Combining school with a stellar showjumping career isn’t easy, even with huge family support, but Tabitha Kyle’s ability and dedication are reaping rewards. Martha Terry meets her
The first time Tabitha Kyle attended an international show, she was just three weeks old. By five weeks she was on a road-trip to Thirlestane and Blair three-day events, her cradle the horsebox as her parents, top-flight riders Mark and Tanya, pursued their eventing careers. And 13 years on, little has changed on the competitive front, only now, she’s the protagonist.
“We’ve just had 15 competitions in 18 days; it’s exhausting,” says Tanya when we meet on a rare break from the circuit at their stables, Queenholme Equestrian, in Wymeswold, Leicestershire. “Tabitha still gets in the lorry and falls asleep, as she’s done since she was tiny. Otherwise the days are too long.”
Tabitha certainly packs a lot in. This year alone, she racked up 14 tickets for the British Showjumping Indoor Championship Finals which replaced the cancelled Horse of the Year Show (HOYS), and has won over 70 classes, including a grand prix four-timer on one heady day in Le Mans in July. Just 10 days ago, she backed up last year’s HOYS 128cm and 138cm double in clinching the 138cm title again, plus pony showjumper of the year and the pony Foxhunter final. And that’s in a year when three months of the season were decimated due to the pandemic.
Tabitha has long impressed with her ability, but she has roared on to the international stage in the past two seasons, and not just on ponies. Her first foray into children-on-horses yielded team bronze at the Europeans last summer, riding the 17.1hh Grennanstown Sarco Lux Hill (Bart) at only their third show together.
“It didn’t take me long to get used to his stride,” she says matter-of-factly. “I just go on the pony stride and minus two before the fence. That usually works.”
If this sounds innocently straightforward, it’s because – for her – it is. Tabitha was hunting without the lead-rein aged just four and enthralled by jumping by six, forcing Tanya to weigh up her daughter’s competitive options. Tabitha couldn’t wait until the minimum age of 12 to go affiliated eventing, and so she immediately veered on to the showjumping circuit with a pair of 128cms, Tinkerbell and Lollipop.
“I’ve been hooked on jumping since my Shetlands,” says Tabitha, introducing me to Squeak, an athletic-looking piebald standing all of 7.2hh. “Right from those days I wanted to jump. Squeak would bronc and try to buck me off, but I loved it.”
Tanya is quick to point out the “perfect storm” that has precipitated Tabitha’s rapid ascent of the past 18 months.
“She’s incredibly lucky,” says Tanya, who is from a non-horsey background. “Tabitha can only do what she does because we do what we do – and because Mark broke his ankle. If he hadn’t, his career would still come first. It’s about being in the right place at the right time – and wanting it. There’s a lot of luck, isn’t there?”
There’s also a lot of practice. Tanya is an adherent of the book Bounce: the Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice, Matthew Syed’s bestseller on how to be a champion.
“Tabitha is lucky in that she has so many ponies to ride, and so many hours’ training, riding and in the ring, so if it goes pear-shaped it’s not the end of the world,” Tanya adds.
Somehow, education fits in alongside. While parents the world over have been tearing out hair over home-schooling, lockdown threw up an unexpected benefit for a young international showjumper.
Tabitha’s school, Ratcliffe College, has always been accommodating with her competition schedule, but home-schooling has given her the flexibility to study and compete. This term, “school” is a room on the farm with a tutor between 9am and 2pm, after which she rides up to four horses.
“I never push her to ride more,” says Tanya. “She swims one night and has physio as well because so much sport is hard on your body. But she just loves competing – when she was little and I could see she was tired I’d stop her from competing in the last class, and she’d scream her head off!
“It might look like a professional career, and Tabitha loves to win, but these children know how to play,” Tanya adds. “They play and play and play. If they’re not on the horses, they’re play-jumping ‘Jolly Jumps’.”
I wonder how hard it is to have friends on the cut-throat circuit, and whether her success is a source of envy, but Tabitha laughs.
