Amateur rider: Emma Wilkes

Amateur rider: Emma Wilkes

As we celebrate the inaugural Novice Masters series, amateur rider Emma reveals how she juggles life with eventing.

A burning passion

I’ve always loved horses and hoped to compete and go up the eventing levels. I missed out on Pony Club because I didn’t get my first horse until I was 16 and then riding took a back seat while I was studying. It’s only been in the past five years I’ve had time to pursue eventing and had the horsepower to do so.

I’m a full-time vet outside of eventing and try to juggle as much as I can. There are lots of early mornings and late nights. I work in a small animal practice and have times when I’m on call and my shift times vary each week, so the horses have to fit around that.

I always go to see the horses before work and ride one or two of them, then ride the others after work. When I go out autumn hunting, I’m up at 4am to get everything done.

My horses are my therapy and put me in the right frame of mind to get to work and cope with clients and the pressure, then they help me relax afterwards. It’s quite a stressful job being a vet.

There are times in the winter when it’s chucking it down with rain that, like anyone, I think, ‘what on earth am I doing?’. I also think about the money I spend on the horses instead of going on holiday, but it’s definitely worth it. I love riding.

My support network

It is a constant juggling act between work and horses because when I’m not working, I’m at the yard. I manage, but I’m lucky because my husband is also horsey and supports my hobby, which is a huge help.

I couldn’t do any of this without him. He supports me a huge amount and doesn’t resent that I’m with the horses pretty much every second of the day that I’m not at work. He does come down to the yard to help – he’s got two horses and show jumps and we both hunt and team chase – but we laugh that basically anything to do with the horses I do and anything to do with the house and cooking, he does.

I’m much better at looking after the horses and having them fit and ready than doing the housework. My husband works really long hours during the week and then whenever he wants to go show jumping or hunting, his horse is schooled, fit and ready to do what he wants them to do, so he gets a pretty good deal as well.

Most of my friends are also in the horsey circle, which is great because they’re people I’ve got lots in common with and they also get it and understand the commitment. If you’re not horsey, a lot of people just think you’re bonkers – it’s very much a lifestyle and choice. A lot of the events are social as well and I’ve got a few friends who are also juggling work with competing. It’s nice to be with similar-minded people.

Work pressures

If I’m working an eight-till-six shift, I won’t get home until about 9pm at the earliest because I’ll go to the yard after I finish work.

I’m pretty much exhausted when I get back. I’ll normally get home, chat to my husband for a bit, then I crash and burn.

I’m not very good at eating meals and I tend to graze quite a lot throughout the day. My husband always laughs at me because my staple diet is pretty much Red Bull and Haribo.

Depending on what shifts I’m doing that week, I’ll do whatever needs doing with the horses and tend to do most of the schooling on workdays because it’s easier to do that when I’m on a timeframe and then do the more time-consuming tasks when I’m not at work. I share the weekend shifts, so I don’t work every one.

On top of that, there’s also the paperwork we have as event riders. It’s all about trying to remember when the ballot closes and when certain events are.

It’s also a cost thing because there are so many competitions I’d love to enter on the calendar, but it sometimes does come down to a balance and juggling which international events I do because it’s costly to enter and so are the qualifications.

We’ve just started purchasing a few horses in Ireland to school and sell on to help supplement my eventing addiction.

Event preparation

I take annual leave from work when I’m going to do an international stayaway and often find I end up having not as much of a lead-up to a big event as I’d like. I’ll often end up cleaning up all of my tack when I’m there because I don’t have time beforehand. I’d love to have more time, but I need to work alongside competing.

I try to keep everything I need for an event in the lorry because then I know it’s there. A lot of the basic stuff – studs, numbers and boots, tack-cleaning stuff – is already in the lorry, so it minimises the amount of preparation I have to do each time I go to a competition.

Generally, in the run-up to a bigger event, it’s trying to get my eye in and making sure we’ve both got our confidence and fitness to where it needs to be. I do find it’s a lot harder when you’re riding multiple competing horses at a higher level in terms of keeping your eye in, running around the bigger tracks and things, so there’s more preparation in that regard.

I envy the pros being able to jump from one horse to the next because I think it does make it easier if you’re riding multiple horses at a certain level.

Big ambitions

My top horse isn’t the easiest horse – he’s amazingly talented but quite tricky, so our results aren’t always the most consistent and he’s not the biggest fan of water and ditches. It’s starting to get a little bit more serious now. My aim is to get a tad more established at Intermediate level on my horse, but I’ve found the jump between Novice and Intermediate to be quite tricky.

I’d love to be doing all the big events one day – I’m an adrenaline junkie. I’ve got a horse that’s capable and I just need to keep upping my game and get better myself. But I’d love to think we could go Advanced next year if we can crack the water and ditches.

A novice celebration

The Novice Masters is a great way of breaking into the Intermediates and still feeling like you’re achieving something – it feels more within each for me. Novice is a level I feel confident at and it’s trying to intersperse that with the bigger classes.

I’ve done the Novice Masters at Barbury and at Weston Park and think they’re brilliant. As well as the sense of achievement, I feel that I’m doing an event that’s a bit more special. And because it’s usually all in one day, it’s much easier to achieve on my timeframe too.

Having the dressage in an arena and wearing tails gives the event more prestige. It feels more like a league and is just more special, like doing an international on a shorter timeframe.

It’s nice having this level because I’m in that difficult in-between. I’m beyond grassroots, but I’m not going to the big Advanced internationals, so the Novice Masters is a nice thing for amateurs to aim for. It’s a great way to bridge the gap.