H&H catches up with Vicki Clark at Hartpury, having achieved her dream of qualifying for the NAF Five Star British Dressage Winter Championships with her 18hh 'gentle giant' Dakota 1 SB

From opening a boutique saddlery 10 months ago, to almost losing her son in a car accident in January, then achieving her dream of qualifying for the NAF Five Star British Dressage Winter Championships, 40-year-old Vicki Clark has had a whirlwind year.

Her eight-year-old Zento gelding Dakota 1 SB has been on the back burner recently, but pulled off a 74.07% win at Houghton Hall regionals to give Vicki the dream ticket to ride in the Baileys Horse Feeds novice restricted freestyle.

When we catch up with Vicki back at the stables, she doesn’t want to know her score — waiting for five hours to hold onto the lead at Houghton was torture enough. “I don’t care where I come,” she says, “but today I was shaking before my test, I was so nervous.”

‘I didn’t want to like him’

She’s owned the 18hh ‘Jack’ for three years, having originally gone to try another horse on the same yard. Even as a 17hh five-year-old, he was ‘far too big’ and she walked away without trying him. “A week later, I came back and fell in love, even though I didn’t want to like him.” They’ve been to the regionals every year, finishing 10th, seventh, fourth and finally, first. “In the past I’ve always let him down, but everything that’s happened recently has given me a totally different outlook on life,” she says.

Jack is totally laid back in the stabling at Hartpury – I’m early to his stable and he totally ignores me, dozing after his test. “He’s so easy to ride; you can put anyone on him. Recently we were hacking past a paintballing range, there were hundreds of men with guns and he took no notice. Last time we took him to a racecourse, a pony beat him,” she says.

Their music is all related to him: “Black Beauty because he’s black and beautiful, and Titanic and Pirates of the Caribbean after the main characters.”

Vicki chose the music with help from Nick Reeves, while trainer Ben Martin devised the floorplan,  using one that he won at the nationals with a few years ago. “Ben has travelled up to help me, and to plait him up — mine aren’t very good so I wasn’t allowed!”

A leap of faith

Opening the saddlery was a leap of faith. Becoming disillusioned with the NHS after 11 years as a midwife, Vicki and her non-horsey business partner Gemma launched Westleighs Saddlery in Ramsden Heath last summer. The shop fits around the horses — opening at 10am to give her time to ride Jack before work. It’s a boutique store where they make the service personal, with prosecco, chocolate and give-aways.

“It’s done a lot better than we thought, but it’s been really hard work,” says Vicki.

2016 looks set to be an even busier year, with their sights set on moving up to elementary and a spot on the senior inter-regional team.

For a full report from the British Dressage winter championships and the Area Festival final — as well as news, views and expert comment — pick up a copy of Horse & Hound magazine next Thursday (14 April)