Alex Robinson meets two up-and-coming equestrians who are garnering attention in the show ring with their eye for detail and talent in the saddle
Sometimes, you just have to jump in both feet first. In February 2018, sisters Jessica and Rebecca Ely made the biggest decision of their lives. The two high-flying career women bade farewell to their nine-to-five professions to pursue their dreams as showing producers. It was the ultimate risk, but later in the season they got the confirmation they needed when they clinched the small intermediate show riding type of the year accolade with part-bred Arab Brindlebrook Little Scoundrel (Yorkie) on their Horse of the Year Show (HOYS) debut.
“We both loved our jobs but it was getting to the point where we were both moving up the ladder and work was taking up all of our time,” explains Jessica, 27, who is a qualified barrister and worked at a law firm specialising in clinical negligence.
“My job was hard work with lots of deadlines and court dates, so fitting the horses in between was a challenge. We had the right set-up at home and would still show on the weekends, but we decided that if we didn’t give it a proper go then we’d never do it and would never know what could have been.
“We didn’t want to look back in 40 years and think ‘what if’.”
At the time, Rebecca, now 29, was working in area sales for a platform hire company. Prior to this she’d completed stints in marketing and on the hire desk in the engineering industry.
“My job was totally random but really interesting and I was out and about a lot,” she says. “I basically fell into it and had worked my way up from an office-based administrative assistant to an area manager.”
Jessica and Rebecca’s current set-up is situated at the heart of the family’s 350-acre sheep and arable farm on the edge of Little Smeaton in rural North Yorkshire. There are 30 stables split between showing clients, liveries and their own show and dressage rides. The siblings rode as children and dabbled in local showing, aided by their mother, Melanie, and step-father, Rodney.
“I had a Shetland first, followed by a lead-rein pony I used to show,” reminisces Rebecca. “I had a break from riding as a teenager; I’d still go to shows with Jess and I would hack around the village but I didn’t get another horse until I bought a Welsh section C in my early twenties.”
For the majority of her childhood Jessica raced motorbikes and was a regular face in junior track competitions.
“I was very gutsy and brave as a kid,” she says. “When I was eight, Mum bought me a Welsh section A mare. She cost about £250 and I would just jump on her even though she wasn’t backed. I never saw the potential danger in anything.
“Mum worked really hard to afford the ponies and we’ve always done it from home. My first taste of showing was with a Daldorn-bred 13.2hh show pony. She was super-quirky and I probably fell off her more times than I stayed on, but we did qualify for the Royal International [RIHS] at Hambleton show. I had to ride her and make it work as we weren’t in a position to buy another pony.
“My 14.2hh show pony Stanley Grange Flutes came next before I bought my Irish Draught Ballygill Tight Fit from Caroline Saynor, who is now one of our long-standing clients. I ran him on while I was studying law at the University of Leeds.”
While both train and produce the horses, Jessica takes on the majority of rides in the ring. Rebecca deals with the preparation side of the operation as well as the younger jockeys on the team.
“It works for us,” she says. “If we qualify two for a championship I’ll have my show gear in the lorry, but I enjoy doing the groundwork, lead-rein and helping from the floor.
“When we win it’s not a single individual’s achievement; it’s a victory for that horse and everyone on the team celebrates as we’ve all been involved.”
In early 2017, Rebecca was on the hunt for her next horse: “Mum had seen Yorkie advertised but I was adamant I didn’t want a plaited,” she says. “I thought he might be a little small, too, but contacted his owner, Charlotte Marsden, and she said that he was really worth coming to see. We went to view him and I just knew I had to have him. He was the complete opposite to what I wanted but there was something about him.”
When they decided to go full-time a year later the sisters had a singular goal; to have at least one ticket to the RIHS.
“We had a good base of clients including a few liveries who wanted to get into showing,” says Jessica. “In our first season we maintained that if we could get Yorkie to Hickstead we’d be happy. We did a few HOYS qualifiers with him alongside and after some good placings we decided on one last attempt at the Scottish Horse Show.
