Annabel Heseltine believes that being involved in horses is as vital a part of education as mastering the maths times tables and rounds up the best independent schools for equestrians.
Ponies stand on your toes, bolt, buck, kick and refuse jumps at the last minute, catapulting their young equestrians over their heads.
I had two ponies that did all of the above. Dusty, a 12.2 Exmoor Pony with a neck as thick as a tree trunk who thought that the only purpose of a green field was to get to the other end as quickly as possible. Out hunting, however, he grew springs on his hooves and was still going five hours later. I mucked him out, fed him and cleaned his tack every day even after six hours in the saddle.
The second, Mandarin, a 14.3 Connemara Cross had a nasty trick of stopping short half way across a field, putting his head between his legs, and his hind legs in the air in a nasty screw kick. Once he put his foot through a car window, but, again, on the hunting field he was a dream – apart from the screw kick. He loved breakaway bars and drinking coca cola out of cans, and I loved him.
I took both these ponies to school with me and I am utterly convinced that between them and the riding teachers who taught me, I learned more about life, guts, stamina and determination than anything I could have learned in a school room. It’s good to know that independent schools are continuing to allow four-legged friends through their gates, and are setting up new and outstanding equestrian centres, propelling their young riders even as far as the Olympics.
Best senior schools for equestrians
Abbotsholme pride themselves on their outdoorsy co-curricular activities, and no more so than their riding. The British Horse Society approved Equestrian Centre is at the heart of school life, and available to all. The full, working and DIY liveries help encourage pupils to take responsibility for the care of the horses alongside their BHS, Diploma or physical education GCSE qualifications. The all-weather manège enables year-round tuition, with inter-house and external competitions throughout.
Equestrian offerings at Bryanston are unique, ever-improving and very experienced. The school has 25 stables, which form part of the original house designed by Wyatt in the 18th century. There is now a newly refurbished outdoor arena, as well as indoor, cross-country and show jumping facilities. All levels are encouraged to ride, and all equestrians are encouraged to compete. This mentality has paid off with numerous competition successes; two riders have recently been selected for the U18 South West eventing squad, and another competed with the squad at an U18 national event.
Glenalmond has an arrangement with a small livery next door, which can accommodate ten ponies in full livery, with a number of additional spaces in the open paddocks during the summer. Pupils with horses are able to take riding as one of their sports options and tuition is available.
The are no facilities for keeping ponies at Heathfield School, but there are opportunities for equestrians aplenty. Fortnightly Pony Club meetings at nearby Coworth Park give pupils the opportunity to work towards tests and badges and learn about all aspects of horse and stable management. The school takes a group three times a week to various local polo venues for coaching and chukkas.
Mayfield’s riding department has seen beginners become international competitors thanks to a winning combination of experienced teachers, brilliant facilities and a competitive spirit. There is an all-weather arena, a full set of show jumps and an extensive cross-country course. Riders compete in inter-school competitions throughout the year, and each year the school hosts the National Schools’ One Day Event. The squad recently claimed a string of championship titles and was proud to see two riders compete at Badminton.
Millfield is a veritable playground for horsey types, and offers one of the best opportunities for a combined equestrian and academic education. The school is one of the few to boast an on-campus British Horse Society approved livery yard, and it is the only school in the country that has its own polo ground. There are 17 equestrian staff who work with the 53 horses, and there is something for equestrians of every level, from beginners who participate as part of their Millfield Activities Programme, to full-time riders who keep horses on site.
7. Milton Abbey
Riding is a serious business at Milton Abbey. Sixth-formers are able to take their BTEC Diploma in Equine Management and pupils can use some of their weekly sports and activities sessions to ride. BTEC pupils are expected to manage the day-to-day care of their horses and they are given priority for space in the assisted livery. The school 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 attended and the school hosts an annual hunt, giving riders the opportunity to practice following hounds.
Riding is high on the agenda at Sidcot School and it has a reputation to match. The Equestrian Centre is British Horse Society approved with 23 stables, a large floodlit outdoor school and a full set of BSJA jumps, not to mention the surrounding 160-acre estate, perfect for hacking. More experienced riders can take advantage of specialist training in dressage, show jumping and cross-country, and school teams are frequently successful at NSEA competitions.
Stonar has decades of equestrian experience and the facilities to show for it. The British Horse Society approved Equestrian Centre has first-class indoor and outdoor schools, stabling for 65 horses and a cross-country schooling field with a variety of fences. Beginners can book lessons at their leisure and there are impressive competition opportunities available for more experienced riders, including Stonar’s prestigious Inter-schools One Day Event Championships, which are hosted on site.
Riding at Stowe is a relatively new development, with the Equestrian Centre being just two years old, but it is already one of the best school facilities in the country. This is largely thanks to the excellent cross-country course, which was meticulously designed by Captain Mark Phillips. There is space for 20 horses just a short walk from the boarding houses and tuition is available for all levels, with or without their own horses.
Prep schools for equestrians
Beaudesert don’t keep ponies on the grounds, but this has been far from detrimental to their riders’ success. Pupils benefit from use of the nearby Beaufort Polo Club and weekly visits to the local stables. The equestrians participate in both local and national events, and the team has recently been crowned champion at the National Schools Equestrian Association. It’s no surprise that dressage Olympic gold medallist Laura Bechtolsheimer is among the school’s alumni.
2. The Elms
Animals (not just ponies) are a huge part of school life at The Elms, Worcestershire. The school’s farm has pigs, chickens and a herd of prize-winning Hereford cattle, as well as an abundance of ponies, which the children can ride at their leisure. There is room for children to bring their own too, or any pet for that matter, which are welcome to stay in their famed ‘Pet Palace’. The new ménage means children can learn throughout the year, and there are regular tetrathlon competitions with local pony clubs.
Hanford is famous for its galloping matrons who get the girls up Ham Hill while most pupils around the country are sleeping soundly. But be warned it’s harder to get your pony in the Grade 1 listed soft red brick stables than your daughter, it requires diligent campaigning and a perfectly behaved pony. Once a year the local hunt turns up for sausage rolls and non-alcoholic punch outside the dreamy Elizabethan manor house.
Every morning at Knighton House the 7.30am bell signals the start of an urgent hair-tying, welly-donning race to bring in one of the 14 ‘boarding’ ponies from the field. The varied lessons, which are available to everyone, include everything from use of the riding arena to exploring the Dorset countryside. Headmistress Sarah Wicks assures us that riding remains ‘as popular as ever’.
Ponies are welcome at Sandroyd, either as day pupils brought in by enthusiastic mums or boarding after a careful vetting. Children of all ages can learn to ride and over a third of pupils do so, with those as young as six getting involved. Riders are encouraged to learn about everything from grooming to mucking out, and the more advanced have excellent competition opportunities, with the school repeatedly qualifying for national finals.