When I arrive at Aberdeen Riding Club to interview Sally, she is sitting in her familiar repose behind the steering wheel of a large tractor watering the arena surface. She opens the cab door and shouts to me that she’ll be 5 minutes and I think how I’m lucky to have the opportunity to grab an hour of her time for a chat, knowing just how busy she is! It can be no mean feat being Coach, Club Director, being midterm of her non-exec role as Chair of the BHS and everything else in between!

As part of our Women in Business series, I sit down with Sally to find out more about her journey to establishing Aberdeen Riding Club…

It all started for Sally when she received a riding lesson for her 14th birthday. The rest, they say, is history. Bitten by the same bug that keeps all of us hooked on horses, she started a paper round to earn just enough for a riding lesson each week. Coming from a low-income family and being surrounded by friends with their own horses was a formative experience for Sally from the outset. “It started to shape what I would end up doing as a career because I was aware how lucky they were to be able to afford to have their own horses, I was the one friend who couldn’t do that so for me, a riding school was the only way I could access horses”. Typical of the riding school experience, Sally started helping out at the yard and got the ride on trickier, greener horses – something which she credits for bringing her riding on a great deal. In the grand scheme of things and compared to people who had been riding since they could walk, starting at 14 set Sally somewhat behind her contemporaries in the industry. Knowing this, she set her sights on catching up. Despite being academic and always wanting to be a vet, she decided against going to university. “I didn’t have to work hard to pass my exams, there wasn’t enough to challenge me, so I was bored and dossed about most of the time at school”. Leaving at 16, she headed instead to Portugal for a year to work on a yard where she rode up to 9 horses a day. Needless to say, this brought her riding on hugely and upon her return to Aberdeen at 17, she began coaching at the local riding school where she had ridden as a child.

Much like academia, coaching came naturally to Sally and by age 18, she had already gained her BHS AI (current Stage 3 coach) and become a salaried coach at the centre. And for the next two years, that’s all she did. Coaching 35 hours a week, 3 late nights and all weekend, left her, on reflection, with burnout. “I needed to do the coaching to earn the bonus to be able to afford to live. It taught me quite early on that that’s not how you want to manage riding school coaches”. It also taught her a lot about coaching all different types of people, something which would become the linchpin around which she would build her vision for making riding accessible to as many people as possible. So when the centre started up a not-for-profit arm around 1998, Sally was immediately intrigued. Though initially meant to be a paper exercise with no real legitimacy in practise, she realised that the seeds of this idea could really grow into something if properly nurtured. “I thought this could actually be a standalone business and the model of it intrigued me quite a lot because when you put everything together, my low income background, how the club was structured, it’s a perfect opportunity to set up a riding school that is there for the community and people who use it”. Looking into the feasibility of the idea brought Sally to Oldfold, where there was already a small riding school operating and where she and 3 directors decided their vision could be realised. “We then broke the news that we were going to leave and break away from the existing centre, which also meant combining with the existing centre that was at Oldfold and taking over its business”.

Scrufty enjoying the sun!

Still only 26 years old, and by her own admission, “wet behind the ears”, it wasn’t just the inexperience of youth that was a challenge. “I was trying to learn how to run a business that no one had ever heard of before”. At the time, there wasn’t a not-for-profit riding school anywhere in the UK and the concept was a groundbreaking one. Sally confesses that she had, quite understandably, thought that people would be supportive of the premise, but she was wrong. “I had gone into it quite naïvely thinking that people would be quite delighted that someone had set up a new riding school that was going to be accessible and not-for-profit. What I didn’t see coming was the negativity - there was a huge thing in the press about it and I had no idea how to deal with the press at the time. I was called some less than scrupulous names on the internet and in the papers by local equestrians who just didn’t get it. If they had taken the time to come and ask me what I was doing, then I would have been delighted to explain it to them”. Though a hugely challenging time for her, Sally explains how the experience shaped her outlook on how she would come to run a business. “I really cared and was really hurt by what they were saying about me, but it actually helped me develop a much thicker skin for what I was going to go on and do in the future. It certainly wasn’t a nice time, but it made me realise that I am going to go on and do what I think is right to make horses accessible, and you’re either with me, or you’re not”.

