Living with an equally competitive rider has its pros and cons. Lucy Higginson asks some power couples how they balance family life with competitive goals
“People talk about the challenges of isolation, but we’ve actually found it fine,” says Sara Parrott, referring to the challenges of lockdown earlier this year.
Living with her partner, fellow showing supremo Craig Elenor, on 10 acres in Easingwold, Yorkshire, she has stumbled on to one of the ironies of lockdown: it’s not all that different to regular out-of-season life when you run a competition yard with your partner.
But how do you cope when you live and work with your other half, at home, in a sport that gives very little change from a 13-hour day? What for some is a recipe for disaster works like a dream for others, who may often not leave their property for days at a time, even without a pandemic.
Chatting with Sara and Craig, it’s clear that humour smooths their 24/7 life-work operation (“I’ve learnt that in Yorkshire, ‘It’s all right,’ means, ‘It’s really, really good,’” she laughs). Theirs is a young business, Sara having moved to Yorkshire from Essex in 2014.
“We’d both produced horses before, but ponies have just taken over so we’ve gone down the pony and mountain and moorland route,” explains Sara. “The most stressful thing, without doubt, is finances, but it helps that we do what we love and suit being busy.”
Having bought their own property three years ago, every spare moment and penny is spent redeveloping it for horses.
“We’re in a static caravan as we go through planning for a barn conversion,” explains Sara. “It’s not big, because Craig built a really nice outdoor arena…”
Equestrian couples tend to agree that the biggest strain you’ll ever face is developing that critical pool of owners, buyers and pupils to spend money with you.
“We had no idea how easy life in New Zealand was until we came to England… money was tight,” says eventer Jonelle Price. “It took a good six or seven years to find the formula.”
Few spouses in any sport compete side by side at the highest echelons like Jonelle and her husband Tim, each of them having represented their country and won five-stars. Accepting differences within a shared system is one key to their success.
“It used to wind me up that Tim’s a bit slower getting going in the mornings,” says Jonelle. “Now we have separate cars and I don’t let it bother me any more.”
The Price horses are all fed, kept and managed as one team – “the only thing we are very anal about is our bridles,” laughs Jonelle. “Tim changes his bits all the time.”
They may share grids and exercises, but “we have very different temperaments, our own styles and approaches,” says Jonelle. “I guess we have to – look at our physiques.”
With husband and wife each having their own distinct groups of owners, horses are bought with one thing in mind – preventing arguments about who should ride what. While they have occasionally swapped – for example, Jonelle produced Tim’s horse Bango to the age of five, and Tim now competes her former ride Ascona M – generally they have different tastes.
“I prefer smaller, hotter horses, light and athletic, and I like my mares,” says Jonelle. “Tim likes them more level-headed…”
It’s more common to find one half of the couple is “lead rider”. For Craig and Sara it’s the latter’s job as Craig focuses on lead-rein and in-hand classes, and in the case of the dressage Davisons, it’s Richard who’s done more than his wife Gillian, whom he met when she came for lessons as a young event rider and hunter chaser.
“We’ve always had horses that jump,” points out Richard, long before their son, Tom, started showjumping.
Gillian continued eventing through motherhood – “it was all quite chaotic; I once went to an event with no tack at all!” – though life became easier when she focused fully on dressage too.
But has it been hard watching Richard ride at four Olympics instead of her? “If I’d had the horse to do it, I’d have wanted to,” she admits. “I’m probably not quite as competitive as Richard, but the bottom line really is that it’s hard to have two people in a relationship striving as hard as Richard was.”
Is there any hint of regret in her voice on this topic, or in Caroline Breen’s, another talented and very bright rider juggling family with the family business?
“Trevor is the lead rider, and though I love to do as many shows as I can, I’m aware that’s predominantly his job and it never causes any arguments,” Caroline says.
Though Richard insists Team Davison is “absolutely not competitive with each other – we are one unit, just trying to do our best,” my bet is that you can never fully take the competitiveness out of a competitor.
“Everything is a competition between me and Tim,” laughs Jonelle. “If you’re like that by nature, you can’t help it.”
But Gillian and Caroline offset rosette envy by deriving pride from sharing in any success.
“First and foremost, it was about making a business and raising a family with it, not about who won most,” says Gillian.
Trevor Breen agrees: “It doesn’t matter who’s winning the grand prix, it’s the business that supports the family.”
As in any relationship, these high-flying co-workers have all identified their areas of responsibility, often working together and helping each other from the ground, but also managing their own areas.
