Introducing Sonia – by Lisa Gregory

It might seem strange to introduce you to people the regular riders among you already know very well, but my hard-working staff here at the trekking centre are so dedicated to the well-being of both our horses and our clients that I think it is important to recognise their dedication.

So this week I am going to talk about a very familiar face – my yard manager Sonia Aston.

Sonia first came to work for me when she was just 17, fresh out of college and still very inexperienced. I was interviewing more qualified staff, but I was so impressed by how her determination to learn the job properly shone through that I decided to take a chance on her. It is a decision I have never regretted.

I will always give someone a go if I believe in them, and I also believe that if you find someone who is a nice person, you can make them good with horses. That was the case with Sonia.

She had to learn every aspect of the job, and she soon improved her skills and her riding. After two years she moved on, but I was delighted when she decided to return as a supervisor under Lucy Powell as yard manager.

When Lucy moved to Cumbria, Sonia took on the managerial role and she is responsible for the whole running of the yard, from the horses’ welfare and workload to the organisation of the treks.

She loves to be hands on, and I always say that if Lucy is my right-hand woman then Sonia is my left. We make a great team. Now over to Sonia…

Sonia Aston

I only rode a couple of times when I was small, but I really got the bug at age 12 when my cousin got a horse called Danny, and I used to go and ride him sometimes. Later, I managed to find bits of work experience.

After I finished college I applied everywhere I could for a job with horses. Lisa was the only person thoughtful enough to reply to me, and she offered me a job. When I was 18, I bought my own horse Millie.

A couple of years later I had the idea that the grass was greener, and I moved on to work as a showjumping groom, then at a kennels and cattery, and then for a vet. But I realised that my passion was really for working with horses – and especially for working with Lisa. I was constantly contacting her to ask if there was a vacancy.

And then there was – and I came back to work with Lucy, bringing Millie with me to become my guide horse. When Lucy moved away, I became yard manager, supervising the staff.

I was really upset when Lucy left; I wondered if I could cope without her, and I did find it difficult at first. But I stepped up and grew into the role. I have been back here for seven years now, and I love my job.

The yard has become busier and busier since I have been here. Winters sometimes used to be really quiet, but now we have three treks going out most days and the evening clinics too, and it is a change for the better. It is great to be busy.

Something I have really loved doing is helping Lisa with the training of the young horses. I had always wanted to do that, and Lisa’s help and support gave me the confidence to buy and bring on my own youngster, Elka (pictured left), who has replaced my lovely Millie, who I sadly lost a few years ago.

No job too small!

I love the variety of this job. I am doing something different every day. I am happy to go out on a trek or just as happy to muck out a stable. I even enjoy tack cleaning! I believe that you should always lead by example, and I will muck in with any job that needs doing on the yard.

My favourite job, though, is spending time grooming, tidying and clipping the horses. Sometimes we are so busy that we don’t get much time to spend with them. So whenever there is an opportunity to give a horse a pampering session, I love to do it as you get to learn all their different personalities.

Special favourites

Obviously I love all the horses, but, apart from my own, I have a particular soft spot for Buttons (pictured right) and Kitty.

However, if I were forced to name a favourite among Lisa’s horses it would have to be Saffy (main blog picture). I spent a long time bringing her on and training her to be my lead horse, and she helped me through a really tough period after I lost Millie. Saffy will always have a special place in my heart because of that. Elka is really doing well at learning to be a guide horse, but when I am on Saffy I can do every aspect of the job. She is fabulous.

Onwards and upwards!

I love the job as much now as when I started. With an eye on the future, the developments at CCTC are so exciting, especially the proposed 46 new stables, which will make working life somewhat easier.

That being said, I will never tire of riding out on Cannock Chase.

Introducing Lucy – by Lisa Gregory

As I introduce you all to the exceptional bunch of people who keep the trekking centre firing on all cylinders, we arrive at someone who is very well known to you all.

That person is Lucy Powell, my versatile right-hand woman who can literally turn her hand to any job at the centre. She may have greeted you at reception, taught you a lesson in the arena, or even made you a delicious coffee in the bistro!

Sometimes people come into your life that you instinctively know are going to be with you, step by step, throughout the whole journey. Lucy is one of those people. We met within a week of me opening the trekking centre, and she came to ride for her 11th birthday treat. She reminded me of myself at that age, quite shy but pony mad!

Her parents asked me if she could start coming to help out, and she has been with me ever since – through three yard moves, from working out of pig sties to the foot and mouth crisis; and from doing everything ourselves because we had no staff to our new era of the bistro and the arena.

