As we look to move into the “new normal” following Covid-19, will the appeal of financial stability overtake the lure of team selection for young professional riders, or can the two go hand in hand? Lucy Higginson investigates
OF 2020’s many ghastly legacies, one has been the brutal reminder of what it takes to be financially stable in Britain. With unemployment rocketing, house prices still bonkers, and the economy thrust into reverse, suddenly no one takes a comfortable home and secure income for granted any more.
How does this affect professional riders, whose financial stability often rests on a knife edge at the best of times? Are there plenty still willing to risk everything in the pursuit of Olympic selection, or are today’s young riders increasingly focused on financial stability – building a business and a string of good horses, which are probably open to offers?
Balancing the books is a topic I’ve discussed repeatedly over the years with a range of world-class riders and their connections. One multiple Olympian admitted to spending all their teaching income helping their talented child pursue the same path. I’ve heard eventing owners such as Trevor Dickens complain that even owning a Badminton winner (in his case Vanir Kamira) doesn’t make you money, and parents like Andy Rawlin (father of eventer Will Rawlin) admit: “Everybody is questioning how you can make a living out of this job and the answer is, you can’t.”
WITH only top-rank jumping shows offering really big prize money (and good luck getting into those), and most sponsorships nowadays involving free or subsidised goods instead of hard cash, it’s usually paying owners who keep yards afloat – for those who can find enough affluent enthusiasts prepared to invest.
Since there are far more riders than owners to go round, dealing is a typical side venture. But as dressage rider Gareth Hughes once told me: “Creating a business is actually a lot harder than riding horses for a living. The fairy tale of riding five horses and teaching in the afternoon takes years.”
Finding, producing and selling exciting horses can be profitable, but is time-consuming and risky (if your potential superstar goes wrong before you sell it). Tina Cook, winner of many championship medals, is by her own admission old-school in the way she does things: she tacks up and schools her small string herself, and doesn’t really have time to deal or to run social media channels.
She lives on a blend of sponsorship, owners’ fees, prize money and World Class funding, and though she’s based at her family yard, she lives in a modest house she has long planned to rebuild. She reflects that one day she must “accept that my team days are over, and actually earn some money” by profiting from her immense producing skills.
“I need to be able to provide the children with a house to grow up in,” she says.
Grappling with the whole question of how you make it work is showjumper Yazmin Pinchen, learning to fly solo as a young mother after her parents’ divorce and the loss of her father’s backing, though singer Liam Payne of One Direction has lately joined her as an owner.
“I’m still trying to figure it out,” she admits. “Our sport now has so many young amateurs with extremely rich parents who can pay to get them into shows. I recently gave up trying to buy a young horse, they are so expensive. For me, it’s about having owners and breeding young horses so I have ones coming through to produce or sell.
“Motherhood changed my perspective,” she admits, but the break from competing also reminded her “how much I love it”. Given the fantasy choice of buying a nice home or a team medal she doesn’t hesitate.
“I would always pick the medal,” she says. “The Olympics are still my goal – you’ll get a house eventually. It is such an incredible feeling to jump for your country; maybe that’s been a bit lost over time.”
Fellow showjumper Geoff Billington agrees, recently commenting: “You say you’re not bothered about going to the Olympics but it’s just a cover-up – once it’s in reach, you get really hungry for it.”
Juggling competing with dealing brings other challenges, too, not least a concern among potential customers that you’ll keep your best horses for yourself. Eventing world silver medallist Padraig McCarthy – who has a PhD in economics – and his wife Lucy emphasise that this is not the case at their business MGH Sports Horses.
“If we’ve got a really nice one, we don’t actively try to keep it,” explains Lucy.
Padraig adds: “Good riders know they can come here and buy a nice horse, not just one we don’t want.”
The consequence for Padraig may be fewer advanced rides for himself, but it’s a compromise he’s happy to make for a successful business. For all that his sights are set on future championships, he considers medals a risky metric to measure success by.
“It’s a precarious thing to set yourself up just to win medals – what happens if you don’t get there?” he asks. “Has your life been a failure?”
