After relocating to a stunning new base in Gloucestershire, Spencer Wilton is as ambitious as ever and gearing up for a big year in 2021
IN a year full of chaos and confusion, arriving at Spencer Wilton’s new base, the swanky Cotswold Club Equestrian, feels like stepping into an idyllic bubble of peace and ponies. It’s only been a few months since Olympic silver medallist Spencer relocated here from Berkshire with husband and fellow dressage rider Darren Hicks, but I can see exactly why they already feel at home.
This is no ordinary yard after all; it is a luxury equestrian centre founded by Charlotte Dunkerton, whose vision was to combine five-star equine facilities with the atmosphere of a high-end social club.
At the time of writing we’re in between lockdowns, and Spencer, Darren and I are sitting in the riders’ lounge – at a two-metre distance of course – sinking into deep leather armchairs, enjoying coffee and freshly baked banana muffins next to a roaring woodburner, and admiring the mahogany bar and twinkling chandeliers above our heads.
“It’s quite special, isn’t it,” remarks Spencer, 48, who has his dogs Percy and Pippin curled contentedly on his lap. “Charlotte had an amazing vision for this place and she’s followed through with it.”
The equestrian facilities are just as impressive as the riders’. Spencer’s five horses, spearheaded by his top ride Super Nova II, are living it large in a beautiful indoor barn, complete with solarium, fresh flowers and dreamy exposed brick – and even Shetland pony Tiny Tim is swanning around in a huge, airy loosebox of his own.
Meanwhile, Darren’s string of 10 are round the corner in a charming traditional courtyard, with its own smart tack room and romantic archway. In between lies the stunning glass-walled 50x80m indoor arena and shrub-framed 20x60m outdoor arena, with an all-weather canter track and seven furlongs of gallops also on offer.
“My last place, near Newbury, was lovely and originally we weren’t very keen on the idea of moving out of the area as it meant losing some of my London clients. But when we came to visit here we realised it ticked so many boxes,” explains Spencer, who moved his horses in as resident professional rider in July.
“The hacking is great, the turnout has really good drainage, there’s staff accommodation and it means Darren is able to run his business alongside mine, but in a different area of the property. If you’d given me a wishlist, this place would tick everything on it.”
As soon as the property market reopened after the first lockdown, Spencer put his house up for sale, found a place to rent in Stow-on-the-Wold while he and Darren house-hunted around the Cotswolds, and started putting plans in place for the big move.
“It was a scary, daunting idea and a major upheaval – a bit of a leap into the unknown. But I spent years in this part of the country back when I was based with Carl Hester, so it actually feels a little like coming home,” muses Spencer.
A big move for Spencer Wilton
For Spencer, this big move was a “silver lining” in a year that brought plenty of stress and heartache. He and Jen Goodman’s 18-year-old De Niro gelding Super Nova – known as Neville – have been stalwarts of the British team over the past five years, bringing home silver from the Rio Olympics in 2016 and bronze from the World Equestrian Games in 2018.
With 2020 always set to be Neville’s final year on the job, Spencer opted to take a season out from top competition in 2019, readying himself and the notoriously quirky but talented gelding for their final hurrah, the Tokyo Olympics.
They made a flawless international comeback in February last year, with a string of high-scoring wins at Lier and Keysoe CDIs setting the wheels in motion for Olympic selection, and Spencer reporting that Neville felt better than ever – then the pandemic hit.
“When they announced the Olympics were going to be postponed, my first thought was, ‘Well that’s it – it’s all over for us.’ I was quite depressed about the whole thing,” admits Spencer. “But then I rang Andy Bathe at Newmarket, the vet who looks after Neville, and he told me just to ‘put him on ice’ for six months, and said that there was no reason why he couldn’t come back out in 2021 and do the same thing again.”
So, with his top horse “chilling, hacking and mooching about” throughout last summer, it was the perfect opportunity for Spencer and Darren to switch their attention to the massive upheaval of switching yards.
“I’m not sure how we would have managed to do all of this and also gone to the Olympics, though we would have made it work somehow,” says Spencer. “So this has been a nice silver lining to the whole thing. Now we’re settled, and raring to go this year.”
“He feels fantastic”
Watching Spencer lightly schooling Neville in the indoor school – which is so bright thanks to the glass walls that it almost feels like being outdoors even on a gloomy day – I think that “raring to go” sums up this tall, elegant gelding well. He is 18 this year, but could pass for half that age.
