‘When he first saw a pole, he melted’: How a New Forest went from terrified jumper to Badminton and HOYS winner

  • With a seriously impressive CV which includes wins at Horse of the Year Show (HOYS), the grassroots championships at Badminton Horse Trials and most county shows, is there anything high-flying native pony Willoway Free Spirit cannot do?

    “Spirit”, a 20-year-old New Forest stallion standing at 143cm, is owned and produced by Laura Avery.

    In 2021, Spirit and Laura reigned at HOYS in the mountain and moorland (M&M) 143cm working hunter pony of the year final, a championship they’d been trying to bag for a decade.

    Spirit made history in 2017 when he became the first native pony to win at Badminton Horse Trials in the BE 90 grassroots championship.

    Laura was first acquainted with Spirit 11 years ago, when she went to visit the late Maria Large at the Willoway Stud about purchasing a pony.

    “While I was there Maria asked if I’d like to have a sit on Spirit,” says Laura. “To my surprise, Maria then asked me if I would be up for producing him for her. I was honoured and jumped at the chance.

    “Initially, we aimed at flat classes, qualifying for HOYS and a few years down the line I got a phone call from Maria who told me she had decided to sell Spirit. She said that if I was interested, that I could have him. I managed to get the funds together and I’m so grateful to Maria for giving me the opportunity to call him my own.

    “We then turned our attention to jumping and while he now loves the job, when he first started he was awful; the first time he saw a trotting pole he just melted and was completely hysterical.

    “Spirit has now jumped at HOYS about 10 times. At the 2021 final everything finally came together on the day and he got his deserved win.

    “At home, he’s the soppiest, softest pony and you would have no idea he is a stallion. He can be sharp and he likes things done his way, but he’s never nasty.

    “My trainer, Mike Jackson, was amazing and he tuned us up as best he could on the run up. We went to Badminton with the intention of just enjoying it; it was always my dream to gallop Spirit around that famous park and as soon as we drove in I savoured every moment.

    “Traditionally, I never check my dressage score until after the cross-country and showjumping as it takes the pressure off, but my phone started to blow up after the scores were revealed; we were in first place. The showjumping was a proper test for Spirit.

    “He’s a little native pony jumping horse distances but he pinged round and when we’d finished I couldn’t believe we’d jumped a double clear at Badminton. He gave me the ride of my life that day and winning was a crazy, surreal experience.”

    Initially, Laura’s trainer Mike Jackson wasn’t very inspired when he heard he would be working with a New Forest pony:

    “But I was completely amazed, and I still am, by how athletic Spirit was,” he explains. “He’s a mini horse — he’s a smaller version of Big Star — and he constantly impresses me with his technical ability and scope. He’s a bit of a freak of nature. He can turn his hoof to anything and he’s a very adaptable jumper.”

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