Lucy has always shared my vision and my dream and my love of horses. She shares my ethos.

Having Lucy here coaching is fabulous; her style complements that of our other instructor, Karen Hudson. They are my teaching dream team. Each of the two of them approaches their lessons from a different perspective. Karen is a classically trained BHS coach, while Lucy studied breeding and horse psychology. But they feed off each other and their aim is the same: happy clients and happy horses.

Lucy started off as my pony-mad little assistant, helping out on the paddock rides; then she became a trek leader, my yard manager, a receptionist, a barista, a coach and now she even does the accounts. She can jump into any role – she is essential.

Now let’s hear from Lucy…

Lucy Powell

I started riding when I was three and was having lessons, mainly at Ingestre. But as I got older I felt I was getting a bit stale, and then my mum spotted that the trekking centre was opening.

She booked me an 11th birthday trek with my friends. I met Lisa and I was soon coming to help out. At first, I helped out on the paddock rides – I was known as the pony girl. My favourite was Banner, Lisa’s old competition pony.

Working with Lisa really brought my riding on because my confidence grew so much. At school I was quite shy, but at the trekking centre I found my voice; it brought me out of myself.

I went away to boarding school, but I insisted on coming home every weekend to work here, and when I went off to university I spent all my holidays here.

My degree was in equine sports science and equestrian psychology, and after university I lived in Nottingham. I worked as a groom for the army, taught at a riding school, trained horses and ran my own horse transport company, but I never lost touch with the centre.

While I was in Nottingham I bred my mare Eclipse. Her mum was Sophie, a mare of Lisa’s who was going to be out of work for a while (and who is also the mum of Atlantis), and her dad was a thoroughbred. I phoned Lisa as soon as she was born at 3am, and she and Georgia came to visit next day. I broke in Eclipse myself, and she was very good, but when I did have an issue with her, I turned to Lisa for advice. Now, of course, Eclipse lives here at the trekking centre.

Just as I was wrapping up my transport business, Lisa needed someone full time and I jumped at the chance. It was the best job I had ever had and I commuted from Nottingham for a long time before moving back here when I met my future husband Jamie, and he found a job locally.

I became yard manager, with Sonia as my right-hand woman, and that continued until 2015 when Jamie’s job moved to Cumbria. When we left, the building here had just started; when we came back two years later, everything was different!

Of course, as soon as we returned from Cumbria I was back at the centre! I started doing the accounts (which my dad had been doing for several years), then a little bit of teaching and I even learned to be a barista, as well as running reception.

I particularly love my teaching here. Because I have been here for so long, I have known some of these horses since they were born. I know them so well that I can teach my pupils how to ride and get the best out of that individual horse.

A cowgirl at heart

Western riding is a great love of mine and passing on that enthusiasm in my lessons is really rewarding. In the summer, we hosted two ranch-style evening parties, and I choreographed the musical rides performed my myself, Lisa and the staff. I devised the routine and chose the music, and I absolutely loved it. I was so proud of the girls. When we started practising, most of them had never ridden Western. By the time of the performance, they looked as if they had been born to it. We ended each performance with a fast and furious barrel racing competition with the staff in two teams. It was so popular that I am now teaching barrel racing clinics!

It is really interesting that I have noticed that the horses enjoy the Western clinics (including barrel racing) as well. For example, Tyri came from a dressage background but he just loves Western. He finds it sheer fun.

I love it here because every day is different. When I wake up in the morning, I never know which hat I am going to be wearing.

I can’t stay away – I am the Cannock Chase Trekking Centre boomerang!

Princess – by Lucy Powell

It’s time for our regular Horse of the Week feature, and, as it’s my turn to choose, I have stolen the blog from my boss, Lisa.

As you all know, I am one of the two coaches here at the trekking centre, and I teach both children and adults several days a week.

My choice

You are all probably thinking I am going to choose one of the horses that work so well in the adult lessons and special training clinics. Well, you would be wrong, because my selection this week is our pretty little Highland mare, Princess.

I have worked at the centre for a long time now, and one task I have always enjoyed is keeping an eye out for horses or ponies that Lisa would be interested in, who would do a good job here. Princess is one of my finds.

And, of course, she turned out to be a ‘buy one, get one free’ discovery, because – unknown to us when we bought her – she was in foal. She duly gave birth to Wispa, and so had a very light start to her new life here work-wise.

