Budding superstars pursuing a career in the saddle despite non-horsey backgrounds *H&H Plus*

  • Horsey parents can give children bent on an equestrian livelihood a massive leg-up. But what of those young riders determined to pursue a competitive ridden career despite a different background, asks Gemma Redrup

    India Wishart is managing to carve a career out of horses, despite neither of her parents being horsey. The 24-year-old is based at the Billy Stud, training under the expert eye of Pippa Funnell.

    “I remember when I was 11 or 12, I had just read Pippa’s autobiography and I was in the car with Mum, talking her ear off about how amazing Pippa was,” explains India. “I then said, ‘I want to be like Pippa Funnell one day,’ to which my mum replied, ‘Darling, it’s highly unlikely you will ever become Pippa Funnell.’

    “I cried and cried and it’s a bit of an embarrassing story to admit to now. The following week, I was having dinner with Dad and I said the same thing to him and he replied, ‘If you want to be Pippa Funnell, you can be’.”

    India’s father works in food retail, predominantly working abroad in the Netherlands; her mother looked after the three children. But both parents are keen sportspeople, specialising mostly in cycling, “so they understand the competitive side of things”, says India.

    Her passion for riding started at the age of five, when she found herself jealous of her sister riding a friend’s pony around the village. Then India started riding lessons, which she continued once a week for four years.

    “I then made a pact with Dad that if I stopped sucking my thumb, I could have a pony of my own,” laughs India. “I didn’t stop sucking my thumb for a year, but I got the pony straightaway, so it worked out pretty well for me.”

    This first pony was sourced through a website advert and turned out to be a real find, igniting India’s passion further. Then one day, India was invited through Alison Carthy, a friend of her father’s, to watch Alison’s friend Claire Phillips ride at Badminton.

    “That was when I fell in love with eventing,” says India. “I was able to look around the amazing stables and then announced to my dad, ‘One day, I’m going to ride around Badminton’.”

    India left school after her A levels and immediately went to work for Lucy and Padraig McCarthy. She followed this with six-and-a-half years at Austin O’Connor’s yard, where she was also based while studying for a geography degree at the University of Birmingham.

    “I left uni 18 months ago and decided to go freelance with my riding, and rode out for National Hunt and point-to-point trainers Alan and Lawney Hill,” says India. “I was then offered a job as a rider at the Billy Stud, and that was something I couldn’t turn down.”

    However, India’s path thus far hasn’t been entirely smooth because her top horse, The Masters Harry – whom she has produced to four-star level since purchasing him as a five-year-old – has required management to keep him injury free. But she still finished best of the Brits at the 2016 young rider European Championships in ninth place and is now establishing herself at CCI4*. Plus she was selected on to the 2020 Windrush Foundation young eventers programme.

    “I wouldn’t change anything about my career up to this point,” says India. “I’ve made mistakes along the way, but I’ve learnt from them and I’d urge any aspiring rider to throw themselves at every opportunity. If you have a dream and ambition, anything is possible.”

    Bucketloads of ambition

    A fello rider with bucketloads of ambition is 24-year-old showjumper Joseph Trunkfield. His passion for riding started when his first pony purchase from Melton Mowbray market went on to compete at Pony of the Year Show.

    “I sold that pony for good money and found that very rewarding, so we went back to Melton and did it again,” explains Joseph. “I’ve continued to buy and sell to pay the bills and continue in my career.”

    Joseph’s father was a cattle and pig farmer, with the help of his mother too, and his father also drove lorries at night to help fund Joseph’s early showjumping career.

    “We don’t have loads of money, so I’ve had to work hard,” explains Joseph, who now has 30 horses in his care, based on John Steels’ yard. “Between the ages of 11 and 17, every Friday night and every weekend and school holiday, I pole-picked at the jumping shows at Field House Equestrian Centre. I just wanted to be around horses and the showjumping world and I learnt a lot just by watching.”

    When Joseph left school at 16, he worked on a reindeer farm and would take his horse to compete at Field House every Tuesday.

    “Obviously I didn’t have my car licence and Dad was working, so I’d hitch the trailer up to a tractor so I could get to the show,” he laughs.

    It was then that Geoff and Sarah Billington offered him a job riding their young horses, and from there he moved to base and train with Corinne Collins for two years before moving to Mennell Watson’s.

