Rural riding schools may seem a world away from the typical inner city comp. But, reports Stephanie Northen, live there can be just as tough.
Wendy Murray mucked out her horses as usual on the day she gave birth to her first child. She is still unsure if labour hurt as much as a lesson from her riding instructor, but she wastes little time thinking about such trifles. Aside from her daughter, now aged one, Wendy Murray looks after 32 horses at the Strumpshaw Riding Centre in Norfolk. She works from 6am until 9pm, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Her pilot husband swaps his helicopter for a tractor on his two days off and their commitment to the business is total.
It has to be. The school does not make them a fortune despite an excellent reputation and a willingness to cater for everyone. Nervous five-year-olds, disabled teenagers and international standard riders are all welcome, as is the elderly gent with a leg injury sustained kick-starting his motorcycle during the war. Strumpshaw is a success story in a field with many fallers. The riding schools' national association estimates that 21 per cent have closed since 1988, driven, in part, to the knacker's yard by the depression in agriculture.
It was partly in response to this depression that the Countryside Alliance planned to march in London this month, before the foot and mouth crisis forced the event's postponement. But the alliance remains hotly in pursuit of liberty and livelihood. While the first of these can be summed by the words fox and hunting, the second is more complex.
Like a cow with BSE, farming staggers from one crisis to the next. Foot and mouth disease is the latest in a line of disasters that has the National Farmers' Union talking of the deepest agricultural recession in living memory. The other sorrows of rural life are well documented: the closure of village shops, post offices and banks; the lack of public transport; and the decline of the country inn - the Countryside Alliance reports that 20 rural pubs close every week. Urban problems nip at the heels of pretty market towns afflicted with their share of drug pushers and joyriders.
Education is not immune. The 200,000 protesters on the 1998 Countryside March - 79 per cent of them Tory voters - persuaded ministers to halt the closure of village schools. And late last year the Government woke up to the fact that struggling schools are not unique to towns - and announced that the insensitively named Excellence in Cities initiative would be extended to rural areas, home to almost half of England's failing secondaries.
Riding school owners believe ministers should also be galloping to their rescue. Many of the remaining 1,700 licensed organisations are struggling to survive, and resent the image of horse-riding as a sport for the pampered brats of the upper middle classes. "The media have an awful lot to answer for," says Nicola Gregory, spokeswoman for the British Horse Society. "Whenever they want to portray a horse person, you get someone in a pink coat in front of a country house sipping from a solid-silver hip flask. The truth is that most horse owners are right at the bottom end of the market - you only have to go to any horse show and listen to the accents and see the cars.
"At the top end are the megabuck Arab sheikhs with their racing horses, but at the other end - well, you can buy a New Forest pony for a fiver. And they'll live on half of nothing if you've got a bit of scrub."
Duncan Brown, executive member of the Association of British Riding Schools, agrees. On the continent, he says, riding is well spported, with no trace of the UK's elitist image.
A big gripe is the requirement that riding schools pay full business rates, unlike other educational establishments. And rates are calculated partly on geographical size. Schools such as Strumpshaw cover a lot of land, and in this rainy climate have to have indoor training rings. So they end up being compared to Tesco when, says Duncan Brown, most have the turnover of a corner shop.
Late last year, to make matters worse, the Government said it would let farmers off the full rate to help them diversify into horses. The BHS bridled. "We said, 'You are putting the ones who know what they are doing out of business by giving incentives to farmers'," says Nicola Gregory. The Government has stopped pushing the idea, but has yet to halt the proliferation of unlicensed "DIY" schools set up on the quiet by farmers facing bankruptcy, she adds.
Agricultural colleges have also been diversifying into equestrian studies. Much of the training formerly done in riding schools at no cost to the public is now being subsidised by the taxpayer. Some in the industry bemoan the fact that young people who would once have worked in stables in exchange for lessons are now "swanning around" at college.
"Colleges have masses of money," says Nicola Gregory. "Riding schools are struggling along on a pittance. Many schools make no profit and quite a few are subsidised by a husband working in the City or running a builders' yard. They do it because they believe in it and it is hugely beneficial for kids."
Malcolm Florey, principal of Bicton College in Devon, has some sympathy. Several of his 120 equine students want to become riding instructors, he says, and the college sees horses as a growth area. But he worries about the countryside. "The whole rural community feels beleaguered, and that includes farmers, equine businesses and horticultural centres."
Wendy Murray is kinder to colleges, although she knows many riding schools regard them as a bugbear. "It's the society we live in. Kids want to go to college. Maybe young girls think, 'I don't want to spend all day in a cold stable yard when I could go to college and spend my spare time shopping'."
The traditional method of training instructors was not flawless. There was exploitation, Nicola Gregory admits. Teenagers with a passion for horses were taken on as "working pupils who were paid peanuts". Some were living in cold, leaking caravans with no electricity or running water and were not getting any lessons. Fears about the impact of the national minimum wage - "which we think is a good thing" - persuaded the BHS to introduce an apprenticeship scheme that guarantees a set number of hours' tuition a week.
The society's qualifications, which date back to the 1920s, are well-respected, and 4,000 assistant riding instructors qualify each year. Wendy Murray employs several. You have to be a people person to do the job, she says, with a lot of horse sense. And you need to enjoy teaching and to find satisfaction in seeing a pupil improve.
The rapid progress of pupils at Strumpshaw is proved by the year's waiting list for lessons. Strumpshaw is part of the way along a path that the BHS believes all schools will have to travel. "They need to move up a gear, to have the cafe, the shop, a club, the T-shirts, the proper parking," says Nicola Gregory. "Gone are the days when you could get away with being up a rutted lane that would ruin the springs off anything."
No doubt Wendy Murray would agree, if she had time to think about it.
See Big Picture, page16