This month, Phoebe Oliver, interviews professional stunt rider, and owner, Ben Atkinson from Atkinson Sports Horses. Ben has worked with some incredible films and series including everything from Peaky Blinders to Emmerdale, Poledark to McDonald’s and his training techniques are fascinating. Here, Phoebe discovers Ben’s family history, talks about stunt work and finds out how he prepares the horses using items such as farm machinery.
Interview by Phoebe Oliver
Ben you come from a long line of incredibly talented horse men and women. Can you start by filling us in a little on the work of your grandfather and father?
My grandfather left school at the age of 14 to work with heavy horses on the land during the Second World War. Because of the circumstances, horses were in short supply and this led to my grandfather accumulating a variety of methods to train and educate horses. My father was a show jumper, showing horse producer and ran a liberty yard and riding school. One day we were asked if our riding school horses could be hired to take part in an English civil war battle re-enactment. Having been prepared with our families’ somewhat unorthodox methods they excelled and were immediately booked to take part in a film doing similar work. Things snowballed and the rest is history.
When did you first learn to ride and how quickly did you learn to do the stunt work?
I first sat on a horse when I was months, not years, old. In all honestly, I cannot remember learning to ride at all – for me it would be akin to asking someone what it was like to learn to walk as a child. It’s just something I have always done. I had my first taste of stunt riding at the age of 9 after watching a performer stand on a team of white horses I was inspired. Having two white jumping ponies at the time my childhood enthusiasm and logic knew it would be possible! I did my first show standing on their backs at a hollow that year.
You live on the family farm – how long has this been in the family?
We have been based at Asselby Grange our family farm in East Yorkshire for three generations. Knowing we have all lived and worked horses on the same land gives a sense of pride and security so strong it’s hard to put into words.
We hear much of the training and desensitisation processes are undertaken at the farm with basic machinery – can you fill us in a little more on this?
“It doesn’t matter if people laugh at you. What you’re doing should make sense to horses not people” a quote from my grandfather much repeated when we are implanting our methods to make horses bold and confident in new situations or with challenging objects. When training horses you don’t need to replicate something exactly, all you need to do is present the elements the horse is naturally programmed to be apprehensive about and make it a positive experience. We use a variety of weird and wonderful things to make film sets or show grounds in our backyard. Did you know a strimmer makes the same high-pitched sound as a large camera-carrying drone? A raised forklift bucket with LED lights is clearly a crane and lighting rig for a horse, the smoke from the bonfire at the bottom of the garden is just as good as any thousand pond atoms machine. We have used anything and everything you can think of to give our horses the confidence they need to go out into the world.
Which horses are best suited to your work?
Trying to say exactly which breed or type of horse is the best for our line of work is almost impossible. Firstly, we have to be able to provide for every genre from modern day racehorses to Victorian pit ponies and medieval war horses. The thing we look for when adding to our team is an inquisitive mind. Horses who want to be into every half open box or through every door. The ones who break out of fields or pull rugs off the walls into their stables. A horse who wants to interact with their surroundings ales a wonderful enthusiastic student.
Image: Ben Atkinson with a selection of his stunt horses at home
Do you have a favourite and if so, why?
Malik my dapple grey is my favourite if I am forced to pick. He has been mine from being two weeks old and has travelled with me around the country and the world. Having him by my side is like having my little brother and my best friend on every job.
Your fan base is enormous and seems to be growing daily – did you ever imagine it would grow to this?
I could never have dreamed that I would have the support from people all around the world I have now. It’s mind-boggling and often overwhelming. I started my social media accounts as a way to store photos and videos as my phone at the time had terrible memory! However now and especially through and after the pandemic, it’s been eye-opening to witness the joy sharing my life with my horses can bring to so many people. Very humbling.
Your lovely fiancée Georgie is also a rider and a farrier. How do you manage the work/life balance?
Georgie my fiancé is a dressage rider and fairer but more than that she is my rock. More than anything I put my spike in success over the last two years down to her impeccable patience with and support for me. You could say we have given up on finding a work/life balance as we are constantly on the move! However, we both couldn’t imagine a perfect day that didn’t have horses in it so as cliche as it sounds, we are living the dream.
Lastly, we are all excited for the equine wedding of 2023 – will the horses be attending?
At this moment we don’t have plans to have horses at the wedding which is a huge shock to everyone I know. One major problem is that nearly every person we trust with our horses will be attending and we want to enjoy the day with them not have them washing horses and loading carriages onto flatbeds. However, it’s early days and I suspect the horses will make an appearance in some way.