    “I learnt so much and went from jumping at newcomers level to riding at the jumping World Young Horse Breeding Championships in Lanaken,” says Joseph.

    He then set up his own yard and, after three years, moved to John’s at the end of 2019. “I love what I do, but by far the most disheartening aspect is having to sell on good horses to pay the bills,” says Joseph, who names Holly Smith as the rider he most looks up to. “Holly has come from a similar background to me and I’ve sold her horses that have gone on to do very well, which is rewarding and also a great shop window for me.”

    Joseph aspires to compete at the highest level and he has already clocked good results at 1.45m level – and he jumped round the Hickstead Derby last year aboard Don Calvaro RV, who has since been sold. He now has 30 horses to ride, two of those owned by himself with the rest belonging to owners.

    “There will be more bad than good days, but work hard, dare to dream and watch as many good riders at shows and on YouTube as you can,” is the advice he would offer to others. “Approach places like studs to go for work – you don’t have to work for a famous rider and go to shows every week. I’ve found that you can learn so much and build relationships with people, if you have the right attitude and are always polite.”

    Bright young talent

    Dressage rider Lewis Carrier, 22, is another bright young talent who started off in a riding school.

    “I was six or seven years of age and I wanted to challenge myself with something that none of my friends from school were doing,” he explains.

    Both of Lewis’s parents were in the armed forces and his father has since retrained to become a lawyer – neither of them were remotely horsey.

    “When I left school at the age of 16, I was on the verge of opting for a career in drama and going to London to music school,” explains Lewis. “However, my parents then very kindly put some money into a four-year-old dressage horse called Diego V. As I thought I should try to make that purchase a worthwhile one, I went to Hartpury College instead to study equine management.”

    Lewis managed to get on to Hartpury’s equine academy, which meant he could have training sessions with Nick Burton and Carl Hester. But his time there was short-lived, as work experience during one half-term at the Eilbergs’ made Lewis realise he wanted to be on professional yards to learn his trade and progress with Diego. He stayed there for four-and-a-half years, and gained a top-10 placing at the young rider European Dressage Championships in 2018.

    “After the Europeans, I moved to Anna Ross’s yard, where I trained and competed for a year. Then six months ago, I took the plunge and set up my own yard at home in Norfolk,” explains Lewis, who is on the World Class Podium Potential pathway.

    “I have five horses here – two that I own and the rest belonging to owners. I work entirely on my own which is obviously hard, but I’ve been lucky and have no regrets, so hope going it on my own works out.

    “My teachers told me I couldn’t make a career out of riding when I was younger, but I believe that if you want something and you work hard enough, you can achieve it.”

    Keep learning

    Flat jockey George Wood might only be 22, but he has already amassed more than 150 winners in Britain from over 1,500 rides since his debut in May 2015. His father builds ocean rowing boats and George began his career in a riding school.

    “My family watched racing on the TV and I knew I wanted to be a jockey from a young age,” says George. “I was fortunate to have ponies from about the age of four and by the age of 10, I was doing Shetland Pony Grand Nationals – it suited my dad as he could go sailing while Mum and I went off with the ponies.”

    It was while pony racing that George began to build up his contacts and started to ride out for James Fanshawe in Newmarket.

    “I finished my GCSEs in 2014 and went to the British Racing School for four weeks and, once finished there, went straight back to Mr Fanshawe’s yard,” says George, who took his jockey licence out eight months later. “My best career win so far was winning a £50,000 class two handicap on Knight Owl on 2000 Guineas Day at Newmarket in 2016 — it was only my third-ever winner.”

    George says that for him, it is important to keep learning and that the best way for him to do so is to ride abroad during the winter.

    “Mr Fanshawe first asked if I wanted to go and ride in California one winter, which was a fantastic opportunity, and I’ve since spent winters in Dubai, riding for Charlie Appleby, and in Australia too.”

    At 5ft 8in, George says he is “lucky” with his weight in that it remains naturally low, but keeping fit and doing plenty of riding out contributes to that and is something he would recommend to other aspiring jockeys.

    “You have to be proactive – contact your local trainer or the British Racing School if you don’t know of anyone, so that they can point you in the right direction.”

    These four budding superstars prove that although a cliché, hard work and determination do pay off – remember their names.

    Ref Horse & Hound; 21 May 2020