Research highlights the positive impact of urban equestrian centres

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A report conducted by the Sport & Recreation Alliance (SRA) and British Equestrian released this week has highlighted the positive effect urban equestrian centres (uec) have on communities across the UK.

This first-of-its-kind research project into the operational profile of urban equestrian centres across England was commissioned with SRA in support of Sport England’s Uniting the Movement strategy  which prioritises tackling inequalities and access to physical activities  alongside British Equestrian’s commitment to inspire more inclusion and improve accessibility to riding and horses. 

The purpose of the project was to find out what makes a successful urban equestrian centre, what business models were in operation, the impact they have on the local community and what challenges they face. The intention is that the findings can help existing centres to be more viable and encourage existing clubs or centres to diversify into equestrian activity or even new enterprises to start up.

Over 80 sites were identified as ‘urban equestrian centres’ (UEC), with 13 being selected based on a profile covering travel times, population, ethnic diversity, index of multiple deprivation, car ownership and household income. The 13 centres were then surveyed, with a follow-up site visit taking place between May and December 2022 in the cities of London (6), Liverpool (2), Newcastle (1), Gloucester (1), Leeds (1), Manchester/Bolton (1) and Birmingham (1).

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Overwhelmingly, the impact of any UEC on their local area is positive. A sense of community, favourable social outcomes and benefits to physical and mental wellbeing were key themes from all interviews, even if centres operated under different models. The centres act to engage and bring cohesion to the community and provide a place where people can socialise in a safe space. Additionally, the educational social benefit to participants is clear, in and out of the saddle, with equine-assisted services proving valuable in developing social skills, crime prevention and helping vulnerable children at risk from negative influences. This community feel translates into a strong volunteer culture, with many participants giving back and the centres also investing in training and upskilling those who give their time for mutual benefit.

A sense of community, favourable social outcomes and benefits to physical and mental wellbeing were key themes from all interviews undertaken for the research project.

Even across just 13 centres, the diversity of UECs is very apparent – not only in their audiences but also their business models. Ethnic diversity averaged at around 26% of non-white population in their catchment area, with some as high as 50%. For a few centres, their catchment area covers a population of over one million people. Based on organisation type, six of the centres operate as a charity, with the remainder as private companies –some of these as limited with a charity attached. Centres also showed great skill in securing funding, grants and charitable donations for activities, from supporting subsidised/free activities to setting up entirely new centres.

Of the centres interviewed, there were several commonalities which contributed to their success. All were ‘mission driven’, with the aim to deliver equestrian opportunities to those outside the reach of ‘traditional’ riding schools, particularly for those from deprived areas, low-income households and ethnic groups. Also important was the personality and leadership of the owner or manager behind the centre – the motivation of a love of horses and desire to engage with the under-represented communities is a key to creating a sustainable business.

While there is a great deal in common, flexibility and ability to adapt to their local area was also a key factor to success. Those who forge partnerships with their local authorities created good engagement around education and employment, links to schools and shared resources, facilities and land.

As was outlined in the 2022 British Equestrian Health of Riding Establishments research, operating a riding centre in any location in the present climate is not without challenges around capacity, workforce and licencing. For many UECs, the difficulties are compounded by their location and audience which impacts on the progression of riders due to a lack of facilities to cater for more advanced levels and a shortage of available land, which is often extremely valuable to developers.

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Paying wages for staff at appropriate levels for inner-city living increases costs considerably, while the licencing process is often more complex for UEC with local councils. Primarily, the centres are massively oversubscribed due to their popularity, population-dense catchment areas and, as with all riding centres, a current shortage of workforce and horsepower.

Mandana Mehran Pour, Head of Participation at British Equestrian commented;

“This has been a fascinating project which, more than anything else, has highlighted the inspirational work going on by centres operating in urban landscapes and the tangible impact they have on the community. If we are to be successful in tackling inequalities in access to physical activity in the form of riding, we must understand how those delivering in the community operate and the challenges they face. We can then take this forward as a ‘blueprint’ for centres in sharing best practice to help with viability and future development.

“This important piece of work has given us great insight, but there’s huge scope for future research around the social value of urban centres and a wider audit of the centres and their workforce. If we want to improve access by removing barriers to participation, data and understanding in our urban landscape is crucial and we look forward to actioning further projects in this key area in the future,”

she concluded.

Centres who agreed to take part in this groundbreaking project are thanked by the British Equestrian and Sport & Recreation Alliance; Cliffhollins Riding School, Ealing Riding School, East Liverpool Riding for the Disabled, Eastminster Riding School, Ebony Horse Club, Lee Valley Riding Centre, Park Lane Stables Riding for the Disabled, Park Palace Ponies, Ryders Farm Equestrian Centre, St. James City Farm and Riding School, Stepney Bank Stables, Summerfield Stables and Vauxhall City Farm. Your time and input are hugely appreciated in helping our strategic aims of bringing horses to more people for physical and mental health benefits.

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