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The best schools in the UK for riding
By Talk Education
23 February 2022
Any parent with a pony-mad son or daughter will be all too aware of the commitment that comes with owning a horse: the time, the money, the kit, the constant ferrying of children (and horses) to and from riding lessons at dawn…
But choose an independent school that offers riding and much of the hard work will be done for you. As PE lessons no longer simply mean wielding a hockey stick or hurtling around a rugby pitch, more and more schools are adding equestrianism to their co-curricular roster. From Olympic-sized arenas, show-jumps and cross-country courses to full livery options and herds of friendly horses living on site, there’s enough to keep any equine enthusiast busy day in, day out. Best of all, riding teaches pupils both self-discipline and responsibility – there’s no excuse for shirking early-morning mucking-out duties.
In the first of a new series honing in on schools that excel in less conventional sports, here’s our pick of the best in the UK for budding equestrians.
At the end of what must be the longest driveway in Britain, Sandroyd sits on the ridiculously idyllic Rushmore Estate straddling the Dorset/Wiltshire border. The school is ringed by bluebell woods and immaculate parkland, and sheep and horses graze languidly beside the pitches. A registered Pony Club centre and licensed riding school, this is utopia for equestrians. Children can bring their own pony (there’s a full working livery here) or borrow one of the school’s, enjoying hacks in beautiful Rushmore Park, showjumping in the newly spruced riding arena or gallivanting around the cross-country course.
Almost half of the school’s 210 pupils from Reception to Year 8 sign up to riding lessons, and everyone is welcome to lend a hand in the stables or pop in to see the ponies at breaktime. Pupils regularly compete in events run by the National Schools Equestrian Association (NSEA), and last year the school won its very first championship – of which it is rightly very proud.
Ponies aren’t the only animals you’ll find at The Elms – the school is famous for its farm, where pupils beetle around tending to their show pigs, Dexter cows, miniature Herefords and runner ducks. Riding is a big part of life here, and everyone from complete beginners to riders competing at NSEA level can get involved. Best of all, busy working families can take advantage of the school’s full livery service.
‘In between lessons, the yard is bubbling with school children in wellies, sharing in their passion and learning about all things equine,’ says the school. ‘The children benefit from the equestrian department physically, emotionally and socially.’
On top of lessons in the refurbished outdoor arena, pupils can head out on hacks in the spectacular Malvern countryside or clear jumps in local equestrian events. And they’re pretty good at it: some recently qualified for the Royal Windsor Horse Show in May – we look forward to hearing how they get on.
All-through and senior schools
Mayfield girls are a sporty bunch and riding here is exceptional, with pupils competing at both elite GB level and just for fun. The school has an enormous equestrian centre with endless stables, Olympic-sized indoor and outdoor arenas and a cross-country course. Some bring their own pony to school with them; others can take advantage of a loan scheme that allows girls to share a horse for the duration of their time here.
‘Mayfield girls have an ethos of work hard and play hard, and if you can create a passion, whether it's riding, ceramics, art or music, it helps to motivate and inspire your academic life too,’ says Jill Barker, the school’s director of riding. ‘Our results in producing successful riders who have gone on to pursue successful careers speak for themselves. It’s no coincidence that our two highest academic achievers last year rode and competed all the way through their time at the school. One went on to study engineering at Cambridge and the other is going to Bath to study psychology.’ Mayfield pupils currently hold several championship titles, including National Team Dressage, Intercounty Dressage Team and National Showjumping Open Team.
St Mary’s Calne
Right in the middle of the historic Wiltshire market town of Calne, St Mary’s compact campus may not have acres of pitches, yet equestrianism is still extremely popular. There’s a riding club for girls to join (training takes place at local venues within easy reach of the school), and pupils often compete at big-guns events. Most pupils train on their own ponies, but those who don’t have their own can join weekly riding lessons at Rein and Shine, a local riding school.
‘The riding provision at St Mary’s Calne is a non-selective club which prides itself on a great team spirit,’ says Kerry Emms, the school’s equestrian coordinator. ‘We believe that our riding opportunities not only enable pupils to become better riders, but develop valuable life skills too.’ Earlier this year, girls won three NSEA Jumping with Style qualifications and represented the school at several NSEA and SEG Championships. The school runs its own annual horse show at nearby West Wilts Equestrian Centre – last year, 22 schools entered.
