The Home Park Equestrian Centre, near Liphook, West Sussex, will be the realisation of a dream — a very, very big dream. The equestrian centre will boast, when completed in Autumn 2018, the largest state of the art outdoor competition arena anywhere in the UK, 150m by 80m. In the vision of its developers, who are in the hospitality and leisure industry, it will become a centre for training and for spectacular show jumping and dressage competitions with comfortable spectator seating and refreshment areas where riders’ partners and friends can socialise.
AT LAST the computer belt south of the capital will have a venue more than worthy of featuring in an “any-season” high profile dressage calendar — and surely, eventually, one that could become a top international competition destination. Instead of the best talent being drawn away from the region it must become a mecca for top horses, top riders and offer a marketplace for top equestrian brands!
The dream, presumably originally on a more modest scale, belongs to Mandy Towle, now Home Park’s enthusiastic and energetic Project Manager. Mandy, who has local roots and once worked for local dressage trainer Sarah Dwyer, went out to Qatar in the late 1990s with a husband in the oil and gas industry and her eldest daughter, Zoe. At that time training horses in the art of dressage was unknown in the country, and it would take two decades before competitive dressage was to achieve the FEI status and glamour of the Doha International.
Mandy says: “No-one in Qatar was interested in doing dressage then, but because I found myself in the Middle East I turned to the closest thing to it, showing. I starting riding horses for people and as those horses started to do well in competition, I ended up being head-hunted for a job as a rider for members of the Qatari royal family at Sheikh Mohammed bin Hamad Al Thani’s Al Shahania Farm. I rode the arab stallions who were being kept for breeding after they finished their racing careers. They went into the stallion barn and I retrained them for showing.
“I achieved numerous ridden Arab showing titles on some of the top and probably most valuable Arabian horses in the world belonging to both His Excellency Sheikh Mohammed and his brother Nawaf Bin Nasser Al Thani. I also competed in Arab Endurance on horses given to me, Elaté and Comet.” (Mandy has a cabinet full of amazing silver and crystal trophies bearing witness to her success.)
Mandy’s less glamorous but also challenging job was teaching riding to Qatari boys and youths as chief instructor at the Al Rayyan Race & Equestrian Club Riding School which she helped to set up. Mandy explains: “My jobs working with horses in the UK hadn’t required a BHS qualification but we wanted the school to have British Horse Society Approval so I got all the appropriate text books and swotted up. I then went on holiday to the UK and, in a big gamble, took my BHS stages I, II and III and my PTT exams all within a fortnight. It paid off and, as I had completed my log book and the required hours teaching, I was awarded my AI certificate.
She recalls: “It was tough for a Western woman to be instructing Arab boys and I earned the nickname of ‘Tough Teacher’. I had to put on a big stern front, because smiling and being nice caused them not to take me seriously as their trainer and the moment anyone made rude comments I sent them out of the lesson.” Mandy also sometimes had to face up to fathers when those sons complained of their exclusion. “After a while the boys started respecting me and I could relax a bit. I learned some very basic Arabic, and one of the boys in my class, who was a sheikh and spoke fluent English, became my translator.
“The job also enabled me to gain a lot of experience organising gymkhanas and dressage competitions and when the riding school was being developed, I helped to design all the new buildings, stables and arenas.
In the autumn of 2005 Mandy returned to the UK but her interest in running a competition centre lived on. Today her partner, Martin Shaw, is a property developer. His biggest projects have included Dunstan Hall in Norwich and Old Thorns, a hotel, spa and major golf course four miles from Home Park. Mandy continues her story: “I was working for Martin as his PA when in 2013 we were invited to meet some entrepreneurs in Beijing. One of them was impressed to hear that I rode horses — he had a daughter who loved horses! Horses meant everything to her and she wanted to learn to ride. They flew us in a private jet to a centre ‘somewhere’ in China where they have their police horses and invited me to ride a horse, there and then, in my jeans.”
The investors from China bought Old Thorns in 2014. “Around the same time, Martin discovered looking through the Farnham Herald, that the Home Park Estate was for sale for £5.5 million. He put in an offer that day, which was turned down, but we went to view it anyway. The estate included Home Park Farm with its dilapidated cattle buildings and land leased to the Liphook Equine Hospital. It also included a big country house, a couple of cottages and 160 acres of land. Martin said, ‘this is great, we could build an equestrian centre here!'” He alerted his partners to the opportunity and they decided to make the investment.
Mandy added: “Getting planning for the centre took three gruelling years and went to appeal. It would have been stupid not to push for it to happen. It’s a match made in heaven. We’ve got the financial backing, the expertise to build it and to run it — and we have one of the best equine veterinary hospitals in the world next door.”
Developer Martin Shaw’s hotel projects’ consultant Nick Tsiknas of Inside Out Architectural Consultants has achieved a “Grand Designs” type scheme for Home Park that would make TV presenter Kevin McLeod glow with delight. Specialist equestrian expertise for the internal stables layout and product sourcing that included the supply of the 40 German-manufactured Röwer & Rüb boxes, came from Dorset-based 21st Century Horse. The administrative/storage building and the two stable wings that it connects feature exposed wide-span ‘glulam’ timber beams. Extensive use has been made of fair-faced stock brickwork and exceptionally durable bamboo composite cladding and stainless steel. The stable roofs are insulated to prevent condensation problems and have apex roof lights along their length. All equine circulation areas are rubber surfaced and the boxes will have poured rubber compound floors. Wash-down areas, solariums and a top range Dutch SeBo-fitted furniture tack room all still await equipment, fitting-out or finishing touches.
Outside, the site of the massive 150 by 80m arena has been cleared and levelled ready for this year’s construction season, while the two individually fenced 60m x 20m Martin Collins-surfaced outdoor manèges already completed will eventually serve as schooling or warming-up areas on show days. A 70m x 40m indoor arena will be housed in a building that will also serve as a luxury club house. Club house facilities include spectator seating both on one long side of the indoor arena and over the short ends of the four outdoor dressage arenas — with additional outdoor terrace viewing.
The intention is to install a “Film-Me” video system based on rider wrist bands that will be able to record training sessions, individual tests or there can be competition internet viewing. The building’s other facilities will include reception, a tack shop, restaurant/cafeteria, visitor toilets and showers. Mandy, whose son Louie is a Southern ‘Fledgling’ rider, comments: “If we run overnight training camps, pony club camps or overnight shows, there will be somewhere on site when people can have a shower and get a decent meal.”
Mandy is full of ideas to exploit the revenue-generating opportunities presented by the centre. She took a practical interest in horse welfare in Qatar and also the horses she got given mostly came to her with health or soundness problems. She says that at the racing stables she was always full of questions for the vets who looked after the important equine residents.
The proximity of Home Park Equestrian to the Liphook Equine Hospital makes equine rehabilitation, with the possible installation of an aqua treadmill and other therapy facilities, something also being considered.
“Most of all,” Mandy says: “I want to run premier competitions here with an emphasis on filling the huge gap in the Southern BD dressage scene. I have worked in some amazing yards and I want this to be one, too. I want it to be an immaculate venue and for people who want to keep their horses in a very high end livery and training environment.”
© Celia Cadwallader, 26 January 2018