School Life: The best schools for pony mad children

If your son or daughter is completely pony mad, consider sending them to a school with equestrian facilities says Catherine Austen.

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The ponies are taking over at Sandroyd prep school in Wiltshire. ‘We’ve got 60 acres of beautiful parkland—and the ponies have 59 1⁄2 of them,’ jokes the headmaster, Martin Harris.

‘We’re very much an outdoor school. We love to get out, build dens, kick a football around—and ride ponies.’
About a third of Sandroyd’s 180 pupils ride, either on school ponies or their own. They have access to superb hacking, a cross-country course and a manège; Sandroyd hosts the National Prep Schools’ Tetrathlon (riding, running, shooting and swimming) in May and, last year, pupils visited top event rider William Fox-Pitt’s Dorset yard.
‘And it’s not a girls-only preserve— as many boys ride as girls,’ adds Mr Harris.

‘There’s been riding at Sandroyd for 25 years, but, in the 10 years I’ve been here, we’ve built up standards in every area.’
Aside from a few enlightened exceptions, riding used to be considered an activity for the holidays rather than a selling point for schools, and children with crucial competing commitments would have to feign a sudden fever—a pity, as it might have made boarding school a more palatable prospect for some children.

When, some 25 years ago, Arabella d’Avanzo’s Hong Kong-based parents were advised that she needed to attend an English prep school before trying for public school, she was offered the choice of a co-ed establishment or one with ponies. The ponies won hands down; nine-year-old Arabella arrived at Knighton House in Dorset, where the uniform is red dungarees.

‘I’d never lived in England before and it was January and freezing, but I don’t remember minding because, deep in my trunk, was a brand new pair of jodhpurs,’ she recalls. ‘The opportunity to look after a four-legged friend—in my case, a palomino called Jasmine—was an amazingly comforting experience. Unfortunately, my equestrian career failed to take off, but I still have my leavers’ pair of dungarees, signed, as was traditional, by everyone in the school and with “I [heart] Jasmine” emblazoned on the bib.’

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The North Herefordshire Hunt meets twice a year at St Richard’s prep school in Herefordshire, where riding is a major part of school life under the wise management of Sally Pearson and pupils at the nearby The Elms prep school, which also has a farm, enjoy days with the Ledbury, even if they’re on the leading-rein, plus regular visits to packs such as the Heythrop, Beaufort, VWH and Croome and West Warwickshire.

Event rider Emily Baldwin, who recently held an art auction to support her bid to compete at the 2016 Olympic Games, was a pupil at St Leonards-Mayfield (for girls) in East Sussex, which is hugely successful on the schools equestrian-competition circuit.

Her mother, Jill Barker, is director of riding. ‘I think it helps that I’ve been involved at the top end of equestrian sport through Emily and that filters down at Mayfield,’ says Mrs Barker. ‘We can provide a very professional service. We have instructors who are very good at teaching at “grass roots” level as well as at an advanced.’

Mrs Barker is also chairman and founder of the National Schools Equestrian Association and has watched the number of schools competitions boom in the past decade. This started in the 1960s with inter-schools showjumping at Hickstead in Sussex, known as the home of showjumping; now there are 80–100 inter-school equestrian events a year. At the national final, at Addington in Oxfordshire in October, there were 800 riders representing a couple of hundred schools.

‘It’s much more the norm now that schools have a riding team as well as a hockey or football team,’ comments Mrs Barker. ‘Head teachers are not so intimidated by the idea of riding now; they realise it isn’t as high-risk as the media makes out and that it’s a good way of getting pupils motivated and enabling more children to represent their school. It’s good for marketing. And parents love it because they can be much more involved in riding teams than in most other school sports. They’re really needed to assist and it provides one of the few things they can do with their teenage daughters, for instance.’

The most high-profile addition to the list of horsey schools is Stowe in Buckinghamshire, which, in 2012, opened a brand-new equestrian centre complete with cross-country course designed by Capt Mark Phillips. Krista Price, who runs it, explains: ‘Stowe is really keen to develop pupils’ skills, whether in the academic, sporting or artistic fields, and we believe sporting activities help performance in the classroom. Riding is for everybody, not just the elite competitors, and we’re encouraging lots of Stoics to ride, whether they’re beginners or more experienced.’

