What makes a perfect young rider horse? *H&H Plus*

  • The ideal horse for youth championships does not have to be an elite star, Catherine Austen says, finding that temperament and partnership are as vital as talent

    To have represented your country by the age of 21 can symbolise one of two things. It is either the pinnacle – in ambition and achievement – of a sporting career, or a staging-post on the way to bigger things, and over the years plenty of riders in all three main disciplines have fallen into either category.

    Whatever the future holds, those who wear that British flag will have demonstrated ability, focus, dedication and a tremendous work ethic. They will also have been riding the right horse. But what is the right horse for an ultra ambitious teenager, and does it differ between eventing, dressage and showjumping?

    Gill Watson trained the young rider eventing team for 30 years and has seen considerable changes in the type of horse required over that time.

    “The young rider Europeans used to be at what is now CCI4*-L level and their big trial was Bramham, and the juniors were at CCI3*-L level and did Windsor,” she says.

    Now young riders compete at CCI3*-L level and juniors at CCI2*-L.

    “But the technicality is greater than it was. I’ve seen all shapes and sizes of horses do well, but you need a genuine horse with adequate – not necessarily extreme – paces. They have got to have jumping ability and be careful, and bold enough across country.

    “Soundness has always been very important, but possibly the crucial thing is temperament. They must have a willingness to oblige.”

    Gill, in common with all the trainers H&H spoke to, emphasised that the key element is in the rider building a partnership with their horse.

    “You have to be careful that your expectations of them [the under-21 riders] aren’t that they will only do well if they have a top-class horse,” she says.

    “The most unlikely horses can be successful because they have built a partnership with their jockeys.”

    She names Sir Barnaby, The Done Thing and Friday Fox as examples of horses who took their riders – Pippa Funnell, Madeleine Lloyd Webber and Rachel Hunt – from under-21 teams to Badminton and beyond.

    Laura Collett and Rayef were junior and young rider European champions before their eighth place at their first Badminton took them on to their first senior championship squad, at Luhmühlen in 2011.

    “Both Emily Llewellyn and I took our junior horses up to CCI5*,” Laura points out. “Rayef wasn’t really a five-star horse – doing it once put him off for life! But naivety gets you through at that age.”

    Horse-keeping cultures

    Paul Fielder, British Dressage’s international youth coach adviser, says that in the dressage world, “it’s about budget, basically”.

    “Britain hasn’t ever really excelled at junior and young rider championships – we’re usually just outside the medals – because, compared with their European counterparts, our horses don’t move well enough with sufficient power.”

    He thinks that the difference in horse-keeping cultures plays a part; European riders are more “trainer-orientated” and base their horses with their trainers, while the British are more “home-focused” and have fewer lessons as a result. He adds: “But the future looks good – we have riders mentally and physically on a par [with the big European nations], they just need horsepower and experience.”

    The junior championship tests are at advanced medium, while the young rider tests are at prix st georges. In showjumping, the juniors are expected to jump at 1.40m level, while young riders tackle 1.50m courses.

    Tony Newbery has been chef d’equipe of the British young rider showjumping team for the past five years. He says: “The horses must be sound. The first thing we always say is that a championship starts at the trot-up – if a horse isn’t sound, you aren’t going any further.

    “They must be fit and tough, and must be a clear-round jumper. There are five rounds in a championship, and normally the medal winners will have jumped 80 fences clear. They need to be very careful – fence material is getting lighter and lighter – and brave. They need good rideability and must be adjustable.”

    Olympic gold medal-winning showjumper Peter Charles has three children who have been or are still going through the junior and young rider ranks – Harry, Scarlett and Sienna.

    “We don’t set out to try to buy a junior or young rider horse – just a nice horse,” he says. “Yes, it’s got to have good rideability, quality, consistency and a good brain, but it’s not until you create the partnership that you know what you’ve got, and that requires patience.

    “A lot of people spent a lot of money – far too much money – buying a horse and then not putting the legwork in to establish a partnership.”

    A valuable experience

    Are schoolmasters the answer? Probably not – they can give valuable experience, but a younger horse is more likely to take you on to a team.

    Darrell Scaife was chairman of selectors and chef d’equipe for the British junior eventing team for five years, and last year took on the role of youth performance manager, which encompasses both juniors and young riders.

