Sibling rivalry: doom and gloom or fun and frolics

  • The sport world is littered with successful siblings: Venus and Serena Williams, Olympic rowers Jonny and Greg Searle, and Michael and Ralf Schumacher, to name a handful.

    Our own horse-powered sports have numerous examples of their own. So does making it a family affair foster success, as siblings push each other harder and pool resources and experiences, or can competition test even the closest family ties, leading to tack-room tantrums and showground showdowns?

    Just 22 months separate Horse & Hound’s racing editor Catherine Austen from her brother Will, who events. “We shared a pony when we were very small but whoever wasn’t riding would scream so loudly that Mum gave in and acquired another. Will has had such a jammy time,” says Catherine.

    “As a boy, he would bowl up just as his pony was ready, then hand it back, most graciously, afterwards. Being older, I’d bring on ponies, just for him to take them on when they were going well.

    “Will is much bolder than me cross-country and it’s all down to a fabulous horse he got at 14. Raffles was a £1,400 bargain but the horse of a lifetime. Meanwhile, I had a series of unpredictable, dodgy mares.

    “Life isn’t fair but, admittedly, Will has been more switched on: I had a party for my 21st, whereas he chose an eventer – much longer lasting,” she says. “Every time I see him compete, I wish it was me but I am very proud and supportive of him.”

    The French sisters
    You might imagine that it’s dandy brushes at dawn for sisters Nini and Piggy French, who share a yard and live together. Instead, the eventing pair is a fine example of sisterly harmony. Well, most of the time.

    “It is intense and words do fly occasionally but it’s soon forgotten,” says Nini, 27. “We’re close, so we can read one other easily and know when to give each other space.”

    Piggy will often ask Nini’s opinion. “Nini will ride a horse and tell me what she thinks of it. However, neither of us would interfere unless asked – that would be a nightmare.”

    Despite being three years younger, and claiming to be “a useless child who fell off all the time”, Piggy has enjoyed more success. She went through juniors and young riders, while Nini studied and spent five years with Pippa Funnell.

    “Keeping up with Pig is at the back of my mind but we’re not competitive – our set-up wouldn’t work if we were. I’m thrilled she’s done so well,” says Nini, who has groomed for her sister at the European young riders championships and other major events.

    Talent is wasted without quality horses, something the girls do not possess in equal measure: Piggy has 10; Nini has five. But the sisters claim never to have faced hard decisions about who gets which rides.

    “Before owners send horses, they choose who they want to ride them,” says Piggy. “It takes the pressure off us but I’m annoyed for Nini that it hasn’t balanced out. She’s no worse a rider, just not as well known.”

    The sisters ignore comparisons, but Piggy believes they upset their mother: “Some people assume that our parents must favour me, which isn’t true. They’ve always bought us one horse each and spent the same amount of money.”

    But, inevitably, younger children often benefit from their siblings’ experiences and outgrown rides. However, taking up the reins of a winner isn’t necessarily a blessing.

    Graham and Gary Gillespie
    Years before show jumper Gary Gillespie found glory on Nations Cup teams, he endured blushes trying to emulate his brother Graham, who captained a Prince Philip Cup final team and took the junior show jumper of the year title at Wembley.

    “There are three years between us, and Graham’s ponies were always too big for me when I inherited them,” says Gary. “I got the pony Graham had won Wembley on when I was 13. Somehow, I qualified it again for Wembley, where there was this big build-up because I was on last year’s winner.

    But I was eliminated straight away because it wouldn’t jump. I put on a brave face but as soon as I saw my granny, I burst into tears. It was a lot of pressure for a little lad. I just wanted to be like my big brother.”

    Graham went on to head the family business but still competes when he finds time.
    “I’ve never felt envious of Gary,” he explains. “We’re a very close family and it’s always been a team effort. We enjoyed producing young horses, so we didn’t want to blow them up by riding too hard. Who won was irrelevant: a victory for Gary was a victory for me.”

    It may seem like happy families but the brothers’ body language could give the opposite impression. “Graham would pinch me before I went into the ring – I ride well when my blood’s up. For all the experts and professionals I’ve worked with, he knows better than anyone how to get the best out of me,” explains Gary.

    Making sibling history
    Lorna and Charlotte Edmonds (pictured top right), the first siblings in dressage’s history to compete for Britain concurrently, also enjoy such an understanding. Charlotte, 21, is not only teaching Lorna, 17, to drive, but helps train her too.

    “You’d think that it might be stressful but we have great fun,” says Charlotte. “Lorna is incredibly receptive to ideas.

    “She’s definitely been helped by what Mum and I learnt, but she’s also had to cope with great expectations. Everything I’ve done has been a first and a bonus. Anything less from Lorna would be seen as a failure. I’ve never had to live with that.

    “The comparisons made between us are a pain but as you get older you realise that you’re always going to be compared to someone, so it may as well be your sister.”

    “Because of the age gap, we’ve never been in the same classes. I can’t see Charlotte ever being a rival,” says Lorna.

    If anything, they are mutually supportive. “During my final year of young riders, Lorna was at the pony finals,” recalls Charlotte. “We phoned all the time. We both had our team’s highest scores and felt the same pressure. Hundreds of miles separated us but our experiences were identical. It’s a great advantage to have someone who can relate to what you’re going through.”

    A little rivalry between siblings may be healthy because it pushes them towards greater heights but one-upmanship so close to home shouldn’t become a sportsman’s driving force.

    As Charlotte Edmonds comments: “To ride at the highest level, you need an appetite for competition, but this shouldn’t stem from a desire to beat your own family. They’re the people whose support you need most.”

  • This article appeared in full in H&H (1 July)

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