venue for many competitions and horse camps, as well as running its own tetrathlon competitions.
Trail hunting is the most popular of all equestrian activities at The Elms. Pupils have their own puppy show, where they learn how to judge hounds, get their hunting colours ties and prizes where relevant. Many former alumni are now in point-to-pointing.
‘It’s possible to combine a burgeoning equestrian career with school life,’ reports our GSG reviewer about this senior (13-18) co-ed day and boarding school. ‘Pupils can bring their own steeds – many of the keenest riders take a BTEC in equine management and keep their horses at the school stables (each individual stable is labelled with the inhabitant’s name – Sparky, Dolly and the like). They manage the day-to-day care of their horses and can choose to ride instead of playing other sports.’
The yard, situated alongside the mansion’s original walled garden, is picturesque and its quiet and secluded location allows pupils to get away from the hurly burly of day-to-day-school life. The school also has its own cross-country schooling area, an all-weather canter track and lessons are given in the attached arena.
National and inter-school competitions are a big part of the school calendar and the school hosts an annual hunt, so riders get to practice following hounds if they so desire. Polo lessons are offered offsite and the school polo team has enjoyed significant success against other schools in competitions, with one current student a member of the England polo team. Another current student is well on her way to becoming a professional jockey, fully supported by the school.
Offering full and part livery, stables and grazing, supervised off-road hacking, lessons with BHS qualified instructors, a horse walker and fibre sand canter track, there are also plans afoot for a new onsite equine arena.
‘For horse-lovers this is a dream come true,’ states our review of this co-ed independent school for pupils aged 2 to 18. ‘The new equestrian centre (British Horse Society approved) opened in March 2017 and is most impressive. There are stables for 65 horses, BSJA jumps, a floodlit, outdoor all weather manège, a cross-country schooling field with a wide variety of different fences, a large indoor school with viewing gallery and a lecture room. The Olympic-sized outdoor arena with seats is used for jumping and dressage as well as Christmas and Easter shows. Squads regularly compete on and off site including National Schools Equestrian Association competitions and Stonar's own inter-schools one day event championships.
Parents told us, ‘The equestrian staff are highly knowledgeable.’ Pupils with horses are up at 7am to muck out, reports our reviewer. ‘Horses can be loaned or pupils can earn a riding lesson by working as a stable help. Around 50 per cent of pupils ride, but at various levels; some may own a horse, take qualifications and compete, others may just have a weekly riding lesson. And it’s not just about the riding; stable management skills are taught too. However, the main priority at Stonar is academic studies and pupils told us that however passionate they are about horses, they are never allowed to let school work suffer.’
Director of riding, Darrell Scaife, says, ‘Equestrian life here isn’t just about the riding, but the life skills people learn through riding – we really value that. Another reason I’d say we stand out is that we offer a very individual experience, so if you asked pupils what they love about equestrian life here, each one would probably say something different.’
If you thought it was hard for students to get a place at this school, you should see what the ponies have to go through. Currently home to 13 ponies (there’s room for 15), owned by existing or ex pupils, the Grade 1 listed red brick stables is highly sought after.
That said, lessons are available to all and take place in the school’s arena, their show jumping field, their cross country course and also span right across the Dorset countryside. Girls can take polo lessons at Dorset Polo Club and in-school competitions include dressage, combined training, eventing and gymkhanas. There’s a riding committee made up of year eight girls, and this age group also create their own riding programme. ‘The majority of girls ride here, with lessons starting in year two – it’s a huge part of school life, says Anne Bolton, head of riding. ‘We try to support them with their individual goals whether as a happy hacker or the next Olympic eventer.’
For boarders, the 7.30am ‘pony bell’ is one of the highlights of the day – it’s straight out to the stables to help groom and, if it’s your lucky day, an opportunity for an early morning ride.
‘Riding is huge,’ concludes our reviewer of this independent school for 7-13 year-olds, pointing out that ‘Knighton is one of Horse & Hound's “Six dream schools for horsey children” and ponies have been at the centre of school life forever.’
Arriving here will leave you in no doubt as to the importance of equestrian life at this independent school for 5-18 year-old girls, with horses grazing peacefully on either side of the drive. ‘We’re the only school in Scotland with its own equestrian centre – and we run the Scottish championships for dressage, show jumping and cross-country,’ claims the school, with more than a hint of (deserved) pride.
There are 22 horses on site, with 10 liveries and 12 in the riding school. ‘And we have 19 of the school’s 54 acres, as well as a 60x40m all-weather flood-lit arena and hacking track round the ground, training with BHSII and UKCCL2 coaches,’ explains equestrian manager, Rachael MacLean.
Over 100 of the 260 girls have something to do with the Equestrian Centre and previous pupils include four star international event rider Louisa Milne Home and champion conditional jockey Lucy Alexander. ‘We offer training for BHS exams for girls who are looking to build a career in the equestrian world,’ says MacLean. ‘And we offer riding for our summer language school which often attracts girls from overseas to return to Kilgraston for several years or terms.’
