Sandeep Menon braved odds when he quit his IT job to pursue his dreams. Today, as he rides into the fourth year of successfully running the Stallion Valley School of Lifestyle, he shares how he fearlessly pursued his passion of starting a horse riding academy
Deepthi Sreenivasan –
As dawn sets in, the villagers of Agondapalli in Hosur, Tamil Nadu, are awakened by the sound of a booming bark. Little Bruno runs through the fog trying to clear up the cattle and then enthusiastically runs back to join his friends – a horse and its rider. The villagers have gotten used to the sight of Bruno the dog, Melody the horse and Sandeep the rider. A sight that reminds some of them of the fictional superhero Phantom, who rides a horse accompanied by a mountain wolf. That’s how Sandeep Menon begins his day before opening the gates of his horse riding academy.
Following his passion
Sandeep grew up in a town called Irinjalakuda situated in Thrissur district of Kerala and this is where he first fell in love with nature. He nursed deep within him a dream to be closer to it. Even during his 20-years-long career in the IT industry, he never let go of that dream. One day, he decided it was time to move out of the comforts of that industry and finally follow his passion. Not only did he fulfill his dream, but he also became somewhat like the comic book hero that he had idolised as a kid.
In 2018, Sandeep established the Stallion Valley School of Lifestyle, a sprawling farm in Hosur and Bengaluru that teaches the art of horse riding and everything about horses.
“On October 15, 2018, three horses entered our farm in Hosur,” reminisces Sandeep. His friend and partner Kishore Reddy had developed the Samruddhi farms in Hosur for a residential layout. “We had some areas there to develop something different. We had no clue what to do and discussed starting a Football coaching centre or cricket academy, but somehow my mind triggered the idea of a horse riding academy.”
“When I decided to move out of the IT industry, I was not scared and I was very clear about achieving my goals in life, the plan was to start The Stallions Valley School of Lifestyle -Horse riding academy. I started my career very early and I exited it also very early. I had a decent growth in my career, which was up to my expectations and then I opted to live my own life, which is when I decided to follow my passion,” he says.
With no past experiences in handling horses, Sandeep began to take one step at a time. “I started doing research and found out about Babu Kunnumpuram in Thrissur, who was running a small academy called Stallions Valley. I spoke to him and my partner and I along with our families went and met him. In his academy, we found well-maintained, healthy horses. At that point, we agreed to take our plans forward about starting our horse riding academy,” he says.
Maintaining the ‘Wow Factor’
Sandeep admits that it was extremely difficult for him during the initial days of the business. With hardly any idea of labour management and no clue about horses or stable management, Sandeep fearlessly stepped into that act of building up the academy. “I did a lot of research and reading. Spoke to a lot of people through social media.” To his luck, people came forward to support him. “So that is how I started learning things and I took things forward through experiences,” he adds.
With every customer who started to walk into his academy, he started receiving 5-star ratings on Google and very soon they became the best-reviewed and top-rated academy in India today. “This was the incentive for the effort that I put in,” he says confidently. Sandeep’s family lives in Bengaluru and he used to go to the academy in Hosur, five days a week during the initial days.
“Every time I visit the academy, I meet and interact with people who come there. I believe when the owner is involved directly with the customer, especially when you are a start-up, or doing something on your own, that will help the organisation to grow. Moreover, we followed ethics and integrity to the core.” Having worked in Wipro for 11 years, where ethics and integrity are a core factor, Sandeep integrated those values into his academy.
He says it is the ‘Wow factor’ that does the magic. “When it comes to the way we operate, there is no comparison with any other academy. Whenever people come in they have that ‘Wow’ feeling and my team and I always ensure to maintain it.”
Getting to know nature
Sandeep currently has two farms, one in Hosur called Samruddhi Farms and a fairly new one in Kanakapura road in Bengaluru called Bhoomi farms which was opened in Aug 2020. He has a team of 10 members divided among these two farms to take care of the property and the horses. “We have three people managing the Hosur property now, two grooms who take care of eight horses and we have a coach, Sivaranjini, who aspires to join the army. In Bengaluru, we have two grooms, two coaches, Vani and Bharath, and seven horses. Both the coaches are showjumping gold medalists. We have another resource to follow-up on admissions, a student counsellor and a procurement and sourcing partner as well,” he quips.
Elaborating about the activities within his farm Sandeep says, “The core objective of the academy is to bring people closer to nature.” But there is more to it, his focus has been on getting kids to enjoy nature more. “Today’s kids are completely into the digital world, they have no connection with nature. I had a customer who called in and said their son has never seen a horse and asked if they can bring him to the academy, I happily asked them to come over. So the idea behind the academy was this thought, where they can connect with nature and get to know all the animals on the farm. I believe it is a task in itself to get the kids to come! But we found that the minute they are out here their impulse to go back to digital devices is much less. So with kids, we go for a bird walk and give them coaching on multiple animal behaviour. A friend of ours comes down here with different kinds of snakes, both venomous and non-venomous. They get to touch the snakes as well,” says he.
Sandeep and his team also organise camping in the farm and where campers get to know the horses, go for rides on them, can stay in tents and spend an entire day where they can explore the farm.
