Hartpury – A Horse Lover’s Heaven

In the world of competitive dressage, we often hear people discussing the balance between getting an education and following our passion. When I was in high school, I competed regularly in interschool, pony club, young rider and open EA competition which put a huge strain on my schoolwork. As I head to university next year, I will again have to juggle my education and my horses and already I have started to map out how I am going to make this work and what sacrifices I will have to make.

6, 817km from my home in Melbourne is a school which may have found the perfect answer to this conundrum – Hartpury College. Located just outside of Gloucester in England, Hartpury was established after World War Two as an agricultural education centre with fifty students. In 1990 the school began a period of rapid expansion, including introducing a large variety of further education courses. The first Equine Studies course opened in 1992, followed by the first degree of Equine Science in 1994. In 1999 the first Master’s Degree program opened and the first PhD student began at the school in 2004.  Today, Hartpury is internationally renowned as one of the top educators in the equine industry and with coaches including Carl Hester and graduates such as Charlotte Dujardin, it is becoming an increasingly popular university of choice for students the world over. I was very lucky to visit the college for a few days and learn more about the courses, facilities and students.

IMG_3783One of the older buildings at the picturesque Hartpury College

Hartpury offers four levels of study under the equine bracket including bachelor degrees, diplomas and postgraduate studies. The bachelor degrees cover a wide range of topics: Equine Sports Coaching, Equine Sports Science, Equine Business Management, Equine Performance and Equine Sports Therapy are just a few of the options available. All up, there are twenty one study options designed to set people up for successful careers in the horse industry.

IMG_3782The campus incorporates the natural world as part of college life

What Hartpury have created is a university which combines quality education with state of the art equine facilities and the opportunity to include training your own horse as part of your study. Equine-focused university courses are nothing new and can be found the world over. Whilst they pose a great opportunity to learn more about the science behind our sport and provide students with the skills to excel in the industry, they often require many hours in the classroom, a long way away from the competition arena. Often the top candidates for such courses are also top competitors and so again they find themselves choosing between study and riding. Hartpury’s Academy Program solves this problem by allowing elite competitors to combine their riding with their course.  The Hartpury Equine Academy aims “to support and develop high calibre riders seeking to build a competitive career in one of the four Olympic disciplines whilst continuing their academic education.”

IMG_3767Students have access to incredible facilities, including this full sized indoor arena

Riders apply for the academy before the academic year commences and, if successful, are placed into one of three squads: elite squad, elite development and development. The standards are high with applications requiring a full competition CV as well as riding in front of selectors. Most members of the Elite Squad are members of the British team and compete at international level (at least juniors level dressage and show jumping and CCI/CIC** level eventing or above). With Nick Burton as the Academy Directory, Corrine Bracken as the jumping coach and Carl Hester for dressage, the standard of training is world class. An example of a member of the Elite Squad for dressage is Olivia Oakeley, a member of the British Junior and Young Rider teams as well as the Dressage World Class Development Program. A typical day for an Olivia runs as follows: arriving at the stables at 7am to feed her horse, muck out his box and give him fresh water and hay; heading back to her room to get ready for the school day; her classes (which include the lectures for her academic studies as well as a lesson with either Nick Burton or Carl Hester); taking her horse to the horse walker for his afternoon leg stretch; extra classes in strength and conditioning, sport psychology and nutrition; and finally a late night check in the stables before heading inside for the night. There are no grooms and the riders are responsible for not only the exercise but the day to day care and maintenance of their horses. Evidently – having the equine program running in conjunction with the academic side of the college and the facilities being so accessible creates a system where riders don’t have to compromise on either.

IMG_3763One of the stable blocks at Hartpury

As my bus drove into Hartpury College and I got my first look at the campus with my own eyes, the first thing that struck me was the sheer size of the place. I grew up watching movies and television programs about boarding schools in old English castles and this was like stepping straight into one of those. The school boasts 360 hectares (889.5 acres) of perfectly manicured lands. The Hartpury Arena is a 70m x 40m indoor with seating for 600 spectators, its own restaurant and bar, as well as classrooms lining the long side which can be used as hospitality boxes during events. This arena is home to international competitions for each of the Olympic disciplines including the Festival of Dressage. There are also three outdoor arenas (including an 80m x 60m competition arena with adjacent 60m x 25m warm up); three more indoors (60m x 25m, 60m x 21m and 25m x 35m); a cross country course up to FEI 3*** level; a horse walker and a non-slip trot up 40m x 4m with 12m diameter trotting circle. The school has stabling facilities for 230 horses, including those of students in the Academy and school horses for the College students to learn on. The stables were very big, many of them looking out of the barn and allowing the horses plenty of fresh air. It was great to see students from courses in other faculties taking classes in the rooms adjacent to the indoor watching the horses training as they walked past – what excellent practice for the horses and riders to get used to noisy crowds and lots of spectators!

IMG_3764One of the outdoor arenas

IMG_3786The beautifully maintained cross country course

Whilst the riding facilities were beautiful, it was the world famous Hartpury Equine Therapy Centre I was most excited to see and it did NOT disappoint! First stop: the aquafit treadmill. Unfortunately there were no horses in the treadmill during my visit, but it was great to see it all the same. The therapy rooms are set up like classrooms with whiteboards on the walls so that students can learn about the machines and how to use them to rehabilitate injured horses or assist in the training and maintenance of competition horses. In the aquafit treadmill classroom I learned that walking in water is aerobic exercise and the average heart rate during water treadmill workouts is sixty beats per minute. The next room was the high speed treadmill. This very impressive marvel of modern technology allows horses to gallop in a room hardly bigger than your average lounge room. In here I learned that the peak air flow rate in a thoroughbred can reach seventy litres per second (that’s up to 2,000 litres going in and out of the lungs per minute) and that the maximum oxygen uptake of a thoroughbred horse is twice that of a Tour de France cyclist. The resting heart rate of a thoroughbred is twenty five to thirty beats per minute and the peak heart rate is two hundred and twenty beats per minute.

