Some of the world’s best jockeys, eventers, showjumpers and dressage riders started their equestrian careers in the show ring. Tricia Johnson finds out why it’s the perfect foundation...
Over the years, the show ring has been the launchpad of many stellar careers in other disciplines. Sometimes, the “new” careers might seem far removed, but many aspects of that showing experience have proved the ideal grounding for young talent.
Top jump jockey Nico de Boinville showed ponies as a child, and his successes began with winning the SEIB Search For A Star final at Horse Of The Year Show (HOYS) in 1998 on Barkway Black Magic. His racing CV now includes three Queen Mother Champion Chase wins – two on Altior and one on Sprinter Sacre – and a Cheltenham Gold Cup victory on Coneygree; he has ridden more than 350 winners.
“Being subjected to a competitive atmosphere from a young age has most definitely helped me,” says Nico, who was trained for the show ring by Richard and Marjorie Ramsay. “Showing exposes you to dealing with pressurised environments – particularly at the bigger events such as under the lights at HOYS. You have to be able to perform under pressure as if it isn’t there, and this is essential in racing; every day I am putting into practice lessons that I learned when I was showing.”
Fellow jockey Nick Scholfield made a similar switch, beginning on the lead-rein and progressing to landing the pony supreme at HOYS in 2004 on Chiddock Over The Limit, produced by Team Thomas. Nick was also show pony champion at the Royal International (RIHS) with Posh Spice, and his racing form includes two victories at the Cheltenham Festival and four Grade One races.
“In showing, you only have one shot at your class – as you do in a race – and that experience is a bonus now,” he says. “I was also lucky to ride for owners when I was young, which prepared me for riding for – and communicating with – people throughout my racing career.”
‘Showing taught us to use our wits’
Dressage legend Jennie Loriston-Clarke and her eventing specialist sister – Badminton and Burghley winner and Olympic team gold medallist Jane Holderness-Roddam – first competed on show ponies too. Jennie won at RIHS with her 148cm Royal Show, also second at HOYS, and later stood supreme at RIHS twice with her hack Desert Storm and show hunter Highland Spring. Jane was successful on both show ponies and hacks.
“Showing taught us to use our wits,” Jennie recalls. “Some of our ponies were very sharp, so we had to be quick about keeping them under control. We therefore learned ‘feel’ and to pay attention and concentrate. We were very disciplined – our father was a colonel in the Royal Artillery – and our mother was an artist, so she taught us to show an animal off to the best advantage and express itself. That’s what dressage is all about.”
Louise Bell famously swapped disciplines from showing ridden and working hunters after taking on a challenge for H&H; she now competes in dressage at top level with her former working hunter hero, Into The Blue.
“Showing teaches many things which benefit me now,” she says. “Probably the biggest lesson is how to keep calm and carry on when all is going wrong, and presentation is a key factor too. Plus, being used to performing in front of a big crowd is a huge bonus when competing at shows such as Aachen and Olympia.”
Eventer Laura Collett, who has won numerous medals at under-21 level, began in native flat and working hunter pony (WHP) ranks. She won the HOYS pony supreme in 2003 on Penwayn Ryan, a Welsh section A she backed and brought on herself.
“I also rode show ponies for producers,” she says. “Showing taught me ringcraft, which definitely gives me an advantage in a dressage test, and I always enjoyed having my show ponies going in a soft and balanced way. Performing in front of big crowds has always been part of my growing-up, so it didn’t affect me when I started eventing at the higher levels.
“I also used to ride some very sharp show ponies, which taught me to sit there smiling, pretending that everything was going to plan when actually, it felt like they could explode at any second.”
This knack of being able to maintain a brave face when events take an unexpected turn is something for which Ginny Rose (née Strawson) also credits her pony showing days. The former eventer – junior and young rider team medallist – started in WHP ranks at the age of nine.
“I had a dun pony called Teddy Bear, who did very well,” she remembers. “The BSPS [British Show Pony Society] championships at Peterborough featured very difficult courses and I learned to try to smile while actually being carted around the ring out of control.
