Colliers End: the village of dancing horses
PUBLISHED: 09:07 06 March 2018 | UPDATED: 11:23 30 April 2018
In a village near Ware is one of Europe’s finest riding schools, the Contessa Riding and Training Centre. With stunning Iberian stallions, it is a place of pride and community created by a mother and daughter’s passion
For some, the thought of waking up at the crack of dawn each day to attend to the needs of an animal would be daunting to say the least. For Grand Prix rider Tina Layton-Elliott, early starts have been the norm for most of her life – and she wouldn’t have it any other way.
On a freezing Tuesday morning, clad in my thermals and wellies, I headed to the equestrian school Tina runs, the Contessa Riding and Training Centre in Colliers End. A complete horse novice myself – my only experience of riding consisted of incessantly shouting ‘can I get off now?’ – I was keen to find out what drives her, and the many who come here, to devote much of their lives to horses.
Owner, instructor and trainer at the award-winning centre, Tina, alongside her mother Sheila Layton, has worked to make Contessa one of the best riding centres in the country, and in fact Europe (it was voted third Best Riding School in Europe in 2006). Tina has also had international dressage success, representing Britain in 2000 at CDI Stubbing Court with her mare Pik Dame, which she had trained through the levels.
Her love of riding started young. ‘We were a family of three with one horse. Soon one turned to two and then we all agreed we needed one each,’ Tina laughs.
As the family stable expanded, so did their aspiration to make a living from their passion. In 1977 the family-run centre opened for business and has continued to impress ever since.
Tina’s mother, who was awarded an MBE for Services to the Equestrian Industry in 2010, had wanted a horse from when she was a little girl. ‘When we moved from Kent we were looking for a property with land so we could get a horse. Somehow one ended up at 40!’ She says.
Contessa now specialises in teaching dressage – the training of riders to enhance a horse’s natural movement, sometimes likened to ballet. Students come from across the globe to train here for professional exams.
All the way from Australia is Alicia Waldersee..‘I happened to receive word of a riding centre in Hertfordshire with a particularly good reputation and a team of talented horses and instructors’, she explains. ‘The only problem – Contessa is a 23 hour flight from home!’
The chance to train here was too good an opportunity to refuse, so Alicia put her life Down Under on hold to study classical dressage with Tina. The centre teaches dressage to Grand Prix level (the highest level) on horses known as schoolmasters – those with the experience and ability to help a rider learn and perfect skills such as the piaffe, passage and pirouette. Contessa has exceptionally advanced horses for a riding school, says yard manager Wanda Bendisch: ‘We are very lucky to have that sort of caliber.’
Wanda explains that dressage can be taught to all levels and that there is a pony club for younger riders with riding days, rallies and show preparation, as well as dressage and jumping camps. The school hosts regular competitions, summer shows, exam training for those who want to become instructors, and encourages people to bring their own horses to the centre for training.
Situated in 50 acres of lovely Herts countryside near Ware, the scale of the centre alone is impressive. Facilities include a generous indoor space with mirrors (think a dance studio for horses) and an outdoor school with a jump lane, as well as luxury animal accommodation in the stables.
As well as being highly professional, the place has a homely feel, ‘We really are like a big family’, says Tina.
The stables are currently home to 27 horses, including four Lusitano stallions. This stunning breed originated in Portugal and has long been bred for classical dressage. These animals arouse a sense of history and romance, and as is clear in the training arena, are more than capable of glowing in the modern equestrian climate.
The centre has nine advanced schoolmasters which Tina says can feel like ‘unexploded bombs’: ‘They have so much energy, they’ve got to work.’
One of the few riding schools in the country to offer training with these schoolmasters, Contessa is home to some beauties. ‘One of the stallions, Riacho (pictured above), was the reserve Olympic dressage horse for the 2012 Olympic Spanish team,’ Tina reveals. While Merlin, a beautiful Lusitano stallion of very rare palomino colouring (golden brown with blonde mane and tail), was imported from Spain where he was used in flamenco shows. ‘He would work around the dancers looking very spectacular – he can bow and even walk on just his hind legs.’
Tina says the art of riding is working in partnership with a horse and the centre strives to create harmony between animal and rider. Watching the training I see just how ingrained this philosophy is. There is a real focus on communication as Tina tells the pupils to ‘talk to the horses – communicate with them’ and that they must be ‘thinking riders’.
The horses react to the smallest of movements, so the rider needs to be fully aware of their influence, Wanda explains. ‘The horse mirrors the rider and the rider transfers everything to the horse.’
Riding is one of the few sports where sharing with and listening to an animal is essential. It is this focus on creating a relationship with the horse, coupled with a strong dedication to training, that has led to Contessa’s accomplishments. It holds the Association of British Riding Schools Advanced Teaching Diploma – one of only a handful in the UK – and is approved by the British Horse Society and Association of British Riding Schools. The school is also part of the Riding for the Disabled Association which uses horses and ponies to provide therapy and enjoyment to those with disabilities. It specialises in supporting children from the association.
No two days at Contessa are the same, Tina says. ‘There is always something going on. We obviously spend a lot of time on horse care, then there’s teaching clients, training students for professional examinations, planning events, holding clinics, schooling horses, preparing for competitions, training vaulting horses (for gymnastics on horseback)…’ Organising this complex diary falls to ‘very valuable asset’ centre manager Dawn Elliott-Moulden who has been here over 20 years.
The school also fundraises by hosting Ride for Research Dressage League events – joining with other riding centres across the area to raise more than £10,000 for Cancer Research last year.
Every month is a busy one, and March is no exception, with a highly anticipated visit from one of the world’s great authorities on dressage, Arthur Kottas. As former first chief rider of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna (above), Arthur now trains riders around the globe. This year, the only dressage tutorials he is hosting in the UK are at Contessa.
‘I consider Arthur a good friend and somebody I highly respect’, says Tina. ‘I have trained with him for over 20 years and my son Zak now trains with him as well as some of my staff.’
When Tina was very ill a few years back Arthur was a great support. ‘He was always very concerned and even took the trouble to phone me in hospital – there’s not many people of his stature that would do that.’
She admires his ‘no-nonsense’ style and perfectionism as well as his philosophy that ‘the rider is the pilot, not the passenger – the rider creates the horse’. Tina continues this philosophy in her own teaching.
Now in its 41st year, Tina hopes most of all that her riding school will continue to prosper as it has done over the years. ‘I would like to think that we continue to deliver high-level tuition on very well-schooled, lovely horses, from our Grand Prix riders to our young riders that start with us from about three years of age. I would also like to see my son Zak enjoying his riding and going out to compete.’
With its commitment to equestrianism and passion for horses, I have no doubt that in this quiet rural corner of Herts, Contessa will continue to show that the relationship between human and horse can be a spellbinding one.
Events at Contessa
The Arthur Kottas classical dressage event will be open for the public to watch at Contessa Riding and Training Centre on March 12-14. Participating horses will be Contessa’s schoolmasters and private horses of all levels from across the UK. Riders interested in training with Arthur can sign up for the next event on July 9-11.
Contessa’s annual Ride for Research Dressage League events in aid of Cancer Research take place on March 11, April 6 and May 6. Open to all riders, competitors dress their ponies (and themselves) in pink! Classes are from intro to elementary.
Whether a beginner or advanced, Contessa teaches riding to all levels and encourages both children and adults to give it a go. Look out for its regular ‘Mums and Grans’ afternoons.
For more information on all the above, go to contessariding.co.uk, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 01920 821792.