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Is youthful specialisation a good thing?

Britain is blessed with a gamut of young riders who have their hearts set on being the next Whitaker, Funnell or Faurie. But while it’s great to see so many “wannabes” competing in dressage, show jumping and showing at an early age, some trainers and riders believe there is a danger of eroding all-round riding and management skills.

There are also fears that pushing children down one track can result in damaged confidence. A recent letter in Horse & Hound about the number of nervous children trying a pony for sale struck a chord among many.

Specialisation is a story with a bewildering number of sides to it. A lack of appreciation for riding schools (themselves hobbled by fears of potential litigation), pushy parents and pressure to win team places are all hot issues.

Showing might not demand out-and-out courage, but it does take plenty of skill and confidence. Look at the backgrounds of many of the big names’ – Robert Oliver, Robert Walker, Allister Hood, David Tatlow and Katie Moore, to name but a few – and you’ll find hunting writ large.

There are plenty of gutsy youngsters riding in their hoofprints, but also children for whom the show ring seems to be an ordeal characterised by white faces and fixed hands.

“A lot of children aren’t happy,” believes producer Penny Hollings. “Some are physically sick before they go in the ring. I’ve seen a lot of little ponies that I wouldn’t be happy to get on until they’ve been lunged – and a lot of children would benefit from riding at home on any old thing, not just on professionally produced ponies at shows.”

In showing, as in all fields, parental encouragement can turn into pressure. Sometimes it is because parents try to live their own dreams and ambitions through their children, sometimes because they have spent a lot of money and expect success.

Penny has seen instances where parents who have overstretched their finances have berated children as soon as they leave the ring because the mega-money pony hasn’t won and similar stories are heard in the dressage world.

“I’ve seen children crack under pressure from parents,” says British Dressage pony teams trainer Ian Woodhead. “They lose their nerve and their confidence.”

Show jumping also has its share of “parents from hell”, including the father who rushed into the ring when his daughter fell, only to tell her that she had to pick herself up because she had two more ponies to ride that day. Fortunately, officials overruled him.

Dressage rider and trainer Hannah Esberger-Shepherd is a prime example of someone with a “do-it-all” background. She started riding for fun and until recently, even had a little event horse called Fun who was kept for just that.

She appreciates that times have changed since she made her first junior team on her father’s 12-year-old all-rounder, Dutch, and acknowledges that the sport has become a moneyed one.

“It’s become so elitist,” she says. “You can be a talented rider, but if you’re on a donkey, you won’t win. Children need to be winning to keep going, they don’t understand any other way.”

Hannah still hacks and jumps as a matter of course and believes young riders should do the same. “You’re not as gutsy if you’ve never left the ground and you don’t have the same balance,” she says. “And if you haven’t jumped, I imagine it’s quite frightening if a horse leaps into the air. They can do that just as well on the flat!”

Tina Goosen, mother of international show jumpers Guy and Mandy and a BSJA accredited coach, firmly believes that young riders need an all-round education, in more ways than one. Guy and Mandy’s first riding experience was on her old pony, Hank, and they then went to nearby Seecham Riding School in Worcestershire.

Pony Club activities plus flatwork tuition from Tina’s mother, dressage rider and trainer Gill Rose, paid lasting dividends later in the show jumping arena. Schoolwork in the classroom was also given as high a priority as schoolwork in the arena.

As show jumping co-ordinator for the World Class Potential programme, Tina dislikes the fashion for taking children out of school to be tutored at home, because she feels they miss out on developing social skills and sometimes on education. She stresses that there are some instances where this works – but plenty where it doesn’t.

“It can be a definite disadvantage,” she finds. “Some – though not all – aren’t good at conversing or don’t know what’s going on in the world. Several international riders feel that some youngsters are not good at talking with owners and sponsors, which is obviously important.”

Young show jumpers in particular have been criticised for their lack of practical horse knowledge, although the BSJA is trying to combat this through its proficiency award and pony camps. The message is also getting through that you’ve got to be good at the bits between the fences as well as the bit in the air.

“You need to be able to ride on the flat to produce good young horses and doing a bit of everything – gymkhanas, cross-country and so on – helps to develop good balance and a good seat,” says Tina. “One of the problems is that we’re losing good riding schools all the time because of factors such as exorbitant rates and fears of litigation.”

Time and time again, trainers in all disciplines cite its ability to instil sporting values, all-round ability and horsemanship. Look at any champion in any discipline and almost invariably you find a Pony Club branch listed on the rider’s CV.

Valerie Watson, chief instructor for the North Warwickshire branch, comes from a family for whom the Pony Club and all it has to offer are a way of life: her mother, Dawn Wofford, was the organisation’s first woman chairman. Then, as now, the emphasis was on all-round skills and camaraderie went hand in hand with competition.

“I love seeing the ‘furry brigade’ come on, the ones who don’t have all the advantages but get such pleasure from their ponies,” says Valerie. “Very often, they can go on to surprise you. If they are dedicated enough and have natural talent, they will often be lent good ponies. That happens a lot in the Pony Club.”

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