Racing Post’s Lewis Porteous spends a day with the centre’s visionary Keith Hackett
You do not have to sit on a horse at Park Palace Ponies to be inspired by what is taking place at the inner-city riding school for complete novices in Liverpool.
That is thanks in part to the former Victorian music hall, with its ornate ceiling and rich sense of history, where children aged between four and ten are welcomed for their first experience on horseback.
It is also down to Keith Hackett, the visionary who believed long ago that a riding school surrounded by industry rather than countryside could achieve the great things Park Palace does every day.
One of Hackett’s first requests after pleasantries have been exchanged sums him up perfectly. “Don’t make this piece about me,” he says, keen for the staff, pupils and ponies to be the centre of attention rather than himself.
Small in stature, the 65-year-old has a heart the size of the auditorium-turned-riding arena in which we stand and an appetite to make a difference to his local community to match. So, apologies Keith, but leaving you out of the Park Palace story would mean doing the entire project a grave injustice.
A former councillor, Hackett’s hybrid of an accent is down to his journey to Liverpool from his old stamping ground in north-west London via Manchester. He is certainly not your average Scouser but they treat him as one of their own in the Dingle.
Home to the seven ponies of Park Palace and a close-knit community, the Dingle is nestled by the water to the south of Liverpool city centre, its terraced houses and vibrant population synonymous of its working class heritage.
As a music hall or more recently a cinema and chemist, the red-brick building belonging to Park Palace Ponies has traditionally been at the heart of its community, but after plans to resurrect it as a theatre failed after just one show at the end of the last decade, its future was precarious at best.
Yet, despite the holes in the roof and lack of heating, Hackett saw something others could not and, while the journey at times has been choppier than the Mersey on a windy day, bringing Park Palace to town has helped reinstate the status of an important local landmark within its community.
“For three years I was a senior councillor in Liverpool,” says Hackett. “Back in 1987 I was for six months chair of the sport and recreation committee and I know that if you put properly run sports development activities into any place you will get a corresponding rise in the elite end and get a corresponding rise in the participation numbers overall.
“I never had any doubt whatsoever that this would work. The only issue for us was to get it up and running. Everyone else looked at it like some extraordinary aberration.”
A plethora of business development projects, characterised by their imagination and innovation, have occupied Hackett for years, so he is no stranger to taking something of the magnitude of Park Palace Ponies on, but his current project could make the most significant difference yet.
The idea was first hatched in 2010 but it took a sizeable personal donation from Hackett and years of wading through a red-tape jungle before Park Palace eventually gained the backing of the mayor of Liverpool and the British Equestrian Federation to launch as a six-month pilot scheme in 2017.
The fact it is still going strong two and a half years later speaks volumes but, more than that, Park Palace Ponies is now ingrained into the fabric of the local community.
“The purpose for us – the us being the five directors who are involved in the standalone company that runs Park Palace Ponies – is to prove it can be done,” he says.
“That’s what we set out to do in the hope and aspiration that once we proved it can be done, there’s a demand for it and it can stand on its own, they will pop up all over the place.”
He continues: “The key measurables were; if you start a riding school in the middle of a place that’s never had any recent history of horses or riding, what’s the participation rate going to be?
“How many kids and their parents will turn up to a free half-hour taster? How many will then continue to pay to go on a course and then how many of those will progress on to riding at commercial riding schools on the outskirts of Liverpool?
“The answer was more than 40 per cent came from our postcode in L8, which is one of the most financially impoverished postcodes in the country. The progression rates were 40 per cent again, and what it proved over six months was that if you put something in place participation levels in equestrian sport will increase, which means there’s a new market for riding schools.”
Come the end of the six months and with the data collated, the plan had been to disassemble the school and sell the ponies but, having made such a positive impact locally, members of the community took a stand and demanded it stayed.
“The local councillors said you can’t take this away now,” remembers Hackett, “and we’ve run with it. We’re financed by pony sponsors, commercial income and the odd grant here or there. The ongoing work to the building is financed by Sport England – that picks up all the difficult bits like the roof.
“A ten-year lease of the building has also been purchased out of it, with a right-to-purchase agreement. At that stage it would become an in perpetuity social enterprise-owned riding school and that’s the plan.”
Although it was once a 400-seat theatre, the actual riding area is only half the size of a standard arena, meaning no more than five ponies can work at any one time and their speed never progresses beyond a rising trot off the lead.
Catering only for non-riders aged between four and ten, Park Palace Ponies is very much the first but arguably most important rung on the ladder.
After completing a six-hour riding and six-hour pony care course over half a dozen weeks as part of the centre’s schools’ programme, or an eight-week alternative for those attending outside of school hours, participants are then signposted on to larger riding centres where their journey can advance.
A mix of volunteers and paid workers with the required equine qualifications, many of whom hail from the local area, run the lessons and their popularity means a full timetable consisting of primary schools, private lessons, animal-assisted therapy sessions and pony parties keep the show on the road six days a week.
Today welcomes the weekly visit of year three pupils from St Cleopas primary school in the Dingle, who had only to cross the road to arrive for their lesson.
