Winning at Wembley is every young rider’s dream. To achieve it once is a great feat, to stand under the spotlight three times and go on to capture the championship on two occasions is beyond one’s wildest dreams.
A young Lancashire lass who has done just that with working hunter ponies is Sarah Lears, 17, from Aspull, near Wigan.
Working hunter ponies are still the stronghold of amateur producers and are classes in to which the professionals rarely venture.
Sarah’s father, Brian,a straight-talking former show jumper, runs a shavings company from home, helped by his son, who is also called Brian. Her mother, Ruth, acts as “head cook and sugar beet soaker”, while her older sister, Tricia, used to show ponies and also rode thesuccessful small hunter, Macbeth, on whom she was placed at Wembley.
Brian Lears does not have any particular source in his search for WHP stars.
He says: “I do it by word of mouth and always buy from breeders or private individuals. I try tobuy a year before I need the pony, so that we can play with it and bring it on slowly.”
Believing that breeders do not get enough recognition, Brian comments: “Those of us who show owe a great debt of gratitude to breeders.
“They do it mostly for love, as they don’t make much out of it.”
Sarah started riding at the age of three, enjoying numerous successes with the home-bred lead-rein and first ridden pony, Moonshine.
Her first Wembley winner, in 1994, was Langfield Cacheral, apart-bred Dartmoor bought from breeders Madge and Paul Taylor. Cacheral is by Bottingelle Swansong, as is Sarah’s 1995 champion, Roodlebats Robert, bred by Maureen Hatton and bought from June Horsfall.
The Lears’s 1998 Wembley title-holder Stambrook Pavarotti, a Thoroughbred/Welsh section B, came from breeder Sarah Rook, together with a reputation for being something of a handful.Brian says: “You should always buy something good enough to win show hunter pony classes.
“That extra conformation mark could make all the difference.” The first thing Brian looks for is good hindquarters, as that is where the power comes from, and a well shaped hindleg. He also believes good bone, with a short cannon bone, is important.
“If a pony’s got good limbs, it’s durable, even if you just want it to ride down the road.” Having schooled the ponies on the flat, the Lears start them jumping from trot, using a placing pole, which ensures that they always meet the fence at the correct place.
Once the ponies are going well, they are rarely jumped at home, just occasionally on the day before a show. They are ridden two or three times a week and turned out in a New Zealand rug every day, which helps to keep them sweet.Brian feels that some exhibitors fall down over not having a water tray at home, as these invariably cause the most problems at shows.
When walking the course, he advises pacing the distance between related fences, as well as doubles and trebles. He advocates never jumping a practice fence higher than you will encounter in the ring.
Sarah, a member of England’s victorious WHP team in Ireland last summer, has the occasional lesson from show jumper Keith Shore. Her shining ambition is to win at the Royal International and she would also like to expand into working hunters, eventing and show jumping.
“I enjoy the jumping and find it more of a challenge than the ‘flat’ showing, which I find quite boring.
“Also, I think it is a lot fairer, as it is judged on performance,” says Sarah.
A great champion of home-produced animals, Brian is a BSPS council member and was one of the founders of the Elite Horse Show.
He says: “I think the BSPS does a great job, but I would like to see competitions for home-produced ponies every week, not just at the major shows.”
The Lears’s latest embryo WHP star is Chocolate Button II, bred by Alan Hall, by the warmblood grade A show jumper Laramie out of the winning riding horse After Eight.
“Chocolate Button is a miniature middle or heavyweight hunter. “We saw her loose in the school and she is the only one I’ve ever bought which I didn’t see jump, but she’s a beautiful mover,” recalls Brian.
Already highly successful on the BSPS winter circuit, the mare is considered to have the scope to go all the way, so it would not be surprising to see Sarah, who also has another season on the reigning champion, under the Wembley spotlight again