BRITISH EQUESTRIAN recognises how hard that step from youth programmes to setting up as a professional rider is, and runs a year-long young professionals programme to help prepare them for it.
“I’m finding more riders realise their riding career is a long-term thing – that they can defer setting up professionally until they’ve finished university,” agrees David Hamer, head of World Class’s Performance Pathways.
“Setting up an equestrian business and earning money from it is not so easy.”
He finds young riders are also better at making themselves attractive to owners – and they’re competing for them not just against Britain’s best but, increasingly, the world’s best riders. Few people are more driven than those who have left home and crossed the globe for their sport, as a career interviewing people like Andrew Nicholson, Mark Todd and Jonelle Price has shown me.
Padraig McCarthy agrees: “We find pupils who come from abroad are among the most hard-working and motivated. They’ve made that effort and have that will.”
He’s done it, too, and became friends with fellow Irishman and showjumper Paul O’Shea when they worked together for Swedish jumping supremo Rolf-Göran Bengtsson.
“When we both got to the World Championships, in Tryon, neither of us had imagined it would take us 22 years to get there!” Padraig says.
DRESSAGE trainer Sonia Baines, who’s worked with numerous junior internationals, believes there are still those who dream of the Olympics besides those whose priority is a nice yard and business. She feels young people have increased expectations regarding acceptable working hours, terms of employment and so on, and perhaps rightly so.
Sonia gained her own experience as a working pupil, but some young people seem much less inclined to work up from the bottom while living in a caravan on the yard.
“I did that, living in a caravan for years,” laughs senior international Hayley Watson-Greaves, “and nothing was going to stop me.”
She believes dressage riders must think more laterally than in disciplines like showjumping; her sport has less prize money, travelling and fewer top shows; riders usually have smaller strings, and “dressage owners tend to have a share in the horse, rather than pay you properly to ride it”.
“We do have to be more savvy, fitting teaching around our competitions, and I also see a lot of riders getting degrees in different subjects – that’s a really good thing,” adds Hayley, who is a prolific teacher herself and, as a side venture, runs a printing business with her husband.
“Young riders have realised the income stream is usually from coaching,” agrees David Hamer, “and they recognise the need to be qualified” – which also helps from a legal, insurance and safeguarding perspective.
While teaching or schooling are potentially lucrative, and riders have always been quick to spot a niche – for example Harry Meade’s pre-season hunting courses or Laura Collett schooling steeplechasers – most riders have limited time in which to pursue them.
Where once a biography or branded clothing line might have yielded extra income, times have changed and riders must move with them. Consider William Fox-Pitt’s Eventing Club or YouTube channel, or Hayley Watson-Greaves’s online dressage lessons, developed even before lockdown, in January 2019.
Besides face-to-face teaching – “I didn’t have enough hours in the day” – she also offers video assessments for £30 a session. Clients send footage of themselves riding, which Hayley analyses before sending personalised feedback and exercise suggestions.
Training videos that Hayley created this year with her husband and hosts on her website, largely “to give back to the dressage community”, have also been great marketing material. Throw in a pandemic, and her online assessments have taken off.
PERHAPS then, a growing thirst for stability is not so much killing ambition, as tempering it. The days when a good Pony Club horse could carry you right on to senior British teams two years later, or you could get to the Olympics on a “project horse” that has failed in another discipline are long over, and young riders know it.
Lofty targets require quality horse power plus heaps of training and experience, and riders realise achieving them may take 20 years – plus the sale of some good horses along the way. And good for those who juggle riding with other studies or take the long view – they will have to work for longer than previous generations, without seeing their property treble in value, and will need a broad skill set to fall back on.
“The pandemic has forced everyone to reflect how sustainable they are,” believes David Hamer, “and ask, ‘If this were to happen again, could I ride it out?’ Young riders do tend to live in the now, and it depends who they have around them advising them. But they are getting better at thinking about personal development, and what the next five or 10 years might look like.”
This feature is also available to read in this Thursday’s H&H magazine (8 April, 2021)
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