From dodging mines to an MBE: Horsewoman Tess's decades of teaching
- Credit: Kate Morfoot
One of the region's most treasured horsewomen who has dedicated more than 75 years to teaching others is showing no signs of slowing down as she enters her 90s.
Tess Hardy remains as busy as ever in the tack room, talking to customers and cleaning up at Pakefield Riding School on Carlton Road.
For more than half a century, she has helped teach disabled people the joys of horse riding, both in Lowestoft and almost 5,000 miles away in Houston, Texas.
But the whole venture, which first began in the 1940s, was made possible, in part, by selling her dolls' house as a teenager.
She said: "I wasn’t keen on school and I left as soon as I could when I was 14.
"I had to do something, and I remember I went on a tandem with my father to Beccles Market to buy a horse and set something up with horses.
"I could afford Bonny Lass, my first horse, using money saved up through selling my dolls' house, a small inheritance from an aunt and doing gardening work for former Norwich City chairman Geoffrey Watling - but not the saddle or the bridle. I rode her bareback for a year.”
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Soon, she began charging people a few pennies to ride her horse, and within months she found enough funds to buy another horse - and the saddles.
With her keen entrepreneurial spirit, at 16 she won a contract with Pontins Holiday Camp, with the money made there allowing her to build an indoor school.
She said: "Things were so different when I first started in the 1940’s - there was certainly no health and safety.
"When I started, the war had just finished. I used to give rides on the beach along the dunes, dodging holes where mines had been exploded after the war."
Having secured her Pontins contract at the age of 16, Tess and her helpers would collect customers from the camp at Pakefield and lead them on bicycle, to Gisleham Church and back to Pontins.
After the police stopped this when the roads got too busy, she then decided to do the rides from Pontins on the beach.
Mrs Hardy initially called her venture Castleton Riding School after her father, Stewart Castleton Cooper who, she says, was always a great support to her.
By 1948 she had acquired a few more horses and moved to the school's current 'yard'.
She met her husband John at the Royal Hotel in Lowestoft who is also a keen horseman, and she became one of the first people to bring Lusitano Portuguese horses to the UK, having imported the first stallion to England in 1974.
His name was Moscardo from the Pinto Barreiros stud. He was a dapple dun, standing at 15.2hh.
In 1968, she began offering riding sessions for the disabled, which eventually led to Mrs Hardy being made an MBE in March 2001, presented by Her Majesty The Queen.
Now, about 50 disabled children and adults attend weekly riding sessions at the school.
“I look back at my years here and the highlight for me is seeing the benefits to the disabled riders and teaching the children and adults,” she said.
“I've seen three generations grow up, and people still come up to me and say 'you taught my grandmother' and so on, which I will always cherish.”
She was also instrumental in establishing a similarly successful Riding for the Disabled (RDA) group across the Atlantic in Houston in the 1970s.
At the time, the couple were living in the Texas city while Mr Hardy was seconded on business, and Mrs Hardy became a founder of only the fourth RDA group to be set up in the US, which is still going strong today.
She said: "I took my English riding saddle with me, but this occasionally got borrowed by my American friends and I ended up with the western saddle."
But her successes show no sign of slowing down as she turns 90 on Wednesday, April 20.
A proud moment for Mrs Hardy, mother to James and Arabella and grandmother to Harriett, was when her Dancerina mare was first and Eros her stallion was fourth out of 15 horses at the Windsor Horse Show in 2021.