'Absolutely horrendous': Lockdown forces closures of Herts riding schools

Courtlands Riding Stables

COVID-19 lockdown has prevented ponies at Courtlands Riding Stables, Stevenage, from participating in lessons. Owners said they worried the prolonged inactivity would damage the animals' health. - Credit: Courtlands Riding Stables

Riding schools across Hertfordshire have been forced to make redundancies and sell off their horses, as coronavirus restrictions strangle their income.

One has already closed down completely and others could follow, industry experts warned.

George Baber, trustee of the Association of British Riding Schools (ABRS), said a combination of large expenses and severely reduced earnings was proving “absolutely crippling”.

A survey last year found one in ten English riding schools had closed down after a ban on riding lessons left them with no income.

Mr Baber estimated the figure was now closer to 20 per cent and was expected to rise further unless the government intervened.

“We know of one school which is going to have to have all of their horses shot because they can’t get rid of them,” he said.

George Baber ABRS

George Baber, trustee of the Association of British Riding Schools, said a survey had found one in ten schools had closed down after coronavirus rules 'crippled' their businesses. - Credit: George Baber

In Royston, the Lovely View riding school has already closed its doors.

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“Covid finished me off,” said owner Elaine Fisher.

Lovely View had already been battling rising insurance costs and licensing fees. When lockdown rules banned the school from booking any riding lessons, the business became unsustainable.

Elaine rescued her livelihood by switching to livery, selling the riding school ponies to former students, who now pay her to care for them.

“If I was a riding school now, I wouldn’t be in business,” she said.

Tina Layton owns the Contessa Riding Centre in East Herts.

On Thursday, February 11, she opened her mail and found a certificate confirming her appointment as a fellow of the ABRS.

But asked that day how she viewed the long-term prospects of her business, she replied: “Will I want to carry on? I don’t know. It’s really tough at the moment.”

This time last year, Contessa had almost 30 horses. Now it has 11. It has also lost staff.

“We had to make redundancies that we didn’t want to and it was absolutely horrendous for all parties involved,” said Tina.

Tina Layton - Contessa

Tina Layton, owner of the Contessa Riding and Training Centre in East Herts, said she did not know whether he would still be in business last year, having already sold most of her horses and made several staff redundant. - Credit: Tina Layton

Contessa is a highly specialised riding school, teaching dressage and vaulting. One of its horses was a reserve in the 2012 Olympics.

Contessa owns all its own horses. Under current COVID-19 rules, riding schools can offer lessons to people on their own horses, but not on borrowed horses. 

Tina has had to sell the majority of the horses and “pretty much close down” the riding school.

“The stupid thing is, I can go off site and teach in another yard to people who keep their horses there,” said Tina. “But I can’t teach on my own horses in my own yard.”

But even with her income decimated, Tina’s horses still have to be fed and cared for. That means most of her remaining staff cannot be furloughed. She has accessed grant funding but it doesn’t go far. It costs roughly £1,600 per week just to look after the animals.

Contemplating the future, she said, “gets very depressing”.

At Courtlands Riding Stables in Stevenage, the owners are worried about the welfare of their animals.

The family business has had to lay off three part-time staff until further notice, furlough another staffer and just look after the business’s 20 horses as a household.

Joanne Ruff-Peace - Courtlands Riding Stables

Joanne Ruff-Peace, from Courtlands Riding Stables, said the business's income had dropped to 'zero' after lockdown measures banned almost all horse-riding lessons. - Credit: Courtlands Riding Stables

“We are very privileged because we can help each other out as a family,” said Joanne Ruff-Peace. “If we couldn’t, the stables would be in big trouble. The riding school’s income is zero, but the costs are high.

“We have our hay bill, insurance, field rent, other bills like electric, our licence – it's thousands per month. Hay prices have gone up about 40 per cent compared to this time last year.”

But more troubling, said Joanne, is the potential deterioration of the horses. With lessons unable to go ahead, they are being brought out of their fields and ridden less.

This inactivity, combined with cold, muddy conditions, can cause a condition called mud fever, which can lead to abscesses on the horses’ feet.

“Their fitness is going to be non-existent when we try to open up again,” said Joanne. “There’s not going to be a magic switch... It’s been such a big break at such a rubbish time of year. They may not want to come back to work after this.”

The past year has been “a nightmare”, she said, but the furlough scheme and government grants have helped.

“We hopefully will be able to ride out the financial impact,” said Joanne. “But ask me again in eight weeks how we are and it may be a different story.”

Courtlands Riding Stables Stevenage

Courtlands Riding Stables said it worried that its horses and ponies would not be physically or mentally fit to return to work after lockdown prevented them from working for so much of the last year. - Credit: Courtlands Riding Stables