Like many small businesses, Dulwich Riding School is closed during the lockdown, writes Louise Kimpton-Nye…
With no income and eighteen horses to care for, it’s a huge challenge but for owner, Jaye Montebello, giving up is not an option.
“The yard’s been here since 1961 so the way I look at it is that if we can’t hold it together now it’s a poor show”, she says.
Financially, it’s a very worrying time but Jaye has always put a bit by each month for emergencies – something she learned from her grandfather who started the riding school. Now she feels she owes it to his legacy to get through the crisis.
“When I was a child the yard was always my refuge, somewhere to go if I broke up with a boyfriend, or I wasn’t happy at work. Over the years it’s been that for so many people”, she says.
The riding school is a great place for young people of all backgrounds. The chance to bond with horses is healing and uplifting for those who’ve experienced difficulties, such as bullying at school or mental health issues.
It’s also a training centre for school leavers, offering two-year apprenticeship courses. For many young people, a career with horses starts at the yard.
With the future so uncertain, all of these youngsters will need the stables more than ever once lockdown ends.
In the meantime, Jaye is keeping riders and visitors in contact with daily events at the yard via photos, videos and news updates on social media.
She’s touched by how supportive and loyal her customers have been during the crisis, buying vouchers for future lessons, sending photos, and posting questions online about horses and stable management. “It’s those customers who keep us going. I do hours of research – I really enjoy it”, she says.
Older people who grew up going to the yard are reliving memories and reconnecting with each other via old photos from her granddad’s collection posted online.
“It’s not just about the horses that are here now”, Jaye says. “A lot of people’s dreams started here”.
“There’s a generation from the 1960s who worked at the yard who are now all on Facebook commenting on pictures, talking to each other and sorting out their own photos to put up. It’s so nice to think some could be lonely pensioners and now they’re chatting away together,” she says.
The yard is closed to riders and visitors during the lockdown but the horses still need to be fed, watered and exercised. The horses aren’t being ridden as it would be an unnecessary burden on the NHS if a rider fell off and needed medical treatment.
Owner, Jaye, is vulnerable and needs to stay at home where possible to protect her health but every aspect of the horses’ health and welfare is taken care of by her small team of dedicated staff and volunteers.
Around 100 volunteers offered to help at the yard when the coronavirus crisis started. Bowled over by such generosity, Jaye could only take five of them because she believed having fewer people on site would reduce everyone’s risk of catching the virus.
Strict measures are in place at the stables, including regular disinfecting of surfaces, and organising the work and meal breaks to allow for social distancing.
Jaye’s extremely proud of how her young team – all aged between eighteen and 23 – are handling the crisis.
“They’ve been so sensible. They’re still putting their lives at risk every day to come into work, doing a full day’s work in minimal hours so that we don’t have them on site so long”, she says.
Lockdown does have some advantages. The horses have had a good rest and it’s a chance to catch up with jobs the staff don’t have time to do during a busy schedule.
For Jaye, it’s an opportunity to go through her Grandad’s remedies and notes on horse care – all on scraps of paper – with a view to publishing them in a book.
So what does the future hold for the riding school after lockdown? Jaye is optimistic about what the ‘new normal’ could look like for the yard. The crisis has made her realise that there are many ways she can bring in income without just offering lots of riding lessons.
She’s realised through social media that many people are interested in stable management and plans to set up online courses. For those who do want to ride, there will be more one-to-one and small group lessons to maintain social distancing.
There’s no doubt that horses make you feel good and lift the spirits. With so much stress and sadness around at the moment, it’s heart-warming to know that the yard is going strong thanks to the efforts of Jaye and her amazing team.