Burghley first-timers: George Hilton-Jones — ‘to start with I didn’t know how good he was’

For 33-year-old George Hilton-Jones, riding at the Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials (5-8 September) has been a life-long dream, and one that in a little over 10 days time will come true.

George, who is a full-time event rider based on the Northamptonshire/Buckinghamshire border, will be riding his mother Isabelle Hilton-Jones’ Efraim, or ‘Leo’, as he is known at home.

“I found Leo in Ireland as when he was five,” explains George. “I bought him through Chris Hunt at Global Sport Horses as a project to produce and sell, but since then he’s just kept on progressing up the levels.

“To be honest, to start with I didn’t know how good he was,” admits George. “He didn’t blow me away — his trot was like a typewriter. He could really jump and go fast but he was actually quite uncontrollable, purely out of his love for his job, and he is still a bit like that today in every aspect of his work.”

Leo, who is KWPN-bred by Ultime Espoir, jumped double clear around the CCI3*-L at Blair Castle as a seven-year-old and even cleared 1.72m in the Blenhiem Horse Trials high jump competition in the same year.

“He was ready for advanced level when he was seven but I decided there was no rush,” says George. “I’ve picked strong cross-country tracks for him all the way through his career though because they help to back him off.”

Despite his eagerness to get on with the job in hand, George says that Leo is a “lovely character on the ground” and his girlfriend, Jess Campbell, who is an equine vet and eventer, plus his mother, Isabelle, will both be on-hand to help George and Leo on their Burghley debut.

George has been eventing for as long as he can remember, starting off in the Grafton branch of the Pony Club and was on the Central JRN team. He then went to the Royal Agricultural University to do a property-based degree before setting up a yard at home and has since added to his string at a steady rate.

“I now have eight horses out competing, with three or four ready to start going out, plus some youngstock and breakers too,” says George, who is also a keen darts player, captaining his local team at The New Inn pub in Abthorpe.

Although this combination have since enjoyed a confidence-boosting run the an intermediate section at Keysoe, their previous run in the CCIO4*-NC-S at Le Pin au Haras didn’t quite go to plan when one of his reins snapped nearing the end of the cross-country course.

“Leo was a bit keen through the second water, which had been the bogey fence — he jumped the corner nicely in the water, which was the third element and I went to turn and my rein just snapped,” says George. “We ended up jumping a different fence with one rein, which Leo had locked onto and then proceeded to canter around in circles for quite a while until he decided to stop — thankfully both he and I were fine.”

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To help his preparation for Burghley, George has been cross-country schooling Leo on a regular basis.

“I have just been jumping 80-90cm fences to help get his over-excitement under control,” he explains. “It looks like I’ll be going cross-country after lunch at Burghley. My plan is to warm-up three hours before my time and we will then walk straight from the stables to the start box when it’s my time to go as that plan of action should also help with his keen-ness — I used this tactic in my first five-star at Luhmühlen earlier this year and bar one silly run-out, it seemed to work quite well.

“We’re playing really as neither of us have been around Burghley before, but I loved the cross-country course preview — it looks like a big and fun track. The second fence will probably be the biggest fence I’ve ever jumped,”jokes George.

“Dressage is his weakest phase, but it’s improving all the time — we’ve recently managed to nail his flying-changes each way,” says George, who trains with Andrew Fletcher on the flat and Nigel Taylor for showjumping, with occasional help from Chris Bartle. “Leo’s only 10 and we’re both green and learning all the time, but we both find it fun. My aims for Burghley are to score in the mid-30s in the dressage, and to jump a double clear. I hope it will suit Leo — he loves galloping and big fences, so fingers crossed!”

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