A “freak of nature” bought for £350 has bagged two tickets to the NAF Five Star British Dressage Winter Championships on her owner’s birthday and on the anniversary of her father’s death from cancer.
Shona Stewart’s six-year-old Grayswood Xtra Spice went beyond expectations to land two runner-up placings at Merrist Wood regional championships this weekend.
Under rider Emma Bailey, who works for Roland Tong and Ben St John-James, the mare posted 73% in the novice freestyle and 71.6% in the straight novice, earning her the nickname “Wondercob”.
The 16.1hh chestnut is by a 15.1hh Welsh section D stallion out of a 14.2hh hackney mare.
“I bought her as a 14-month-old from an advert on Gumtree that didn’t even have a picture,” Shona told H&H. “She was local, so we went to have a look. She was completely wild and we couldn’t get within 30 feet of her. We chased her round for a bit and I thought she was sweet, so I said I’d have her.
“When we came back it took two hours to get her on the trailer and I nearly left her there.”
Shona put her in the field for two years to mature before Emma, a long-time friend, backed her. A chance lesson with Ben St John-James when the mare was four opened up the opportunity for Shona to keep the horse on livery with Ben at his and Roland’s Team Edge base.
“I was aware that Shona’s dad was ill and I wanted to give them a helping hand,” said Ben. “I honestly didn’t do an awful lot, but wanted to help.”
Shona’s father died a year ago exactly.
“When she lost her dad, I tried to give her a focus and something to look forward to,” added Ben. “It’s important when something tragic happens that you have a reason to get up in the morning.
“I told her to keep the mare with me and made her muck out at weekends and through the summer. In return, Emma rode her a few times in the week while Shona was at work, and I taught them both on her.”
Shona, who works full-time as a sales administrator for marine textile company, rode her first British Dressage test last summer.
“It was a personal ambition of mine to go down the centre line as I’d never competed affiliated before,” she said.
“I qualified her for the regionals at prelim and Emma really rated her. She was short of rides so I asked if she’d like to take ‘Amber’ out at novice.”
The pair quickly qualified for the regionals and even scooped a music ticket in a single outing, just nine days before the qualification cut-off.
Their two second places at Merrist gave them two tickets to the nationals at Hartpury in April and Shona will contest the prelim championship at the venue on Wednesday.
“I’m blown away; Amber’s exceeded all expectations,” said Shona. “We only went to the regionals to have a nice time.
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“On Wednesday the aim is to just go and enjoy it and ride the best I can.
“It’s been a really tough year and the dressage has really kept me focused. Ben, Roland and Emma have been the most enormous support.”
Ben added: “Whatever happens in the prelim, I have a feeling it will be a happy and tearful time anyway.”
For a full report from Merrist Wood’s winter regional championships, see Horse & Hound magazine, out Thursday, 3 March