As temperatures drop and we say goodbye to what little warmth we enjoyed this summer, I’m looking forward to bundling up and taking part in all things cosy. Sloe gin, tartan blankets, and the clippity-clop of hooves on a sand track tick all the boxes. I was recently invited by Professor Andreas Liefooghe, founding director of Operation Centaur, to a preview of their popular Winter Rides in Richmond Park. I’m very familiar with Operation Centaur as I’m a member of their riding club, headed up by yard manager Georgina Springall, where I have a share horse who I ride once a week around the beautiful park. Now, I’ll go out on a limb and say that Richmond Park is my favourite of London’s eight Royal Parks. With 2,500 acres of open space, woodland gardens to roam through, and a wide array of wildlife, it always makes me forget that I’m in cosmopolitan London.
Operation Centaur’s mission is to bring working horses back into urban communities. Aside from the horses in the riding club, they have a fleet of beautiful Shire horses who are used for equine-assisted therapy, conservation work such as grass mowing and bracken control, community engagement, and heritage preservation through carriage rides. The carriage rides are the main source of funding for the conservation programme and also help pay for free therapy to those who need it the most. We meet the team inside Holly Lodge, which is tucked away in the middle of the park. Our guides for the day, Tom and Emma, welcome us with a glass of Pimm’s (Tom said they usually offer homemade sloe gin, but they were unable to pick any berries that weekend) and tartan blankets to keep us warm. We’re introduced to the Shires, a pair of gorgeous greys named Nobby and Heath. We hop into the carriage and make ourselves comfortable before heading out of the compound.
Our 60-minute ride allows us to explore the park as we learn more about the history of the area and the Shires from Emma and Tom. We find out that our gentle giants weigh a ton each and are part of a dying breed—there are now more giant pandas than Shire horses! Tom points out the furry hair around the horses’ hooves, called feathers, and explains that they protected Shires from rough terrain when they were used as war horses. The horses are sure-footed and incredibly strong, making for a very comfortable ride in the six-person carriage. Emma points out White Lodge, the hunting lodge completed for George II in 1730, which has housed members of the royal family and is now home to The Royal Ballet School. We pass the lodge and turn onto Queen’s Ride, the long avenue that was crafted through the woodland to make it easier for George II’s wife, Caroline, to go from their Richmond Lodge residence to White Lodge. Throughout our hour-long ride, we take in the outstanding scenery—the wide-open fields, the flocks of birds flying in a V-formation overhead, and of course, the herds of deer that are lying in the grass or peeking from behind the trees.
We arrive back at Holly Lodge where we give Nobby and Heath a pat and cuddle to thank them for taking us around. The entire 75-minute experience also includes a tour of Holly Lodge where guests can meet the other four-legged residents and see the ins and outs of a working stable. Despite being a regular visitor to the park, the Winter Ride allowed me to see it all with a different lens—it was easy to travel back in time and imagine the park as it once was, with royals trotting through Queen’s Ride, groups of hunters hiding in the bushes, and the cavalry training that took place in the park during World War I.
The Winter Rides can be booked from the end of November to the beginning of January and make for the perfect Christmas present, team outing, or romantic date. Get into the festive spirit with this unique experience that guests of all ages can enjoy whilst doing your bit to support these magnificent animals and the vulnerable people who they help through the therapy programme.
Address: Holly Lodge, Richmond TW10 5HS
Each ticket (£450 + booking fee) seats six people and is inclusive of tea/refreshments/sloe gin and a tour of the stables.
Book tickets here