For many of us the closest we will get to a horse or pony will be when we admire them cantering in the Grand Ring at the Royal Norfolk or the Suffolk Show, or when we have a day out and visit somewhere like the Suffolk Punch Trust or the Newmarket Stud.
Anyone can admire the power, beauty and grace of a horse without understanding anything about the responsibilities of owning a horse, or the pleasure of riding one. Indeed, the prevailing opinion seems to be that it is a very expensive hobby, so you must be rich to have horses!
That is a statement that produces hoots of laughter from the Hardwick family, parents Jim and Trish and their adult children Jon and Bo who own and run Poplar Park Equestrian Centre, Hollesley, near Woodbridge in Suffolk,
“Nonsense!” exclaimed Trish Hardwick. “We are not rich!”
“It depends how you do it,” added her husband Jim. “You can buy a £100,000 horse or a £100 horse. Fees and vet’s bills need not be too much. Of course, it is more expensive to have a horse at livery than keep it yourself.”
“Get the right horse, and keep it outside, and it will cost about £40 a week,” Bo added.
The Hardwicks have 130 acres of paddocks and woodland with over 100 miles of off-road riding through forests, heathland, estate farmland, and beaches (tides permitting.) They also have 39 stables, an indoor arena, a spacious outdoor floodlit all-weather ménage, an all-weather showjumping paddock, a grid-work school, a dedicated lungeing area and, what they claim is, “undoubtedly the best cross country course in the area”.
The sixty horses living on site are a combination of their own horses, school ponies used for teaching riding, and livery horses – which Bo described as “like bed and breakfast for horses!”
“We have been running it for twenty years or so but have only owned it for about six years. Well, us and the bank! It is now largely run by Jon and Bo,” explained Jim.
“If we are short-staffed our parents step in and help, they come to competitions with us …and provide money!” laughed Bo. “But, day to day, its Jon and myself who run things.”
Jim was working as a consulting civil engineer in London all those years ago, when his wife Trish started taking in horses,
“Initially the livery was something to keep me occupied when Jim was away,” remembered Trish. But then the business grew and eventually the whole family became involved.
The younger generation have brought complementary skills to Poplar Park. Bo has a Master’s degree in economics while Jon’s degree is Equine Science. Both have been riding since they were three and now, as well as running Poplar Park and teaching, they both compete. Bo was recently invited to try out for the British Endurance team.
“The horses we own are used mainly for competitions,” explained Jim, “though Trish and I are ‘happy hackers’ riding out most days. Most owners ride two or three times a week, or just at the weekend.”
“We do full livery so, if an owner lives away and can only ride at a weekend, we would ride their horse every day for them,” explained Bo.
Most riders have learnt to ride when they were a child and then come back to riding when they are working, or even when they retire, but who nowadays owns their own horse?
“Often it a career girl and their horse is their pride and joy,’ said Trish.
“I think it’s more varied than that,’ disagreed Jim. “I don't think they come into any category, though I do agree they are mainly women. The men tend not to have livery but come here just to go riding.”
“Occasionally women have never had children and their horse becomes a bit like their child,” added Bo.
Pairing the right horse to the correct rider is also important.
“Horses do have personalities. Some are placid horses. Some are jumpy horses, some are friendly and a few are nasty,” explained Jim.
“Some horses will jell with one person but not another,” clarified Jon. “A jumpy person might suit a jumpy horse – or they may need a placid one!”
“Horses are very in-tune to your mood. If you are irritable, they will be too… and if you are placid, the horse will usually calm down,” agreed his father.
“To be honest some owners enjoy just spending time with their horse, doing groundwork: bonding, grooming and patting their horse,” said Bo thoughtfully, “and there’s nothing wrong with that.”
“Horses are very therapeutic,’ her mother agreed. “Some of our riders are in their 70 and 80’s and still enjoy a gentle ride along our bridleways.”
Trekking, teaching people aged from 3 to 80 plus to ride or to improve their riding technique, offering camping and riding holidays and holding competitions are all part of the work at Poplar Park.
“We are very involved in British Eventing,” explained Trish proudly. “We hold one big event in March and this year we’re holding a new one in May, as well.”
The event in March has been running for thirty years and is well known with riders and spectators. Having another event in May will double the work, but the family feel that is a good time to showcase what they can offer at Poplar Park, at the same time as raising money for charity.
“There will be about 450 riders and horses descending upon us for the weekend,” said Bo. “British Eventing comprises three events: dressage, (a sort of dancing with horses), show jumping (around coloured poles in the arena) and cross-country. Its main draw is to riders from East Anglia but professional riders come from all over, too.”
Each horse and their rider will compete in all three elements over a day and over one hundred volunteers will help the team at Poplar Park to make the event a success.
It is a non-profit-making event with the money going to Riding for the Disabled, the Injured Soldiers Fund at nearby Rock Barracks and to the East Anglian Air Ambulance, whom the Hardwick’s hope they will never need to call upon.
So how safe is riding? Jim agreed it is a risk sport but Bo tried to put some perspective onto the dangers,
“Crossing the road is dangerous and how do most people injure themselves? By falling down the stairs or out of bed! Yes, riding carries risk but if you are sensible, you wear the correct kit and you learn to ride somewhere, like us, who are affiliated to The British Horse Society and the Association of British Riding Schools, the risks are minimised.”
“It also depends upon what you do,” stressed Trish. “In three day eventing the risk is quite high because you are doing very challenging jumps.”
A family business, where everyone lives on site, has challenges as well as advantages but it looks as though the third generation of Hardwick family will be ready to get involved in the future. Jon’s seventeen-month-old daughter has already sat on a horse!
This article was first published in Suffolk Norfolk Life magazine in April 2017