A feature interview with Carol Wilson, who, along with her husband Tony, and 14 year help Sam Smith, is keeping Lincoln’s quirky community riding school alive.
Park Riding School is the last vestige of a strong equestrian heritage in Lincoln. While now it stands alone, a cosy little nook amidst new developments, it once shared space with rows of carters yards, where draft horses would be kept, and Lincoln bustled with working animals.
The first major change was when visiting racehorses would visit the stables, which were rented out when the racing took place on the common.
The riding school of today has stood since the 1950s – the owner, known chiefly as Mr Baker, originated from Sutton-on-Sea, where his father owned horses and a riding school. After finishing his time in the armed forces in Burma, he set up the riding school in Lincoln.
Carol Wilson has been here since she was 8, and can say with some confidence that she has been here for most of the school’s existence. While we don’t know how many horses Mr Baker had in the beginning – the estimate is around 25 to 30 horses – the school has grown significantly since it then. When she was first starting to ride, very few people had horses.
“It’s been my life. It’s framed my life really, and I think it’s fair to say that there are very few people who have lived in Lincoln most of their lives who haven’t heard of or ridden at this riding school. It’s got an amazing history and legacy in that sense…”
The West Common, as we have seen in an earlier article, is the historic grazing ground for horses in Lincoln (One horse per household was permitted on the common – while back then people paid rates, today only those who pay council tax are permitted). But at the time, it was underused for that purpose, instead being used for one or two cows, and only the occasional horse would be seen there. Mr Baker was of course allowed his statutory one horse to graze – but because of the situation, with a bit of extra money paid, more of his horses were allowed on the land. Eventually, riding became more popular and people in the west end wanted to use the common so he lost that facility – now his horses can be found in the paddocks along Long Leys Road.
Carol’s story begins locally, having seen the horses walking up and down the area where she used to live. Back then, she said, you’d follow them, then stand at the end of the yard until you were invited in for a look. Of course, she had no money to learn to ride herself in those days – but birthday presents provided pleasant opportunities. Eventually she got helping around the yard and had odd rides, and the relationship between school and rider developed. Other local children were like that, taking the opportunity as it arose. “Riding in those days was basically for people who had money,” she says.
There are of course a variety of activities on offer. Just recently the school has restarted riding holidays: last year they visited Thetford forest in Norfolk. It’s primarily for the older children, and some of the younger adults go as well; they camp and caravan, usually taking about five or six horses and ride them while they’re there. They’ve also taken them to Tetford in East Lindsey, as well as once taking them a week at a time to Derbyshire – that’s stopped however, as the horses are used to flat, grassy going – after all, they’re not, as she calls them, “mountain goats”.
“It’s a wonderful facility for children all over the city – but particularly around this area.”
Hacking (light exercise out on roads and walks) varies. One of the most unusual aspects of a riding school in the middle of Lincoln is of course its location – the middle of Lincoln. Because of traffic and the varying abilities of riders, hacks usually take place up Gresham street and along West Parade; a relatively safe route, due to the parked cars and slow traffic. The horses are used to vehicles by now – during our meeting, Tsar and Lady seemed completed unfazed by the presence of a skip wagon. The rides eventually lead out to the West Common, an ideal place for the vast majority of riders. There, the school also owns a paddock, menagerie and small jumping area for lessons with more instruction and technicality. Occasionally longer rides do happen along the river bank and on bridal paths to Burton and South Carlton, but they require more competence on the part of the rider. Riding isn’t what it was in Carol’s day – with busier roads and more cyclists, it’s gotten dangerous.
Naturally, the question of safety comes into discussion. The statistics are horrendous. The number of horses that have been killed in accidents on roads by traffic passing too close to them remains in the hundreds, and recent statistics by the BHA (British Horse Association) reveal that 36 riders have been killed in the last five years. What most people don’t realise is that horses have priority on roads – the worst ones being quiet country lanes. Carol feels relatively safe with the horses being subjected to traffic day in, day out – but, surprisingly, the main problem is not traffic, but litter. Litter blowing around in the wind can startle a horse just as traffic can. It’s something they’ve had to get used to at Park Riding School – though they use the towpath along the Foss Dyke and Witham, the recent addition of asphalt has brought more than just fishing enthusiasts and dog walkers – cyclists now pose a constant scare to the animals. Carol explains how she used to ride all over the place – “we didn’t have transport for the horses in early days, and if we needed to buy or sell, I’d ride it to Scunthorpe on the A15, or even down to Sleaford – all over the countryside roads. But everything is too dangerous these days – especially with inexperienced riders. The sort of riders that we get.”
So what kind of riders does the school get?
“We look upon ourselves as a community riding school,” Carol explains. “It gives opportunities to children and adults who would never have that opportunity because we are town centred – a lot of people who just want to try it are fearful of going to some big riding school that’s very technically based.
