Lockdown living: the highs and lows of life at home with top riders during the pandemic *H&H Plus*

  • What’s it like living with an elite athlete grounded by the abandonment of all sport? H&H asks the partners of top riders how they are coping with lockdown...

    Rebecca Hughes, wife of Team GBR dressage rider Gareth

    A few years ago, I bought Gareth a guitar for his birthday, but he’s never had time to touch it – until now. Every afternoon he takes himself off into a different room to learn to play. Initially our young cat would run away from him when he picked it up and gave it a strum, but she’s stopped doing that now, so he must be improving!

    He’s also been mowing the lawn as often as he can – Gareth is a homebody generally, so while it has been disappointing not to be working towards the Tokyo Olympics, he has been able to enjoy this rather strange break.

    He tends to be grumpy when it’s cold and happy when the sun’s out, and luckily it has been mostly great weather.

    He’s the one who usually goes out to Tesco to do the shopping – he tells me I don’t do it properly because I don’t go up and down every aisle. He very much likes the fact that there is now a one-way system in the supermarket as that was how he has always done it!

    Chloe Breen, wife of Irish team showjumper Shane Breen

    Hickstead is a unique habitat with around 20 of us, including the lads, living in one household, so I call it our self-isolation bubble. The priority has been trying to keep everyone safe, but it’s pretty much been business as usual and we haven’t gone too stir-crazy.

    Our eldest daughters have been diligent with their schoolwork, but as for the two younger boys… They’ve been doing some veterinary work – they now know how to spot an embryo through a microscope and how to castrate yearlings. But they’ve seen more of Shane in the past seven weeks than they have in 13 years and Shane is loving it too – he keeps threatening to retire!

    It’s been really valuable for Shane just to stop and take stock of the business. He’s been running a mini Global Champions Tour every week over very restrained heights, with the kids joining in, and Steven Wilde even sent us some commentary. We start with the individual qualifier, then the team competition and the grand prix, and our daughter Lorna is currently leading the rankings.

    Shane and I have taken up daily yoga and he’s really feeling the benefit – he couldn’t touch his toes at the beginning and now he’s performing shoulder stands and headstands.

    One person goes out every week to do all the shopping and the local Chinese restaurant has just started doing takeaways again, so we’re delighted about that. It’s been a challenge and cashflow is a nightmare, as I’m sure it is for everyone, but the lads have been amazing, we have some very loyal owners and we’re really enjoying this family time.

    Simon Souster, husband of showing producer Ella Souster

    For me, lockdown has been a big change as I’m a mechanic and my garage has been closed. It’s almost as if I’ve become Ella’s employee and I now come home each day smelling of horses.

    While I do usually go to shows, I’ve always maintained that I’m the fixer; if anything needs fixing – such as the lorry – that’s my job. But I’ve learnt a lot spending more time at the yard, such as how to put a headcollar on, hang up a haynet or put a horse in the field – Ella will just say, “That one goes over there,” and off I go.

    I’ve also come to realise what an awful job filling haynets is, so to make it easier I built a stand to hold the net while you shove the hay in.

    I sat on a horse for the first time in 20 years. Even though I’ve known Ella for so long I’ve never, ever been on board. We were nominated for the loo roll challenge so I sat on one called Flossy (Hot Gossip).

    We’ve been having movie nights in the evenings with the kids, Lexi, who’s four, and Xander, two. The kids love the ponies and have been learning lots, too. Xander has a pony called Herbie whom he likes to feed and give lots of kisses; he gets up early with Ella to go and see him. Lexi is also getting her riding in.

    Melissa Whitaker, wife of showjumping multi-medallist Michael

    Enjoying it is the wrong word, but Michael has been coping with lockdown pretty well – he’s been tootling around on his tractor, fixing fencing and that sort of thing. We’re nowhere near the end of the “to-do” list yet, though.

    The top horses are out in the field so Michael’s loving the chance to work on the young ones and the trickier ones which, being away so much, he doesn’t usually have time for.

    Our youngest daughters Katy and Molly are due to sit their GCSEs and A levels next year so they’ve been cracking on with their work – luckily I don’t have to do any more than check up on them occasionally. Our eldest son Jack is here with us, too. We had to furlough some grooms but we still have three girls on the yard. We’re pretty isolated anyway, so it’s a lovely little unit.

    I have had to be a lot more creative with my cooking though with five adults to feed every day – and the boys are used to hotel food while they’re away competing, so they’re demanding starters, main courses, desserts, the works!

    Michael and I have been glued to The Last Kingdom on Netflix, which has been a nice change. And I think for only the third time since I’ve known him, Michael actually went shopping – he was going that stir-crazy he offered to get the groceries. He couldn’t get over the banality and the price of it all though, so I don’t think he’ll be offering again soon…

    Tom March, husband of Piggy, last year’s Badminton winner

    Piggy has a few new rides this season – the advanced horses Dargun and Fonbherna Lancer, as well as two seven-year-olds – so in a way it’s been great to do a few events and then work with them at home again. However, we’re now getting to the stage where we’d like to go and test them in a competition environment.

    The hard part of losing events is losing your target, so it’s a case of keeping motivated and having a plan of what you want to try to achieve with each horse.

    There are certainly positives as well as the obvious negatives – Piggy is more relaxed than she would usually be with high pressure competitions such as Badminton.

    We have six live-in staff and, with more time, we’ve made a conscious effort to help them more, giving them pointers and holding in-house dressage competitions.

    We’re also spending more time with our son Max, who will be four at the end of July. Piggy is the chef – in normal times and lockdown – but I make a conscious effort to help with tidying up and washing up.

    We’ve caught up on Killing Eve, but we’re not big TV watchers. I always watch a lot of online videos for breeding research and Piggy has watched some of the old Badminton and Burghley highlights shows.

