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65-year-old rider hopes her dressage success shows what can be achieved in dark times

A 65-year-old rider who passed her goal of completing 80 dressage tests on her 23-year-old pony hopes her accomplishment will inspire older riders — and show what can be achieved in “the worst of times”.

Helen Connolly and her Freisian loan mare Frizzy started at prelim level last January, at the Somerford Park show run to raise money for equestrians affected by fire in Australia.

They have since been taking part in online competitions, as Helen and her husband have been shielding since 16 March.

“By the summer, I had a count of the tests I had done, the results of which I keep on a spreadsheet to track my progress, and was surprised to see I was getting towards a significant number,” Helen told H&H.

“I then determined to reach my goal of 80 tests before 25 January, which is my 66th birthday and state pension age!

“This week I completed 82 tests with first placings at the prelims for the last six competitions.”

Helen took Frizzy on loan from her owner Kerrie Culverwell some four years ago.

“I’ve ridden nearly 60 years; I’m not fantastic but I do my best,” she said. “My old boy, who I’d had from when he was three, was getting older and I was looking for something to ride for the rest of my life.”

Helen wanted to buy rather than loan, and Frizzy was a long way away, but she kept coming back to her advertisement. When she saw her, it was “love at first sight”, and Kerrie was happy for the move.

“She came here and it’s been great ever since,” Helen said. “She’s got the attitude and the talent, and the looks; she’s my perfect partner.”

Helen had never entered a show as big an occasion as the Hope for Horses event at Somerford, but two good placings gave her confidence. She did some unaffiliated shows, then, after lockdown started, moved online.

“I’ve done all I can, ever since!” she said. “I haven’t been able to have lessons and won’t go anywhere that feels a risk so this has made it more than lockdown.”

The combination has moved up to elementary level, scoring 62% to the delight of Helen, who “would have been happy with anything over 50”. She praised the feedback and tips given by judges on the tests run by Tushingham Arena in particular.

“It’s not the same as real lessons but it’s all kept me going,” she said. “I’ve always appreciated the hard work horses demand, but it’s something to get up for every day. If I hadn’t had the horses during this period, I don’t know what I’d have done. My dressage has kept me going through a very dismal period and I hope it shows what can be achieved during the worst of times.”

Helen is hoping to affiliate with British Dressage (BD) when restrictions allow, but has booked more online competitions for the more immediate future.

And she hopes other riders of her age may be inspired by her story.

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“I’ve had so many people ask ‘Are you still riding?’ with emphasis on the ‘still’,” she said.

“I’m still able to do everything I did in my 30s, so why on earth wouldn’t I? I think a lot of people give up when they get a bit older but it’s such good exercise, plus all the mucking out, of course!

“I’d like to do BD this year, as Frizzy’s getting older, although she’s got no issues, she’s a fit old bird — like me!”

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