A vigorous training schedule is awaiting the six-strong Junior European Championship squad announced by the British selectors earlier this week, but for three of the riders their equestrian ambitions are being put temporarily on hold due to exams.
British under-18 champion, Paul Whitehead, who heads the squad, is about to sit A-levels in maths, chemistry and biology. His ride Strathmore High Spirits is being kept in light work while the 17-year-old concentrates on his revision: “Mum hacks him out which takes the pressure off,” he explains.
Strathmore High Spirits is relatively laid back and has been produced slowly by Whitehead and Sarah Rees-Elford. “We’ve taken him steadily because he’s a big horse who lacks a little self-confidence so we didn’t want to over face him,” he explains. The partnership’s second place in Chepstow CCI* last month shows that his careful preparation has paid off.
Winner of the Osberton under-21 intermediate, 17-year-old Charlotte Agnew is currently sitting A-levels in Biology, English and Sports Science and is hoping to read English Literature at Edinburgh University. Dressage has not always been the favourite phase of Little Beau, Agnew’s 15.3hh gelding, but after help from Ian Stark and Jane Rutherford, Agnew was delighted to gain a score of 31.4 at Osberton, setting her up for a place in the junior squad.
Weston Park Trial winner, Victoria Vaughan Thomas, is currently taking AS levels in biology, chemistry, English and drama. Vaughan Thomas, who at 16 is the youngest member of the squad, says news of her selection came as a “shock to the system” but is excited about riding in France. She is trained by Tuffy Tilley and has had an impressive season on her 15.1hh piebald gelding, William the Conqueror. “He seems to have five legs so can always help me out,” she explains.
The remaining members of the squad, Aaron Millar, Jolyse Clancy and Lauren Shannon are working full-time so do not have exam pressures to deal with. Shannon is based with Mark and Tanya Kyle near Grantham and is in the enviable position of having two horses to choose from; Quixotic who was fifth in the OIU21 at Lincolnshire in March or Zero Flight who was 7th in the OIU21 at Aston-le-Walls in May.
Millar, 18, who recently came second in the under-21 eventer show jumping championships at Windsor, is based with the Wiegersmas in Devon and is trained by Carolyn Creighton. He has been successful in the CCI one-star at Chepstow and at Burnham Market CIC two-star this season on his 16.3hh gelding, Stormstay. Millar has had his sights set on the junior squad since the beginning of the season and consistent results including second place in the under-18 championships at Chepstow indicate the combination is a good choice to represent Britain.
Clancy works for show jumper Scott Smith and is the only team member to have ridden abroad. She was a member of Britain’s bronze winning team in the Junior European Championships in Italy last year. “You just have to treat it like another competition,” she explains, “but with all the flags and international competitors you can’t help but notice the different atmosphere.” Clancy, 17, describes last year’s championships as “overwhelming” and was thrilled to finish ninth individually: “It was the best week of my life.” Clancy has been riding On Song for the past three years. A seventh position in the OIU21 at Weston Park and a ninth in the CIC** at Sansaw have proved she is capable of representing Britain for a second time.
For the rest of the squad members, competing abroad will be a new experience, with higher temperatures and the language barrier just two of the additional challenges for the riders to look forward to. However, the British juniors will not be lacking support as an army of parents, trainers and grooms will accompany them to Saumur. “We’ll need a whole gite to house my family,” says Vaughn Williams, with a laugh.
Prior to the championships, which take place at Saumur in France on 4-7 August, the squad will embark on a vigorous training schedule, organised by team manager and chairman Robin Balfour and junior team trainer Gill Watson, culminating in an additional OIU21 trial at Stockland Lovell on 15 July.
Looking ahead to Saumur, Clancy believes the German team will pose the biggest challenge: “Their dressage is always so good,” she says. But with strong results behind them and Aaron Millar’s lucky Exeter city football socks, the British juniors have everything to play for.