If entries at British show centres are feeling a little sparse at the moment, it’s because we’ve all headed south — 148 riders to be precise, taking 450 horses to the various tours in Spain and Portugal. And 150 people can’t be wrong!
I’ve taken 9 horses to the Sunshine Tour — 3 7-year-olds, 2 8-year-olds, 2 9-year-olds and Billy Congo and Beowulf — and the benefits of coming down here for 5 weeks are huge. It’s like sharpening your pencil — you’re jumping to a higher standard, against better people at an earlier time of year.
Of course, the weather is nice, but it’s great to get out and spend time with your horses every day. Anyone who’s struggled with the recent floods knows how difficult that is at this time of year.
The facilities are fantastic and suit so many people. There are 8 different rings, on grass and sand, classes for all ages and heights to suit everybody, with grand prix and amateur divisions. There is also a clear round ring going constantly for anyone who wants to build up their confidence.
And when you look at the costs — it’s €2,100 [£1,700] for an international horse’s entries and stabling for five weeks, so about €400 [£340] per week — by the time you’ve paid for a stable at a Premier show back home and entered the grand prix, you’re not far off that.
Sure, getting a lorry down to Spain is expensive, but you’ve still got to drive to the shows in England. It’s a 3-star show so the prize-money’s good and look at John Whitaker last weekend — he won two rankings classes and €18,000 [£15,000]. So you can make a profit.
Of course, the flip side of the coin is that when we disappear, we make it tough for the show centres at home, who are often struggling to attract entries at 1.30m level and above at this time of year.
Some people will go down there with the mindset of just winning money. But if you’re not careful and you go hell for leather every weekend, you can come back having won a lot of classes, but your horses are ready for a break, rather than the new season.
So I go there with the mindset I’m not there to win every class. It’s a great opportunity for the younger horses to step up to grand prix level and, over the 5 weeks, I’m able to move them up when I feel they’re ready. We also find out if the horses we think have grand prix potential really do. It’s an important step in their education.
It’s very nice to have Billy Congo, but it’s only possible to remain at the top of the sport if you’re constantly thinking about producing your next grand prix horse.
I’ll be building Congo up to the €100,000 [£82,000] grand prix at the end. That’s decent money and a good result in that class will help pay for the trip and hopefully mean we’ve proved ourselves enough to get selected into the ‘super league’ teams.
Even if I only leave the tour having paid the bill, though, I’m not panicking about it now because hopefully I’ll be making up for it with all of the horses later in the season.
The tour is also a great step forward for people who have national success and want to build on that.
One of my former stable jockeys Spencer Roe jumped two clears in the grand prix last weekend. If he keeps showing consistency at that level, he’s asking to get picked at 5-star level. It’s a real shop window for these up-and-coming riders — especially when performance manager Rob Hoekstra is expected to come down for the final two weeks.
And everyone can benefit. Steve Guerdat, Gregory Wathelet, John Whitaker — the top riders in the world — are here and if you can’t learn something from watching those guys, then you’re never going to improve.
As soon as it gets light at 8am, they are out working their horses and that’s why they’re at the top of the sport and winning — because they work hard at it and are thinking about longevity.
People laugh, but it is hard work on the tour. I have 9 horses with me and I haven’t taken a rider this year. I hoped I’d feel younger and fitter by riding more, but I think I just feel older! My osteopath is getting his money’s worth out of me anyway… H&H