Hurst College has a superb location in Sussex horse country, and it is expanding its riding and training opportunities for pupils – from grassroots up

Ponies and children can be a sparkling mix, and Hurst College is well aware of the value of riding in building confidence and skills – alongside sporting prowess. Hurst has a huge advantage here – it is just down the road from Hickstead, home of the All England Jumping Course. Indeed, the school relationship with this world-famous centre began many years ago – it held the first annual Hurst College National Schools Jumping Championship in 1964. 

There have always been good and very good riders at the school, but the arrival of Head of Equestrian Tracey Pargeter in 2022 has seen opportunities step up. With vast experience and a background in The Pony Club, plus a strong commitment to growing all levels of riding, she is developing equestrian opportunities through the school – and the numbers are growing. “We’ve got all abilities. Starting off with grassroots with the children in the Prep right up to the older children – and some competing and even representing Great Britain.”

“Riding is a sport children can do well and achieve in. I don’t mean by winning or getting to the Europeans, but by achieving their personal best”

The number of riders competing is particularly good news. The school fielded over 20 in the National Schools Equestrian Association (NSEA) championships after her arrival, where previously there had been eight competitors. Recent school achievements have incorporated CCF (a strong element at Hurst). The school was invited to nominate one pupil to go to the Cadet Forces Military Equitation Competition at Windsor in 2022. “At this competition they were shown how to ride a military horse if they were on parade. They then had to ride one of the military horses and be judged,” says Tracey Pargeter. “Harriet Birkby won this for Hurst out of 20 pupils!”. She was equally thrilled when a school military service team competed at the Royal Windsor Horse Show last May. It not only won its section but also came second overall – and with awards presented by both the Duke of Edinburgh and the King of Bahrain.

Training takes place at the school every Thursday afternoon, with a focus not just on jumping but elements such as dressage and flatwork. Also included are talks and training sessions by elite riders to explain more about the hard work involved in competing and getting to the top. The children have had the opportunity to visit Shane Breen’s stud, both to see the foals and to find out about artificial insemination of horses. “It’s not all about riding – it’s the whole package I’m trying to get across to them. It’s learning how to look after horses.”

Hurst College is riding high
Equestrian at Hurst spans not just the fun of riding and dressage, but the care and hard work that goes into being a responsible owner and rider

There’s been a fascinating visit from an equine vet and – during a pony camp held over four days last April – insights into the ‘hard graft’ of stable management and other important aspects of being a responsible rider and owner. At the moment, children have their own pony or horse – a few pupils stable at nearby liveries, but a lot more ponies turn up on a Thursday afternoon. This means that pupils effectively enjoy their own in-school pony club training sessions with their friends and fellow pupils. And pony mad boarders get to see their much-loved steeds.

Equestrian is something the UK does really well, so heartening to see hard work to develop the next generation of potential eventers, Olympians, racehorse and stud owners. But for every level, Tracey Pargeter sees a huge value in equestrianism. “I’ve noticed this over many years. For children who aren’t doing as well as they could at school, for whatever reason, it definitely helps them. You can praise them, and they can feel good at something.”

Tracey Pargeter says children can build much broader skills and confidence through riding, helping them in their other school activities

Self-confidence in one area tends to build confidence across the board. She’s seen this among some of her youngest pupils already. “I’ve seen huge improvement from a little girl last year with a new pony – she was terrified to come off a lead rein. Well, she was jumping round the course, a year on, and the improvement has been amazing. It’s so rewarding to see.” 

“Riding is a sport children can do well and achieve in. I don’t mean by winning or getting to the Europeans, but by achieving their personal best,” she adds. “We do quite a lot of team competitions. Sometimes you have a good show and sometimes you might be the one in your team who knocks poles down or doesn’t get the best dressage score.” Children become team players through this process, and that’s a great lesson for life. “As a team they all encourage each other, and they know sometimes they won’t do well and sometimes they will – it’s what happens in life.”

Hurst College

Further reading: Why schools love pet therapy