Perfectionists in the show ring and business-savvy, this couple have an unstoppable recipe for success. Alex Robinson finds out how they make it work
How do most good love stories start? A guy, a girl and the exchange of a drink. Throw in the backdrop of a horse show and that’s how one equestrian power couple started their relationship. Craig Elenor and Sara Parrott, one of showing’s most established producing duos, first met at Arena UK some seven years ago while attending the British Show Pony Society (BSPS) Summer Championships. It was the show’s annual Saturday-night party held at the venue’s bar where groups of show-goers descended for celebratory – or commiseratory – drinks.
“The week after the BSPS champs we were both back at Arena UK for the Coloured Horse and Pony Society (CHAPS) finals, and conveniently our horses were stabled next to each other,” reminisces Sara, who moved from her home town in Essex to join Craig at his base up north a year later.
“There was a bit of a language barrier at first,” jokes born-and-bred Yorkshireman Craig, who started his professional career showing in-hand ponies under the watchful eye of legendary showman Jerome Harforth. “Jerome was an utter perfectionist in all ways. He taught me the art of how to run lots of horses from the same yard at once. I was lucky to work with him as well as many other great horse people.
“My first big win as a handler was the breeders’ supreme at the Royal Show. I took the lead of my mother’s Welsh section B mare Paddock Picture as Jerome couldn’t attend the show. She was a really quirky pony. She won a hell of a lot in the show ring and taught me how to cope with those bigger characters.”
In contrast, Sara hails from non-horsey stock. She first sat in a saddle at her local riding school aged nine before catching the showing bug in her teens. Before a five-year spell working as a housing officer, Sara had stints with producer Justine Armstrong-Small as well as on her own production set-up with friend Terri Guyett. One of Sara’s first ridden legends was Shelley Wheeler’s upstanding plaited horse contender Winchester D, who won at Horse of the Year Show (HOYS) as well as many others.
“He was my first experience of riding a real superstar,” says Sara.
Emptying the pot
After initially renting a yard together, Craig and Sara made the move to their current home in the market town of Easingwold, North Yorkshire, just over four years ago. When they first took up residence on the 10 acre site there was little more than a field and an open-fronted barn. They have been living in a static caravan on site and have just put in a planning application for a house.
“We’ve built it up from the ground,” says Sara. “We now have 25 stables and an outdoor school. It was a struggle when we first moved. We emptied every pot we had to try to afford it. We lived on nothing for a while and really went to the bottom of the barrel to get by. Looking back, it makes us really appreciate what we have now; the nice animals and facilities as well as great, supportive owners. We certainly don’t take anything for granted.”
Since starting out the pair have streamlined their team, focusing on ponies and natives as well as their in-hand stars. One of their main clients is chairman of Grandstand Media Sandy Anderson, of Thistledown Stud. “The yard is full during summer but we don’t like to fire every bullet at every show,” continues Sara. “We pick out certain fixtures to aim each pony at and try to let them up and down during the season, too.”
Craig is particularly excited about Sophie Rawling and Jemma Atkinson’s three-year-old coloured filly Myspires Spirit Of Summer, who was recently crowned in-hand supreme at the CHAPS championships on her debut outing. Sara and her own beloved traditional mare Starlight netted the ridden equivalent the following day.
“Sara saw a video of Summer on Facebook and she was bought over the phone,” explains Craig. “We always maintain that good horses will find you.”
“At least 50% of our yard has been bought unseen,” adds Sara. “You have to go with your gut sometimes. When we’re looking we never get too hung up on type; if we see something we like we’ll usually find an owner for it. If you get too strict on what you want you could miss out on a really quality animal and will end up compromising.
“When we see a horse we know in the first 10 seconds if it’s for us. They’re show animals and they have to wow you.”
The mini pony sector is where the pair have really found their niche. Their first co-produced HOYS winner was the lead-rein show hunter pony Cadlanvalley Super Ted, who won at the final in both 2015 and 2017 with sisters Cate and Ness Kerr. Their latest top performer is Rebecca Knight’s lead-rein Welsh section A Sunstars Contador (Isla Buckley), who was garlanded with overall sashes at both the BSPS summer and Heritage championships.
“We realised the minis really work for us as a team,” says Sara, who adds that the key to a happy lead-rein pony is “not overdoing the practice”.
“We love teaching the children and watching them progress up the ranks. The jockeys learn how to ride properly right from the get-go as it means they’re not reliant on the handler and transitioning them off the lead rein is easier. Both of us have our own side of the job; Craig does the majority of the groundwork and handling while I’ll do the riding and teaching.”
“We bounce ideas off each other, too,” adds Craig. “If we get a horse out of the stable we can get two opinions on it. I can watch Sara ride and critique from the ground. It helps with the fine-tuning.”
Sara jokingly chips in: “Craig isn’t overly kind with his critiques. If he tells you that it looks ‘all right’, that’s Craig-speak for ‘excellent’.”
Craig is well known for his class and showmanship when at the bridle of a horse or pony, but when asked what his secret is, the producer is a little lost for words.
“Craig is always asked this question but can never answer it,” says Sara. “He’s just so natural with them; it’s effortless for him. You can give him a pony and he would add 10 marks to it stood still. A lead-rein would look very different if we both tried running it out. He has something you can’t teach.”
“I’m obsessed with working on a horse’s straightness,” says Craig. “I try to work them in-hand so that they’ll be easier when it comes for them to be ridden.”
‘Authentic and open’
With the cancellation of the majority of the 2020 show season, the pair have adapted their business to move with the times. Sara heads up the team’s social media channels.
“Social media takes more time than you’d think but I find it really fascinating,” says Sara, emphasising that the couple insist on transparency. “We try to be authentic and open, and show what really goes on behind the scenes. We all see these perfect pictures but it doesn’t show how they got to the end product. Ponies don’t look ring-ready all of the time and there is a process to get them to the final stages. I don’t like to see negative comments on social channels either. It’s one of the worst things and is detrimental to the sport. Some people should know better.”
It’s clear that innovation is at the forefront of the couple’s plans. Sara is also working on their relatively new project, growing equestrian brand Perform Equine.
“Sara is like a cocker spaniel,” says Craig. “Once she’s up and running she doesn’t stop all day.”
Sara explains: “At one point I wasn’t happy with the earplugs on the market so set out to manufacture some. During Covid we’ve invested some money and designed base layers and riding leggings. It’s a whole new world but it’s really exciting to see where it could go.
“Maybe in a few years we’ll have downsized the yard a little, but it depends. I feel showing is missing an assistant trainer role similar to that in racing. There are grooms and there are producers but there is a gap for those who sit in the middle and aren’t quite ready to start their own business. Some producers get offended when young people go off on their own but there isn’t really a role for them in our sport where they can train and learn the job under someone else.”
Craig and Sara’s string for 2021 is flourishing and they have a range of animals ranging from mountain and moorland lead-reins to hunter ponies, and from mini show ponies to Welsh stallions. While victories at the season’s big finales are always the ultimate aim, both agree that those extra-special moments aren’t necessarily under the bright lights at the NEC or Hickstead.
“They’re so hard to pinpoint as any win is the culmination of a team effort,” says Sara. “Our animals are our life. We eat, sleep and breathe our ponies, so all the victories mean something. While I love to ride myself, watching the children triumph is amazing.”
“To lead my own daughter, Scarlett, to win her first flowery sash with Thistledown Lawman at the BSPS Summer Championships in 2018 was incredible,” says Craig, who led the duo to stand mini show hunter pony and Challenge supremes. “It’s moments like that which make it all worthwhile.”
Ref Horse & Hound; 12 November 2020