Sporting glories come thick and fast at Cranleigh, but it’s not all about rugby, netball and hockey here. There’s also a nine-hole golf course and putting green, plus a slick equestrian centre, home to 25 stables, 60 acres of grazing and riding land, a floodlit all-weather arena and a full course of show and arena eventing jumps. The riding team has an impressive slew of accolades to its name too. ‘The Cranleigh equestrian team has a reputation for being one of the strongest in the country, with national titles at all levels and in all disciplines over the last 17 years,’ says Christine Allison, the school’s head of riding. ‘One of our prep-school riders is currently on the GB Youth Dressage squad, whilst sisters Kristy and Annie compete for the Czech youth team in showjumping.’
Pupils’ horses can live in or out (some have them brought in specifically for lessons), and there are a handful on site available to borrow. ‘Being able to bring a pony to school means that boarding pupils are able to keep their horses fit during the busy school week, without having to give up team sports or other interests,’ Mrs Allison continues. ‘It’s a chance to get away from the stresses of academic lessons and spend time at the stables in the middle of a busy day,’ adds pupil Lucy.
With its stunning collegiate campus on the top of a hill overlooking the South Downs, Lancing has everything pupils could possibly want on site, with playing fields stretching in all directions and valleys and grassland rolling down towards the south coast. Riding is one of the main sports here, and the blockbuster equestrian centre opened its doors in 2017. There’s also an all-weather arena, plus access to superb riding on college land within the South Downs National Park. Facilities are open to the wider community too, and there’s stabling for up to 20 horses.
Pupils can ride as often as they like, with the activity forming an integral part of the school’s extensive co-curricular programme (which also includes dance, fencing, first aid and squash). And to encourage everyone to take part, all new Year 9 pupils are offered a free taster session – with many later going on to join the hugely successful school team.
Thanks to its phenomenal equestrian centre, this all-through co-ed day and boarding school in rural Wiltshire has a longstanding reputation as one of the top schools for riding in the UK. The riding provision here has been a core feature for decades, and with stabling for 62 horses, all-weather outdoor and indoor riding schools, a hacking track and a cross-country schooling field, the facilities are some of the best we’ve seen. Pupils can bring their own horse or look after one of the 30 ‘loan’ horses; there are inter-school competitions, opportunities to compete nationally, group lessons and the chance to learn stable-management skills. A bumper 50 per cent of senior-school pupils ride in some capacity.‘
Whether pupils want to ride for fun or are already riding competitively, our equestrian education will continue their riding development, challenge them and support those studying for equestrian qualifications,’ says the school.
‘The benefits of riding at school are apparent to the whole community, no matter how involved they are in our equestrian centre. The convenience of the on-site provision means that riders – who are also involved in a full academic and co-curricular programme – have immediate access to their riding lessons and can care for their horse at appropriate times in the school day. Being involved at the yard encourages pupils to become responsible, resilient, organised and hardworking in all aspects of their life, which has a positive influence on the wider school community.’ And, of course, you don’t have to be a future Charlotte Dujardin to thrive at Stonar. ‘For those who don’t ride often or at all, the horses and ponies can provide a unique space to relax at breaktimes.’ You can’t argue with that.
Set just outside the sleepy Dorset village of Blandford Forum, deep in gorgeous West Country countryside, Bryanston’s estate spreads out across 400 acres, with the River Stour running parallel to it (cue some spectacular hacking terrain). One of the core sports here, riding is a permanent fixture on the timetable, with more than 10 per cent of senior pupils taking part, plus 70 per cent of those at the prep,
Bryanston Knighton House
. The equestrian centre – which offers one indoor and three outdoor arenas (used extensively by the polo team, who are enjoying their first foray into competitive matches), grass dressage and jumping space plus three full sets of show-jumps – is used extensively by all ages.
‘Both schools put pupil experience firmly at the centre of their riding philosophy, with priority given not only to the quality of coaching and rider development but also to the personal growth and wellbeing that a relationship with a horse enables,’ says the school. Most pupils bring their own horse to school, but there are also a limited number available to borrow.
‘Our centre represents a sanctuary in a busy school environment, where pupils are able to spend time with their horses – and often in mixed year groups, developing friendships outside of the usual houses or school year. These friendships are based on a shared love and passion,’ says Sophie Starr, Bryanston’s director of riding and equestrian centre manager. The sport helps pupils to give back too – Bryanston is a proud centre for two RDA (Riding for the Disabled Association) groups, where pupils can volunteer to run riding classes.