The 21-year-old worker rider is not only top of the class in the show ring, but has the ambition and guts to impress in eventing and hunt rides, too
WILLIAM PITTENDRIGH couldn’t quite believe what he’d achieved on his debut Horse of the Year Show (HOYS) final in 2018. At just 19 years old, he found himself jumping clear and standing fifth in the Cuddy horse working hunter of the year final against some of the country’s most experienced riders and their seasoned horses. Aboard his then six-year-old gelding Silver Lough (Scully), also an NEC debutant, William had certainly put his name on the map.
“When I looked around me, I saw all these people who have been doing the job for so long and thought, ‘Wow, am I really good enough to be here?’” reminisces William, now 21. “I definitely doubted myself a lot more back then. Scully is only small, too, and I did feel comparatively inexperienced.”
Two years on, and this talented young rider is rapidly establishing himself as one of the up-and-coming professionals to watch. While he still has nearly five years left on intermediates, William has been contending horse classes since he was 15. Last season he continued to take the scene by storm – not only landing the intermediate working hunter final at the Royal International (RIHS), but also winning the horse workers at Royal Windsor with one of only two clear rounds achieved across the board.
While his height has been the main factor for his early progression on to horses, William also hails from distinctly horsey stock. His father, Stewart, used to race under Rules while his mother, Sarah, was known for her results on show hunters. Stewart and Sarah also met on the show circuit. William’s horses are based with Sarah’s parents, Andrew and Heather, at their 13-acre, six-box yard near Corbridge in Northumberland.
“My dad’s parents were also horsey,” says William. “It’s definitely in my blood. I had the typical little Welsh lead-rein pony – a chestnut called Sophie – before doing unaffiliated stuff and getting into jumping. I became more serious about showing when I was 15 and qualified my coloured, Constellation (Alf), for the horse workers at the RIHS.”
Alf was initially sourced as a lightweight show cob for Sarah when William was 12, but it was decided that the Ballinasloe Fair purchase was to be left unhogged.
“He had a lovely mane and I was so tall; I was already on intermediates by then,” explains William. “I started riding Alf and he helped me become very confident. I was always told he’d get you going but he wouldn’t be top-class, though I always believed in him. At the RIHS final, he had a fence down but I was thrilled to be there. I remember being a bit chubby then and the course was massive; Alf could be quite strong so I was absolutely knackered by the end. It’s safe to say I’m a lot fitter these days.”
Alf’s destiny as a show cob was eventually realised after an injury put him out of action for a while: “We were jumping in a HOYS qualifier at the Scottish Horse Show and Alf landed awkwardly. He went lame and a scan revealed he’d torn his ligament. The vet said it was unlikely he’d come back into work. I was devastated. He was on box rest for five months and had another month of just walking on the walker. After this, by some miracle, he trotted out sound as a pound. I bit the bullet and decided to hog him.”
Two years after their Hickstead debut, the pair returned on the flat in both ridden coloured and cob sections. They came home with the amateur coloured supreme accolade.
Alf still lives at home alongside William’s string of jumpers. Scully, now eight, is his current top horse.
The striking dapple grey – who is full Irish Draught – was bought as a novice four-year-old from fellow working hunter specialist Katrina Braithwaite.
“Hunting was the making of him,” says William, who heads out a few days a week with the Tynedale and swears by hunting to get his horses ring-ready. “He took a long time to settle down and he has a big character – he’s almost human – but hunting helped get him confident and thinking forward over fences.
“As a six-year-old, he qualified for the RIHS at his first show, was working hunter pony champion at Windsor and won me my first two HOYS qualifiers on the same day at Derbyshire Festival. We were also selected for the England working hunter pony team.”
Also on the 2021 team is the eight-year-old working hunter Kildalton Heiress, 15-year-old gelding Sligo Better Value, who is William’s eventer, and three-year-old gelding Lucifer. Lucifer was found in the raw at the start of the year.
“He didn’t look great but he had a lovely, big shoulder, plenty of bone and the biggest walk you could ask for,” says William. “A potential worker must have that power and quality in the movement; if they can move, they’re likely to have a powerful jump to match. Most of all, they need to have the right attitude for the job.”
Both William’s horses and those owned by clients are worked on average six times a week.
“I’m not the type of rider to hammer them in the school and I like them to go on long hacks most days,” says William, who has trained with Susie Gibson for the past decade.
“They usually have one day off a week when I’m out teaching or holding clinics. Each horse hunts, too. They go out all season, even in the autumn before HOYS. I think you can tell which horses haven’t hunted when you get to those big tracks at venues such as Hickstead and they slam the brakes on at the ditch. It does pick them out.
“When I started riding the open tracks, I was so nervous that I’d rush around and bury my horse into the fences. I now take my time. Focusing on the jumping is one thing, but getting to and from the jump is the most crucial part of the round; if your flatwork is on point, your jumping will improve tenfold.”
When asked which of his peers he looks up to, William mentions the likes of former worker star Louise Bell and current riders Ginny Rose and Cindy Burnett.
“Louise is just goals,” he says. “She had so many wins with all of those fantastic horses. I’ve found all the horse people so supportive in the years I’ve competed against them. I do generally get on with older people, too – they’re a lovely bunch who want you to do well.”
Watching William jump – quiet in the saddle, light in the hand and in perfect harmony with his horse – it’s clear that the equestrian world is his oyster.
“While I’d love to produce workers, I want to event more,” he says. William events up to novice level and has two-stars in his sights.
“In 10 years I’d like to think I’m also coaching a strong bunch of young riders to the top. At the British Show Pony Society summers this year, I had a client attending her first championships. She jumped a beautiful round over some sizable jumps and it was so rewarding to watch.”
By his own admission, “gutsy” in the saddle, William is a man who relishes a challenge. In 2018, he hunted Alf side-saddle to raise money for Cancer Research UK and last year he participated in the Golden Button hunt challenge, a 66-head race over Ledbury hunt country. Riders come from all over, including Ireland, to race in the Golden Button. Half of the entries don’t complete.
“I set myself challenges and don’t realise how hard they’re going to be until they’re actually happening,” he laughs. “I fell off at fence three in the Golden Button, but managed to keep hold of Sligo, jump back on and continue. I did wonder how it was even possible for horses to jump such big fences. I love the thrill of galloping across open country and jumping big things. I think I’d really enjoy team chasing.”
Of course, one of William’s ambitions – and one of the only majors missing from his tally – is to win at the NEC.
“But that’s what everyone in the showing world wants,” he says. “I have other things I want to do, but this would be very nice to achieve one day.”
The drop-off rate for young riders leaving pony ranks is concerning for the showing industry, but as someone who’s been on a horse for eight years, William hopes he can inspire others to give them a go.
“I know it’s easier said than done, but don’t be afraid to try,” he says. “There is a general belief that the horse classes are far out of reach for many young riders and that the courses are so much harder, but it’s not the case; the fences are really no bigger.”
Whether it’s in the show ring, on the event field or on the ground as a coach, William puts his all into his preparation and performance. And he’s only just started.
H&H 24 September 2020
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