When she returned to work after maternity leave, Princess proved to be a forward-going pony and we needed to put small adults and children who could already ride on her. She is fun, and I actually love riding her myself!

But when we first started her in the indoor school, she was quite reluctant when asked to work on her own, although she was fine in a group. One day, I was riding her and she simply refused to go near letter H! All the other letters were no problem, but H was a big deal! She was also apprehensive of equipment or poles stored in the corners, and, eventually, we began to think that perhaps we should sell her because we just weren’t using her enough.

Lisa is very fond of Princess and didn’t really want to part with her, but we went ahead and advertised her for sale. Well, Princess clearly read the advert because she really pulled her socks up! And, since then, she has become better and better. She is a proper little schoolmistress now.

Superstar schoolmistress

She is brilliant at teaching canter, because it is so easy to get her into her stride. We often use her as a lead pony with a member of staff riding her to encourage the other ponies in the school.

My fellow instructor Karen loves her too. She is Karen’s go-to pony for jumping lessons. It is amazing to see a pony who was wary of poles flying around a course of jumps without a care in the world.

She is really quick and is fantastic at pony club games, which she really enjoys. I think she would love Western riding too, and I am really keen to train her in this skill.

I am so relieved that we didn’t find that perfect home for Princess. We would never part with her now.

Introducing Karen – by Lisa Gregory

In a couple of my recent blogs, I have been introducing you to key members of my team here at the trekking centre.

This time, it is the turn of Karen Hudson, and she really needs no introduction as many of you already know her – she is our British Horse Society (BHS) instructor and teaches lessons here several days a week. However, she has a key role at the centre, and I thought you would all be interested in learning how she came to be working here and to hear from Karen herself.

When I started the trekking centre nearly 25 years ago – it is our silver anniversary in 2020 – I had no intention of offering lessons. There are some very good riding schools around – notably Ingestre – and I did not want to compete with them. They are excellent at what they do, and we have always been excellent at what we do – offering clients the chance to enjoy our gorgeous Cannock Chase from the back of a good horse.

But, as time went on, more and more of my regular clients started asking about the possibility of having lessons on their favourite horses. So when I began the redevelopment here, it was the perfect opportunity to build an indoor arena and fulfil those clients’ wishes. Of course, I had to find an instructor, and as soon as I met Karen I knew we would be a good fit for each other.

Now we have everyone from children to adults, beginners to advanced, enjoying tuition here. Karen and I love seeing the riders develop, and the horses are benefitting too by turning their hands to every discipline and becoming much more well rounded. Now it’s over to Karen…

Karen Hudson

I started riding when I was just four at a trekking centre owned by the mum of equine dentist Mat Carter, who cares for all of Lisa’s horses.

A little Shetland called Sooty gave me a lifelong passion for riding, although I did not start out in an equestrian career. I was in sales and marketing – including selling equine products – for a long time. And after I had my daughter, I was starting to get bored.

At the time, I had a thoroughbred called Pimm. She had a few injuries, and I couldn’t ride her, so I started riding at Ingestre, where they suggested I take a few exams. I really enjoyed that and I did my Stages One, Two and Three, and then my coaching exams. I also trained at Berriewood Equestrian Centre in Shropshire. I started doing a little bit of coaching at Ingestre, and it was there that I found my passion for teaching. I worked at a number of riding schools and, at that time, it was all about developing myself as a coach.

It may sound very weird, but I always knew I would end up working with Lisa here at the trekking centre. Someone told me that an arena was being built, and I came and handed in my CV. Six months later, I saw the job advertised on the BHS website and I thought, “That job is mine!” I applied, and the rest is history.

It was a challenge at first because the horses were used to being ridden out on the Chase – they found being asked to work in an indoor arena a bit baffling. Working on their own was strange to them when they were used to trekking with their herd mates.

And I had to get used to Lisa’s way – no artificial aids, no crops, no whips, no spurs and no lunge lessons. But I have absolutely loved it!

Our patience has paid off as the horses soon settled in to school work and they are never, ever stale or bored, because they still have the fun of trekking out on the Chase.

I realised a long time ago that this is a leisure industry and you have to send your clients away happy. You cannot boss them around. I have learned that a coach must be interactive; you must make people welcome. A coach must empower clients rather than put them down. I hope I succeed in that in every lesson. When you teach children, you are often making the difference whether they go on to ride all their lives – or give up. It is a serious responsibility.