“I try to leave Trevor as much as possible to the riding, travelling, sourcing horses for investors and top-end sales,” says Caroline.
Though she also rides several horses a day and teaches, she’s the go-to person for amateur sales, accounts, invoices, social media and more.
Sara and Craig also have specific roles. “I do the riding, teaching and social media side of things,” says Sara. “Craig will be building or tinkering – we’re not in each other’s pockets all day.”
Richard admits: “Gill basically runs the yard – and would say the house – she is practical and hands on. I deal with all the sponsorship and business side of things. I’m involved in many areas of the horse world which involve all kinds of meetings,” he adds.
“I couldn’t have prepared my top horses without Gillian keeping them going.”
When work is right outside the back door, how hard is it to leave behind when you slip your boots off at the day’s end – and is it essential that you do?
“I could have been that person who spends every minute with horses,” admits Richard, “but as you get older you get better at remembering that there must be down time.”
Gillian has friends she goes walking with and over time the Davisons have made strong local, unhorsey friends. “We don’t talk about horses with them and it’s really good for us,” he says.
Some professional equi-couples with children aim for at least one non-horsey family holiday a year, but horses do inevitably invade every corner of life.
“Trevor is better than me at saying, ‘No horsey chat now!’ in the evening, but obviously, with different time zones, we are accessible to owners and investors all the time – it can overtake your life,” says Caroline.
Jonelle agrees: “The job we do is all-consuming – whether it’s answering messages or sending videos in the evening… but we are very good at working hard through the season and walking away [for a holiday] in the winter and barely needing to talk about horses, last time to New Zealand and Sri Lanka. Then we’re just great mates again.”
While the Prices are still able to take their children with them when travelling, that becomes harder for children of school age. Parenting adds yet another dimension to a business based around sport that happens mainly at weekends.
“Family life is harder to manage than working life,” admits Caroline. “Trevor does miss quite a lot of the kids’ school activities, birthday parties and so on at weekends.”
Caroline is amused and intrigued when her seven-year-old picks up on horse-dealing issues, but there’s no expectation in the Breen house that either of their children should follow in their footsteps.
“They’d have to be really into it to pursue it as a career,” reflects Trevor. “If you’re only half committed, this kind of work will get you down.”
Though both children have ponies, the Breen mantra is “education first” (and Trevor was formerly a maths and business teacher). “There’s no missing school to go to shows,” says Caroline firmly.
Tom Davison has followed his parents into full-time riding, but not before getting a business degree from Manchester.
“Personally I’d have liked the children to follow another career and keep horses as a high-level interest,” reflects Richard.
Though a much newer parent, Jonelle sings from the same hymn sheet: “I’d like them to go down their own path,” she says. “It’s hard to follow if you’ve had two parents at the top of the game. And I’ve had to work really hard for it and that makes you so hungry. They really have to want to do it, not just because it’s in front of them.”
Underpinning such views is the knowledge of just how hard you have to work to build a viable business as a professional rider. Dealing with this workload and the inevitable ups and downs as a couple can be easier if there is total mutual respect for each other’s input.
“I can rely on Gillian for total bluntness,” says Richard. “I don’t take this for granted. I never imagined I would marry someone who shares my interests and is a fantastic rider.”
But working so intensely alongside someone also means you need that cheesy thing people talk about at weddings – a soulmate – who is fun, forgiving, shares your dreams and is the person you want to spend most time with.
“We just like to do a lot together, even going running together in lockdown,” says Caroline.
Jonelle adds: “Everyone asks how we spend so much time together, but it’s not seeing Tim that feels abnormal to me…”
Tips for competitive couples
- Respect is key: “You have to agree to disagree sometimes and have faith that the other person knows what they’re talking about,” says Jonelle Price. “It only works if you respect one another as equals,” agrees Richard Davison. “Gillian is a strong character, very straight and honest and I know where the boundaries are.”
- Enjoy the fact you have a friend and ally on site. Many riders actually find life at home pretty lonely.
- Accept that one of you may have to hog the limelight. “Don’t take it personally,” says Caroline Breen. Though she loves competing at a high level, she accepts that “Trevor is more talented at riding than me and I play my part liaising with clients and helping grow the business”.
- Clear delineations over who runs what are useful: “You have to be respectful of the other and treat them like a work colleague sometimes,” says Caroline.
Ref Horse & Hound; 10 September 2020