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Pony Zone riding club at Aldenham Country Park in Elstree closes
The unexpected closure of a pony club that helped disabled and able-bodied children has “left a huge hole in the area”.
The Pony Zone, in Aldenham Country Park in Elstree, was forced to shut in mid-December after receiving two days' notice.
Parents and their children have been left devastated by the closure of the club, which helps children including those with disabilities such as autism, learn to ride.
Mother Debbie Thackeray began taking her eight-year-old Emily to the club when it opened in September and said her daughter grew in confidence during her time there.
The 44-year-old added: “Emily absolutely loved going there and learning all about the ponies. It was great to see her getting involved with such an interesting hobby.
“It is such a pity it is no more, she was so disappointed when I broke the news to her, we both were. She learnt so much at the club.
“Children are taught more than how to ride a pony – they are also taught about different breeds of horses and how to muck out stables. It is interactive and I valued that.
“It was a very strong community asset as it helps teach the children so many skills. It helped a lot of disabled kids too – it really is such a shame.”
Another mum, Bea Lasek, said her 12-year-old daughter Nina, who used to volunteer for the club, was left devastated by its closure.
Mrs Lasek, a teacher, said: “In a world where kids are glued to their computer games and television sets, we should be encouraging things like horse-riding, not taking those assets away.
“I teach at an autistic school and I know how therapeutic ponies can be for children.
“A lot of disabled kids used to go there so I do not know where they will go to learn to ride horses now.
“It is devastating to think it has gone. It really helped boost Nina’s self esteem. It is such a shame.”
Debbie Hogg, of Stevenage, first took her seven ponies to the park earlier this year after discussing it with manager Robert Marsden.
But after constantly working seven days a week with the help of volunteers, the former prison worker asked Mr Marsden if he would consider employing paid staff.
She was stunned when his reply was not only no, but she was told to vacate the area within two days or incur a hefty fine.
The 44-year-old said: “It put a whole black cloud over my Christmas - the Pony Zone was my only source of income and I had no idea where my next meal would come from.
“All the parents of the kids who used to come to me tell me that it has left a huge hole in the area.
“I moved my ponies to stables with the help of my friends but I am feeling disgusted with the way I was treated. I put my heart and soul into the place – but at what cost?”
Fifty per cent of the takings at the Pony Zone were shared with Aldenham Country Park, in keeping with an earlier agreement.
Mrs Hogg, who lives in Stevenage, has since found another job working with children but is hoping to find a new patch of land to set up the ponies again.
She added: “I am upset for the children the most as a lot of them really miss coming to me.
“At first I really wanted to give up but now I am determined to find somewhere to relocate – it was never about me, it was always about doing this for the kids.”
Olivier Behzadi, spokesman for Aldenham Country Park, said: “It was with great regret that we had to let Debbie go at short notice – we did so with a very heavy heart and it was not a decision taken lightly.
“We did previously offer her support from park rangers who already worked at the park, who helped with mucking out stables.
“She asked us to employ her more members of staff but we were unable to do that.”