What I’ve
This Year

13 December 2018

FEI.org writer Sophie Baker discusses the highs and lows of her equestrian year...

This last year has been one long, steep learning curve for me; I had a very promising just-turned-five-year-old put to sleep, considered giving up riding, and was simultaneously gifted the most amazing horse.


I’ve finally found coaches I’m delighted with. I’ve spent more money than I ever want to admit on lessons, stabling, shows and tack. I’ve discovered new things about myself.


Most of all, I’ve learned things. From myself, from my horses, and from people I admire.


For context, you’ll have to understand a couple of things.


Two years ago I was on the verge of buying a new horse. My first horse Cody had been retired at the age of 11 and two years later after working like a madwoman, I was finally in a place where I was financially able to afford another horse while still keeping my favourite retiree.

"If someone proposes
with a horse and a ring,
you better say yes!"

In the 18 months that I had Chester, we had some amazing moments. I’d bought him “voetstoots” or “as is” at a racing auction...

He was athletic. He had the balance of a much more advanced horse, big active paces, and showed a promising jump. But over time I had a niggling feeling that something wasn’t right. He became harder to ride, spookier, more difficult. “Naughty” people would tell me.


I called my vet. I was fully expecting to find something, but something fixable. What we found was that he had a myriad of issues which were only going to worsen.


I was flying out to visit family in the UK that night so the x-rays were sent to another vet for a second opinion for my own peace of mind. They confirmed the prognosis and the decision was made to put him to sleep about a week later when I got back. I was devastated.


Little did I know that while this was developing, my long term boyfriend Frankie had hatched a plan. He convinced me to try out the horses at a stud who were having – wait for it – an auction at the end of the year.


I still remember turning up in my fanciest breeches, tall boots, and button up shirt asking my boyfriend if I looked like I could afford to buy one of the expensive horses they had there while he laughed at me.


I landed back home the day before Chester was due to be put to sleep and I wanted to spoil him with carrots, cuddles, a hand graze on the fresh green grass and all his favourite things.


I was in the stable when my yard owner called my name – I popped my head out to see an enormous grey Warmblood being led up the pathway, complete with a sash wrapped around him emblazoned with the words ‘Will You Marry Me?’


Naturally, I said yes.


That was a year ago.


Unlike me, Frankie did the smart thing. All the auction horses had been vetted thoroughly, and he sent full reports and x rays of the horses I tried to my own vet.


The big grey was the cleanest on the vettings and happened to be the horse that Frankie wanted from the start. He’s kind, generous, and although bred to jump, has the kind of workability and paces that make my Dressage instructor refer to him as the Prozac pony. 


That’s the first thing I’ve learnt. In future any horse I buy will be vetted. I know people will disagree with this sentiment and that’s ok – I’m not saying that horses who fail the vetting can’t ever perform.


I’m not saying that a small issue would be enough for me to walk away from an otherwise great horse. I’m certainly not suggesting that a low-level competition horse should be overlooked because of a minor issue which might prevent him jumping 1.60m. 


What I am saying is that I want to know what I’m in for. I want to be able to decide whether the horse can do the job I have in mind, and at what cost to both me and the horse. I know vettings aren’t the be all and end all, but I want to go in with eyes wide open.


As for my riding? I can’t even begin to sum up everything that this last year has taught me.


I’ve learnt that a good horse isn’t necessarily a flashy horse or a scopey horse, though those can be good horses too. A great horse can be a horse who will only jump 70cm but will do it 1000 times with your kid, regardless of how bad the approach is or what fillers are underneath the jump.


A good horse can be a Grand Prix Dressage schoolmaster who you ride at 10 shows and come dead last on because – guess what – you didn’t ask for the movements properly.


A good horse can even be that stubborn youngster who makes you want to rip your hair out but who eventually makes you think out of the box, address a gap in your knowledge, or teach you to try a different approach. Good horses, like good people, come in all forms.


I’ve learnt that the right instructor can make a world of difference, but only if you’re willing to let them. I switched Dressage coaches after buying Chester and every lesson in the last two years or so has been a revelation. I’d ridden at a reasonable level before and wasn’t completely clueless but my whole understanding of Dressage, of schooling and of riding has been broadened.