I love working with groups, so I enjoy our clinics, such as cross country and dressage in the summer, and polework in the winter. I enjoyed learning to ride Western in the summer, so I was able to take part in the Western riding displays at the ranch party nights, even including some exciting barrel racing!

Lisa and the girls on the yard provide me with wonderful support. She and I discuss how we want to develop the school further, and I love to get feedback from her.

I adore the horses here – I don’t think they have a clue how much I love them! My current aim is to get all the coloured cobs working nicely in the school because they are so safe.

My own horse is a coloured cob called Blaze and he is schooled to novice level in dressage. Any horse can do dressage – it is just a matter of schooling.

Coaching is my passion. Seeing my pupils leaving the arena with smiles on their faces is everything. I want them to go home buzzing.

My Review of 2019 – by Lisa Gregory

At this time of the year I enjoy looking back at the past 12 months, and I am always full of anticipation for the 12 months ahead. But this time there is extra excitement because the new decade brings with it a very special event.

The year 2020 is our silver anniversary here at the trekking centre – it’s 25 years since I first opened my gates to clients. The anniversary falls on June 20th – which is also my daughter Georgia’s 18th birthday – so, as you can imagine, I am planning a major celebration. At the moment I am thinking in terms of a big open day to showcase all that we do here. I will keep you all up to date with my plans.

2019 highlights

But back to 2019. It was a relief to me to be back to normal after the testing conditions of the previous year. As you all know, 2018 was a year of blizzards and drought, so I was delighted to return to typical British weather, which meant we could stay open and continue to enjoy our trekking.

We have enjoyed some fabulous days. I reinstated our popular pub rides and they have proved a great favourite, and we were lucky enough to have fabulous weather each time we did an evening Indian ride. Those summer evenings were very special, and I think in 2020 we will do a mixture of Indian nights, pub rides and supper at the Ranch Bistro.

Our Longdon two-day trail ride took place in the hottest weather of the summer, but our horses were fine as we took them on a route through shady woods on the way to our lovely accommodation, and I am sure this will be a popular feature again. I think we will also make this available as a private booking if a few friends want to get together.

I am looking at resuming our Wales trips, and my partner Mark and I are looking at possible venues where we can enjoy the best of the beach and mountain scenery.

Of course, the annual Sheriff Of Lichfield traditional beating the bounds ride in September is a highlight of our year, and this time we took our biggest ever number of horses. It was a great success and our two prep days involved lots of fun, laughter, hard work and cake!

Our treks and lessons are always busy and our instructors, Karen and Lucy, have been working hard, especially as we have introduced some very popular clinics. Now we have saddleless riding, polework, cross country, Western riding and barrel racing.

We have had three fantastic evening events in our bistro: two Wild West themed ranch party nights in the summer, with food, drinks and a live band; and our first ever Christmas party. I think everyone at the ranch parties really enjoyed our Western riding display in the arena. I was so proud of my girls and all the horses. They put on a fabulous show and the response from the audience prompted us to introduce barrel racing as an activity.

We enjoyed our first Game Of Thrones themed ride and that is another idea we think we will develop. We are looking forward to doing it bigger and better in 2020.

Hellos and goodbyes

On the staff front, we said a sad goodbye to trek leader Mell Newton, and wish her well in her new job. And we welcomed one of our weekend staff, Ellie Jones, to our full-time team on a new apprenticeship.

We also said farewell to three of our horses. Tia, Lady and Georgie all went off to five-star private homes, while we said hello to our beautiful Friesian boy Oberon.

For me 2019 was the year of the babies. I knew I would be busy with four to train: Nymeria, the sister of my PRE Andalusian trek leader Pele; and three home breds, Arizona, Indiana and Montana. It was hugely rewarding, as all four have exceeded my expectations. Nymeria was the most challenging, but it’s been a great learning curve. She, Arizona and Indiana are all regularly out on on the treks with clients, and Montana, the youngest of the four, has just started to join them.

The last of my home breds is Colorado, and I may do a little work and lightly back him in 2020. I usually wait until they are four, and he is three, but he is a big, bold and confident boy, and I think it will do him good.

In the bistro we have a new chef, and we are receiving inquiries about weddings, christenings and kids’ proms. And the success of the party nights we have held so far has made us start thinking about other evening events.

Here’s to the next 12 months!

We go into 2020 looking forward to another 12 months of great riding, lots of fun and a warm welcome to all of our guests.

But the highlight is going to be our anniversary. As you all saw this summer, we know how to throw a party here and this will be a special one!

Exciting times ahead!