Having signed a 10-year lease for Oldfold, the first 4-5 years were spent building up the business. Sally credits these years as being “really, really good times” because you could see the momentum of the business building. “It probably took 5-7 years for people to start to recognise Aberdeen Riding Club as a quality provider, whereas when we first did it, I think people thought of us as a funny little not-for-profit”. The fact that the equestrian community had bought into it meant everything to Sally, it was a reflection that they understood and supported what it was she was trying to achieve. Coinciding with this success however was the fact that the landlords of Oldfold had been approached to see if they would sell the land for housing development. Somewhat surprisingly, Sally explains how the club was really supportive of it. “It probably went against what most people advised us, dig your heels in, fight it, go to the press etc. But it was short sighted because I don’t think that a riding school can stand in the way of a city’s development and although the riding school is really important for everyone that utilises it, it can’t fight for land that’s worth millions of pounds”. Sally decided that a much better strategy was to get on side and support the landlords through it. “We had always discussed that if the timing was right, and they sold plots of the land, they would reinvest that in somewhere for us”. She continues, “we never knew Anguston was concrete till very close to the wire, but by that point I was a lot older and had been through the move already to Oldfold and understood how challenging it was to try and do what it was we were doing. I was quite laid back about it all”.

The move to the new premises at Anguston Farm involved building a purpose-built equestrian facility entirely from scratch. The actual build itself only took 4 and a half months from breaking ground on a green field site to actual completion, but the planning permission to get to that stage had posed the greatest challenge to the feasibility of the project. The planner on the project had initially recommended permission be refused. “We were building on green belt land so it was always going to be more challenging. But to me, this was such a valuable use of green belt land and we were still leaving it predominantly as just that. To me it was a massive asset to the community, but we couldn’t get the individual planner to see that, he just didn’t get the concept of it at all”. When I ask how she managed that challenge, she explains how she harnessed the power of the club’s members, asking them get in touch with their local councillor if they sat on the planning committee to try and get the word across to them just what the club meant to everybody. Letters of support rolled in and along with multiple references, a letter of support from the club landlords and an 80-page justification statement written by Sally, the decision of the individual planner was overturned and planning permission granted.

Anguston Farm - ARC's new facilities

The process to gain planning permission meant that the project was delayed by 9 months, directly impacting things at Oldfold. CALA by that point had bought the land the riding school was on and needed to get building. “They were brilliant and delayed building their houses for a year so we didn’t end up homeless. The landlords were phenomenal too as they did everything in their power to support us financially so we could start raising funds to be kitting out the inside of the building at Anguston”. By this time, Sally was effectively doing 3 jobs, coaching full time at Oldfold to keep the income coming in, liaising with planning, and designing the build. Rather than being burnt out however, she relished the challenge. “The more people throw at me, the better I function”. Just as well, considering how many plates she was spinning in the air at this point! She continues, “I don’t get frightened or nervous of massive things happening in my life or with a business, there’s no point as that’s just a waste of energy, you need to divert your attention into making it successful. And I do believe you make your own luck to an extent, if you get your head down and get stuck in, you’ll achieve a lot more”. When I ask if there was ever a plan B in case the project didn’t come off, she explains that because the landlords owned the farm by this point, plan B was always to put in an outdoor arena which doesn’t require as much planning permission and to start from scratch again. The downside of this of course would have been that the very raison d’être of the club, the driving force to make riding accessible to as many people as possible, would have been severely weakened. “We wouldn't have had the facilities for them, which was always the part I was trying to get the local authority to understand, that their decisions were having a direct impact on the people who needed horses the most. So yes, there was a plan B, but it would have been a very different shaped ARC”.

ARC's outdoor arena

Thankfully plan B was never required and the project continued apace. The closure of so many riding schools during the Covid pandemic had only exacerbated the need to make riding more accessible. Indeed when I assume that it was the pandemic that must have posed the greatest challenge to the club so far, I am a little surprised when she says that it wasn’t. While acknowledging that it was a terrible time in so many ways for so many people and businesses, Sally’s strategic mindset and ability to be agile in her responses to a constantly changing landscape, meant that she had already started keying up things like who would be furloughed, what support she could ask from the clubs landlords, what could be done instead of lessons, digital provision and videos etc., long before lockdown was announced. “My brain seems to be very strategic - rather than thinking now, I’m always 5 years down the road with what might happen”. The efficacy of her planning is reflected in the fact that the club actually made a surplus during this time, which allowed a consequent reinvestment into keeping costs down during the cost of living crisis. “The club was never under threat, unlike so many riding schools, which was so upsetting to see. That was probably one of the worst things about Covid – seeing so many other centres struggling or closing as riding centres are so important to accessibility”.


