Leading in-hand specialist Philip Ward-Burton talks to Alex Robinson about how he runs his one-man band – and doubling for Mel Gibson
IT’S a brisk Friday morning when I ring producer Philip Ward-Burton on FaceTime to conduct our interview. Philip – who has already tended to his 13 ponies – takes some time out of his morning schedule to chat.
“I generally keep myself to myself,” says Philip, 50, who could easily pass for a decade younger. “I just keep my head down and I’m quite laid-back. I don’t like getting involved in the politics of the horse world and, on the whole, things don’t annoy me.”
Despite maintaining a low personal profile, Philip’s results have forced him to sit in the spotlight as one of the top in-hand producers of the moment, although he’d never admit that. His sympathetic and patient methods alongside his natural flair in the ring mean he’s a popular choice for many breeders looking to send their budding youngsters off to kick start their careers.
Not from a horsey family
PHILIP hails from non-horsey stock but picked up riding at the age of three, when he joined his sister for lessons at the local riding school in North Yorkshire.
“We moved back down south as a family and I started playing hockey,” says Philip. “My sister got her first horse and I would help her out at the stables. The yard owners, the Thrift family, were into showing and I went to my very first show – the 1983 Bucks County Show – with them and their hack mare, Blenheim Little Madam.”
After completing agricultural college, an 18-year-old Philip got his first job at a friend’s riding school. Here, the budding young horseman developed his feel in the saddle by training stunt horses.
“The school also supplied horses, mainly Lipizzaners and Andalusians, for films,” he says. “We used to look after stuntman Vic Armstrong’s horses and I doubled for a few actors, including Mel Gibson. We taught a lot of them to ride, too.
“It was a fun time and life was good, but the hours were long. We’d be on set at 3am and would be the last to leave before going on to finish the horses. All in all, the actors were great and would join in; they had to be as they were reliant on us if they couldn’t ride well.”
Philip also spent time working with show producer Kevin Gardner before moving back into the film industry in 1991, where he worked with horses on the sets for more major titles, including Much Ado About Nothing and Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves.
“A definite highlight was filming in Italy for six weeks,” Philip reminisces.
A passion for in-hand showing
HIS stint with Kevin – who was known for his production of Welsh ponies and cobs – was where Philip developed his penchant for in-hand showing.
“I learnt an awful lot from him; he was one of the best horsemen I’ve ever met,” Philip says. “He was at one when he was showing a horse, would turn them out to perfection and always got the best out of them. I used just to stand and watch Kevin and the other big names a lot.
“At this time, I started showing for other people, too, including Irish Draught breeder Linda Rennie. I was lucky enough to show her big chestnut mare, Kelly’s Queen. She was a champion on several occasions and was the highest graded mare in the society at one stage.”
It was through his association with Kevin that Philip met his wife, Paula. Philip was asked to go and help Paula with a tricky yearling colt – they’ve now been married 21 years. While Paula has stepped away from the show scene, the pair spent many years breeding and showing Welsh section A ponies under the Llanai prefix.
Philip, who admits he can’t remember what exact jobs he was doing at the time, was producing part-time, as well as lead-reining with Paula’s daughter, Hannah, and running the stud.
“Our highlight as breeders was at the 2005 Royal Welsh when we won with home-bred yearling colt, Llanai Tarquin,” he says. “It was a year of record entries. You just don’t get better than that; to win a class of such a size with your breed. At our peak, we had around 20 broodmares, but we dwindled numbers when the market went off a bit.
“I was riding a lot, up until October 2000,” he adds. “I had a young hack mare called Sarah’s Taboo who qualified for Horse of the Year Show [HOYS] in her first season. She came home after Wembley and broke her leg in her stable and was permanently retired. She was such a super horse; I didn’t want to ride after losing her.”
PHILIP’S decision to take on the show ring full-time came in 2009 when Paula’s friend had an empty yard to rent in Devon.
“I was fixing horseboxes and was a bit stuck on what to do next,” he says. “But I decided to go for it and make showing my ‘proper job’. I had some good clients who helped me kick start my business. I already had my foot in the door but getting a reputation is hard. I did a lot of breaking-in in the early days and even had some event horses in.
“I got back into competitive riding with help from Alison Jones of the Broughton Stud. She saw me on a Welsh stallion at a show; she was surprised as she’d never seen me on board before. She asked if I’d like to have one of her mares to show.
“She had some stunning ponies in the field but I was instantly drawn to Broughton First Lady [Blossom]. Alison said Blossom had been a bit of a cow to back, but I couldn’t take my eyes off her. We had two fabulous years together, finishing our partnership with a best of breed award and overall fifth at Olympia in 2010. She was my all-time favourite.”
Carving out a niche
OVER the past decade, Philip has found a niche – being at the heads of natives, and more recently, British riding ponies. He has been settled at his current base in Bedfordshire – a 10-acre set-up on a working arable farm – for two years. He has 13 show liveries for the 2021 season, ranging from unshown yearlings to seasoned broodmares.
“I absolutely love producing foals; they’re so fun,” enthuses Philip, who landed both overall pony and horse accolades as well as the supreme of show tricolour at the 2019 British National Foal Show (BNFS).
His overall victor was Stephanie Fitt’s colt Frontier – the first coloured in history to scoop the title – while Debbie Foster’s riding pony Ducketts Dilemma led the pony field.
“The BNFS is one I’ve been going to for years and, while I’ve had a few wins, it was a dream to take supreme.
“Shows are the best education for youngsters but I never over do it. They have to come on at their own pace. Of course I like to win, but you can’t rush them, so if they’re not ready they don’t go. It’s the same with ridden ponies; they have to mature and learn their craft. I don’t like to see four-year-olds being rushed into qualifiers and I will always give my animals a novice season, maybe even two.
“I think this obsession with HOYS qualifiers has killed a lot of the smaller shows, too, and it’s a real shame. I would love to qualify for the Cuddy final one day, but I will never chase qualifiers. When it’s meant to be, it will happen.”
Philip Ward-Burton: a one-man band
RARE for most professional equestrians, Philip runs his yard solo.
“I’ve just always done it by myself,” he says. “Although I couldn’t do it without the support of Paula and my family. In a way, I’m just not really a people person – I prefer the horses – so I like to do it alone. I just do my job, get the ponies as good as they can be and then usually the results follow. I will always try and be friendly, too. I’ll say hello to everybody at shows. Just being nice generally stands you in good stead.”
While he’s missed the buzz of the show ring, Philip says lockdown has been an opportunity to spend invaluable time with his family.
“I want to be out and the ponies want to be doing something now, but it’s been nice to have a break after showing constantly for so many years,” he reflects. “I’ve also had a yard full of fabulous clients who have been with me the whole way through lockdown.”
Looking ahead to 2021 and Philip’s blossoming string includes a selection of stunning animals for the in-hand circuit, as well as two ridden ponies – Fell stallion Llanai Guardsman, out of his big winning mare Greenholme Queen Bea, and traditional coloured stallion Atomic Mike – whom he will pilot himself.
Also on the team are his BNFS supreme champions Frontier and Ducketts Dilemma as well as his own three-year-old riding pony colt Brookvale Lord Grantham, whose first crop of foals will be on the ground this year. Prolific mare Barkway Water Lily – whom Philip has produced for several seasons and has recently purchased – will give birth to the Llanai stud’s first riding pony.
Two Highlands, a Dartmoor and an Exmoor will also be under Philip’s careful instruction. With a yard brimming with quality and potential, Philip Ward-Burton is a name to keep on your radar this season.
This exclusive interview can also be read in H&H magazine, 18 March 2021 issue
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