The Unseen Impact On Our Equine Friends
COVID-19 has ripped through the world more than we ever expected. The number of people infected and worse still, leaving us is rising faster than we ever imagined. It’s heartbreaking. It’s unfair but it’s what we’re dealing with right now. While the health and wellbeing of our community is very much at the forefront, it’s unsettling to discover new and devastating ways this virus is affecting us; ways that perhaps a lot of us wouldn’t have considered.
Hands up who took riding lessons before this virus took hold? Hands up if you loaned a local riding school pony or helped out at your local riding school? Hands up if you benefited from a RDA yard? Chelmsford Equestrian Centre happens to be one of those yards. This urban riding school, just 1.5 miles outside of Chelmsford city centre has been onsite for over 30 years. 8 years ago, Aimee and Walter bought the yard in the hope that they could turn it around. The yard was run down and lacking severely in investment. At the time, the vast majority of riding schools were struggling to survive yet over the last 8 years, Walter and Aimee developed a variable riding school that was almost at the point of sustaining itself. With 29 horses at their yard, they cater to people aged from 4 through to 81. The bulk of their clients are beginners with people starting their riding career in their 50’s. Before COVID-19 took hold, they were even catering to group visits from their local care home where one particular resident only began talking as she picked up a grooming brush, telling the staff about her pony she had when she was young; something the staff had no idea about due to her Alzheimer’s. An hour later, the memory was gone but for that moment, she was reliving her youth and her passion.
On top of helping their local community, they also provide incredible staff packages (something that’s seriously lacking in the industry) including benefits such as structured training, injury at work insurance and health cover. It’s easy to see why this equestrian centre had become such a haven.
Providing over 13,000 riding lessons per year and becoming an accredited Riding For The Disabled Centre, Chelmsford Equestrian Centre had once again become such a part of the community that to lose it, would be a devastating blow. Today we’re speaking with Walter, one of the centre’s owners about what’s happening now and the incredible impact COVID-19 is having on their yard and the horses they house.
Jenni: Hey Walter, thank you so much for agreeing to talk with us. How did you feel when the government announced lockdown officially?
Walter: Business wise it was a disaster and you cannot feel good about that as a director. We without doubt felt very anxious about how we could survive this intact and reopen. However, in many ways personally, I was relieved that the government was finally taking some decisive action to address this disease that was clearly going to devastate so many people's lives. Everybody is going to be poorer, but staying open and putting people at risk is just not acceptable. We needed to close in these circumstances.
Somewhat frustratingly, we were experiencing a net growth in clients this year and the riding school was just about at break even for the first time ever.
J: You’re absolutely right. Nevertheless, places of leisure are things that many don’t think about during these circumstances especially for places such as yourselves that require a great cost to simply keep going behind the scenes. What have you done to counteract costs etc?
W: The riding school horses were moved immediately to grass. It would have been great if we had had a few more weeks for the grass to come back after winter. Unfortunately, we now still have to feed the horses in the field, but at least we are not paying for bedding. We moved quickly to furlough staff and cancelled all non essential contracts like cleaning. We also had to stand down our casual staff. We then set about talking to service providers to get discounts off things we were no longer using like riding school liability insurance, credit card charges for minimum usage.
J: The government has announced they’re offering help to those in the leisure industry. Is this clear cut however, as many have discussed the lack of clarity as to whether riding schools come under leisure facilities?
W: The government support is pretty straight forward TBH and we were quickly able to check with our council about how we were going to get the money. We have confirmation that the business grant will be in our account on Tuesday. That said, ours is not a business that as owners, we can simply walk away after we have closed the door and pulled down the shutters. Operationally, we have had to retain a number of our staff on full pay to care for the horses. If we are to open again, we need the horses to be fit and capable of working with clients on day one. So despite the government grants, our cash gap is significant.
The government backed bank loan scheme looks enticing, but before you incur a large debt, you have got to actually know how much money you will need and you must believe that the business can survive and pay it back. With uncertainty surrounding the duration of the lockdown, how do you guess on how much cash you might need?
J: Yes, I can see where the government backed loan could actually be a bad decision in the long term. You’ve begun asking for donations to help you sustain the horses for the duration of the lockdown. Where can people donate?
W: The cash shortfall is larger than we can personally support at this time and hence we are asking people to support the riding school with donations. We are asking people to donate via our website www.chelmsfordequestriancentre.co.uk. Donations can be made in units of £10-00. Some people are kindly choosing to make regular monthly payments.
J: You’ve also offered some “sponsored pony” options too. This is great. What can this offer those who are no doubt missing your ponies?
W: A lot of our regular riders are children that have developed a strong bond with our ponies. By allowing them to sponsor a pony, the children feel engaged with their horse. We send them updates with pictures and invite them to look out for their pony on facebook.
The effects of COVID-19 stretch much further than many realise and it’s stories like this that make us want to do as much to help as possible. In Walter’s own words, “The longer the lockdown continues, the worse the financial position will become for the business and the more we will struggle to keep going. In the context of the general economic situation for the economy as a whole, we know that a lot of our clients are struggling as well and we are concerned that when we open, they may not be able immediately to afford riding lessons.”
It’s important to remember at times like this, that we are all in this together and doing what we can to help others is incredibly important. If you can donate, even just a one-off donation of £10 then we know that it will mean a huge amount to not only Walter & Aimee, but the young children who ride there and the 29 horses who are currently awaiting their favourite little boy or girl to return.