Horse & Hound caught up with an emotional Olivia Oakeley at the LeMeiux National Dressage Championships as she had her final competitive ride on her equine partner of nine-and-a-half years

Training any horse from prelim to grand prix is impressive. But when you ride your first grand prix on that horse at just 21 years old, impressive is an understatement.

When ‘Rio’ (Donna Summer) joined the Oakeley family as a five-year-old, it was a case of “let’s buy her the best horse we can afford, and it’s going to have to be a young one”, says mum Katie. “We thought, she’s either going to meet boys and it’s going to finish by the time she’s 15 (‘and we can go off and enjoy ourselves’, chips in dad Robert) or it’ll work and we’ll be skint for the rest of our lives – thank goodness it’s her career now”. It’s always been a family effort, even though Olivia left home at 16 to train with long-term mentor Carl Hester, who remains the only person “allowed to call her Olive”.

Despite the sadness of riding her last test on Rio, the whole family agrees it will be the best thing for their horse of a lifetime; he can step down a few levels from the grand prix work, which Olivia says he finds “a bit hard”, and teach junior Ottilie Bardsley the ropes at small tour. Olivia’s already filling Rio in on plans for his retirement – “now the new rules are in, you’re going back out at prelim at 20 with Mum” – which include not only the role of family pony, but maybe a spot of eventing.

Her next star is Steve and Anne Keen’s Don Carissimo, who joined her yard this year, and has already taken in a winter and a summer championships. Together, Olivia and ‘Darcy’ will compete in the Mount St John Future Elite Championship at HOYS in two weeks’ time. It’s a big step forward in what promises to be a stellar career, but she knows she couldn’t have got there without the little chestnut who started it all.