From slaughter house to Badminton grassroots fourth: the lorry driver and her ‘sensitive’ star

  • Alison Stewart finished fourth in the BE100 class at the Voltaire Design-sponsored Badminton grassroots championships earlier this month – but before she acquired her ride Rico III, his outlook looked grim.

    “He had been through numerous homes and was going to be put down,” explains Alison. “A friend told me about him – she said he was a lovely horse that was being written off at seven years old.”

    Alison continues: “My friend knew I am not so much a competitor as just a horse person. I was brought up with horses and my strength is handling them. I’ve never been one to think I want to achieve this or that.

    “The woman who had Rico said I could come and get him, but I’d have to be quick as it was Monday and he was booked in for slaughter on Wednesday.”

    Rico is by an Arab, out of a Trakehner mare.

    “He was a bit of a basket case and very sensitive and uptight,” says Alison, who lives on Dartmoor. “Over time I just got him used to being sat on and not panicking. Once we’d gelled, I joined my local riding club, Kentisbeaere. The main instructor is Sue Edwards, who is superb, and we started to compete and get on teams, so it went from there.”

    Alison Stewart: her Badminton grassroots experience

    Alison qualified for the Badminton grassroots championships at BE90 level before Covid, but the event was cancelled. She says she was lucky to get in this year as she had eight showjumping faults at the regional qualifier at Calmsden, but when British Eventing widened the qualification criteria, she made the cut.

    “It was a phenomenal surprise and all I wanted to do was complete – I knew there was a rosette for that, but I do tend to do things like start before the bell or miss a fence,” she admits. “I hadn’t even dreamed of being placed. I’m not particularly refined at dressage, but dear James Willis had built a course that was challenging and that’s our strong point. I point and say there it is and he jumps it. He covers the ground easily and time isn’t a problem.”

    Alison finished on her dressage score of 32.3 and says her experience of going round Badminton is “indescribable”.

    She says: “Fence six was causing a lot of trouble and when I went direct, I got a huge cheer and felt like a proper rider. My photo in front of the house is very precious. The further round I went, the more excited I became that I was going to complete and I got more and more vocal describing to Rico what we were going to do next. I’ve ordered the video, which I think will be hilarious.

    “As we were going down to the house for prize-giving, everyone was terribly staid and boring and I was saying, ‘We’re going to Badminton House to get our rosettes – are you not excited?’ I definitely enjoyed it for everyone.”

    Alison, 56, adds that it was “such a surprise and joy” to win the Keep Kicking On Cup for older riders.

    “I’m massively grateful to whoever presented the beautiful cup,” she says.

    Alison stayed at Badminton to enjoy the rest of the week and says the atmosphere in the stables was so friendly, with the stable manager and all the stewards and volunteers making the event very welcoming.

    “Whether I stayed was completely down to the horse and whether he was happy as we’d have taken him straight home if not, but the stables were incredibly cool and there was wonderful grass for grazing, so he loved being there,” she says.

    “My niece had bought camping tickets for her family so they were there. And I didn’t know a lot of people from the riding club had come to watch so when it went well, they all appeared. It was a joy having people I know sharing an epic moment in all our lives. It was beyond a dream and I’m still on a high.”

    ‘I love my job’

    Alison has been a lorry driver for over 30 years and previously transported horses abroad, including for the Italian showjumping team and Princess Haya. Now she works for a pharmaceutical company, delivering drugs to a fleet of vans which take them to hospitals. She works from 4am to 1pm daily.

    “I love my job and am lucky to have a supportive office – when I say I’ve qualified for something I hadn’t expected, they say, ‘Of course, have the time off,’” she says. “I have time to ride in the afternoons so it’s a wonderful routine and I’m lucky it works well. Of course I do get tired, but that’s how it is and I have to be disciplined about getting to bed early.”

    About six months ago, Alison’s “dear friend” Sophie Walker suggested she keep Rico with them, which she says has been a “game changer” as she has been able to use a school for the first time, whereas before she did all her schooling on the moors while hacking.

    After 10 years together, Alison says she can’t imagine Rico going anywhere: “We seem to have this partnership and understanding. It’s a joy to know he’s happy and after what he did at Badminton, I keep saying to people we’re retiring as we can’t better that, but people keep saying he loved it so we’ve got to keep going!”

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