“Normally when he is out of training, he is completely out of work, so to have spent most of 2020 somewhere in between the two is an unusual concept for him,” says Spencer, busting out an easy line of tempi changes for the benefit of the H&H photographer.
“Luckily he just loves hacking – he walks slower on the way home than on the way out – and he is feeling really supple, which I think is a result of the hillwork and the hacking. He feels absolutely fantastic to ride at the moment, and he is just as spooky as ever, too.”
With competitions currently on hold due to the third coronavirus lockdown, and the Tokyo Olympics potentially at risk again, Spencer is very thankful for the prospect of a European Championships, set to go ahead in Hagen, Germany, in September.
“The Olympics is so uncertain, but having the Europeans is a good back-up to remain focused on. It’s amazing for British dressage that we would be able to field two super teams this year.”
Spencer had planned a trip to Belgium for the 2021 Lier CDI this month, but with that cancelled he is having to give careful consideration to the shape of his season.
There is no getting away from the fact that, whatever happens, 2021 will be Neville’s last year of competition – “we can’t keep on re-resurrecting him!”
“However good he feels, I have to be mindful of his age and tactical with how I plan my year. But I also want to make a real effort to enjoy whatever happens,” says Spencer, matter of factly, but with noticeable emotion in his voice.
“It feels odd to be going into his final year with so much time to think about that – I know that within 12 months it will be all over for him, and it will be very sad when we have to make that decision.”
What’s next for Spencer Wilton?
After Neville, there is a bit of a gap in his string when it comes to upcoming stars, but that’s not to say there aren’t plenty of horses keeping Spencer excited for the future, and he certainly has no intention of hanging up his own competition boots any time soon. The rising eight-year-old Zamboucca son Danny Zucco is waiting in the wings and will be one to watch in coming years. He, like Neville, is owned by Jen Goodman, and has “phenomenal paces”.
“I also have a couple of two-year-olds out of my mare Santa Maria, who are both by Glamourdale,” Spencer says. “They have incredible canters, just like their sire. I also have another that will be born this year, out of Santa Maria again but this time by Nikki Barker’s grand prix stallion Durable. I have always admired him and it’s exciting to use a British stallion. There are not that many horses I see at shows whom I think I would love to ride, but he would be one – he has such power and presence.”
Then there are several horses owned by German rider Kathleen Kröncke, who arrived with 10 horses in November to base herself at the Cotswold Club and train with Spencer. With three of these now at grand prix, including her World Cup contender San Royal and the “really special” Hampton Court, Spencer is set to help with riding and training them in between visits from Kathleen’s father, Dolf Dietram Keller. There’s an apt link, too, in that Dolf trained and competed the great stallion De Niro, sire of Neville.
Darren’s exciting string
Darren, too, has a stable yard full of horses for whom the future holds great things. He is on the cusp of making his grand prix debut with the Hofrat 13-year-old Hemisphere II, and has the likes of Woodcroft Django Mon Ami and Duchess Calina, both owned by Samantha Britton, coming up the ranks, as well as six-year-old Ronaldo just starting out on his career. He has nine horses in at the moment, and one spare stable, but it won’t be long before that is filled.
“I could never have too many horses, and I’m always on the lookout for something,” says Darren.
He made the most of competitions starting back up between lockdowns in 2020, with good placings at the rescheduled Winter Dressage Championships in August riding Hemisphere at small tour and Woodcroft Django Mon Ami at novice. He and the eye-catching grey Dante Weltino son Django went on to finish runners-up in the six-year-old final of the inaugural Nexgen Young Horse Series, as well as taking fourth at the British Dressage Young Horse Championships in October.
I wonder whether Spencer is finding it tough having had so much time away from competing in recent years, particularly with his husband having been out on the circuit most weekends during the latter part of 2020. A back injury kept Spencer out of action for much of 2018 – although he regained enough form to be selected for the WEG team and help win bronze – and his competition appearances over the past two years have been few and far between for reasons already mentioned.
“It is tough when I think about it, especially watching the other top riders go out and get the big scores while I’m at home,” admits Spencer. “I love competing, but I’ve had to get used to switching off and not thinking about it – otherwise it would drive me insane. My main focus is preserving Neville throughout this year.
“But even after Neville retires I’m very hungry to keep going. The problem is that good horses don’t grow on trees, and life can end up becoming a juggling act between making a living and maintaining a competition career. But I’m definitely still as competitive as I ever have been – maybe even more so.”
This feature was also published in H&H magazine, 25 February 2021
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