Alex Robinson meets the savvy production duo who are confirming there are still proper horse people in the sport
As last month’s chaotic weather raged on, the equestrian world came to a virtual standstill and there hasn’t been much time to think ahead to the coming summer season. But for producers Mark Robert Reeves and Steven Hulston of the Cuddington Stud, the show must go on. With all of their 23 stables occupied, the team has been hard at work all winter in preparation for another year on the circuit, despite the current uncertainty surrounding coronavirus.
Their Cheshire base has been hit by unrelenting rainfall for several days, but as you drive into the pretty courtyard at the entrance to their yard, there isn’t a hair out of place.
There is a calm, peaceful atmosphere, and heading into the main barn, the horses are relaxing in spacious boxes with thick straw beds without a care in the world. Pretty trimmed heads look over stable doors to greet us and you can’t help but be impressed by the assembly and cleanliness of the place.
“Our life is on a spreadsheet,” says Mark, 34, who has been at the property for 13 years. Steven, 40, moved up to the yard in 2015 when the pair got together. They first crossed paths when Mark replied to an advert of Steven’s looking for a Fell pony stallion for a client.
“I would say I’m quite OCD in terms of organisation,” continues Mark. “Everything is written down, from feeding regimes and worming schedules to show plans and work routines. I like to be able to see what a horse has done in the past month. It means if you’re having a specific problem with a certain horse, you can look back and change direction a bit.”
The 12-acre site is not just aesthetically pleasing, but is functional for the range of different sizes and types of animals produced.
“We’ve added facilities over time,” continues Mark, who has qualified and led three Horse of the Year Show (HOYS) finalists. “When we first moved here, there was just a single block of stables. We built the barn then the indoor arena and renovated the tack room. We have plans to keep expanding.”
At present, the yard has an equal split of horses and ponies. While Mark and yard jockey David Knight do most of the riding, both swear by groundwork.
“We do around 70% of our work on the ground,” explains Steven, who can no longer ride after breaking his back in a serious fall in 2016. “If a horse can’t carry itself, then how is it going to carry a rider on top? We do lots of lungeing and long-reining, but most of all we’re just nice to the horses. If you get onside with them they perform better.”
“We do a lot with the horses loose in the lungeing pen,” adds Mark. “It really helps to build more of a relationship with each horse. You do see some animals – especially in the pony classes – that are under the thumb and strapped in. That just isn’t our style.”
Their methods of working are refreshing, and their horses are thriving. The two horses David takes into the arena – Sue and Emily Plevin’s small hunter Cuddington Mr Burberry and Jacqueline Barton’s lightweight show cob Cuddington Cavalli – are foot perfect in the less-than-ideal weather conditions.
Intermediate show hunter contender Mr Burberry (Wilbur) – a strapping eight-year-old gelding – swings around the arena. He’s light in the hand, showing off his ground covering trot.
“Wilbur was bought by the Plevins in 2017 and has done only about six shows since, including HOYS last year,” says Mark. “He’s needed that time to mature and become the best he can be. I think a lot of people in showing often write off a horse by the time they are nine or 10. But we’ve both had older horses that we’ve looked after when they were young and so have lasted well into their mid-teens; our hack Gracefull Monarch was 15 when she was second at the Royal International [RIHS] last year. Our philosophy is that horses aren’t a commodity and they shouldn’t be treated as disposable. We might technically own them on the passport, but we’re not entitled to them.”
Mark and Steven’s day begins at 7am when they head on to the yard to feed and hay. Mark is responsible for all the feeding and every horse is on a different mix of feedstuffs, depending on work and showing schedules.
“You can’t give a yard of 20 the same feed,” he says. “Everything has a good base of forage and we don’t feed anything too high in sugar as it can be counterproductive. You have to be careful with what you feed, too, especially with the kids’ ponies.”
They then spend the day working the horses and Steven will intermittently tidy each up after its workout. Every animal receives a hot shower after exercise and rugs are washed weekly in the on-site industrial washer.