    Victoria de Sousa, wife of three-time champion Flat jockey Silvestre de Sousa

    Silvestre is definitely getting bored in lockdown and has now broken the lawnmower through overuse, but he is keeping himself busy doing some fencing and landscaping. He’s been very relaxed but I can tell he’s starting to get itchy feet.

    We’ve been together for 15 years and have three children, but we have never spent this much time together because he is one of the busiest Flat jockeys and is always racing.

    To keep ourselves entertained we have been trying some TikTok challenges including the “koala”, where I climb over his shoulders and back through his legs without touching the ground. It’s particularly impressive considering Silvestre is smaller than me.

    We’ve watched a lot of Netflix, including Money Heist and Wanted, and Silvestre has been out riding the young horses we have in daily. I’ve come to realise how clean he is, but he does also easily lose things and he has no idea where anything is kept in the house.

    He tells me not to drink and smoke so much – perhaps he’s discovering my bad habits instead of me discovering his! He cooks a great steak and fish on the barbecue, plus some amazing Brazilian dishes.

    James Davies, partner of showing producer Sam Roberts

    Sam’s day-to-day routine has been pretty normal. She is outside most of the day trotting around in circles and going on the occasional hack. I am on furlough so will be collared to lend a hand when a fence needs fixing – which is at least once a week – or the pony bus needs looking at. I also seem to fix a lot of jumps as she keeps crashing into them; I can’t work out if it’s the pony or the driver’s fault.

    If there is a feed delivery, I am the human forklift. I will sometimes help get the ponies in from the field and change their shin pads. Some can be a little feisty but I manage.

    At the moment it’s like having two Sams around as her mother, Suzie, is never far away. If I get away from one, the other will soon find me.

    The weekends are a bit strange as Sam is usually away showing. On Friday evenings I’d got used to seeing the ponies with their Mexican wrestler headgear on and their legs wrapped up like mummies.

    As I can’t go shooting or fishing at the weekends, I have rearranged Sam’s belts and badges cabinet. I tell her she needs to win a few more big flowery ones before she can have a new cabinet; I think she’s been slacking.

    In the evenings, I usually talk to the dog as Sam will be on social media catching up with horsey friends. Facebook is constant and on Tuesdays I will disappear when Holby City is on.

    Lucy McCarthy, wife of Irish event rider Padraig, world silver medallist

    After the initial serious black cloud, Padraig has adjusted to lockdown well. Our three children – Moss is five, Gus 20 months and Mimi eight months – are really fun to be around. Padraig doesn’t usually get to see much of them, but now he rides in the mornings and then does stuff with the kids and odd jobs.

    Moss has started school but he’s quite advanced, so as long as he reads every day I’m not beating myself up about home schooling.

    I’m quite anti-social. I miss going to the pub occasionally, but otherwise I love lockdown – which is an awful thing to say as so many people are suffering, but I’m enjoying having time as a family. Also, Padraig is doing the jobs I’ve been nagging him to do for ages. We live on a 170-acre farm and have our breeding programme, so there is plenty to do.

    Padraig made me a raised vegetable bed for my birthday and he’s made a platform, bridge and slide for the kids. That’s his idea of gardening: bolting bits of wood together and sticking them in the ground. The extent of his green fingeredness is that he put together a living willow den. He did a magnificent job – though I did buy all the bits.

    On Saturday nights we have a nice supper with the four live-in staff, lots of booze, cards and games such as Monopoly.

    We live with my mum, Pippa. As she’s not in her first flush of youth, I am quite anxious about Covid-19 on her behalf and we’ll have to see how we operate when everything eases up a bit.

    Fiona Johnson, wife of four-time champion jump jockey Richard

    It’s been really nice having Richard at home during lockdown because I am so used to him being away racing seven days a week. He likes always to be busy and can’t really sit still, so he’s done a lot of tidying up outside.

    We have been tag-teaming with the home-schooling of our three children. He goes out at 7am to do the horses and comes back in at 9am to help me with it – I do the English and he does the maths. The kids love having him at home, but he’ll be pleased to get back racing just to have a break!

    Richard does a very good Sunday roast and has been perfecting his homemade Yorkshire puddings, but his gravy can be hit and miss. During lockdown, he’s been doing a roast every Sunday; it’s become his signature meal.

    We’ve been watching Normal People on TV and some films, but don’t usually have much time in the evening once we’ve done the kids’ tea, put them to bed and then eaten ourselves.

    We have two broodmares in at the moment who have foaled, plus some breakers, youngstock and the kids’ ponies. There is also 15-year-old terrier Jimmy, Labrador Hector and four chickens, so we’re enjoying some fresh eggs.

    Darren Hicks, husband of Team GBR dressage rider Spencer Wilton

    “Spenny” and I are hardly ever at home together so the past few weeks have actually been quite nice. He’s mostly been spending time in his garden, doing whatever he does to his plants, and has also been doing lots of baking – I think he’s trying to feed me up! He has made lots of carrot cakes and more recently a chocolate cake, although he wasn’t happy with that one so it went straight in the bin, sadly.

    We’ve ended up watching a lot of The Great British Bake Off as well, which I haven’t been too happy about, but we have also watched Tiger King – like the rest of the world.

    I’d say I’m quite a clean person, but not like Spenny. He’s stringent about cleaning, and has bought himself a steam cleaner so he can do the floors three times a day. The house looks like a show home!

    We’ve been working out together at home, and we end up competing with each other – he definitely wins when it comes to core work.

    Our other lockdown project has been to teach our French bulldog Percy how to swim so we’ve been going to the river during our walks. Luckily we haven’t had to go in and rescue him yet…

    Ref Horse & Hound; 28 May 2020

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