Children and competitions — how do you manage the two?

With the summer holidays fast-approaching and many riders competing with children in tow, we caught up with three riders who have been there, done that, and got the T-shirt to find out how they manage to juggle the two, and their top tips for making it as easy as possible.

Olympic dressage rider Laura Tomlinson had her third child in January this year. Laura commented at the time of announcing her pregnancy that she was pleased with the due date of her new arrival as it would allow her to compete this season. And if you follow her on Instagram you will have seen Laura’s competition season has well and truly started, and not just in the UK either. In April she was competing at Hagen CDI.

“I try and leave the bigger children at home when I go abroad, mostly as Annalisa is at school,” says Laura (pictured top with Annalisa). “But when they do come then having a grown up I trust on duty is essential so I can concentrate.”

Jonelle Price gave birth to her son Otis in 2017 and went on to win Badminton Horse Trials the following May.

“We are very fortunate — we have a really good nanny and I wouldn’t like to try competing without her,” explains Jonelle. “For us, when we are at a competition it’s important we can 100% focus on our jobs and not be worried about whether he’s bored or happy. It’s just the way we do it and it works very well. She travels a lot with us and the two of them are very much part of the environment.”

Libby Towers is a dressage rider and trainer and works with her daughter Olivia Towers and their team of dressage horses. When Olivia and her brother Edward were younger, Libby used to compete and take the children along with her. Libby used to event but found the demands of the three phases while looking after the children at an event where too much, so changed disciplines to focus on dressage.

While some riders may choose to have their grooms help with horses and children, Jonelle tries to keep things separate.

“Our nanny is very much just for Otis, but she is horsey and has one horse she rides at the lower levels and that was important — we wanted her to feel part of the equine team. She’s good friends with all our team so it makes going away very easy, but we do keep it very separate. On her days off we might take him to the yard and the guys on the yard might entertain him for an hour, but that would be the limit.”

Tim Price,  Ascona M (Ava), Jonelle Price and Otis Price  at Jonelle and Tim's stables, of Mere Farm near Marlborough in Wiltshire in the UK on the 19th January 2018

Jonelle with Otis and husband Tim

While events and shows are clearly incredibly important to riders and they’re there to do a job, there’s a lot more to events than just the competition as any spectator will testify. And the great thing is that many of the attractions that larger events have can really help to occupy children.

“Go to shows with bouncy castles,” says Laura. “Sugar is only a short-term solution [to keeping a child happy] and then you really regret it, so try and find stuff for them to do.”

Speaking of keeping children occupied at shows, Libby used to guarantee this by taking her own entertainment with her.

“The best thing I did was get a lorry with a television in it, and take Edward’s bike with him. I was also very into bribery and would exchange them coming to a show with me for doing something they wanted to do when we got home.”

Libby says that although she’s not sure how much the children enjoyed the shows at the time, it was necessary.

“I didn’t want to give up riding at the time, so it was the way it had to be done. I gave up eventing but with dressage I could plan, do a test and get home and keep everyone happy.”

There are drawbacks to travelling with children, especially at shows beyond the UK or over long distances within it, but there are also ways to address these issues.

“It’s tiring as we often travel through the night,” explains Jonelle. “But if we get back early on a Monday morning we’ll have a lazy day and he’ll have a longer afternoon sleep to catch up.”

And things don’t always go quite plan, as Libby explains: “I went to Kingswood with Edward and his bike once and I’d strapped it to the lorry to come home. When I went off to get my rosettes, he took it back out and forgot to put the steps up. Then, as I was driving home, a man walking down the road leapt out the way because the steps were down.”

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Is there a way to make competitions always run smoothly? What’s really evident is that different stages and different types of competition have a bearing, but also that everyone and every situation is different.

“Just find what works for you — we very much try and have Otis in his routine and it’s amazing how well they adjust and fit in,” says Jonelle.

Laura has some great tips, especially for younger children: “I try and keep the younger ones in the same routine with naps, meal times, and so on, where I can so they stay settled.”

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