When I ask, if not Covid, what the greatest threat to the club has been, Sally explains that it was probably the move to Oldfold. “The move to here was always safer because we had such support from our landlords. When I look back now, the move to Oldfold was such a risk, but actually I had everything to risk because I didn’t own the company and didn’t want to keep working at a standard type of riding school. I wanted to work at what I saw as the best centre for horses and the community, but when I look back on it now, there were so many opportunities for it to go catastrophically wrong”. Thankfully, it didn’t and Oldfold proved not only the viability, but the demand, for a not-for-profit riding school that focused on making horses accessible. “Oldfold gave me the time to see that the model massively worked and that we didn’t have enough space for the people who wanted to get involved with the club”. Crucial to the success was Sally’s ability to communicate her vision for the club to the wider public, a challenge compounded by the entrenched concept of equestrianism as an elitist sport. Changing the tide of this legacy is no mean feat, but what strikes me about Sally is her ability to do just that, to effectively persuade people to listen to what she has to say. When I ask her what the key to harnessing people power is and what advice she would give others in inspiring people to support their business, she replies, “I think you have to be totally transparent. I’m a great believer in not keeping any secrets from people who use the club, but again it’s because it’s a not-for-profit and I’m not driven by personal financial gain, which I think hugely changes the balance of how a business operates”. She continues, “I talk very openly about costs with members because I think they respect that and they understand why lessons or livery has to go up in price. The key is communication, there’s nothing worse than spending your money into a product, particularly something that is such a huge part of your lifestyle as riding is, and not feeling like you understand where it’s going or feeling that your prices are going up and you don’t understand why”. Further testimony to the efficacy of this transparency is the fact that in 2017, the club won the Riding Club Award at the Scottish Equestrian Awards, and in 2018, won Horse & Hounds prestigious Horse Dialogue Club of the Year Award.

Welcoming around 30 coaches for a training session on great grass roots coaching

Educating members and the wider public is crucial to the success of this sort of buy in. The more people know, the more informed the decision they are going to make and the more discerning they are going to be about choosing a quality provider. “You have to get people on board with the concept and our customers really buy into that because we educate them on it so much. They want to be involved with somewhere that manages the horses to the very best healthcare standards. Horse welfare should be paramount to us all and people want to ride somewhere where they are confident that the horses are loved and happy – that’s a great thing – it’s what we should all be prioritising when we choose a centre”. The experience at Oldfold taught Sally that this approach not only worked but thrived. “I learnt to trust what my strategic vision was for the club, in that I knew what the public wanted, I knew they were going to vote ethically and come to places where the horses were well looked after”. The club understood the importance of equestrianism retaining its social license long before it was being debated to the extent it is now. Communicating to the public the role horses play in changing people’s lives is inextricably linked to the club’s ethos of making riding accessible to as many people as possible. The two are one and the same. Indeed when I ask Sally what her vision for the future is, she explains that the in the next 5 years, the club will be focusing more and more on equine facilitated learning. We know that horses are the real heroes in what they offer us and the myriad of ways in which they enhance and enrich our lives. In 2014, one of the riding school horses, Sid, was actually crowned STV’s Animal Hero of the Year after being nominated by the Aberdeen Riding for the Disabled.

ARC Hippotherapy

ARC was the first Scottish riding centre to be running the BHS Changing Lives Programme, a scheme designed to help young people who are disengaged and at risk of being excluded from school to develop skills required for further education, training and employment. The club also delivers weekly practical and theoretical sessions to students studying at Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC), as well as providing horses and arena hire at heavily subsidised rates to the ARC Hippotherapy group (a form of physiotherapy on horseback) and Deeside Riding for the Disabled, and provides free riding for all children who attend through the Befriend-A-Child charity. Working with local charities is a fundamental underpinning of the club’s ethos and a lifelong commitment made by Sally to her vision of making horses accessible to everyone. “We have effectively created a hub, so what we’ve done is go to lots of different organisations that can bring something to the hub and given them a facility to operate from. So there’s the riding school that everyone sees and is the standard part of it but then our links with hippotherapy, RDA, BHS, SRUC, are all things that we have actively gone after to try and give as many people access to this hub as we can”. Testimony to this is the fact that approximately 20% of the club’s members are subsidised therapy and accessibility riders.

