With the right mix of training, horsepower and ambition, a talented amateur can be unstoppable in the show ring. Alex Robinson meets one who is winning against the showing elite
Despite her amateur status, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone in the showing world who hasn’t heard of Polly Coles.
The 26-year-old from West Yorkshire has cemented her name over the past eight years with her host of classy show horses and impressive results achieved at the major championships. Polly’s 2019 was a particular cracker, the tally including four Horse of the Year Show (HOYS) tickets, a Hickstead Derby hunter supreme and various other wins in open and amateur ranks.
“I couldn’t do any of it without my team, they’re the driving force behind me,” admits Polly, who credits riding grooms and showmen Nathan Arnold and Sean Scallan as well as staff grooms Shelley Catch and Debbie Pickering for their dedication; Debbie has worked for the Coles for over 18 years and has been with Polly since her pony showing days.
“While I’m sitting here doing this interview, everyone else is outside working the horses. We really do everything together and I’d be lost without them.”
Polly’s 17-acre set-up boasts a nine-box yard as well as an arena and glorious hacking in and around the town of South Kirkby.
When her attention is not on the show ring, Polly can be found on the hunting field. Alongside the carefully selected show animals, she runs a brace of hunters.
“Hunting is my other passion, I absolutely love it,” says Polly, who whipped-in for the Rockwood Harriers last season and is now a master of the York and Ainsty South.
“We have the horses we hunt but we do try to give each show animal at least three outings during the hunting season. At the end of the day they’re hunters. They need to go out into the countryside and see things. At home we do lots of hacking; you can school as well on the roads as you can in an arena. One thing Jayne Ross has always told me is that you need to get them thinking and moving forward all the time, and varying their work definitely helps.”
Polly’s mother and stepfather, Debbie and Ronnie Harrod, are also integrated into the showing world. The family quarrying business, Catplant Group of Companies, which Polly helps run, is the current sponsor of the HOYS hunter and cob of the year championships.
Former showjumper Debbie – whose eye for scouting a diamond in the rough is responsible for finding the majority of the team’s future stars – owns several show horses and keeps a couple of novices with Team Ross at their yard in Berkshire.
Full-blown showing addicts
Polly was acquainted with her first pony when she was just 18 months old, and soon after she began having riding lessons with Josie Harworth of the Manor Grange stud. It was the purchase of a lead-rein pony from show pony connoisseur Jerome Harforth that paved the way for the family to become full-blown showing addicts.
“We had caught the bug but I didn’t stay in lead-reins very long because Mum hated running and I was really tall as a child,” explains Polly, who gained her first ride at HOYS on a 13hh hunter pony who was based with Katy Carter at the time.
“I was so tall that I had to move into open classes while I was still young; I rode my first open hunter pony when I was six. I never felt the picture was right on ponies so I’d always looked to step into the adult classes when I could. I remember going to Ponies (UK) summer champs at Peterborough and watching the likes of Lynn Russell galloping her cobs and I knew I wanted to be in that ring. I got my first horses, middleweight hunter Redwood Ash and heavyweight cob Links, when I was 17.
“At the time I was helped a lot by John Camm and John Marsh as well as Charles and Hilary le Moignan, so even though it was an intimidating world to step into I was lucky to have plenty of support.
“I think a lot of younger riders coming off intermediates are scared to make that step up, but holding off makes the transition harder in the long run. I understand; you’re out there playing with the big boys and the competition steps up a gear. But everyone is really friendly and the professionals want you to do well. We’re like a big family and everyone looks out for each other. I could have stayed in ponies until last year, but moving on was definitely the best thing for me.”
Polly’s connections to showing royalty Jayne Ross began when the family took ownership of the upstanding grey middleweight Bloomfield Excelsior (Rex) as well as the 2017 HOYS-winning middleweight Bloomfield Valhalla (Ritchie).
“Mum had always admired Rex and so we jumped at the chance to have him when he came up for sale,” explains Polly. “We then bought Ritchie from Jayne’s client, Bella Malim. Jayne and her team are lovely to work with. While the boys were there I’d share the rides and I’d get to have a sit on in championships. I’ve always had something at home, too, as I like to keep my eye in with the training side of things.”
The two Bloomfield horses now reside with Polly at home alongside the small hunter Banview Sirocco and her first top hunter, Redwood Ash.
“Ash is my horse of a lifetime,” says Polly. “He’s the yard favourite and he gave me the best start on horses. He’d always give a lovely ride; he would just sit up and take you along.”
Polly also judges when she gets the chance. She currently sits on the British Skewbald and Piebald Association (BSPA), veteran horse and HOYS ridden Shire judging panels. “I’ve always wanted a Shire horse but Mum is having none of it,” she says. “Getting on the panel was the next best thing.
“I think judging is one area which needs improving; there doesn’t seem to be any new blood coming through and some shows have the same judges every other year. We need more opportunities for aspiring judges; how else are they going to get their feet in the door and learn?”
Ask professionals for advice
Polly believes that she has been lucky with the backing she’s received from fellow showmen and women, and she urges other amateurs to ask the professionals for advice.
“Don’t be scared to speak to the top riders,” says Polly. “Go to clinics held by those producers you admire, I promise they will help you. In showing you’re always going to get that little bit of bias on the odd day, it’s just how it goes. But if you give your horse – and yourself – 100% and feel as though you’ve performed as well as you both can, that’s all that matters. Just keep going; the judges can’t ignore you forever.
“Perspective is so important. We’ve had days when we’ve not been placed and felt hard done by. But we try not to dwell on it and analyse every last detail of the day; it’s just one person’s opinion so don’t let it get you down. Showing is an expensive, time-consuming hobby. If you’re an amateur with one horse who ultimately does this for fun, the day you’re not enjoying it is the day you should give up.”
Polly also feels the opportunities for amateur riders in the showing world are plentiful. She is complimentary of the Royal International’s amateur classes as well as the SEIB Search For A Star series, two championships that are growing in popularity.
“I’m not sure how it would run as they’re already short for time, but it would be amazing if HOYS could do something for amateurs, perhaps even just recognising the highest placed rider in the open classes,” muses Polly.
But it’s these HOYS open finals where Polly wants to score. “I want that centre-line moment,” she confirms. “It’s my dream to win there but I know it’s such a lottery. Hopefully my numbers will come out one day.”
With four horses NEC bound last season, Polly was in show mode from April through to October, making stops at Royal Windsor, Lincoln and the Great Yorkshire.
Alongside her work, showing and hunting commitments, 2021 will see Polly tie the knot to her long-term partner Mark Gyte. “I’m unsure about what to do with my name,” she laughs. “Everyone knows me as Coles, so I might have to go double-barrelled.”
Whatever she decides to do with her title, we’re willing to bet that her name will still be read at the top end of show results for the foreseeable future.
Ref Horse & Hound; 30 July 2020