“Our big thing of course is that we are governed by the weather because we don’t have indoor facilities – so we have to be very robust!
“It’s a wonderful facility for children all over the city – but particularly around this area.”
The location, of course, has its advantages and disadvantages.
It’s changed over time. It’s changed from when it opened as a hunting yard – in those days fox hunting was common, especially in Lincolnshire, and Mr Baker had what were called hirelings: horses that people could ring up and book for hunting purposes. Sometimes he had eight permanently stabled during the hunting season. That side of it has been stopped altogether since Baker has not been hands on – technically because the insurance nowadays is prohibitive – but also because, like any human beings, the school have mixed feelings about it. It’s changed from that side of it, and it’s also changed from the competitive side with the children: for instance, the school used to host the Gymkhanas (speed pattern racing and timed games for riders on horses) in the summer, but rising insurance premiums have put an end to it. “We’re very parochial in what we do these days,” Carol explains forlornly.
Nonetheless, the school is going to stay open. It has to, she says. And for good reason – with nearly sixty years presence here, and with a legacy that dates back to her childhood, you can only feel support for the strength she and her husband have shown in keeping this place alive.
“It’s been my life. It’s framed my life really, and I think it’s fair to say that there are very few people who have lived in Lincoln most of their lives who haven’t heard of or ridden at this riding school. It’s got an amazing history and legacy in that sense and people are desperate in this area to make sure it doesn’t close.
“It’s very difficult to keep it open – financially, because it’s difficult to extend the facilities that we’ve got. We do rely a lot on voluntary help over the weekend to help with getting horses because we have the distance to get them here – it takes almost an hour to get horses from the fields into here, whereas a riding school elsewhere would have them on the premises. It would be a huge shame to lose the facility; it’s a real asset to the city.”
What she says has real weight to it. Visitors come to the city and make use of this little parcel of history. Last year a wedding party came from Norfolk and as far afield as Russia to use the horses. Holidaymakers that stay in the cathedral area want to hack out so they can take them on the West Common – which is a real asset from the school’s point of view. It really needs to be appreciated from that perspective – a riding school probably couldn’t even exist without it.
The pressure is always on, though. With mounting financial costs, the Carol and Tony are looking for new ways to keep the place alive. “A lot of small riding schools close because they cannot afford to keep open – insurance is a phenomenal amount of money as you can imagine, and that’s increased over the years because of all this litigation that we live with now. We have to be insured up to the hilt; we have to be inspected, we’ve got to be licensed by the council, veterinary inspected – there are an awful lot of red tape type things which Mr baker, in his declining years, found it difficult to come to terms with. And that’s where we’ve stepped in and made sure it is up to scratch – otherwise schools would be closed. It’s not quite as easy as having a few horses.”
They’ve considered turning the main building into some kind of student accommodation. Whether or not it would be tied into the school is a matter for debate, but it would be a source of income to help maintain it nonetheless. So far, that looks like the way forward. Whether or not a student might be able to bring their own horse into the yard is a good question, but it seems a good way of ensuring the future of the place.
“there are plenty of part time jobs… but no money for it.”
The school is a combined effort between husband and wife Tony and Carol Wilson, and their team. Tony has power of attorney, signed over by Mr Baker, who will be 96 next month. Carol has a lot of expertise and having retired from her day job oversees everything. Sam is the one who’s hands on, day in and day out, employed after she left school by Mr Baker and has been there around 14 years, on the ground for feeding and riding, fetching carrying. It feels like a regular family business. Tony and Carol are of course voluntary – which of course makes it a financially uncertain venture.
“We get loads of people when they first come to university, look up, see a riding school on their doorstep, and ask if there are any part time jobs. And there are plenty of part time jobs… but no money for it. We’re Grateful for the help – some of them do volunteer, but there’s no money in it for them, so they drift.”
So what will happen? It seems as though Park Riding school is clinging on to a disappearing history – a noble effort on the part of those involved to keep alive a small part of Lincoln’s heritage, and the legacy of the ones who created it. But with the rising pressure on small riding schools, the dependence on volunteers and the ever busier roads and development, can a tiny riding school in a growing city survive? Carol is adamant that it will.
“I’m sure that it will carry on. It’s going to carry on because we’re determined it will. But it’s not going to be easy. It’s got to carry on in some ways because not only for the facility it creates but we’ve got a legacy of horses that don’t belong to us; they belong to Mr Baker – they cost money to maintain them so we can’t stop having the riding school because if we do something’s gonna have to happen to them.
“There’s a lot of sentiment around it as well. A lot of people wouldn’t like it if it disappeared. The problem is they don’t realise how hard it is to keep it going. But it will keep going because of people like me and Tony who will do it for nothing as long as we can. It wouldn’t as it stands sustain somebody who wanted to make a living for themselves – I don’t think they could survive on it. I’m sure they couldn’t.”