Young riders: Staying on course
The secret to young riders breaking through at the elite level isn’t solely about racking up good results but also working smartly out of the saddle to forge a path to the top
To be successful as an event rider, horsepower is pretty important. But how do they get it?
If budding riders aren’t from an equine background or lucky enough to have the capital behind them to give them a push in the right direction, it can be a long, daunting road to the top.
Raw talent and potential will only get riders so far when a certain outlay is needed to get their careers off the ground. And there’s no substitute for hard work and sheer determination to achieve the dream.
International rider Alex Bragg was a farrier before he turned professional and believes that while racking up good results will get emerging riders noticed by potential owners and sponsors, sometimes it takes a little bit more to step up.
“Having a good eye for a horse and buying well helps,” Alex explains. “It’s a long process to get to 4* or 5* and you’re talking about spending five or six years getting a horse to that level. Horses are emotionally and physically draining – you have to have determination, patience and direction.”
Alex’s system of buying young horses and selling to owners is paying off, with some of his best horses coming through the ranks now. As well as generating revenue, Alex’s method protects him from the vulnerability having only one horse at elite level represents, when a setback can send a rider tumbling back down the levels.
Caring for multiple horses is no easy feat though and it takes a strong team built over time to do it effectively. Yet with the time-honoured approach of being nice to everyone, relationships form and if someone wants a horse in the future, a rider with a good reputation is more likely to be at the top of the list.
“That’s networking without trying; it helps I’m quite sociable,” Alex laughs. “You need a business plan and costings for what you want to do – there’s no magic way. It’s a big pond with a lot of people wanting the same thing you want.”
Selling horses may make a lot of sense on the balance sheet, but for young riders who have fallen in love with the sport due to their love for horses, getting emotionally attached is a pitfall that’s hard to avoid.
“Unfortunately, anything I own myself is for sale for that reason [to fund the business],” explains former under-21 national champion Felicity Collins.
“I’ve definitely sold a couple of horses that really broke my heart at the time. Putting money back into the business is very important to me, but this comes with the price of selling good horses.”
Felicity runs her business from a yard owned by her mum, Vicky Collins, who evented at the top level and is her daughter’s inspiration. But despite the family links, it was only when Felicity started picking up titles of her own – including winning the CCI-LYR3* Young Rider Championships at Houghton and medalling at the European Youth Championships – that people began to take notice of her.
It means Felicity is acutely aware of the importance of showcasing herself at every event she goes to because every competition becomes a shop window for her network.
“At the end of the day, you need the horsepower to be able to prove how good you are,” the 23-year-old adds. “If you get results, you attract more publicity. I’d liken it to a hamster wheel I’m working very hard to climb on to.”
It’s a situation fellow rider Ben Hobday (pictured top competing at Bramham International Horse Trials) is familiar with. Since launching in 2011, Ben’s Shadow Sports Horses brand has been a critical part of his progression in the saddle, so he knows he can only choose the best horses to make the right impression.
“You can ride everything offered to you, but you have to win classes to make a difference,” Ben reasons.
“My dad always said, ‘you have to row your own boat’. When I was in Young Riders I got support, but the next step is to put a business plan together and create a conveyor belt of good horses.
“When you’re young, you think everyone’s going to call you up, but they don’t. Get a structure in place, produce young horses and make sure they are high quality.”
Easier said than done
That’s a blueprint many young riders follow, but depending on their starting point, it can be easier said than done. At 4* level, Hannah Freeman doesn’t fit the normal rider criteria after only starting to compete as a 21-year-old, so she completed a scholarship with Keyflow’s Bridging the Gap Training Series and received top-class training from Gill Watson and Lizzel Winter to help climb the ladder.
To supplement that, she takes in breakers, produces youngsters and schools other people’s horses at her base at Spye Park in Wiltshire, where she’s the yard manager. Like a lot of riders, she also teaches.
Hannah knows she has to sell horses to fund her business. But while it’s hard work and long hours, she’s passionate about it.
“Those riders who have family support are already ahead of the others,” Hannah concedes. “Spye Park is the backbone for me. The downs of eventing are in their hundreds and the ups are a handful, but I can’t think of anything else I’d rather do. “The hardest part is the competition against well-known riders. If an owner has a good experience with you, you can make a name for yourself, but you need good owners and support.”
The modern world makes it much easier for savvy riders to get themselves noticed. Whereas good results remain the backbone to any burgeoning reputation, social media is a tool no promising rider can afford to ignore.
Ben is a big advocate of that, having clocked up nearly 100,000 followers on his Instagram page alone – a figure dwarfing his fellow competitors. So what’s his secret to garnering that interest? Be authentic.
“The social media side is fun, but I’m an athlete – I want the opportunities that come from showing the world who I am,” he explains. “You can’t pretend to be something you’re not though because you’ll get found out.”
Toots Bartlett agrees. The 20-year-old comes from a sporting family who have been supportive of her career and she’s now in the process of creating her own independent business, so relies on her social channels to spread the word.
The right platform
“Social media has become a huge part in gaining sponsors and owners,” says Toots, who competed at her first under-25 National Championship at Bicton this year.
“Riders need to be seen on a social media platform, giving followers an insight into how they run and live their day-to-day lives. On social media, the more exposure you can give a company, the more likely you are to receive products.
“I’m thoroughly looking forward to giving the under-25 championship another crack over the next four years and, hopefully, bringing some more of my lovely horses up to this level,” adds Toots.
Whichever path a rider chooses to make their way, the ultimate goal is to have horses consistently competing at the top level. To do that, tough decisions need to be made in order to balance priorities.
Plan well and keep your eyes on the prize and, hopefully, the rest will fall into place.
WORDS: KATE ROEBUCK
Article first published in the Autumn 2021 issue of British Eventing Life magazine