Education & Family

School ponies help boost pupils' life skills

Mounting pony
Image caption Equestrian Club members prepare for a competition

You might think a school with its own ponies would be firmly in the private sector - but, thanks to a host of volunteers, one state school is bucking the trend.

Rory, 12, has been riding for just over six months and just came uncomfortably close to being kicked.

Gypsy, surely one of the world's hairiest ponies, aimed a dinner-plate-sized hoof in Rory's general direction as a warning when he put the saddle in the wrong part of his back.

"Do you understand why that happened?" asks Jo, an adult helper.

"You got him hard on the tender part of his back and he said, 'Ouch, ouch, ouch.'

"Always put it slightly too far forward and move it backwards into the right position."

Rory is one of Chesham Grammar School Equestrian Club's newest members.

Along with some 40 other year-seven pupils, about a quarter of the year group, he joined last September, attracted by the idea of riding and being outside in the countryside.

Other schools might offer riding as an extra-curricular activity, however, this usually means heading off to a local riding school once a week.

But Chesham Grammar School Equestrian Club has 11 of its own ponies, kept on a field near the school.

'Unique set-up'

It is run by chemistry teacher Antonia Thoday, herself an accomplished rider who competes at regional level.

"It's the only state school with its own ponies with a set-up like this. It is unique," she says.

"It is an extra-curricular activity, totally run by volunteers and self-funded."

In 1972, the then caretaker of the Buckinghamshire school set the club up with two ponies bought with the proceeds of the summer fete.

Members wear a sweatshirt emblazoned with the name of every pony the club has ever owned. And there have been dozens.

"Most people see it as a physical activity they can do at school but it also develops their life skills," says Miss Thoday.

"They develop confidence through handling the horses, working with other members of different ages and taking responsibility.

"It is the only school activity that carries on every day of the year, including Christmas day."

Image copyright BBC Sport
Image caption Antonia Thoday shows pupils how to put stirrups on the right way round

The club has survived this long on a mixture of good will and hard work.

Pupils pay £5 for a riding lesson once a week or once a fortnight - a fraction of the cost of most riding schools. In return, they help look after the ponies and clean the tack.

Parents are also expected to volunteer - helping with transport, maintaining fencing, pulling up weeds and helping to fund-raise.

Miss Thoday gives up a couple of evenings a week and half a day every weekend to deliver the lessons. She also organises the entire schedule.

Tyre race

This evening is gymkhana night, a sort of whacky races on horseback.

There are three teams, with eight pupils sharing two ponies in each team.

After catching the ponies, cleaning off the mud and tacking them up, the fun begins.

"OK folks! Time for the tyre race. Tyre race with a difference," announces Miss Thoday.

"At the end of your lane there are two bicycle tyres and this time you get off your pony and you have to climb through the tyres and then run back with your pony."

Other games include picking a mug off a post while on horseback, dropping balls into buckets and trotting round posts, all activities designed to improve riding skills and precision.

Team members shout advice: "Nice and gently", "Don't kick him", "Ride to the line", "Keep going".

The games are adjusted to the abilities of the riders, from beginners like Rory, to Emily, 18, who will start a degree course in equine performance coaching at Warwickshire College next year.

Life lessons

But this is not just about riding in the sunshine.

Caring for the ponies gets tough in the depths of winter when members must brave knee-deep mud, failing light and icy temperatures.

The enthusiasm of many new members does not survive the cold.

"Loads of people join in year seven and slowly the people who aren't so keen drop out.

"The winter weeds out the disorganised. I quite enjoy it - you don't get too muddy when everything is frozen," says James, 16.

"In the winter they come straight after school. If they get their act together they can be finished by the time it's dark," adds Miss Thoday.

Committed members say that despite the cold, the winter checks are a key part of what they gain from the equestrian club.

"It gives you a lot of different skills and you really learn to work better in teams," says Chloe, 13.

"It makes you more organised," concludes Isabel, 16.

Image caption Members wear a sweatshirt emblazoned with the name of every pony the club has ever owned

For parent Pru Biddle the riding club teaches crucial life lessons.

"They have to manage their time, work in teams and take responsibility for the animals.

"It is hard work but certainly teaches them that you don't get something for nothing."

Emily believes the experiences and opportunities she has gained at the club were crucial to her degree choice.

"You get to learn so much and it opens up so many possibilities.

"I wouldn't have had the opportunity to learn everything I have learned and move on to degree level without it."

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