Not everyone can make it work in life, love and business, but two pony producers are proving it’s possible. Alex Robinson meets the successful couple with an enviable Hickstead tally
WITH more producers to choose from than ever before, it can be difficult to push through the crowd in the showing world, let alone run a thriving business that pays the bills, fills the lorry and sees you through a pandemic. As the market becomes increasingly saturated with ambitious enthusiasts looking to turn pro, finding your niche and then running with it is essential.
Kevin Cousins and Christina Gillett are two professionals who, together, have found their intended path. Based in Cambridgeshire, the engaged couple run an 18-box yard of children’s rides, ranging from mountain and moorlands (M&Ms) to hunter ponies. They met in 2014 at the British Show Pony Society (BSPS) judges conference and kindled their romance at the Fayre Oakes Welsh pony sale later that year.
“I’d gone to the assessment on my own and found it really daunting,” reflects Christina, 34, who was taught to ride by Dawn Clarke and started showing at top level, aged 10, when she was in production with Julie and the late Bob Templeton. “Since then, Kevin and I haven’t gone a single day without speaking.”
Christina’s sights on a career in the show ring were set early on. As well as helping out producers Debbie and James van Praagh with their team of ponies, Christina classifies leading rider Katie Jerram-Hunnable as one of her early influences.
“I always wanted to do horses as a job – it would be this or stacking shelves,” Christina says. “The Templetons really did teach me everything I know about showing. They had a massive operation and did it so well; in that day and age, there weren’t as many people doing it and there weren’t producers all over the country like there are today.
“As a child, I took it all in and learnt the ropes; most of the time, I’d be at their yard while I was meant to be at school. Bob was a particularly fantastic man and a great friend. When I got a bit older and more knowledgeable, I was able to have the ponies to produce from home with my mum, Marlene.”
However, while Christina made her Horse of the Year Show (HOYS) debut on show ponies at a young age, born-and-bred Welshman Kevin, 62, didn’t sit in a saddle until he was 10 years old.
“And this was only because my sister married a hunt servant,” Kevin explains. “I would go and see her on the weekends and I seemed to have a knack for riding. I eventually went to live with her and did a lot of hunting before I got into racing and Pony Club games.”
At 16, Kevin went to work at a racing stables, but the self-confessed adrenaline junkie found life as a Flat jockey “boring”.
“I needed to jump things, so I went down the amateur hunter chase route,” he says. “I rode point-to-pointers for about 25 years and it was during this time that my family started breeding, mainly bred part-breds for the hunter pony classes and thoroughbreds. Then I went eventing and won some stuff at novice and intermediate.”
Says Christina: “He’s a Jack of all trades. I’d like to say master of none, but he can do them all well.”
KEVIN and Christina – both longstanding BSPS and British Skewbald and Piebald Association (BSPA) panel judges – have been showing as a duo from their current yard on Christina’s parents’ family farm since 2016. Their site sits in flat, open countryside on the outskirts of Little Downham village, so the ponies are kept in work with plenty of hacking on quiet roads and bridlepaths.
“They have a nice life here,” Christina says. “I hate seeing ponies overworked, overshown and overly fit. We feel strongly that they should never get drilled with training. Once a pony knows his job, he’s kept ticking over; some of them know the lead-rein job better than we do. Otherwise, they go sour and don’t want to do it.
“You need to get into their psychology to work out how they function best. Some might carry a bit more weight, so need a little more work to combat this. We’d never work a pony to be quieter either, only to be sharper and ride off the leg.”
Kevin, who is usually on the end of the rein in the ring, confirms that aside from a little Pessoa and lungeing work, the ponies don’t start their ridden careers with a glut of schooling.
“The ponies go properly and the kids actually ride them, even on the lead,” he says. “I do a lot of work with the ponies on the lanes and we use the village green to train them on.”
Lead-reins have become a speciality for the pair. Two of their most recent big-hitters – both 2019 Royal International (RIHS) winners – include Welsh section A Manorlea Mavrick (Jessica McIntosh), who was also mini M&M champion on Hickstead turf, and show pony Cosford Glamorize (Penny Richardson).
“It was a wonderful year for us,” says Christina, who has won the coloureds at the RIHS on four occasions with three different rides, and also watched Kevin lead Welsh section A Ravenshead Caradog and Samuel Bentley to land the mini M&M accolade in 2015.
“We love Hickstead and always seem to do well there. We’ve still never had a HOYS moment together, but we’re working on it.”
THE 2021 string features their two recent RIHS victors as well as some promising novices. The couple’s four-year-old son Lewis will also be making a debut on lead-rein Cosford Wishful Thoughts.
“Lewis loves getting dressed up and looking the part, but we’d never push him to do it for longer than he wants to,” says Christina.
Adds Kevin: “We have eight jockeys, in ages ranging from four to 12. It’s a nice progression; as our clients’ children grow up, the ponies we have in the stables are getting bigger.”
One pony they’re hoping will break the mould is Exmoor mare Badleybridge Ab Fab (Molly), who is defying the normal formbook of her breed and achieving some impressive results as a lead-rein. Her most recent victory was in the RIHS mini Heritage championship at the BSPS winter championships.
“You just never see Exmoors in these classes,” says Christina. “We took Molly on two years ago and so far she’s been a massive hit. While she does have her little Exmoor ways, she’s an angel in the ring. We want her to go all the way.”
While working with the children’s rides is the main focus day to day, both enjoy a spin in horse classes when they get the opportunity. Christina is already Hickstead bound on her own horse, the classy nine-year-old plaited coloured mare Sinfonie (Flo).
“We don’t really look to buy for ourselves,” says Christina. “But as Flo is the spitting image of my horse of a lifetime, Nijinksi Derma – who was second at HOYS twice – I just had to have her.”
“We often get the first pick of ponies from breeders,” adds Kevin, who notes that two of their main clients are the prolific Cosford and Thistledown studs. “You know if a pony is going to do the job pretty early on. We like ponies with good, arched fronts, which will be easy for the children to hold. Of course, they need presence, too.”
While Kevin has hung up his jumping boots, he now gets the same excitement from watching his team perform in the ring.
“Now that I’m no longer galloping here and there and flying over this and that, I get my buzz from watching the children do well,” he says. “It’s probably more tense in many ways.”
AT home, Christina says the couple rarely disagree, partly due to an important policy they’ve agreed.
“I don’t ever have to drive the lorry as long as Kevin never has to plait a horse,” she says. “I tend to organise everything – Kevin is very laid-back, but he tends to be more charming in the ring.
“It wouldn’t be normal if we didn’t get on each other’s nerves sometimes, but we do really well. When one of us isn’t at the yard for the day, we miss each other.
“We love our jobs and we’re both happy when everyone else on the team and the ponies are happy, too,” adds Christina. “We try not to take things to heart too much; I’ve personally not got the energy. If a judge doesn’t like something, you either don’t go under them again or do your homework and do better next time.
“A win is great, but we’ve been in the game long enough now to know that you must take it as it comes. We’re competitive, but we’d never begrudge anyone doing well and we’ve made some life-long friends in the sport.”
Kevin agrees: “We know how hard it is to get success, so if someone else gets it we know what they’ve done to get there.”
A HOYS victory would be the cherry on top for the pair, but their ethos of taking the rough with the smooth means that it’s not the be-all and end-all for them.
“Showing is an illness,” Christina adds. “And a serious one at that; you’re stuck with it for life.”
You can also read this report in the 27 May issue of Horse & Hound magazine.
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