“Showing also helped me from early on to have correct tack and turnout, trying to have that ‘look at me’ wow factor as well as concentrate on what I was doing in the ring and not what was happening outside.”
A grounding in showing
Showjumper Di Lampard, former World and European championship campaigner and now World Class Performance manager for British Showjumping, began on the Dilks’ 128cm show pony April Rose, who qualified for HOYS. Their 148cm, Royal Metal, also introduced Di to jumping.
“He was the first pony I ever jumped and competed in WHP classes,” Di says. “He was a strong pony and I couldn’t ride him to start with. However I enjoyed the challenge of jumping – learning a lot – and it toughened me up with many falls.”
This pony was also a catalyst in Di’s subsequent career choice.
“I was sitting in the show ring at Deeping St James one hot day waiting for every competitor to finish their individual show in the workers, and it seemed like forever,” she remembers. “In the main ring, the showjumping sounded really exciting – the spectators were four deep around the ring, all clapping. I started to follow the jumping and was eventually allowed to compete in some unaffiliated classes with Metal. Then the determination kicked in.”
Di believes her grounding in showing helps her as a coach now.
“I value the discipline and the hours of schooling under the supervision of real horsemen,” she says. “There was lots of repetition and discussion about good hands, seat and balance; it led me to encourage the use of snaffle or double bridles and the rider staying more vertical in the upper body when approaching a fence and taking off — this is something I now preach.”
Many of the current crop of rising stars have similar roots. Emily Ward, now 20, began largely in WHP ranks, winning at HOYS and RIHS with Noble Toreen Lass, Noble Mack and Stambrook Pavarotti. Currently based in Florida with Tiffany Foster, Emily was trained by Michael Whitaker and has represented Team GBR at children-on-horses, pony and young rider European Championships. She jumped her first senior Nations Cup in Morocco last October, and recently won the under-25 grand prix in Wellington, Florida, on her top horse, Millioninmind, leading to her selection for a five-star Nations Cup team.
“Showing gave me a brilliant start,” she says. “I had a show hunter pony, Beckcroft Bestman, who won at the Royal Show and was second at HOYS, and that taught me the importance of ringcraft and correctness from a very early age. We practised our shows for hours, because if you don’t deliver on the day, someone else will, so it’s important to get it right.
“My transition into showjumping was gradual – twice at RIHS I won a showjumping class in the morning and then the workers in the afternoon. I switched to pure showjumping because I wanted to jump bigger and go faster, which is ironic since I can also remember not wanting to go in a cradle stakes class because I thought it was too big!”
She cites another advantage. “Showjumpers rarely jump on grass any more – except for a few county shows and finals at Hickstead – and I firmly believe my worker experience competing on undulating terrain in all conditions helps me massively,” she maintains. “Many other riders hate jumping in big grass rings but I love it.”
Emily sums up: “All in all, showing is a great discipline for any young rider to be in, regardless of their future direction. It teaches you to ride correctly and neatly, while still being effective and producing the goods. You learn about diagonals, control and showmanship early on, and get used to competing at big venues with decent crowds. There is no better grounding.”
Highs and lows
● “I once won a show class and was then bucked off on the lap of honour after the prize-giving. I was later told that someone had objected and I was deprived of my win, which caused lots of tears. However I was then given the ‘best rider’ cup by the same judge and that made my day. This taught me two lessons for life – all within the space of an hour.” – Di Lampard
● “I was competing in the then-Spillers dressage with jumping qualifier at Southampton Show. As I was riding Xenocles on the way to the arena, a woman came down on a wire from a helicopter and he stood up. I fell off backwards, but got back on and went on to win the competition and the final as well.” – Jennie Loriston-Clarke
● “The highlight of my showing days was winning at HOYS, but the same pony was also the one that gave me my most embarrassing moment when at Three Counties showground, he exited the arena halfway round the worker course and bolted back to the lorry.” – Laura Collett
Ref Horse & Hound; 2 April 2020