“I don’t really get nervous in the ring – I’m in there to ride and to ultimately try to win – but after he was pulled top I did start to feel the pressure. He gave a really good show and I just prayed for a high conformation mark. Thankfully, it all came together and he got his ticket.”
Over the span of the 2018 season they acquired two more spots at HOYS, with Jessica’s own middleweight hunter turned dressage star Formidable (Vinnie) and lightweight show cob Silverwoods, formerly owned by Susanne Hibbard. Now based with new owner Charlotte Alford, Silverwoods was the show cob to beat in 2020, but his potential was initially scouted on the off-chance by Rebecca.
“I was dropping a pony off at Susanne’s yard and saw him in the field,” she says. “I told her he was too good to be doing nothing so in May he came to us. He was green and unfit but he’s always been the nicest little cob and he picked things up quickly.
“Later in the season he was champion at Equifest, qualified for HOYS and the following year he won the novices at Windsor.”
HOYS was a whirlwind for the debutantes, who went to the final with no expectations.
“Jessica competed with the hunter on Thursday and I followed down the next day with the other two,” Rebecca continues. “I worked Yorkie in on Saturday morning as Jessica was in with the cob.”
“I was never worried how Yorkie would cope with the atmosphere,” adds Jessica. “He thrives in front of a crowd. As soon as he stepped into the ring I thought: ‘Yes, this is where we’re meant to be today.’
“He did a mega show and when we went back in for the final result I was just chuffed to be pulled into the top 11. When the commentator got down to the final three I could see the judges looking at Yorkie, though I just couldn’t even imagine that it could be us. I can’t really remember much after that!”
Still on a high from their NEC trip – where Yorkie and Jessica also claimed reserve in the overall intermediate championship – the sisters remained on perfect form heading into 2019, adding two Windsor victories and several other county show titles to their tally. Their first pony client, 13hh show hunter Millwood Kaiser Chief (Isabella O’Donnell) also booked his RIHS and HOYS places early in the season.
Driven by the prospect of advancing up the levels, Jessica has hopes of making it between the white boards in dressage, too.
In 2019, she rode Vinnie to win novice and elementary classes at regional level, qualifying for the British Dressage nationals where they finished ninth.
“I like the fact there is always something to be working towards and that training never stops,” says Jessica, who trains with Becky Moody outside of lockdown.
“I’d always wanted a dressage horse but as they’re so expensive I had to think outside the box. Vinnie has done a lot as a middleweight but due to his breeding – he’s by Vivaldi – I bought him as a seven-year-old to do dressage. He’s a little behind with his training and he’s a big lad at 17.3hh but he’s already given me a great introduction to the sport.”
The dressage influence filters through to their showing training.
“I like my horses to take the judge forward with a light, supple contact,” says Jessica. “They must be rideable and accept the aids. At home I’ll always have a few different jockeys sit on them so they get used to it.”
Looking ahead to 2021, and while there’s still uncertainty regarding the recommencement of shows, the Elys’ team is waiting in the wings. Included
in the string is Jill and Jess Bowns’ novice show hunter Jacarlou Diamond, Caroline Saynor’s already supremed six-year-old hunter Moylough Melody, Rachael Cooper’s mini Welsh section A Blackhill Impulse (Sophie Cooper) and two Brindlebrook-bred novice hacks. There are also two exciting dressage prospects currently in for training.
“We usually look for unbacked animals so we can start from scratch,” says Jessica. “We’re never in a rush to do anything either; if a horse isn’t ready we won’t take him out, even if we have to wait until he’s an eight-year-old.
“As people always say, it can take a long time to make a good horse but only five minutes to spoil one. We’re always careful to give horses a nice experience at shows and get to know them inside out at home.”
Rebecca adds: “They may be show animals but they’re horses first and foremost. They all get loads of attention and are all fussed over.”
As former amateurs, both Jessica and Rebecca are keen to see increased options for home-producers.
“Especially in the current situation we need to make sure there are opportunities for everyone,” confirms Jessica. “Hard work really can get you there. You don’t necessarily need an outstanding horse to get you going but you must make your performance as good as you possibly can and be over prepared. You only get out what you put in.”
Ref: 18 February 2021
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