The discipline of equestrianism, SVSL-style
The Stallions Valley School of Lifestyle which Sandeep established along with his partner is exclusively meant to train aspiring horse riders. They have students who attend syllabus based classes regularly. One syllabus is for competitive riding and the other based on the concept of Bond, Ride and Live – for a healthy lifestyle. Classes are held every day of the week, except Mondays. There are three morning batches and one evening batch. Sandeep gives an insight into the kind of classes they provide “The syllabus includes ‘Competitive riding’ where we train kids for competitions if they are planning to go for show jumping. We have specific horses for that, specifically bought for show jumping. We also have a theme called Bond, Ride and Live. The first level is covered in 25 classes where students are trained in ‘body balancing’. This is the part where ‘walking’, ‘trotting’ and ‘cantering’ will be covered. Walking is the stage where one gets to know about the: sitting posture, attitude, voice command to the horse, rein control and the kick to make the horse move.
“Trotting is where the horse moves slowly and you have to sit on it and learn to avoid getting into a bumpy ride. Here we have to move our body according to the rhythm of the horse. Those who are watching you shouldn’t feel like you are struggling on the horse. Once the trot level is set, the next stage is canter, when the horse starts to run. The rider has to engage their mind and body to it. At that point, it would depend on the rider, how the horse should move. Moving to the next level – it’s called ‘mind alertness’ – where the mind and body of the rider have to be engaged. Twenty-odd classes will be done on the ground, during which time the body will get set and 15 classes are held at Hosur, where we take the students to the hills for a countryside ride experience. The next stage is ‘soul’. At this stage, students come directly to the stable and groom the horses, put on the saddle, prepare it for riding, take it for a ride and bring it back. It’s just the rider and the horse on the move,” he says.
Sandeep points out that, by the time the syllabus is covered the students would have undergone a change in their lifestyle and attitude. “At this point, if the students wish to buy a horse and keep it they will be well prepared to do that. Moreover, we teach everything about horse management, vaccination, the type of injections that should be given to a muscle or how to inject into the vein, classes about their various illnesses and its symptoms,” he says.
The way in which these stages are designed is unique in India today. Admissions are for students from 3 years onwards. For them, classes start with pony rides. “For small kids, the first level will involve a trainer who holds the rein of the pony and makes it walk while the child is sitting on it. This stage is intended to give the kids the right kind of balance on a horse and also for them to get rid of their fear of fall.”
The academy currently has a three-and-a-half-year-old girl and a four-and-a-half-year-old girl as students. “These kids, as they grow up, will be unique in their way and very strong mentally. Horse riding will do magic to their psychological and physical fitness. In their school, out of 100 students they might be the only horse riders. That is enough to boost their confidence,” says Sandeep.
“Horses for the academy are picked up through our good sources. Initially, we made mistakes and lost three horses to illnesses. These incidents were quite hurtful because we were closely bonded with those horses. Things changed for us after Anirudh came into the academy as the first student. He is actively taking the lead to procuring the best of horses. Today all our horses are class-one horses, with a good medical history,” he says.
They currently own 17 horses and are planning to bring in six more. Indigenous breeds such as Marwari and Kathiawadi too are in the academy. “When we started the academy, we only had thoroughbreds. Now out of the 17 horses, we have all the varieties, Indian breeds as well, which are very easy to manage, they are more rugged.”
When quizzed about his expansion plans for the academy, Sandeep says, “Procuring include ‘stabling’ in the farms. This means if a person wants to purchase a horse, we will take care of its boarding in the academy. Currently, my students are finishing each level and if they wish to purchase a horse tomorrow, we will take care of the boarding, grooming, feeding and training. We have plans to include equine therapy for autistic children, a horse grooming academy, to train horse groomers, is also on the cards as currently there are no grooming academies in India.”
A dog’s haven
Apart from horses, both the farms have many dogs living inside it. All of them were adopted by Sandeep. “Most of them were adopted from people who couldn’t take care of them. Like Bruno, whose owner came to me via a friend. He is like a shadow to me now. Like Phantom’s companion ‘Devil’, he will always be next to me when I take my horse for a ride. Phantom’s horse was called Hero and for me it is Melody. Melody, Bruno and I were a great combination when we used to go for rides. Melody is scared of cattle and Bruno knows that and he chases them off and clears the road. This sight led the villagers to call me Phantom,” he laughs. “After Bruno, I got Princy, who was rescued from an accident, after her came Coco whose parents had to move away. Then I got Romeo, I am his 7th owner. He does not like the apartment life. Instead, he loves our farm and got settled down with us. During the COVID lockdown, we got quite a few dogs, like Zooco, a Great Dane, who used to belong to actor Vijaykanth’s kennel. Most of the dogs here are Indian breeds, very loving, well behaved and friendly.”
When the pandemic hit hard
Like the rest of the world, Sandeep and his farm too was hit hard by the pandemic. “We all suffered a lot. We lost our horse, Hazel, during those lockdown days. I couldn’t go to Hosur for five months, because crossing the border was a huge problem. During the lockdown, wheat bran was not available. The reason was that when maida is not getting consumed and when its production stopped, wheat bran was not produced. I had five horses then. The Indian breeds were healthy but the thoroughbreds became all skin and bones, and so I lost Hazel. All the students used to love her a lot, as she was very calm and quiet. But something productive too happened during those months. It was during these days that I geared up and set up the farms in Kanakpura and on August 5 we launched it,” he says with a sigh of relief in his voice.
Sandeep’s wife Rajani, kids Aditya and Shreya are all hardcore animal lovers. “My wife had no experience interacting with animals, but after our marriage, she started enjoying their presence and started loving them. Kids have been seeing these animals since they were born so they are not scared of any animal. My family is extremely supportive of my passion.”