New opportunities for young riders

  • In the past few weeks, the Pony Club has extended its membership to the under-25s, Bramham Horse Trials launched an international team challenge for the same age group, and the FEI is on the cusp of raising the age for young riders to 23.

    So in an era when 20-somethings in other sports have virtually peaked, is equestrianism guilty of “mollycoddling” and merely putting off the evil hour of entry into the grown-up world? Or will an extended youth system better prepare our riders for the increasingly commercially driven demands of modern sport?

    In the late 1960s and early 1970s, youth was no novelty in elite equestrianism. At the age of 18, Richard Walker won Badminton as well as a senior European individual silver medal. Lucinda Green won the first of her six Badmintons aged 19. At the Mexico Olympics in 1968, Jane Holderness-Roddam, 20, won team eventing gold and the Princess Royal had only just turned 21 when claiming eventing’s European Championship in 1971.

    According to Gill Watson, former Burghley winner and long-standing young rider eventing team trainer, it is lack of opportunity — not lack of talent — that stops the contemporary under-21s in their tracks.

    “In my day there weren’t many of us, so it was easy to get into Badminton and Burghley,” she says. “Now everyone must qualify, and because of their growing professionalism and strong teams of horses, our senior team members keep going till they’re quite old. Any young person making a mark at Badminton has to accept they may be in their 30s before they get on the team. I hope the under-25s will catch on — we need anything that gives an incentive to keep going.”

    Young rider selector Alex Colquhoun — who first contested Badminton aged 19 — stresses that age-restricted competition need not mean “inferior”. The Bramham under-25s will ride the same three-star track as for its CCI, reversing the recent “dumbing down” of FEI eventing after pressure from the continentals.

    “The lowering of international standards for the under-21s, which have both dropped a star-level, means riders are not stretched, so it’s even harder to make the jump to three- and four-star when they become seniors,” says Alex. “And not only is the current senior team capable of another Olympics, it could last even longer — the FEI surely extended the competition life of many horses when giving in over short-format.

    “Without innovations such as Bramham’s, young riders can only polish their boots and wait for Britain to host another European Championships [when extra riders can be fielded] before getting their Union Flags.”

    Pippa Funnell — who, after a charmed career in young riders, waited until she was 31 to win Badminton and become senior European Champion — says you only need one or two good results for things to happen.

    “At the start of 1999 it looked as if I wasn’t a prospect for Sydney, but then Rocky [Supreme Rock] had a good result at Badminton and I was on the team,” she says.

    “Young riders must try not to avoid competing at top level. This is especially important now they’ve dropped the under-21 standard because, in my day, if you’d been round Bramham [venue for the national championship] and on a couple of teams, you’d already have five three-stars under your belt.

    “Some say it’ll take years to knock us lot off our pedestal. I was lucky to be around when Todd and Tait were in their prime, and having the likes of them to depose was a major incentive. No one wants to think they’ve only won Badminton because a top rider has retired or someone’s horse went lame.

    “If you’re genuinely serious about your sport, that will always sustain you.”

  • Read this news feature in full in Horse & Hound (27 January, ’05)

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