I am forever grateful to my instructor for taking me on when she has so many pupils who are “more” than me. More successful, more talented, more financially stable. I only hope that they aren’t more dedicated, more hard working, or more open to learning. Probably the most important riding lesson I’ve learnt is that these things cost nothing and are entirely within my sphere of control.


On a more personal level, there have been countless realisations.


I’ve learnt that yes, for me, horses are worth the heartbreak. They can make or break dreams, they can be here one minute and gone the next. But so can people, so can anything. Horses are worth the missed holidays, the early mornings, the beat up cars instead of new Range Rovers.


They’re even worth the sadness. When they go, you grieve because you loved. The two can’t be unravelled from one another but as they say; ‘how lucky am I to have had something that makes saying goodbye so hard.’


And it isn’t just that. Horses are the reason behind my work ethic and my ambition. I got a scholarship at University, took on a challenging new job, picked up extra freelance work (shout out to the FEI for letting me earn money by waffling about my favourite topic, by the way) and generally pushed myself to do better.


Why? In order to be financially able to keep and compete a horse. I know that I pushed myself far more than I would have done if I hadn’t had horses as my motivation.


Don’t get me wrong. I realise that hard work alone doesn’t always result in this. I’m lucky, privileged and heck, I was GIVEN a horse. But the point for me is that my commitment to riding has had a domino effect in other areas of my life, and that can only be a good thing.


When I was riding Chester we would get compliments on our flatwork, but they were often hidden behind “It’s so much easier to get thoroughbreds to work through the back than Warmbloods, so that’s probably why your horse is going like my much older horse - at least he isn’t as naughty as the ex-racers I know.”


Now that I have Hoshi, I’ve had different comments:

“Well you just trot in and automatically win the Dressage because he’s a fancy Warmblood”

 “He’s coming along well but it’s because he’s so easy and straightforward to ride.”

It seems that there are some people who believe that saying “hey, your riding has improved so much and I can see it in how well your horse has come along” will somehow take away from their own skills...

We know logically that that’s not the case, but I’ve definitely learnt that the horse world has enough people who want to dim your success. We don’t need more of them.


Which brings me neatly on to the next lesson that I’ve learnt. Hey, I did say this year was a VERY long learning curve!


The riders with everything don’t deserve your disdain


How many of us haven’t wished that we were the kids who had four ponies, or who could buy whatever horse they wanted because budget wasn’t an issue? Or that you had a trailer and car so you could get to shows? Or parents who supported your passion completely?


I’d hazard a guess that 80% of people reading this are nodding their heads in agreement. 


I bought my first trailer last year and it’s changed my life. Do I wish I could have had it ten years ago? Yes. Do I resent those who did have it? No.


Those other riders don’t work any less hard than me. They just have the opportunity for their hard work to actually culminate in something; whether that’s winning a big national show or getting to ride for a trainer they admire.


But the fact that they had the right circumstances for this to happen doesn’t mean that they’re undeserving, and it isn’t fair of anyone to try and diminish their success.


Sure, they probably had a good horse. Maybe they even got on a ready-made horse. They probably have a great support team. So what? We need those bright stars to keep the sport alive, to give the next generation role models and for spectators to come and gasp over in ten years.


They’ll be the William Fox-Pitts, the McLain Wards and the Isabell Werths of the future and strangely enough, nobody is hating on them because they dared to take their good fortunes and their good horses and make a success out of it.


Instead, be one of those horse people that makes you want to get up and go ride. They exist. I can vouch for the fact that although equestrianism seems to produce a completely new level of insanity in a scarily large amount of people, it’s also been a sport that’s made me friends for life.


There’s a whole community of people who are supportive of your goals, eager to share knowledge without judgement, who genuinely want the best for you and who understand the ups and downs of horsey life like nobody else. Find those people, cherish them, and emulate them whenever you can.


The horse world is tough enough as it is, it’s best that you don’t face it alone.

Oh, and my final lesson?

If someone proposes with a horse and a ring, you better say yes.


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Text by Sophie Baker