In the saddle
PUBLISHED: 14:52 05 March 2012
Zac and Sarah Pugh
British riding instructor Sarah Pugh moved to Deux-Sèvres from the Vale of York eight years ago. She and husband Zak bought a farm near the tiny village of La Chapelle-Thireuil and planned to run an equestrian business as well as renting out a holiday gîte.
The holiday gîte side of things took off and the couple have welcomed scores of visitors to their corner of France over the intervening years, although French bureaucracy all but put a stop to their plans for a riding school.
In 2011 however, their business was transformed after their complaint to the European Commission was successful and led to an about-turn by the French authorities. Sarah can now teach riding lessons, run competitions and pony days, escort promenades and ballades in the beautiful Gâtine countryside – all in complete contrast to the restrictions she previously faced.
“It has made a huge difference,” Sarah says. “Before, every door was closed and now every door is open. It has totally changed our business.”
When the couple first arrived in France and despite Sarah having both the BHS Assistant Instructor (AI) and the Intermediate Stable Manager (ISM) certificates to her name, the French authorities wouldn’t recognise her qualifications, so she was unable to run her own riding establishment in the country.
“I was only permitted to hire out horses and to do livery,” Sarah explains. “And if I did hire out a horse to somebody, they had to ride unaccompanied. I wasn’t allowed to accompany them or supervise them.”
The situation was particularly frustrating for Sarah as she had run her own business in the UK and had been chief instructor at an equestrian centre.
“There is no real equivalent to my qualifications in France. In the UK, although AI stands for Assistant Instructor, you are considered an independent instructor, not an assistant. It’s just an old-fashioned term that has been around for a long time.”
The French regulations focused on that word ‘assistant’, however, and it meant that running her own equestrian business was out of the question as she could only instruct under the supervision of a French-qualified moniteur d’equitation.
Happily for Sarah and Zak, time was on their side, so with the gîte aspect of the business doing well and then with the arrival of Josh, now eight, and Harry, six, they could afford to play the long game.
“The vast majority of people who come out with aspirations to run a riding establishment in France go home, but luckily for us we’d come out in a fairly strong financial position,” Sarah says. “And then I had the children and wanted to spend time with them, so we kept things ticking over with the back-up of the gîte. We were very limited in what we could do though and we had to do livery, which we never intended to do. We also bred a couple of foals and I did some hiring of horses to friends and friends of friends but we couldn’t advertise at all, we couldn’t run competitions and I couldn’t teach.”
Then, out of the blue, Sarah received an email from someone in a similar situation who had taken his case to the European Commission.
“I got an email from a chap in Normandy who had the same problem as me,” Sarah explains. “He said he was taking a complaint to the European Commission and it was moving fast and he was getting some results. He asked me if I would be interested in joining him. He needed three people to make the complaint stand up and he said that everybody else he’d spoken to had either gone home or moved on. “I put my name down and in the end three of us put our names forward with the complaint. Basically, to cut a long story short, it was successful and they gave us the opportunity to show them our experience.”
Inevitably, this entailed the compilation of an enormous dossier, in French, which chronicled in detail all Sarah’s professional experience and tallied it up with the requirements of the qualification she has now been awarded: the Brevet Professionnel de la Jeunesse, de l’Education Populaire et du Sport (or BP JEPS for short).
“That’s what you need now to run your own establishment teaching riding,” Sarah explains. “It’s a two-year course and, if anything, the equestrian side of the course is a lower standard than the AI, but it is very business-orientated. You need to know how to keep books, how to run a public display, how to assess how it went and you need to be aware of health and safety etc. There is none of that in the AI so what I had to do was to prove to the French authorities that I had that experience.
“I had to compile a dossier which went right back to the start of my career. It showed that I had all the experience. Luckily, not only did I have the equestrian experience but we’d also run a small software development company in the UK for quite a long time. In my role as company secretary I dealt with the administration, accounts etc so I could prove that I had practical experience of everything in the BP JEPS.”
The effect of having the BP JEPS has been dramatic and the business has been transformed. “I am now allowed to run my own riding school,” says Sarah.
“I am allowed to teach. I am allowed to run competitions. I can take hacks out. The other benefit is that I am allowed to run the French Galop system of equestrian qualifications. I can actually test people and pass them and award the certificates, and in English too. We’ve had quite a few English holidaymakers who have been doing a Galop test while they’re on holiday. It’s a really nice thing for them to do during their stay. Before, it was a case of: ‘No, no, no.’ And now I can do everything.”
It seems that once the door has been opened, the road that once was rocky is suddenly smooth, even when it comes to insurance.
“We thought, ‘This is good, we’ve got the qualification. Now the next hurdle will be the insurance. How much is that going to cost?’ But it was less than we expected to insure for the year for teaching, hacks, livery, everything. It’s palatable… to run a riding school you expect to have to pay quite a lot for insurance and it was actually not that bad.”
Sarah is now teaching a lot more local French children and is staggered at how much interest has been generated among people in the local community.
“It’s amazing the difference it’s made,” she says. “We still want to stay small. We don’t want to be a big riding school but we’ve got a lot more French children now and we’ve affiliated to the Fédération Française d’Equitation (FFE). Before we were 90% English clientele but now we’re closer to 50/50.
“I am spending a lot of time teaching in French. Sometimes I have to teach in French and English which blows my mind. The parents really like it because the French children are hearing English. I speak English to the English and French to the French and the English is going in and I start to see the French children reacting to the English instructions which the parents love.
“We have had a really nice response from the French community. They already knew us because they see us at the school gates with the children but this has made us feel more a part of the village.”
For the future, the couple are hoping to do more riding holidays including some with English for French children.
“There are a lot of Parisian families who send their children on holiday to learn English and they don’t want to send them out of France and we’d like to tap into that market,” says Sarah. “English in the morning, riding in the afternoon; and obviously we could do the Galop tests with them as well. We have quite high hopes of that.”
The fact that they can now advertise has also made a tremendous difference.
“We held a Journée du Cheval in September and if I’d known how many people were going to come down, I’d have been far more stressed. I didn’t think we’d get anybody but we were amazed by the response. We had about a dozen riders and 40 people in total, including local businesses that came to support us.
“It’s really since then that things have really taken off. From my perspective there is more work but I am teaching groups so I’m getting more money for my time and I can charge more for my private lessons. We are also doing show jumping challenges and pony days. They have been really successful and the kids have had a great time. They just loved them.”
The decision by the French authorities has been greeted with a characteristic Gallic shrug by Sarah and Zak’s French neighbours.
“When I laugh and tell my French friends that I’ve got the right to teach now and I’ve only been here eight years, they all say, ‘well that’s France for you!’ I suppose it might have been done quicker if I hadn’t had two small children but in France it is the case that things move slowly and they give you hoops to jump through and if you jump through them you get there in the end.”
The change in the status of the business has given Sarah and Zak an injection of enthusiasm and they are both excited about their plans for the future.
“We don’t want to change things very much but it’s nice to earn a little bit more for your hours,” says Sarah. “The horses are there and they could be ridden every day and it’s nice to feel that we might be able to get our heads above water financially as time goes on.
“It’s all slowly dropping into place. We finally feel as though we know exactly what we are doing and who we need to contact and how things work here… It’s a nice feeling.” LF