Mark Atkinson of Eastrington near Howden took the bold step of diversifying more than 20 years ago, initially offering horse riding lessons and a livery service on his family’s dairy farm.
When one of his customers said he was taking part in a historical re-enactment, Mark insisted that if Royalists and Roundheads were going head-to-head at Fort Paull near Hull, then they would need horses. The seed of an idea was planted and ten years ago Atkinson Action Horses was established.
Mark said: “At first it was all very new to us and the horses, so, to help with the training, we had to get friends from the village to improvise by banging and clattering dustbin lids and things to try to recreate the noise and chaos of a battlefield.”
Mark soon started supplying horses to the English Civil War Society, Leeds’ Royal Armouries Museum, English Heritage and other groups which stage re-enactments. He also started training horses for medieval-themed jousting events.
“There were only a handful of people in the country involved in the jousting side and there was a shortage of horses trained to take part. It’s one of the most difficult things that you can train a horse to do, so at first I used to go to the Royal Armouries and watch what they did. When they tried a couple of my horses, it worked out well and they have used them ever since.”
Mark’s horses have been in increasing demand for television and film work, having made appearances on everything from BBC drama Poldark to crime series Peaky Blinders. They have also been used for fashion shoots, including for the late-British fashion designer Alexander McQueen.
These days, Atkinson Action Horses is very much a family concern. Mark’s wife, Jill, helps out with everything from catering to administration and their son, Ben, 22, oversees the live shows in which their daughter, Lucy, who works as a primary school teacher, rides in during her spare time. The family can also call upon a team of stunt riders that they have trained themselves.
Ben was the riding double for actor Aidan Turner, who played the title role in Poldark. A few months ago the family and 19 of their horses finished filming the second series of the popular costume drama in Cornwall.
Mark said: “The live shows are very much Ben’s domain now - he spends hours every day training with his horses.
“I think the internet has really helped to raise awareness - people can watch what we do on YouTube and Facebook. Ben was head-hunted by an Australian trainer who saw him on the internet. He came over to spend a week with Ben and then asked him to go to Mumbai to work on a Bollywood film.”
Mark spends most of his time in the role of horse master on television, film and fashion shoots. He is currently working on the set of Victoria, a new period drama for ITV starring Jenna Coleman, which is being filmed in and around Yorkshire.
“Being a horse master involves doing recces of locations, making sure everyone involved in filming is safe and chatting to the director to help him deliver the scene that he wants. We’re also there to ensure our horses are looked after, but everyone involved is lovely and animal welfare is a top priority.”
In the weeks ahead, Atkinson Action Horses will perform at more than 30 country shows and events across the UK, including Howden Show at the town’s Ashes playing fields on Sunday, July 3, and before then at the Royal Cornwall Show in June.
Mark said: “We were invited to Cornwall because that’s where Poldark was filmed and they wanted Seamus, the horse Ross Poldark rides in the TV series.
“Seamus has become a real diva – he’s making lots of public appearances since being in Poldark. He has his own Facebook page and we get so many emails from fans asking questions about him.”