Where horsing around is encouraged

5th June 2009 at 01:00
From all over Scotland, North Highland College is getting the young and not so young back in the saddle of learning

There are at least nine girls swarming round Magnus - brushing him and fussing to see he looks his best.

Magnus is a valuable prize-winning Highland pony and a favourite at the stables at Achravole Equestrian Centre in the far north of Scotland, near Thurso.

North Highland College leases part of this Caithness farm as a base for its courses in equine management. This is Open Week, when horse-mad teenagers like 15-year-old Shelley Sutherland come for a sneak preview of college life. She is visiting for the day from nearby Dornoch Academy: "I'm here to test out college and see what it's like," she says.

If you don't do mud and hard work, this isn't for you. If you're hoping to find a boyfriend, you won't. The handful of boys who do come must feel a bit like Magnus.

But you can study full-time for a National Certificate, Higher National Certificate and Higher National Diploma. You will learn everything you need to know to keep Magnus in the style to which he and his stablemates have become accustomed. You will also learn how to run a business - how to market your operation, do the books, stage events and source funding.

HND students attend work placements and, with luck, could end up in one of the top jobs in the equestrian world - head groom for an Olympic show jumper, running a stud farm or your own riding school. As well as vocational qualifications, the college also puts students through British Horse Society Industrial Exams, so they are qualified to teach too.

James Munro runs the land-based section of North Highland College. Upbeat and down to earth, he's worked with horses all his life - buying and selling in a dealing yard, coaching riders for international events and teaching and judging at shows. He still competes and is always in it to win it: "Being second, you're only the first loser," he says. "So anything we do, we want to be the best at it.

"If you saw Zara Phillips in her quarter-of-a-million-pound lorry, you would think it was a very glamorous world. But unfortunately, the real world is the bit you don't see," says Mr Munro. "All the mucking out and early mornings: the horses are 100 per cent dependent on a human who must be there every morning to do that and to feed it - rain, hail or shine."

Colleague Liz Alexander is course tutor and has been at the centre since the equestrian section launched 18 years ago. She is from a farming background and started riding after her dad bought her a pony at a roup (auction).

Up to 35 students a year enrol here from all over Scotland and occasionally from overseas. But hundreds more study part-time on the college's open-learning programme, which attracts equine enthusiasts from 14 to 70, making it the only venture of its kind in Scotland.

Mrs Alexander and Mr Munro are proud of its success. "We have 12 tutors employed across the country - as far north as Orkney, as far east as Aberdeen, west as far as Benbecula and south as far as East Lothian," Mr Munro explains.

Students visit tutors' stables for practical tuition and study theory online. After several years of part-time study, they can get the same vocational qualifications as full-time students. "At National Certificate level, we have 385 students all over Scotland, at HNC level we have 150 and at HND - which we only started last year - we have 60 who have progressed," he says.

Adult learner Lorna Mackay comes here once a week from Bettyhill, 30 miles away. She runs her own trekking centre in Sutherland and gets up early with her 10-year-old daughter every day to muck out 20 of their 38 ponies. She was a shepherd for 10 years before starting the business and, after completing an HNC, is now working on an HND. "I started studying the year I set up the stables. It's been great and, because it's flexi-learning, I can do it alongside running my own business," says Lorna, now in her late thirties.

Part-time learning attracts a range of students - girls can study the National Certificate while still at school and join the HNC year here. It is also attracting people like Lorna, who are working in the industry and want the qualifications to improve their knowledge. "There was a real need for it," says Mrs Alexander, who co-ordinates the open-learning programmes. "There are a lot of people who keep horses who haven't come from a horsey background."

Some students have been spurred on to further learning - enrolling for computer classes and degree courses. "They come on our courses and realise learning is quite good fun, so this is a gateway back into it," she says.


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