Don’t spare the horses for your country retreat
After the Grand National has been raced and the National Hunt season closes, the time arrives when horse-lovers think of buying their dream equestrian property in the sticks.
That is precisely what Frances Wilson, the renowned dressage trainer and judge, did eight years ago. She and her husband, Duncan, 60, a finance director, bought the Old Rectory, near Faversham in Kent, with the intention of equipping it with everything she needed to train her horses. “We were amazed to find both an Olympic-sized arena and an indoor arena here – you hardly ever find these in a private property,” says Wilson, 48, who bought the house from a Swedish dressage rider. “We refurbished their surfaces and renovated the stables, installing sealed rubber floors and automatic drinkers.”
At the Old Rectory, Wilson rides in the mornings and teaches dressage in the afternoons. Now she admits to feeling a wrench at leaving this six-bedroom Victorian house, with its high ceilings and big windows, for a new life in Portugal. “This has been a perfect spot for us, especially as we’re near the Continent for international competitions,” she says of the property, which stands in almost 24 acres and is for sale with Strutt & Parker for £2million. “The hacking over the North Downs has been brilliant, but I’ll be taking the horses with me to Portugal, so it’s not an end to riding.”
How do you judge a good place to keep horses? There is one golden rule that experts always offer buyers: prioritise the land over the house. You can improve the house, but you can do little to the land.
“Your prime concern should be to have somewhere nearby to ride,” says Ed Oldney of Rural Scene, a company specialising in country properties. “A place may be deep in the countryside but that’s not much good if – as in parts of Devon – the lanes are too busy with visitors to ride through with any safety, and you can’t get access to the fields.”
In that respect, west Wales has a lot going for it. There are very active riding clubs, and a good network of bridle paths. It is possible to clip-clop around open moorland on the Preseli Mountains, as well as quiet country lanes and spectacular beaches. If the remoteness of this westerly outpost is a drawback, its prices are a plus. One equestrian-friendly property on the market is Carreg Grwca in Whitland. It is a fivebedroom house, built in 2000, with stables and a manège set in 68 acres, and is on the market with Fine & Country for £795,000.
It is also important to assess the quality of the land. It is best to opt for freedraining ground because if the land gets waterlogged, horses will be stuck in the stables all day, meaning more mucking out and higher food costs. Send samples of the soil away for analysis; flint should be avoided as it can harm horses, while light loams and chalk are preferable to heavy clay, which gets boggy in winter and dries hard in summer.
Kate Humphrey-Lear, 33, carried out improvements to aspects of her horsey estate, including the drainage, and ended up spending £55,000 in total.
The Old School House, in Earls Colne, 12 miles from Colchester in Essex, had suitable land but needed changes to the facilities. She had mirrors put into her arena, which she has enlarged to around 200ft, and bought a horse-walker, which is a type of equine treadmill.
She lives with husband Dan, 36, who runs a building company, and sons Joseph, 10, and Grayson, four. Humphrey-Lear looks after three horses for friends, keeps four of her own and, like so many people involved with horses, talks of riding as an obsession. “I simply love training horses and their riders and seeing them improve,” she says.
She is expecting a daughter in the summer and is selling up for a bigger equestrian property nearby. “It’s a lifestyle choice, not a job. If I can’t ride, I’m depressed.” The house – a stylishly converted red-brick former Victorian school – is being sold by Zoe Napier and is currently under offer.
It is important when buying an equestrian property that the outbuildings are up to scratch. If it is an older property then it’s best to check that nothing is listed, as that is likely to rule out any plans for modernisation. Consider the quality of the stables, as they require good drainage. It’s important that they are in good condition as they will undergo a lot of wear and tear. A
Frances Wilson, left and below; the Old Rectory, main, £2 million with Strutt & Parker The stables at the Old Rectory, right; and the paddock, below
Frances Wilson, below; and the kitchen of the Old Rectory, left