“It keeps their coats clean and tidy,” says Steven. “I’m responsible for all the clipping and trimming; we get a lot of compliments on our turnout. It’s knowing how to enhance what the horse already has in a natural way. We’re quite hands-on as producers so we know each horse inside out.”
They also work closely with the farrier, physio and dentist as well as their sponsors at Black Country Saddles.
“A lot of our training comes from these health professionals,” says Mark. “Horses don’t know what the concept of being naughty is, so if something isn’t going to plan we try to get to the root of the problem.”
Lessons also take up a substantial part of the day. Steven’s two nieces – Isabelle Smith, six, and Kiera Smith, nine – have recently forayed into showing and have a team of four ponies between them for the coming term.
“Isabelle stepped in last year when we were missing a jockey for a client’s lead-rein pony at an RIHS qualifier,” says Steven.
“Prior to this, she’d only ever sat on a pony on the yard. She only had a week to prepare for the show. Sara, our sponsor from Pretty Ponies, kitted her out within the week and she ended up standing second. She was hooked from then on.”
Isabelle finished her debut season standing fourth at HOYS on the lead-rein show pony Tirissa Party Girl.
“Isabelle is such a quick learner and she’s her own biggest critic,” says Steven, who adds that Kiera is making her debut in first ridden ranks this year. “While we love working with the clients, it’s extra-special when its family.”
Trekking up and down the country
When a brief gap in the showing calendar appears, Mark and Steven can be found trekking up and down the country in search of future stars.
“Finding babies in the raw is our favourite thing,” says Mark, who sits on the National Pony Society riding pony breed panel. Cuddington is looking ahead to the stud’s first crop of show pony and Dartmoor foals due this year.
“We enjoy it as much as competing. When you find something true to type with correct conformation and that ‘look at me’ quality, that’s when I get excited.”
“We also don’t mind taking on horses that are a bit tricky,” adds Steven. “But they must have a natural frame to build on; if a horse hasn’t got a shoulder, you can’t make one.”
Both Steven and Mark are on various judging panels and Steven also spends time on the other side of the fence, stewarding. He is chief steward at the growing Stars shows.
“I get to see it from both sides,” he says. “The amount of work and money it takes to put on a show is surprising. There’s the venue charge and the cost of putting on and affiliating each class, as well as payments for judges.”
For HOYS 2019, the team headed to the NEC with a team of five, most first-timers with debutante jockeys. This was the first year they commuted to the Birmingham venue each day.
“They do an amazing job at HOYS but the working-in is an issue,” says Mark. “We worked everything at home and went back each day. It did mean we were up from midnight on Friday until Monday morning.
“While we love the big championships, we encourage our clients to understand the achievement of having a good result at the big county shows. These are the shows at which you make lifelong memories; this principle has been lost in the wash a bit,” adds Mark.
It was time to leave the team to continue with their day. One thing’s for sure – when we all meet again to recommence our show season, Cuddington will be prepared.
Neither Mark nor Steven hail from horsey backgrounds; each of them caught the bug at their local riding schools as children.
While Mark reminisces about getting his first pony when aged 14 – a hairy cob called Molly – Steven started riding at 10 while his brothers played football.
“Every weekend, I’d be dropped off at the yard at 6am and picked up at 6pm,” he says. “I went to work at the riding school part time while I was doing my A levels and then full time after school. I then had a break from horses and worked as cabin crew for British Airways. I did this for 13 years and always had horses in the background, producing a few on the side with a friend. I then gave up flying to do horses full time.”
Mark’s professional passion lies in retail. He set up the Derby House brand and worked on it until it merged into a bigger mother company.
“My career was a bit of a whirlwind,” he says. “We grew the business quickly. But the recession hit and that was a difficult time. Once we’d come through the other side, I needed a break from it. I took six months off and in the meantime, a friend asked if we’d take some horses on; it grew from there.
Ref Horse & Hound; 26 March 2020