“I’m very competitive but once it’s over, it’s over,” she says. “We have some rivalries and when we are on the ponies we all want to win, but as soon as we’re off, we’re cheering each other on. I hate being mean or jealous. In the lorry home, I like making edits of my rounds, slow-mos and adding music, and I put the ‘fails’ in too.”
A girly demeanour
Tabitha hops aboard a seven-year-old 148cm mare, Lickaun Lady (Nancy), and puts the grey through her paces under her father’s guidance. Tabitha, still petite, has apparently shot up in lockdown, and her precise and composed style resembles a much older rider, yet she retains a girly demeanour in a sparkly helmet and pink T-shirt. Her long hair is plaited and neatly tucked into her hat, and she looks every inch the professional, her own confidence transferring to her slightly green mount.
Mark does most of Tabitha’s coaching, while Tanya is more involved in helping exercise and train the ponies – Tabitha can’t do a dozen herself. They tend to source the ponies young as “we prefer a blank canvas”. The common thread is that “they’re like little horses”.
“They all have plenty of blood, even the 12.2hhs,” Tanya explains. “They need that fitness to do so many qualifiers – the circuit is relentless.”
Tabitha’s extremely reluctant to admit which pony tops her string, though eventually admits that winning machine Playboy Van De Zoetewei (Bugsy) is the star 138cm.
“He’s sharp on the ground, you have to move slowly,” she says, gently stroking his stripy black and white forelock. “We bought him from the Netherlands when he was four after seeing a video, so he was a bit of a risk, but I think we got a good one. He’s speedy and will do whatever I want him to.”
Under duress, she suggests Atomic Du Bary, a new 148cm for this season, is the leader at that level, although Gangnam Style II must be pushing for favouritism after landing the 148cm grand prix showjumper of the year at Aintree. This pair form part of a quartet owned by Gordon and Su Hall, the late Hearts Destiny’s owners, who are “a huge support”, investing in Tabitha’s talent at this early stage. The giant Bart is another. A breathtaking clip of Tabitha taking a stride out at a gallop to win a children-on-horses grand prix at Lamprechtshausen shows how utterly undaunted she is by the jump up from 14.2hhs to 17hh-plus, but she admits the transfer to horses isn’t as easy as she’s made it look.
“I think I’ve worked Bart out now, but he can buck me off from a standstill,” she grins. “It just depends whether he’s happy or grumpy. And he does have a massive jump.”
Tabitha takes me on a tour of the yard. Four of her top ponies – Atomic; Lickaun Lady, and her two 138cm champions Lisduff Royal (2020) and Playboy (2019) – are lined up in cross ties for the photoshoot, looking sweet as honey. It’s hard to imagine their killer instinct in the ring.
There are some 70-odd horses – liveries, clients and the Kyles’ own – at Queenholme. Tabitha singles out two 128cms, last year’s HOYS champion Corey’s Princess (Poppy) and her five-year-old son Special Offer (Daffy). Daffy, a blue roan piebald, arrived unexpectedly a few months after Poppy.
“We bought Poppy not knowing she was pregnant, and she got fatter and fatter,” laughs Tabitha. “I was still showjumping her two weeks before. Daffy’s pretty good, too.”
Back at the house, set just behind the main yard, Tabitha flops into a beanbag in her old “playroom”, which is festooned with medals, ribbons and photos of victorious ponies. Next door a windowsill the length of the room is jammed with Tabitha’s trophies – “I would like my own trophy room,” she muses.
There are all the outwards signs of a fully fledged champion, yet at the same time, so many reminders that Tabitha is barely a teenager. There’s a puzzle on the table, and a home-made nail bar set up in the hall, legacy of a “lockdown hobby – I do new nails for my mum every week”.
It’s a whole team effort, the making of a champion. From the grooms who get up at 4am to lunge Tabitha’s ponies before a show (she can’t warm up all of them single-handedly), to her parents ensuring she has a normal childhood while nurturing her talent and drive. As Tanya says: “Tabitha is unbelievably lucky but she loves to win. Hopefully she’ll stay this keen.”
Ref Horse & Hound; 22 October 2020
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