    He says: “A lot of junior competitors were buying schoolmasters, but actually it was not often that the schoolmasters really came to the front at that level – after all, the stresses and strains on a horse are exactly the same as they are at a higher level, and there’s usually a good reason that a top horse has stepped down.”

    And it’s never easy taking on a horse whose “buttons” have been established by someone else.

    Lily Payne, 16, took on the ride on Z Flemmenco, now 16 as well, whom Lottie Fry competed at two junior European Dressage Championships and two young rider Europeans, a year ago.

    She says: “It’s been quite difficult to learn Lottie’s style of riding and the right buttons to press, and I think it has been really important to spend that time developing a relationship, rather than jumping straight into competition. He’s not the most confident in the arena, and that’s about building our trust.”

    Children-on-horses is a relatively new FEI concept for riders between the ages of 12 and 14, and Lily says she gained excellent experience in the class. She rode Beckhouse Cancara, a 15hh part-hackney, at the children-on-horses European Championships in 2017 and 2018.

    “She wasn’t built for dressage, but we finished sixth individually in 2018 and I felt that was just because we had a great connection and I had learned to bring out the best in her,” says Lily.

    A big advantage

    Perhaps the dream scenario is to have an experienced horse to learn from at the same time as a young horse to produce. Lily, who was aiming for juniors with Z Flemmenco before the coronavirus pandemic threw the competition year into turmoil, also has a Woodlander Stud-bred five-year-old mare, Wild Romance (Nancy), whom she hopes might be her young rider horse in the future.

    “Dinks [Z Flemmenco] is giving the knowledge and the experience to help me produce Nancy,” she says.

    Laura Collett counts herself lucky that she was able to produce her under-21 champions Fernhill Sox and Rayef while she was still riding Noble Springbok in pony classes.

    “That gave me a big advantage,” she says. “If you focus entirely on ponies, it’s a big step up and a real shock when you move on to horses.

    “Sox won the CCI2*-L at Weston Park when he was seven, in 2005, which was my last year in ponies. It meant he was ready to go to junior trials early in the spring of the following year.”

    Darrell says that in the past couple of years, more junior riders are doing what the likes of Laura and Emily Llewellyn did, and are buying young horses with real talent and taking them to championships as a stepping-stone for greater things.

    “In Montelibretti [the 2016 junior European Eventing Championships] we had three seven-year-old horses and an eight-year-old, and all have gone on to be progressive,” he points out.

    “We are seeing more and more horses with the scope and ability to go on further. When the FEI downgraded the championships a level, there was a change in mentality in buying horses for juniors and young riders, but that is altering again now. Riders who learn to train and produce their own horses are those ones which then feed into the Nations Cup and senior squads.”

    Paul Fielder says: “If you start with a young horse with the potential to go on [beyond under-21 level], you don’t have to change it for another one.”

    Standards of riding and horsemanship

    While recognising that children-on-horses classes offer those with smaller budgets the chance to gain international experience, Peter Charles laments the effect that they have had on the pony scene.

    “There’s been a definite decline in pony classes, which is a great shame because ponies give younger riders great skills in terms of management, and in learning how to win. I wouldn’t have swapped our pony days for anything – my kids got great mileage in fantastic shows here in Britain.”

    Tony Newbery says that standards of riding and horsemanship in showjumping at under-21 level have risen considerably in recent years.

    “I think there is a lot of good coaching and education out there now – 10 years ago, a lot of people paddled their own canoe,” he says.

    “You can’t put talent where it isn’t, but when I worked with Lars Sederholm, he said that talent isn’t enough, it has to be educated talent.”

    A large part of that education is in helping young people manage their horses.

    “When you’re young, you want to be out there, jumping, competing and winning,” he says.

    “Then you get to a point in life where you appreciate how good the good horses you had were – second time round, you nurture talent and save it for the big occasions. Horses are like car engines – you can only get so much mileage out of them.”

    It seems that there isn’t any easy answer to the question, “What makes a great junior or young rider horse?”

    While money, particularly in showjumping and dressage, definitely talks, the rider counts for more.

    You may not be able to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, but if a talented rider is prepared to listen, learn and train hard, their chances of success are much higher.

    Ref Horse & Hound; 21 May 2020