The Kennedy family is returning the Victorian Equestrian Centre to its former glory. Russell, Andrea and Tayler spoke to CASEY NEILL about their $2 million labour of love.
Multiple sclerosis has given Russell Kennedy and the Victorian Equestrian Centre a new lease on life.
He was diagnosed with the central nervous system condition 30 years ago.
“I started off remitting and relapsing,” he said.
“It’s turned progressive.”
He walks with a noticeable limp. Stairs are a challenge.
Russell’s old job put him on the road a lot and “it got to the point where I just couldn’t keep up”.
But retirement didn’t last long.
“My wife Andrea came up with this idea to buy the run-down equestrian centre,” he said.
“I said ‘tell me your dream’.
“That’s what it is today.
“We’ve still got to build the stables and the hay shed but the premises is up and running.”
The VEC sits on almost 40 acres in Beaconsfield Upper.
It opened in 1976 and once hosted world cup qualifier events, but had become run-down.
“I just thought it was the community needed – a riding school, somewhere for kids to learn as well as do our higher level clinics with specialist coaches,” Andrea said.
“There’s nowhere else for them to go.
“The important thing now is to get accredited to hold competitions here, which is really what I want it to be all about.”
The Kennedys have poured about $2 million into the centre since taking ownership in December 2016.
Previous owner Ken Aldred died suddenly on 17 April 2016.
He’d bought the place in December 1996 after retiring as a Federal MP after that year’s election.
His four children – Mary, James, Lucy and John – said selling the property was a hard decision, but the right one.
“It’s been our country life from childhood to adulthood, and now is the right time to pass on the VEC baton on to a new generation,” Mary said.
At Ken’s funeral, James said: “Dad was the VEC, and the VEC was Dad”.
The Kennedys are grateful and eager new custodians.
They moved about 220 cubic metres of mushroom compost out of the indoor arena and spread it across cleared paddocks.
“It brought it all back to life,” Russell said.
“What we pulled out of here was 18 12 cubic metre skip bins of rubbish – 90 per cent of it got recycled.
“I had an excavator here for seven months.”
It was “the dream of seeing it back up and running” spurring them along.
“It just seemed a shame for it to go to waste when it’s been an icon since 1976,” Andrea said.
“Having a local facility like this is great, particularly for people who haven’t got their own land.
“I rode as a kid. I’ve now got back into riding.
“Tayler’s ridden since she was five. Tayler learnt to ride here when she was seven.
“It was really buzzing back then.”
Tayler, now 20, has fond memories of the facility.
“I remember the holiday camps,” she said.
“It’s nice being involved in the holiday camps now. I’m watching them grow as riders.”
She competes in dressage and has five horses on the site.
The family lives just next door, on a property with plenty of sheds – a handy solution for storing hay until the new sheds are built on-site.
But activity at the centre is in full swing.
They’re hosting coach Stefano Van Zuijlen – “the third best dressage rider in the world, from Holland” – Peter Fischer, Marvin Smith, Dan Maloney, Paula De Lacovo, Tarryn Proctor and more.
“We want to keep introducing different levels of coaches,” Andrea said.
Russell said: “We’re getting a lot of attention from some of the big riders.”
Showjumper Amy Strapp used to live on the site with her parents and now runs a clinic at the VEC each fortnight.
The centre has been hosting freshman’s showjumping. There are no bookings – riders can just buy a round.
“They come and they do five rounds over the showjumps,” Andrea said.
“If they clear all five rounds they get a ribbon.”
Russell said: “We’ve had people coming from Traralgon, Mornington…”
“They’ve been coming from all over the place.”
The school holiday program is attracting plenty of participants, too.
“They come for the whole day and we give them lunch,” Andrea said.
“They get to pretty up a pony at the end.”
Schools are using the facility for training days, from Haileybury to Beaconhills and Mater Christi.
“It’s good for them because it’s close,” Andrea said.
The VEC developed and hosted the first of the Victorian Inter-school competitions, at one stage with nearly 700 competitors.
The competition has since spread throughout Victoria and even nationally.
The Kennedys are also employing young people from the area for horse feeding and other tasks.
They’ve received support from Cardinia Shire Council throughout the process.
“It’s good for the community, good for the shire,” Russell said.