The centre offers stabling for 20 horses— pupils can bring their own, or have lessons on one of the four horses the school owns. These are an interesting mixture: a Lusitano that previously competed to a high level in dressage, a former hunt horse, one from the Blue Cross charity and ‘an old cob that can be ridden by anyone’.

Stowe also has its own polo field, as does Millfield, and Wellington College in Berkshire, which is in the heart of polo country, near several leading clubs, such as Guards, is in the process of constructing one—last year, it hosted the Copenhagen Cup, won by Eton. Some 28 public schools have polo teams, including Marlborough, Rugby and Cheltenham Ladies (Schools and Universities Polo Association).

At Hanford, a girls’ prep school in Dorset with a Grade l-listed stable yard, ponies are as much a part of daily life as lessons and the emphasis is on fun, rather than trotting in circles. The school website states: ‘The emphasis of all the riding instruction is to teach the children to do as much as possible themselves.’

Old girls, including the novelist Santa Sebag Montefiore, talk dreamily of catching their ponies for dawn rides. ‘They were the highlight of the summer term,’ recalls Fiona Mckenzie Johnston. ‘Most of the matrons were employed to look after the ponies as well and often brought their own horses with them. They were known as the “galloping matrons”.’ The perfect way to banish homesickness and instil resourcefulness, it seems.

Need to know: Riding on the curriculum
Bryanston Blandford, Dorset (01258 484565;
Stabling for 25 horses, designed by Wyatt, for both liveries and school horses. Riding is a designated sport. Princess Haya of Jordan, Olympic showjumper and FEI president, is a former pupil.

Cranleigh School Cranleigh, Surrey (01483 276426;
Stabling for 40 horses, a combination of liveries and school ponies, plus floodlit, all-weather arena and cross-country course in 60 acres of grounds. Cranleigh was National Schools Showjumping Champion in 2010 and 2012 and Dressage Champion in 2011.

Hanford Child Okeford, Dorset (01258 860219;
Indoor and outdoor arenas and hacking. A pupils’ Riding Committee brings in the ponies and helps beginners.

Knighton House Blandford, Dorset (01258 452062; www.knightonhouse.
14 ponies, outdoor arena. The ‘pony bell’ rings at 7.30am.

Millfield Street Somerset (01458 444205;
Stabling for 53 horses, indoor and outdoor arenas, cross-country schooling, polo pitch. Old boy Ed Kenney-Herbert recalls being ‘signed off school on Saturdays to go “point-to-point qualifying” —a pretty good euphemism for hunting’. Former pupils include Derby-winning trainer Ian Balding and up-and-coming eventer Flora Harris.

Queen Ethelburga’s York (01432 333330;
The equestrian centre is having a major makeover.

Sandroyd Tollard Royal, Wiltshire (01725 516264;
About 12 ponies, including liveries. Gymkhanas, mounted games, picnic rides and quizzes with local pony clubs.

Sidcot School Winscombe, Somerset (01934 844748;
BHS-approved riding school and livery yard plus Pony Club Centre, 20 horses, floodlit arena, hacking in 160-acre estate.

Stonar School Bath, Wiltshire (01225 701741;
Stabling for nearly 60 horses plus cross- country course, clinics and an official Pony Club centre. Pupils over 14 can train for the British Horse Society Assistant Instructor qualification.

Stowe School Buckingham (07770 380844;
Spanking new equestrian facility with space for 20 horses.

St Richards Bromyard, Herefordshire (01885 482491;
Safe ponies are always welcome to ‘board’.

The Elms Malvern, Worcestershire (01684 540344;
Ponies and pigs for idyllic school life.

** Find out more about our exclusive, free, independent, informative events to support parents with researching their future school choices in the UK

** This article was originally published in Country Life’s supplement, Autumn 2014.