There’s keeping busy during lockdown and then there’s keeping busy during lockdown. Karen Newall tells Carolynne Dear how she built a riding school in Thailand in a pandemic.
Enjoying Phuket on horseback.
“As a child growing up in Scotland, I was horse crazy,” admits Karen Newall, one eye on our Zoom call and one on her young proteges bouncing up and down enthusiastically on small ponies in a Thai paddock.
“But then we moved to an extremely rural community and it was impossible to get any proper lessons. So I’m relearning now,” she adds, as the ponies and riders attempt some jumps.
Newall and her business partner Lolei have achieved what just months ago seemed impossible; they have successfully built and opened a riding school during one of the world’s toughest lockdowns.
The pair live on the holiday island of Phuket, where Lolei has been involved with horses for more than 20 years. She started up a small riding establishment in Baan Manik four years ago, but the business quickly outgrew the establishment and she moved to new premises.
However, things didn’t work out on the new land and it looked like the riding school was going to be dissolved. It was at this point that Newall stepped in.
With three, horse-mad daughters, she and her husband David decided to get involved. This was in November 2019, just before the world descended into chaos.
The Newall family had moved to Phuket from Sydney in 2017 , following a four-year stint in Hong Kong and three years in Australia. City living had left no room for horse riding. Newall admits that being involved with the riding school here has reignited a childhood passion that she thought was long behind her. But it was her youngest daughter, Niomi, who led the family into this new venture.
“I put Niomi on a horse when she was two, and she loved it. She wouldn’t stop talking about it,” she recalls. “When we arrived in Hong Kong, she started riding again, but lessons were extremely expensive. When we moved to Phuket, she began riding with Lolei. It’s her passion that has led us into all of this. When Lolei began encountering problems with the business, it was unthinkable that there would be no real riding school locally.”
Newall admits the first hurdle was finding the right block of land.
Red Bamboo founders Karen (right) and Lolei.
“Lolei had been looking for years and the perfect spot came up just at the right moment,” she says. “It’s located on a rubber plantation very close to the British International School in Koh Kaew, which is in the heart of the island.”
When the team started the build, the land was nothing more than a swamp. Rubber trees had to be cleared and drainage dug.
“I think people thought we were crazy,” admits Newall. “Construction is never a walk in the park anywhere, but in Phuket we really didn’t have the easiest time.”
She describes their first contractor as “hopeless”. “His drainage ran uphill and he seemed to have no understanding of levels or straight lines, which were key. So we literally had to build the arena and stables again ourselves. This was really tough, especially given our budget.”
The budget was further tested when the pair attempted to procure materials.
“Phuket prices have a premium,” says Newall. “We often found that we could buy and ship things to Bangkok for a reasonable price, but the overall cost literally doubled when we tried to bring them down to Phuket.”
Unfortunately, the build contractor ignored the plans drawn up by the architect and structural engineer and failed to put in the correct foundations. This has meant the team has so far been unable to complete the indoor arena.
But in a stroke of good luck, it turned out that the stables’ head groom, Khun Thap, and his wife, Khun Daww, had previously worked in construction back in Myanmar. The pair continued with the build throughout lockdown, with Newall admitting she often found them still working away at midnight.
Construction of the riding stables in progress just before lockdown.
“Their dedication has often reduced me to tears,” she says. “This pandemic has brought out the best and the worst in people. There has been so much panic and greed, but also so much kindness. Often, our team members refuse bonuses for the extra work they are doing. Last month they used them to buy the steel to make new shelters for the ponies in the paddocks.”
The weekend that the first arena was finally completed, which meant the stables could open, was March 14, the very weekend that the world realised that it was dealing with something a little more serious than the ‘flu.
“We’d hoped for a grand opening, but in reality it was no more than a quick blessing to the gods before we all rushed home,” says Newall.
This was also the weekend that it became apparent that Thailand had been hit with an African horse virus, which had been brought into the country via a shipment of zebras. For zebras, the virus has a mere five per cent mortality rate, but for horses, that figure rises to 95%.
“Thanks to the lockdown, the virus was contained and better restrictions could be enforced,” says Newall, admitting that it was an incredibly stressful period, particularly as she was unable to access the stables due to the strict Thai regional lockdown and curfew.
Local children enjoying the completed competition arena.
Newall admits that even now the stables are struggling to find good horses for the riding school. “We had five horses to start with and we now have 20 on the land, including liveries, but we need more to expand.”
Most of the horses are rescue ponies. But with all levels of clients at the stables and some hoping to ride at competition level, the team would normally hope to be procuring horses in Bangkok, Pattaya or northern Thailand.
“However, the virus has put a stop to that for now,” says Newall. “So we find them in the most unlikely places. We recently bought an ex-race horse from a man’s car port. He was hoping to give his kids rides on the beach, but realised he actually needed a smaller pony.”
But Newall says that the most stressful part of lockdown was not knowing how long it would go on.
“There were a lot of misunderstandings and miscommunication. Fortunately, Thailand was fairly quick to react to the situation that was unfolding and the authorities were very strict with the lockdown. One of the main stressors for us was ensuring enough hay and food was delivered. Our staff live on site, so all the horses were lunged (exercised) every day and well looked after. Lolei also managed to obtain a pass to cross the lockdown boundaries that separated each suburb, so she was able to check on the horses, too.”
The team was able to start offering riding lessons on June 1. Over the summer, they have led camps for both children and adults, as well as beginner courses and lessons for more advanced riders, including show jumping and how to train a young horse.
“I love the way in which Lolei teaches,” says Newall. “It comes from the heart, you don’t just learn to ride, you learn how to read your horse and communicate with it so you become a team working together.”
The school is now offering after school lessons as class resumes for international students in Phuket.
The stables cater for all levels of riders.
“We hope to develop the after-school classes into inter-school competitions,” says Newall. “We had our first show this weekend, which involved show jumping with 12 jumps up to 90cm in the morning, plus games such as obstacle courses and barrel racing in the afternoon. The Thai cowboy community also joined us after lunch, which was fantastic.”
The team has also mapped out some stunning treks in the local area and there are also plans for a cross country course. And there’s a half-kilometre trotting track surrounding the stables which the young riders are particularly enjoying.
“We hope to offer more jungle and plantation trekking options and we would love to invest in a trailer so we could do more beach riding. The nice thing about our trekking is that we start riders off in the arena first so they can get a feel for their horse before heading to open ground. It also gives the instructor a better idea of how you ride and whether we’ve chosen the right horse for you. Safety must be key for both horse and rider.”
Newall says that for her, she loves the plantation rides around the old tin mining lakes. “The bird life is so beautiful here in Phuket and it’s nice to be able to ride in the shade of the lush green trees.”
Immediate plans for the future include finishing off the indoor arena, but they need to wait for the dry season for that to happen. The team is also planning to do birthday parties. “And we dream of a polo field and a horse therapy clinic for both horses and riders. I guess a project like this never truly finishes.”
Newall admits that the project has been incredibly stressful at points. “But when you have animals to care for, you can’t just give up,” she says. “There is a beautiful relationship within the Red Bamboo team, we’ve laughed our way through the tough bits and horses are incredibly calming for the soul. But most of all, we’ve all believed in this project. There’s a demand for it on the island and it has so much potential. Nothing worth having has ever come easy, as they say. It’s been wonderful to be part of something so positive.”