IMG_3772The Aquafit Water Treadmill

IMG_3777The High Speed Treadmill

The Therapy Centre also contains a gym room with a simulated horse to help riders work on their balance and target key issues in their performance, alongside standard gym equipment for cross training. There is an equine solarium and thermography facilities. Thermography is a non-invasive method of measuring a horse’s body temperature. Skin overlying muscle increases in temperature during muscle activity. Using this principal, thermography uses different colour gradients to indicate varying temperatures so that we can see which muscles work the hardest whilst a horse is performing a particular action. For example, Hartpury students have found that the hindquarters of a horse become very hot within seconds of beginning to gallop on the high speed treadmill. Students with their horses at the college have access to these world class facilities and can book their own horse in to be used in demonstrations in the therapy centre. Horses come from overseas with vet recommendations for treatment on these state-of-the-art machines and one of the most famous users of the centre is Valegro. Living only a short distance away, Valegro attends the therapy centre regularly to use the aquafit treadmill. In the viewing room for this machine, there is a beautiful trilogy of photos of this famous Hartpury regular.

This trio of images of the therapy centre’s most famous patient lines one of the walls

Another thing which struck me about the facilities at Hartpury was the relative smallness of the Equine Centre compared to the rest of the school – the horses are important but only one part of England’s premier sporting college and the facilities for the other sports are of equally high a standard. A driving range, nine-hole golf course, ‘power’ gym, cross-training gym, shooting range, indoor fencing facilities, three grass soccer pitches, three grass rugby pitches, two rubber crumb all weather pitches and an indoor hall which can be used for netball, soccer, futsal and badminton are just some of what’s available. During my visit to Hartpury, the Rugby World Cup was being held in England and the school was the team base for Scotland. This is a testament to the international standard of their facilities. Furthermore – what an opportunity for the rugby students at the school to see some of the worlds’ best in action and be up close and personal with such a high calibre of competition!

IMG_3789Some of the sports facilities

Sports students have access to the Human Performance Laboratory which includes Monark cycle ergometers, a Woodway treadmill, a Cortex on-line gas analyser and Servomex gas analyser. Using this technology, the school staff use scientific tests to monitor the students’ athletic performance over their time at Hartpury. There is also a rehabilitation centre including massage beds, physiotherapy facilities and cold and hot spas for post-game recovery. Similarly to in the Equine faculty, the general sports courses include diplomas, degrees and post-graduate courses. Harptury also offers tertiary education in agriculture and veterinary nursing, as well as high school courses designed to accommodate students wanting to work in either sport or agriculture. These courses combine the regular high school curriculum (maths, English etc.) with practical units such as horticulture, agriculture, horse care, small animal care and woodwork.

IMG_3790One of the many sporting fields

In amongst all of this cutting edge technology is a talented Australian rider and one of my oldest and dearest friends – Molly Parkin. Molly moved from England to Australia when she was eight years old and has been prominent on the Australian equestrian scene since she was a tween. Her passion lies in eventing, in which she has competed up to FEI 1* level and represented Victoria at the Australian Interschool National Championships. She has also been a member of the Victorian Young Rider Dressage and Show Jumping Squads and competed at a state level in both disciplines.

Molly Eventing
Molly competing in Australia in eventing – Photo by Emma Price Eventing Photography

In 2014 Molly visited Hartpury with her parents and set her sights on commencing a foundation degree in Equine Science with the option of a third year top-up in September 2015. True to her word and never shy of a challenge, I was able to visit Molly at Hartpury as she moved into her new home and started her studies. It was the middle of September and the beginning of the British academic year so a very exciting time. First year students have the option of living on campus and so Molly has opted to live in a self-catered college house which she shares with seven other students. The shared house has individual bedrooms and bathrooms, a shared kitchen and a surprising sense of ‘home.’ Living with a mix of students, some coming from close by and others from as far as Canada, studying courses ranging from Veterinary Nursing to Sports Science and aging between eighteen and twenty means there is always something to talk about and learn from each other. I loved spending time with the students who are all passionate about their own things – from eventing to cobs to soccer. There is something about passion which is infectious and exciting to witness, whatever the sport or discipline.

IMG_3793Some of the student housing

Now two weeks into her studies, Molly says “the facilities are excellent and the lecturers are very welcoming. They have made it very easy being international!” Having lived in Australia for the past ten years, Molly applied for and was granted her Australian citizenship the week before flying out to England. She attended a citizenship ceremony in London where she said her pledge and received the ever-essential jar of vegemite. She will spend the next two years completing her studies at Hartpury. After that, Molly is not yet sure what she wants to do but is interested in either dentistry or events management. She “hope[s] to use the contacts gained by being [at Hartpury] to help [her] in [her] career. “ Whilst I’ll miss her at home, I know we have a great ambassador for Equestrian Australia in Molly. Walking into her room to see Tim Tams on her desk and hearing her housemates call for her help every time there was a spider made me giggle – you can take the girl out of Australia but never Australia out of the girl!

Molly Citizenship Ceremony
Molly receiving her Australian Citizenship at the High Commission of Australia in London

Happy riding!










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