The new national showjumping champion tells Sarah Radford about her “eat, sleep, repeat” routine and how she maintains her relentless focus despite the pandemic’s disruptions
Despite nearly three decades in the saddle, showjumper Louise Saywell had never broken a bone until a few weeks ago. The bandage she is wearing on her left hand marks not only her first “serious” injury – albeit a small one – but also the first enforced break from riding she’s had in a career that’s kept her busy since the age of eight.
“I didn’t even fall off!” she informs me over FaceTime. “I was on a five-year-old and it spun round and my hand went into its neck. Normally I would stay on but I had to get off because of the pain.
“When I think of some of the falls I’ve had where I’ve thought I must have done something, but nothing has happened… and then I broke my hand like that.”
Although Louise, 30, secured her first international successes half her lifetime ago, her approach remains unflinchingly workmanlike. It’s been seven years since she’s had a holiday, she admits, and taking a risk riding the young horses is still as much a part of her daily remit as competing the top ones.
“I’m not in a position not to,” she observes, “but then I’m usually quite happy to get on and give the difficult ones a go.”
The Nottinghamshire yard she shares with her partner of nine years, fellow showjumper Graham Lovegrove, has a mix of all ages in. Louise rides predominantly for owners and at the top shows, while Graham produces their own horses that will ultimately be for sale.
“It’s always good for the horses to have a bit of a change, and two riders’ ideas are always better than one,” she says of the set-up. “If I am going to a four- or five-star then Graham will come and help me – it’s useful to have someone on the ground.”
Riding is a job to which Louise was born. The 22-box yard near Retford was originally established by Louise’s father Mike Saywell, who jumped to team fourth at the 1972 Munich Olympics, while her mother
Vicky produced working hunters, making numerous appearances at the Horse of the Year Show (HOYS).
Horses run through the family like letters through a stick of rock, and her older half-brother Andrew and nephew Jake have also had international jumping careers.
It comes as little surprise that Louise’s earliest memories involve riding “in a basket saddle” – or that a career with horses was a foregone conclusion.
“There was never anything else,” she confirms. “I didn’t even do any GCSEs, I just went straight into it.”
Although she dabbled in showing from a young age – which she enjoyed because she “always won”, riding some “very nice” ponies for a family in the nearby town – showjumping has always been her primary passion. HOYS is a favourite show, having been the site of several formative triumphs, including one year when she won the 13hh and 14hh working hunters as well as the pony showjumper of the year.
By the time Louise was 15, she was already on a solid trajectory, having secured individual gold and team silver with CJ’s Kemosabi at the 2005 pony Europeans. The win remains one of her fondest memories, and 15 years on she still beams at the memory of the unlikely partner that took her there.
“He was probably only about 14hh and was a proper full cob,” she recalls. “One of the girls that used to own him sent me pictures of when he was a livery at Norton Heath Equestrian, before he really started his showjumping career, and he had feather and everything. He just absolutely loved his job.”
Although CJ was already jumping at top level when Louise took over the reins, she was quick to underpin her success, following up with an individual bronze and team gold at the next year’s pony Europeans on the mare Kadia Mouche, whom she had taken up the ranks from newcomers.
As Louise acknowledges, “I did come out of ponies with a bit to live up to” – but the success continued and she added a junior team gold in 2008.
A training stint in the Netherlands aged 18 then turned into a two-year job with Vincent Voorn, and she went on to early senior success, making her five-star Nations Cup debut at the age of 23 with her good mare Hello Winner. The horse, whom she produced from a seven-year-old, took her to the FEI Nations Cup final in Barcelona in 2013 but had her career cut short by an injury at the age of just 11.
“There was a bit of a dip after that,” Louise recalls. “Then I rode a bit for Billy Twomey, competing Tin Tin. I was third in a five-star grand prix with him [Gijon in 2017] but then he was sold and I had a dip again. So it has been up and down.”
Louise’s most recent high was when she hit the ground running post-lockdown to be crowned national champion at Bolesworth in August, riding Mike Elvin’s 12-year-old gelding PLS Halo Diamond – a horse on whom she’d had back in her yard for just a week.
“Mike has Flora Young based with him, who events, so she had kept him ticking over doing a couple of 1.20ms and 1.30ms at local shows, just getting him ready for me for when the shows started so that he was fit and ready to go,” she says. “He was dropped off on the Monday, I gave him a jump and away he went.”
It was a welcome early win after the restart of competition, which Louise had launched back into with a two-star outing at Royan, France, in July, but even during lockdown, work at home had remained in full swing.
“I think some people have had an easier time of it but because all our owners kept their horses with us, and they were paying, they still wanted them jumping and training and videos to be sent, so we weren’t really that quiet,” Louise says.
It is only her hand injury, sustained on the Wednesday after her national championship win, that has forced a hiatus. But even now, she isn’t one for a time-out – she is still “making herself useful” on the yard getting horses ready for Graham to ride, and during our video call she is multi-tasking, putting fences up in the outdoor school.
Despite having kept up this relentless focus on the job from a young age – she confesses her life revolves around the horses on “eat, sleep, repeat” – she believes motivation is still easy enough to come by.
“You can always stay motivated when you’re winning and everything is going right – when it’s not it’s harder but you have just got to keep going,” she says. “All I’ve ever known is riding and horses.”
Louise currently rides for around five owners, including producing four horses for prolific supporters of the sport, Old Lodge stud. One of these horses, the 12-year-old mare Jallelah OL, can “definitely jump” and showed her potential for the top level when she had “just two little rails” in her FEI World Cup debut at Gothenburg in February.
“This year would have been a really good year for her, but our plans have all gone down the pan because of the pandemic – we’ll have to see what happens and if any indoor shows get to run. I think the odd World Cup event might go ahead but I’m not hopeful we’ll have a season,” Louise notes.
Another potential star is Arakan, owned and bred by Keeley Durham – who bred Argento and owned Welham – while Louise also thinks highly of one of the newest team members, Stippel. The grey gelding came from Leon Thijssen in the Netherlands and looks like a “really useful horse”, having banked sixth in a two-star grand prix at their first show together.
Although it has been difficult to plan ahead with the coronavirus threatening both the indoor circuit and next year’s championships, Louise – with the experience of someone who has weathered the rollercoaster of an equestrian career – is staying pragmatic.
“We’re just keeping going and we’ll keep on going until it stops again,” she shrugs. “The plan is just to get the horses out now, while we can, so at least they have done something this year.
“Even if you can’t have big goals, there are still the young horses and that potential to work on.”
Ref Horse & Hound; 1 October 2020
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