While a group of five seven- and eight-year-olds enjoy the practical side in the school, the same number get to grips with the horse care aspect, learning about equine anatomy and tack among other things.
Both groups appear completely enthralled, which is exactly why headteacher Lynne Gannon is keen to make sure all pupils who pass through year three at her school will get the chance to experience it.
“For the community, it means a lot to have Park Palace Ponies,” she says. “The feedback we’ve had from the children has been fantastic.
“What they’ve learned about how to look after horses and their anatomy is incredible. The writing they’ve produced from their visits has been excellent and really improved their subject knowledge.
“Not only that, it has improved their engagement in school and their attendance – it’s another reason to come into school and it’s been wonderful.”
On a personal rather than academic level, she adds: “Every child, no matter if they have any difficulties, has taken part and it’s really improved their confidence and vocabulary.
“It’s only for year three at the moment but, as long as the funds in our budget are there, every child who comes through the school will have an opportunity to learn how to ride and care for a pony. It’s had a huge impact on the children and they absolutely love it.
“With racing being so core to Liverpool through Aintree racecourse, it’s giving them that opportunity. School is not all about education of reading and writing. It’s giving them an understanding that there are wider opportunities out there for every child in the world and this is one of them.”
The kids are not the only ones smiling away, with the six members of staff on duty merrily interacting with the children and each other, making the lessons fun and offering a heap of encouragement along the way.
“I started volunteering here about a year ago and I love it,” says Claire Chapman, who lives only a furlong or two away. “My youngest daughter has lessons, she’d spend every day here if she could and I’ve always loved horses, so it was inevitable really I’d end up here. It’s been almost 30 years since I’ve been involved with horses and it’s a feeling of coming home. It’s lovely.”
On what it has brought to local residents, she continues: “It’s good for kids in the community to be around horses and to have a chance. Everyone has got behind it – I don’t feel like anyone disapproves of it being here. People come in just to see the ponies in their stable and there’s no negativity. Everyone wants to be involved in some way.
“To have it in a community, in a city, is amazing and these people get to look out of their window and see it. It’s on a main bus route and it’s accessible to everyone – anyone from any background can get involved here.”
With the kids packed off back to school and no further lessons pencilled in before the evening, it is time for some well-deserved downtime for the ponies. “We’ll turn them out now,” says Keith, seemingly forgetting we’re in the middle of an urbanised area by the side of a busy main road.
Yet, in a has-to-be-seen-to-be-believed moment, the instructors don their high-vis jackets and lead the horses out of Park Palace and up the main road. Passing the local cafe and bookies, seven horses march in single file along the road to the local allotments and adjoining land that has become a turn-out paddock for the ponies.
Cars, vans and even lorries wait patiently, pedestrians stand and wave and the ponies amble on without a care in the world. It’s certainly novel to an outsider but for those who call the Dingle their home, this has become the norm.
The question now is can it become the norm across Liverpool and beyond? Hackett certainly sees no reason why not.
“A whole different strand working with schools has grown out of this,” he says. “The behavioural changes being reported for having contact with horses and ponies are extraordinary and that side of it is something we never anticipated.
“Follow the logic of that then you would actually end up with a Park Palace Ponies for every eight to ten primary schools across Liverpool. And, believe me, we are probably heading for a case where we could convince the local authority to back that.”
While the kids are gaining the riding experience, the real beauty of Park Palace is that the entire community is benefiting. If it can now be replicated, the possibilities are endless.
What they are saying in the local community
Councillor Steve Munby
Park Palace Ponies has worked well at several levels. For lots of local kids it’s a chance for them to ride horses that they wouldn’t have had otherwise. More generally, having animals around that kids can see is just fantastic and it changes the way people feel about the area.
As well as transforming the local area it helps transform local young people. It’s a lovely idea and lovely experience. It’s really simple – offering riding lessons to kids – but often the best ideas are really simple.
I can’t see why it can’t be rolled out elsewhere. Like a lot of these things, it depends on the people involved. That’s the key thing and I hope it is mirrored elsewhere.
Publican Margaret Johnson
I used to sit in there as a child when it was a cinema but the building had been empty for years. It was derelict but you see it now and it’s amazing. The way it’s taken off is marvellous.
The children love it but even adults love seeing them walk down to the field. They’re horse mad here anyway and everyone loves it. My granddaughter, who is 16, was one of the first to volunteer and she’s never been away since. All the staff and volunteers are so dedicated.
It’s bought my granddaughter out of herself and she’s so much more confident, and I can imagine it’s the same for a lot of kids. It helps integrate them. It’s one of the best things that has happened here for a long, long time.
Full-time staff member Toni Schumacher
I literally live over the road and just did some voluntary hours at first. That was two and a half years ago and, while I can remember when we were knee-deep in mud and struggling for funds, it’s onwards and upwards now.
We’ve got the staff we need now, the work on the building is getting done and the business is growing bigger and better. Many of the volunteers we’ve got are local people and the comments we get from their parents in the difference they’ve seen is amazing.
Horses do change people. Anyone with autism, anxiety or ADHD, this is the place to be and we’ll give them the help they need. It’s like a family and Keith is the grandfather of the place.