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The rising stars of Cheshire’s equestrian scene

PUBLISHED: 09:43 17 May 2017 | UPDATED: 09:43 17 May 2017

Robyn Gray at Burghley on Trebor

Robyn Gray at Burghley on Trebor

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Martin Pilkington meets some young people in Cheshire who just love riding horses.

Nieve Shannon ready for action Nieve Shannon ready for action

Nieve Shannon - Starting Out

Nieve Shannon at the age of 11 has already been riding for more than half her life. She’s a member of The Cheshire Riding School in Comberbach, where last year she won the Most Improved Rider award, and both the school’s dressage league and its mini-jumping prize. Nieve, from Runcorn, marginally prefers the technicalities of dressage to show-jumping, but enjoys the unpredictability of the latter.

‘My target is to win the same trophies I won last year, and to be as successful in the new competitions I enter. I want to use more challenging ponies and long term I would love my own pony and to compete nationally,’ she says, dropping a subtle hint to her parents!

‘We’re tempted to get her one next year, but I love going on holidays!’ says her dad Dan, summarising a dilemma for many equestrian parents: ‘We’re both self-employed, so we work hard at our businesses, but our work is often based around her pony riding. We’re fortunate we can give her time like that.’

Lavinia Johnson on Dublin. Photograph by Kevin Sparrow Photography Lavinia Johnson on Dublin. Photograph by Kevin Sparrow Photography

Lavinia Johnson - Dressage Star of the Future

Lavinia Johnson from Little Barrow is another equestrian enjoying a meteoric rise. The Queen’s School Chester pupil, aged 14, is a member of the Cheshire Hunt South Pony Club winter league show-jumping team. She qualified for the Dengue Pony Club Show-jumping Championships with her first pony Penny, but with her new mount Dublin she’s rapidly rising in the dressage world. Last year she rode for England in the British Young Riders Dressage Scheme, and now she’s gone one better, having been chosen to represent Great Britain: ‘I’m so proud to be selected to ride for Great Britain and wear the flag on my jacket and saddle cloth, especially after only starting dressage 18 months ago with Dublin.’

Dutch Warmblood Dublin has been key to her success: ‘It’s about bonding with your pony and building up the trust between you,’ she says. ‘He’s a schoolmaster, he’s taught me everything!’

Lavinia is clearly one to watch, her successes already including winning a British Dressage FEI Pony Team Test Under 25 Championship event last summer: ‘I love the thrill of competing, but it’s not all about winning. It’s about improving the scores, so you’re competing with yourself,’ she explains.

Henry Smith in action on the polo field Henry Smith in action on the polo field

Henry Smith - Polo pro in the making

Later this year Cheshire Polo Club member Henry Smith will become a professional in the sport at the age of 21, which is remarkable when you consider he didn’t ride until he was 17. ‘My brother and stepfather started a year earlier. Charlie Walton, who is a professional at the club, persuaded me give it a go too. I absolutely hated it the first time! They pretty much forced me to do it but I rapidly got hooked,’ he says.

Henry is an all-round sportsman, enjoying golf, tennis, football, sailing and skiing, but it’s polo that dominates his life now: ‘It’s very full-on. I ride every day, at six I’m mucking the stables out before going to work, then I return to ride in the evening.’ The end of April sees practice chukkas start, and then the season proper runs from May to September.

He’s quick to stress that his success is not just of his own making: ‘My mother and stepfather have been hugely supportive – it’s an expensive sport – and the horses are a massive aspect of the game, people say its 70/30 pony/player, though you must have good hand-eye co-ordination. The grooms are also vital, keeping the ponies at their best.’ In his brief career he has already played at the famous Cowdray Park Polo Club, spent a season in Cirencester, and toured with his club in Barbados. ‘I didn’t realise I would get to pro as quickly as is happening,’ he admits. ‘I’d now like to play all around the country and abroad, especially Argentina which is the sport’s spiritual home.’

Robyn Gray at Burghley on Trebor Robyn Gray at Burghley on Trebor

Robyn Gray - Burghley Winner

Freelance rider Robyn Gray is originally from Cumbria, but now lives in Knutsford: ‘I moved here to work at Somerford Park, near Nantwich, with Andrew Heffernan. It’s the ultimate training facility for horses, and the county in general offers lots of opportunities for riders,’ the 26-year-old says.

She hopes to ride in top level three-day eventing competitions, and laid a marker down last year at Burghley with a prestigious victory in the four-year-olds class on Trebor, owned by Gill O’Shea. ‘The class is on the Friday, a run-up to the big event. The three stages of eventing are put into a seven minute show, with the horses judged on their potential to be future stars,’ she explains.

Her schedule can be complex and hectic: ‘I plan week-by-week, depending on which weekend events I’m going to,’ she says. Robyn rides horses for several owners including Vicky Irlam and Jan Ball, as well as those at Somerford, working with seven or eight a day: ‘It’s my job to understand each individual horse and where they are in their training, keeping them fit and happy and progressing them towards whatever level their abilities will allow,’ says Robyn. ‘I wake up every day wanting to do this, and am working towards my ambition of competing in four-star events.’

Oliver Bennett carriage driving Oliver Bennett carriage driving

Oliver and Jodie Bennett - Driving Ambition

Carriage driving is not the usual choice for those bitten by the equestrian bug, but brother and sister Oliver and Jodie Bennett, 11 and 12, respectively, had a good reason to get involved: ‘It was watching mum and dad competing that got us interested, and they have taught us about the sport and coach us,’ says Jodie.

They’re members of the Chester Horse Driving Trials Club, competing at the club’s indoor facilities and around the county and beyond in outdoor events. ‘The logistics aren’t easy - we have a horse box for the ponies and a trailer that goes behind the horse box to take the carriages,’ explains Emily, their mother.

‘My pony’s a bay called Archie, and Jodie’s is a ginger pony called Josh,’ says Oliver. ‘We train most nights, not always driving, some nights we ride.’ ‘There is a brother and sister rivalry all the time as we compete against each other,’ adds Jodie. Last year was Oliver’s first year of competition, and it went extremely well: ‘I placed fourth at the National Championships at Keysoe in Buckinghamshire, where most of the other competitors were teenagers, 16 and 17,’ he says while preparing to return for this year’s event.

Lewis Stones - Jump Jockey on the Way Up

Ellesmere Port’s Lewis Stones started riding ponies at 10, and six years later found himself riding race horses. Today horses are his full-time occupation, working for Michael and Sue Mullineaux at Southley Farm Racing Stables in Alpraham.

‘My working day starts at 7am, mucking out horses for an hour, then I ride out to about 11:30, brush the yard, feed the horses in the fields in the afternoon, then skip them out and hay and feed them before finishing.

‘I was an apprentice but got a bit heavy, so I’m now riding as an amateur. The aim is to get experience jumping in point-to-points, and hopefully become a professional jump jockey,’ he says. Lewis got a taste of racing success last year, riding his first winner in January, and in October partnering the same horse to a 33/1 victory at Catterick.

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