New signage welcoming visitors to ARC

This is no mean feat when you consider the challenges posed to the equestrian industry and wider social issues faced by us all at the moment. As Sally explains, “we still suffer from very little Scottish government and local authority support and I don’t mean financial support, I believe a riding school as a small business is responsible for making our business viable, we shouldn’t be looking to the government to fund us, but they could be more supportive”. She continues, “when you think in the last 2 years alone, we’ve seen a rates increase, loss of entitlement to use red diesel and the tax discount on that, a massive increase in public liability insurance etc. So it’s a very challenging landscape to run a business that is financially viable. Sometimes it feels like you are banging your head against a brick wall with our local authority – why are they not trying to help small businesses?”. Compounding these challenges is the skills shortage in the equestrian industry itself where it is getting harder and harder to attract and retain coaches. Interestingly, and demonstrating that innate intuitive insightfulness that has come to be a hallmark of her approach to running a successful business and which surely played a part in her winning Business Personality of the Year in 2017, Sally explains that whilst the skills shortage is a huge worry, it hasn’t’ all been a negative. “You hear a lot of challenges about the skills shortage in the equestrian industry, and there is and we need to attract more people, but it has made us as an industry reflect on how we attract and employ staff. I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing that people are saying I’m not going to work both days at the weekend, I’m not going to work a 60 hour week - they shouldn’t be expected to - we need to ensure we are good, supportive employers and equestrianism is an attractive career path, so we need to be flexible in our approach to attracting and retaining staff”. This approach has allowed Sally to retain a coaching staff that have been with her for many years. Indeed Martin Dargie, the Assistant Manager of ARC has been with her since the very beginning of the journey.

HRH Princess Royal attends ARC as a guest of the British Horse Society who were hosting a training day for coaches funded by the British Horse Society Career Transition Fund www.bhs.org.uk

Image: www.Aberdeenlive.news

When I ask Sally what the key to motivating and retaining staff is, she replies, “I think you have to make sure they are included, I always have our staff included in strategic discussions about where the direction of the club is going, I try and keep them interested in what we are doing with pricing, with horse stock and things, because I think they need to see the opportunity that’s ahead of them if they become more qualified and more experienced”. She continues, “I’m a massive believer in funding their professional development, which to other industries is a given but it’s something that has taken a really long time in horses. We’ve done it for 18 years now, starting up our inhouse training scheme and committing to funding all our staff’s BHS assessments. That makes your staff feel a lot more valued, there is nothing worse than going to a role where you don’t see a development opportunity where you can progress if you want to”. Crucially, Sally also believes that just because you enjoy your job, it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be paid properly for it. There is a misconception (not just in the equestrian industry), that if you enjoy your job, then that should be satisfaction enough. But satisfaction doesn’t pay the bills. “You are never going to be paid a huge amount in horses but you should be paid enough to be able to live comfortably. It’s a quality of life thing in that I could earn a lot more if I went to another sector, but I love my job and to me there is a value in that, I’ll take a lower salary because of it and my staff are the same, but they should still be able to afford a mortgage, a car etc”. The club’s commitment to training and supporting coaches is also reflected in their sponsorship of the BHS Scotland Anne-Balfour Kinnear Award, aimed at investing in young instructors in Scotland, promoting their training and development.

As we near the close of the interview, I am left wondering how on earth Sally is able to fit everything in and whether it is difficult for her to ever get any down time? “Not really because I do weird things for my down time - I’m not good at sitting doing nothing, so down time to me would be my trustee role with the BHS which I love as it challenges my brain and I have met so many brilliant, talented people on the BHS team through it – it’s a really exciting time to be involved with the BHS as there are so many great initiatives coming out of the charity at the moment”.  It’s testimony to Sally’s character that what helps her relax is even more work! Though she does try to keep Sundays sacred for some gardening time! “I’m off on a Sunday and I tend to try and not spend any time with anyone on a Sunday, I like putting my music on and going into the garden”, she says laughing. “The more is thrown at me, the happier I am”. And I am left thinking, just as well!

May 24, 2024 — Lynne Clark

Leave a comment

Please note: comments must be approved before they are published.