Kilgraston has a small community feel about it, and the horses play a massive part. ‘The girls love coming over to the yard, even if they don’t ride, to say hello to the horses,’ explains MacLean.
‘Particularly strong sport, especially riding,’ concluded our reviewer about this mainstream independent school for girls aged from 2 to 16 (and boys aged 2 – 7). ‘The equestrian centre, at the end of the delightful Rhododendron Walk running beside a ha-ha, stream and wild flowers, is a relaxing world apart: horses (boarders and day girls can bring their own) peer over stall gates and the manager's dogs run around; improvements are cannily funded through sponsorship.’
Besides the 15 stables and two open barns, with full livery, DIY or working livery options, is a floodlit outdoor arena and 30 acres to hack in. In total, 35 horses are kept in the BHS approved and commended school, where around 90 girls from the school ride. ‘What I like about the yard is that the horses are relaxed and happy and the girls encourage each other and are not afraid to get their hands dirty,’ says Emma Swinburn, riding and yard manager.
Indeed, while the school has its fair share of success (they take part in regular dressage, show jumping, Show X competitions, an annual show and they came third at the NSEA championships 2017), success isn’t seen to be just about competing. ‘I ensure that from the very start the girls are aware that a pony needs to be cared for, they learn about tacking up and grooming and how to care for a pony. They learn about good horsemanship and sportsmanship, and I hope they take that away and carry it for the rest of their lives,’ says Swinburn.
‘The Canning family, who founded Hanford, strongly believed that being around animals, especially ponies, was an important part of childhood. It teaches children to be thoughtful, kind and gentle as well as encouraging them to think about others,’ says headmaster, Rory Johnston.
Their legacy continues, it seems. The grade-II listed Jacobean stables with characterful pony boxes are still one of the most popular places to hang out in break and recreation time – and not just for the horse-mad ones. ‘It is also an important area of common ground as the shared interest in ponies, chickens and dogs can help bring together even the most unlikely of friendships,’ says Johnston. There are currently 16 resident ponies and these are joined during term time by some belonging to girls.
Facilities in this nine-acre girls’ prep school include indoor riding school, manège and junior cross-country course, with lots of different jumps for different abilities. Riding lessons (which cost extra, but are taken up by over 90 per cent of pupils) are timetabled during the week after lunch in games and the girls enter as a team to local jumping events and tetrathlons. The best bit of all about equestrian life here, according to the girls, is early morning catching in the summer months when eager girls wake up at the crack of dawn to bring the ponies in from the fields. ‘Sun dappled buttercups, early morning mists and the sight of little girls leaning compliant nodding ponies down the drive to the stables for breakfast – it’s all quite magical,’ a staff member told us.
Not too long ago, Sidcot leaned more towards providing qualifications (BTec, BHS) and opportunities for students to ride for pleasure, than to identify and kick on promising competitive riders. But things have dramatically changed at this co-ed independent school for ages 3 to 18. It is now geared up for pupils to bring their horses to school and develops riders to aspire to (often national level) competitions. Those who simply love to ride, rather than compete, can still do just that.
‘All benefit from an indoor and outdoor school (floodlit) and 160 acres of glorious country to hack in, and there are horses from all over the world,’ says Lorraine Curtin-Blair, director of equestrian development. ‘Friendly, confident staff are on duty round the clock and because the equestrian centre is slap bang in the middle of the school – rather than some far off corner – it’s a doddle for students to go anytime. And go anytime they do, with all-year-round turnout.’
There’s a long list of recent successes: Team Sidcot finished third in the national schools show jumping championships at Bury Farm in April 2018; they qualified for the national dressage championships 2018; they came sixth in the jumping with style championships at Addington Manor 2018, to name a few.
‘Dispel any ideas that this education package is about learning horsemanship,’ says our reviewer about this independent specialist college for young people aged from 16 to 25 with learning difficulties, autism, mild physical disabilities and mental health needs. ‘Instead the horses are a means to educate and develop students who are difficult to reach through traditional classroom methods. The aim is that students leave with increased levels of independence through learning life skills in a way which is meaningful to them.’
‘Learning life skills is critical, more so than riding,’ explains the college. ‘We do not pretend we are churning out expert riders, although some will go on to win at competitions.’ Indeed, one former pupil took gold at a national games, and others have won Riding for the Disabled championships.
Students follow a three-year residential Further Education Through Horsemastership (FETH) course, which comprises literacy, numeracy, communication, independent travel, money management and social skills - all taught via horses, and there are some dramatic results.
The skills learned are highly transferable and range from the practical (‘They learn to differentiate wet and dry straw, that wet is dark and dry is light, and from this they learn how to sort laundry’) to the more academic (‘Some have no comprehension of a circle if you give them a pencil to draw it, but they can ride in a circle. We also teach them to estimate distances’). Even the skills of getting along with others are taught through the horses. ‘A true one of a kind, providing idyllic provision for those suited to it – and a fascinating model,’ concludes our reviewer.
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Photo credits: All images courtesy of the relevant schools.