IN a blow to tourism in West Somerset, world-renowned Porlock Vale Riding School, once famous as an Olympic training camp, has been forced to close in the face of serious financial difficulties.

The closure brings to an end an association with international equestrianism, which helped put Exmoor on the map as long ago as 1945, when the riding school was founded by Tony Collings and his business partner and horseman Capt Chris Leyland.

Owner Helen Youd said: "We've been struggling for five years, ever since the foot and mouth epidemic, which was a watershed for us.

"It's really been a battle, but we haven't just thrown in the towel.

"The finances haven't stacked up for some time, and our losses have been increasing."

She said the business had started going down hill from 2001, the year of the farming crisis, and it had to be subsidised by Porlock Vale House, the associated country hotel, which will remain open.

She said: "People are going abroad on holiday more, and more people own their own horses on Exmoor.

"We are too far away from a major centre to attract enough clients.

"We are still going to keep horses here but we won't be running a commercial riding school."

She said some of the horses would be retired, and others would be kept for leisure riding.

"Some people who have ridden here in the past have already expressed an interest in having our horses," she said.

During its history, the school has hosted Britain's first dressage course, built one of the first indoor schools, supplied horses for the 1948 Olympics, and trained the British three-day event team for the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki.

Tony Collings was responsible, among others, for establishing the Horse of the Year Show, and also helped found the Badminton Horse Trials, riding in the first event in 1949 and winning in 1950 on Remus.

When Helen and her husband, Kim, bought the establishment 12 years ago, the school had 30 horses, an indoor school and sizeable cross-country course.