Gaddesden Estate: equestrian centre of Hertfordshire

The dramatic Cossack-inspired riding at one of the many shows the team travels to

The dramatic Cossack-inspired riding at one of the many shows the team travels to - Credit: submitted

Gaddesden Estate can be considered the epicentre of all things equestrian in the county. Keri Jordan explores the site’s horse-related history up to the present day

One of the magnificent animals at The Centre for Horseback Combat

One of the magnificent animals at The Centre for Horseback Combat - Credit: submitted

When it comes to learning to ride, they say it doesn’t really matter what your horse does, it only matters how you react. So whether you prefer a gentle afternoon canter through ancient woodland or a stunt riding session involving swords, knives and pistols, the reaction I’d recommend would be to head three miles north of Hemel Hempstead where both types of activity occur on a daily basis.

Beyond the lofty, verdant hedges of the Gaddesden Estate lies a haven for all manner of horse-riding pursuits, and a team of experts who can equip you with the riding tools and techniques for any eventuality.

For almost five centuries, there has been an abundance of equine activity on the site set in the Chiltern Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. When the Halsey family bought the freehold in 1544, horses were integral to its farming and agricultural practices. All the farms on the estate had extensive stabling for draught horses. In 1768, more lavish Georgian stables were built for the stately Gaddesden Place to house riding and carriage horses.

Over the years, the estate has expanded to accommodate organisations such as Upperwood Farm Stud which breeds thoroughbred racehorses, the Gaddesden Place Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA) that provides riding therapy and fun for those with special needs and disabilities, and more than 30 other businesses. As well as offering full livery services, there are a range of high quality homes and offices to let on site, along with paddocks and all other facilities that a horse owner could require.

Archery put a new string in the bow of the stunt riding company

Archery put a new string in the bow of the stunt riding company - Credit: submitted

The site has always been a popular place to ride, with almost eight miles of farm roads, tracks, woodland and a five-furlong gallop. A Park and Ride scheme was introduced in 2015 with the help of the British Horse Society, and takes place on the last Sunday of the month from April to August. It regularly sees 80-100 riders participating and traverses areas of the estate not normally open to the public. A charity ride on the last Sunday in September raises funds for the RDA and is the biggest ride day of the year. Other sponsored rides have been held in previous years for Redbourn Methodist Church and the church at Great Gaddesden.

Today the estate covers 2,000 acres, around half of which is arable farming and the rest comprising parkland, pasture and woods, plus a section of the Gade river. It is run by Nicholas and Viola Halsey together with their son, Guy, and daughter-in-law, Susannah. The Halseys are supported by a small team that includes Derek Christopher, a well-known figure in the horse fraternity and who was instrumental in setting up the ride scheme on the estate.

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‘I would say that the success and variety of our equine offering is down to a mix of good geography and strong demand,’ explains Guy. ‘We are lucky to be in an area where there is an active equine community, and through the hard work of a number of individuals, we have built up an interesting mix of different enterprises to serve those who are involved or who have an interest in equine pursuits.’

In 2013, the Gaddesden Place stable yard became home to an exciting new venture. Husband and wife team Karl and Zana Cousins-Greenwood had been touring a jousting and stunt show with their Stampede Stunt Company and were looking to extend their repertoire to include horseback archery.

Gymnastics plays a part in the display team's repertoire

Gymnastics plays a part in the display team's repertoire - Credit: submitted

‘We were performing at castles, county shows and fairs, and would see the bowyers selling their medieval longbows and horsebows,’ says Zana. ‘We spent a few years researching and learning the art, then persuading insurance companies to cover us to teach the general public. In 2010, this resulted in us setting up the first ever school for horseback archery in the UK, The Centre of Horseback Combat.’

The centre started off fairly small, but the couple quickly needed to find bigger premises, and relocated to the Gaddesden Estate at the start of 2013. To date, The Centre of Horseback Combat has trained more than 2,000 people from around the world and is the largest school for horseback archery in the UK. Last year it hosted four celebrity athletes who came to learn the fundamental skills of horseback archery and how to fall off safely for BBC2 series Natural Born Winners.

‘The site is a perfect fit for us, with its equine history, space and proximity to travel networks,’ Zana continues. ‘The beautiful Gaddesden countryside provides the perfect backdrop for our clients to come and learn the exciting skills of traditional horseback archery, improve their riding with our confidence-building courses or explore the performance world of stunt riding and authentic Cossack trick riding.’

The team is currently creating a new Dzhigitovka stunt show inspired by the Russian Cossacks who are regarded as the best trick riders in the world. It will be a fast-paced spectacle, with riders showcasing their gymnastics skills on horseback while jumping through fire and demonstrating their dexterity with a bow and arrow and other weapons.

Gaddesden Place dates to the Georgian period. Its stables are still used

Gaddesden Place dates to the Georgian period. Its stables are still used - Credit: submitted

‘We were the first UK team in history to compete in Russia in July 2016 at the World Dzhigitovka Championship,’ says Zana. ‘The Russian Cossacks have been our heroes and inspiration for many years, so you can imagine how excited we were to be given this opportunity.’

The team is working with the International Equestrian Dzhigitovka Federation and has invited the Russian Cossacks to perform with them in Hertfordshire this year, with dates to be announced.

Karl and Zana also founded the National Horseback Archery Society, the national governing body of the sport. As part of its calendar of events, the society hosts more than 80 horse riding courses, competitions and activity days on the Gaddesden Estate each year.

When they’re not practicing to be Cossack warriors, the duo still head up the Stampede Stunt Company, a touring show team that provides trained horses for film, television and photo shoots, as well as offering riding lessons for actors and stunt trainees wishing to pass the notoriously difficult Stunt Register Horse Test.

‘Our horses can rear, jump through fire, lay down and bow on command,’ explains Zana. ‘They are used to working in front of the camera and on film sets where special effects such as smoke and sound effects are used.’

The stables where the team are based are preserved in their original Georgian condition and have been used for a number of period dramas.

‘The Centre for Horseback Combat has added a new dimension to the equine-related offerings already available on the estate,’ explains Guy. ‘We work together in a variety of ways, including collaborating on filming opportunities and events. These are natural areas of estate diversification in the modern age, and having the team on site certainly helps us in terms of what we can offer in one location.

‘In an era where fewer locals pass through the gates to work the farm, we still aim to be a useful hub for the area. It demonstrates in one small patch of countryside, just how diverse, wonderful and energetic the rural economy can be.’

There’s a lot going on behind those Gaddesden hedges, and they’re not horsing around.

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