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18 March 2020

Bridget Griffin is one of the Founders of Park Palace Ponies, which was opened with the aim to make ponies and horses common place once more in the urban landscape of Liverpool.

Addressing the disconnect between horses and people

Riding schools and livery yards are getting farther away from City centres, and farther away from inner-city children, meaning that horse riding is becoming less accessible.

As a group of inner-city horse lovers and owners, we realised that there was an astronomical number of children and adults who were missing out on the joy that being around ponies and horses can bring, all because of location. It was this horsey passion combined with our inner-city living that lead me and my fellow directors to the dream which has now become Park Palace Ponies. 

Park Palace Ponies was opened with the aim to make ponies and horses common place in the urban landscape of Liverpool once more. Horses were once an extremely crucial part of the city’s history, as the Liverpool Docks were powered by real ‘horse power’.

As horse riders we have experienced the urban sprawl

Our starter riding school is based in the Dingle, in the centre of Liverpool. I have always lived in Liverpool L8, which encompasses Toxteth and the Dingle; two areas of Liverpool that have faced trials in the past, but as a community continue to pull together and thrive.

I started riding horses when I was seven, at my then local riding centre, Wheathill Riding School in Bellevalle, around a twenty-minute drive from Liverpool 8. Unfortunately, the land that this was built on was sold for housing in 2007, an all too common occurrence. I’m sure this is something that many other city-dwelling horse riders have experienced as the urban sprawl of cities continues to grow.

I am now lucky enough to own my own horse, and I keep her at Gellings Riding School and Livery yard in Knowsley, the next-closest to my home. It is still around a 30-minute drive from my home (on a good day!) Can you see a pattern forming here?!

Unique and historic venue

Housed inside the old ‘Park Palace of Varieties’ picture house, the arena at Park Palace Ponies is pretty unique! It recently got likened to “The Liverpudlian youth version of the Spanish Riding School of Vienna” which probably goes some of the way to letting you know what it looks like! From the outside, the building looks like a bog-standard building, but as soon as anyone enters the “oohs” and “ahs” reverberate across the arena. The building has been a key hub of activity in the Dingle community since 1893 and it was really important for us to keep this community feel.

Limited to the young and no galloping!

The size of our riding arena has meant that we are only able to accommodate ponies, and therefore children, and only up to the pace of trot. We used this to our advantage, creating the first ‘starter’ riding school. This enables us to teach children a basic course of riding and pony care before feeding them out to all riding schools in Liverpool. This means that we have a constant stream of new riders and that we are allowing our project to reach as many children as possible. 

Park Palace Ponies operates as a social enterprise, not for profit organisation, meaning that any monies made go straight back in to keeping the project going; paying staff wages; making sure the ponies are well fed; vet bills (unfortunately!!) and basically all of the usual costs of running a riding school.

Park Palace Ponies is run by five voluntary directors and a core team of paid staff. We are also helped out by a fabulous set of committed volunteers who range in age from six to 70! For me, as a child, volunteering at my local riding school was one of the highlights of my youth. It gives children an opportunity to socialise with other likeminded individuals of all ages, teaches a responsibility like no other and allows for life-long friendships to be formed. There is nothing like all gathering round hot chocolates in the depths of winter to warm your hands up!

Three years in and going strong

Opened in 2017, Park Palace Ponies will soon celebrate its third birthday. We currently have eight wonderful ponies: Millie, Moses, Bobby, Kev, Malu, Scooby, Will and our latest arrival who joined the team only yesterday, Magic.

Our ponies are fabulous and have adapted to inner-city living perfectly. A typical day for the ponies involves walking ten minutes in-hand down Mill Street, a main road that runs through to the centre of town. Donned in Hi-Viz, our staff and volunteers lead the ponies to their main grazing site situated at the Park Hill Allotments. On this walk, the ponies encounter any number of weird and wonderful things including the number 204 bus, an active flour mill and hordes of school children on their way to start the day at one of the local schools.

It is difficult to quantify just how many children and young adults’ lives have been touched by our ponies. Thousands of children have passed through our doors since we opened, be that through a free taster session, a riding lesson, a pony care session, a birthday party, a community event or a school holiday fun day. As any of you who are horsey reading this will know, it is hard to describe just what being around a pony or horse does for you, but we all know that it does good. To see the beaming smiles and confidence being instilled in the children week upon week is what matters to us and it is this confidence in themselves and their abilities that we know they take away and put into practice in their everyday lives.

The feeling of snuggling into a warm pony’s neck when it’s been a hard day – this is what riding horses and ponies is about and this is what we are bringing to inner-city Liverpool children. 

Strong connections with Liverpool’s racing heritage

We have been thrilled to build such a strong relationship with Aintree Racecourse and the Jockey Club. Liverpool is a city that is thrust into the equine limelight, but for most, this is only once a year, for the famous Grand National weekend. Aintree Racecourse is situated only eight miles from our site in the Dingle and is such an important part of the equine history of Liverpool.

Horses are not seen as common place in Liverpool, yet it is completely normal for racehorses to thunder across Melling Road on Grand National race day. For us, and for Aintree, working alongside each other allows us to bring a sense of normality to being around ponies and horses. Horse riding and racing is so often seen as a sport and hobby only for the elite, and I think by working together, we are breaking down these barriers and proving that this is not the case. For us, it is important to make sure that the huge benefits that come with spending time with ponies and horses are accessible to all, regardless of background, location, income and ethnicity. 

A racecourse for all

We recently held our 2019 graduation day at Aintree with the team and it was a real chance for our riders to get up close and personal with the racecourse, many of whom live just a stone’s throw away but had never considered visiting. The 2012 Grand National winner Neptune Collonges came to pay our riders a visit and it was an experience that they will truly never forget. Without our partnership with Aintree, this would not have been possible.

We hope that by working together, our riders and volunteers will be able to forge connections and gain a valuable insight into the racing world, which they otherwise would not be able to have because they live in an inner-city environment. There seems to be much more opportunities for young people to get involved with riding and racing in the typical country settings.

We hope our riders may have the chance to gain valuable work experience placements to keep developing their skills, so that one day they may go on to be the next Katie or Ruby Walsh.

A busy calendar ahead

Park Palace Ponies is constantly evolving. We have lots of exciting events planned, including a third birthday celebration and working alongside the Liverpool Foundation.

On 18th March, we were planning to parade, with Neptune Collonges and the Park Palace Ponies, from our site to the local school where an assembly will be held with ITV’s Ollie Bell and some famous jockeys. The school children had been designing and creating their own jockey silks to wear. It was set to be a fabulous day for them all but has been cancelled due to concerns around Coronavirus.

To keep up to date with our activities and our partnership with Aintree Racecourse, please follow us on Facebook at Park Palace Ponies. 

Please do come and pay our ponies a visit if you’re ever in the area. We welcome all guests, even if it’s just for a look around! Our aim is to see an inner-city riding school in every city, so please, if you too believe in inner-city riding, take our project and use it as your own.

Together, let’s make ponies and horses commonplace in the urban environments of the UK once more!

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