I recently returned from the Sunshine Tour in Mijas, Spain. It was good for bringing on the young horses and it was even nicer to spend some time with my fellow columnist William Funnell and his wife Pippa.
I was pleased to see William’s stable jockey Alex Gill going particularly well out there. He’s a year younger than my son Harry and, having watched him progress through the pony ranks, I was able to recommend him to William when he was looking for a young rider to join them. It’s a fantastic opportunity for him to go on a tour — where in England now can these young riders go to gain such a valuable apprenticeship?
It takes me back to the days when I was starting out, and it was certainly different then. I was in Ireland schooling and riding horses for the great Eddie Macken, but not doing a great deal of competing.
I was approached by one of the most famous horse dealers of the time, Con McElroy. He told me he had a nice big yard in England where I could go to all the shows and asked if I would like to ride for him. After a brief discussion with Eddie, he laughed — obviously knowing Con better than I did — and said, “Go for it, you’ll enjoy the experience.”
I arrived eager to impress at my first show at Stocklands with no groom and eight horses. I dressed up as best I could after tacking up — assuming Con would be dealing with the entries — and took out one of the horses to warm up.
All of a sudden Con appeared with a customer, Brian Dye. I took the horse over a couple of jumps and Brian said he liked it, and bought it on the spot. Con said: “That went well, get out another one.”
And so it continued. We went to all the shows — but we never went in the ring.
While riding for Con one day at Stocklands, I spotted a famous man whom I’d often seen on TV — Douglas Bunn. He was standing at the ringside watching his rider, the colourful character Ray Howe.
I thought “this is my chance” and I went up and introduced myself.
“If that’s your rider in the ring, then I’m a lot better than him,” I told Douglas.
He replied: “Stay there,” and didn’t say another word. Ray finished his round and came over. “Do you know this boy stood here?” Douglas asked him.
“No, I have never seen him before,” Ray replied.
“Well he knows you. He says you’re a right w*nker,” said Douglas.
I thought I’d blown it there and then, but Ray saw the funny side and said: “Get him down next week. Let’s see if he can do a better job.”
I duly went to Hickstead for an interview and got the job — going on to ride at the international show a week later. For a 21-year-old boy with no experience, it was a fantastic leg-up.
I still count myself lucky to ride at Hickstead — which remains the jewel in the crown of British showjumping.
Lizzie and Edward Bunn have remained great custodians of the showground, making improvements to Douglas’ legacy. How great it would be if they ever decided they wanted to host a tour there.
Having young horses jump in one place for three to four weeks, without the upheaval of moving from show to show, is a fantastic experience for them and it really helps them improve.
I have no doubt that if we were able to use all the rings and facilities that Hickstead has to offer, it would be a world-wide draw.
Ref: Horse & Hound; 24 March 2016