Mini marvels - The ponies that inspired top riders

By: Horse Deals

Mini marvels - The ponies that inspired top riders
A youthful William Whitaker in winning action on his pony of a lifetime, Mystic Starlite Express

Some leading names tell Carolyn Henderson about the ponies who made them what they are today

Ask top riders about influences on their careers and answers will range from the competitors who were their heroes to the trainers who helped them achieve their goals. But they all have one special memory — of the ponies who shaped their riding lives.

Sometimes it’s a pony who gave them their first crack at the big time and the determination to get to the top. There are also the ones who at the time seemed like ponies from hell: later in life, riders realise that they learned as much from these as from the ones who made it seem easy.

Mary King, five times a member of the British Olympic event team and on the squad for the forthcoming World Equestrian Games, says a pony called Butterboy taught her how to cope with success and disappointment.

"I got him when I was 13 and he was five," she says. "He was New Forest, Arab, Thoroughbred and hadn’t been broken in long.

"The problem was that although we thought he was 14.2hh, he measured 14.3hh. These days, that would probably be 148cm and we’d have been all right, but then we had to compete in senior newcomers show jumping classes."

Mary and Butterboy eventually qualified for the Pony Club championships and he gets his own chapter in her autobiography (Mary King the autobiography, Orion Books, £20). But in the early stages, they were both young and green; this, says Mary, is why they hit problems.

"I thought I knew it all, but I didn’t," she recalls. "It got to the stage where he wouldn’t jump and we lost confidence. An instructor called Gillian Sutton got us back on track, but Butterboy gave me my first lessons in producing a horse properly — because I had to understand how to put things right — and in coping
with disappointment.

"I also remember that we bought him for £500 andwhen I outgrew him, sold himfor £1,500. It seemed an enormous amount of money and probably was!"

Show jumper William Whitaker’s pony of a lifetime, Mystic Starlite Express, has more than paid back his £2,000 purchase price.
As well as giving William the biggest wins of his junior career in 138cm classes, the now 19-year-old chestnut did the same for William’s brothers, George and James, and is now competed by their cousin, Michael Whitaker’s son, Jack.

"He was one of my first competition ponies and came to me just at the right time," recalls William. "He came from friends who used to run a little Pony Club show and Mum and Grandpa spotted him there.

"He was 10 years old but hadn’t done much and the first little course I tried him round, I fell off. I rode out the ring thinking: ‘Mum won’t want this one.’ But she told me to get on and get back in because she’d just bought him!"

William reckons Johnny, as he’s called at home, has been the right pony at the right time for all his small jockeys.

"He isn’t difficult, but he likes to do things his way," he explains. "He can be a bit spooky, but that’s what makes him careful. He’s a Welsh section C, but we didn’t know how well bred he was until one year at HOYS, when some showing people came and told us. He isn’t very big - he’s only 13hh - but he's brilliant. We all love him, he's one of the family."

Dressage rider Spencer Wilton says there are two ponies he’ll never forget — for different reasons. The first was a 13.2hh black mare called Kizzy and the other was Coiden Clarence, a 14.2hh grey.

"Kizzy was a witch," he says. "She was a not very good show pony and I wanted to jump, which she wasn’t keen on. She used to stop at the last minute and I’d go sailing over her head.

"I had her for three years, so at least I learned not to give up. Looking back, she was good out hacking and in most other ways, so it was probably that I wanted to do things she didn’t. I was about 12 and she knew she could get away with things."

When Spencer outgrew Kizzy, he moved on to Clarence, who more than
made up for her misdemeanours and took him to the Pony Club championships in 1987 and the Pony European eventing championships the following year.

"Only the other day, I watched a video of our dressage at the PC
championships," says Spencer. "He wasn’t a great mover, but he seemed
to stay on the bit without me doing anything, which was always a help!
And he was an amazing jumper—at that stage I didn’t really know what
I was doing and he looked after me so well. I adored him."

Spencer points out that he and Clarence also had the benefit of training from Ruth McMullen, also coach of Pippa Funnell, who became Spencer’s role model.

"Someone suggested I go to Ruth for lessons and it was only later that
I realised how much I owed her," he recalls. "When I teach, I tell people
they need to have a plan when they start a schooling session and know
what they want to achieve. I don’t remember Ruth telling me that in so
many words, but I must have absorbed it."

Top showing rider Jayne Webber also started off with a challenge.

"She was a chestnut mare called Little Louisa and she was so naughty," she says. "I was only four or five years old and for the first year, I could only ride her on the lead-rein. She was totally unsuitable. But somewhere along the line, she taught me resilience and
eventually, I learned to ride her."

The next pony to make a real impact on Jayne was the 12.2hh
Cusop Pirouette, who belonged to the Gilbert-Scotts. Bought from breeder Vivian Eckley as an unbroken three-year-old, Pirouette was started off by sisters Simone and Carol Gilbert-Scott. Carol came fourth on her at HOYS when she was in her last year in the class and Jayne was then asked to take the ride.

"At first, my parents weren’t too keen on me riding someone else’s pony," says Jayne. "But she was a fabulous, beautifully schooled pony and Mum realised it was an opportunity we couldn’t miss."

Jayne remembers Pirouette not just because she won on her at HOYS but because the mare was so kind.

"She would lie down andw e’d play with her," she says. "She
was a real child’s pony."

The Gilbert-Scotts always bought unbroken or difficult ponies, which Carol says taught them priceless lessons.

"Naseel Namoose II, our 13.2hh, came from Reading Market for £95," she recalls. "She used to bolt, but my mother taught her that if she turned her head when a hand was put out to the side, she got a sugar lump. So if you thought she was going to go, you just moved your hand out to the side to stop her."

Babette Cole, author and illustrator of international best selling children’s books, immortalised her beloved New Forest
pony, Promise, in print. Brought up on Jersey, Babette recalls that "Promy", her ninth birthday present, arrived in a crate slung ashore by a crane.

"I constantly wrote stories and drew pictures of her, much to the
annoyance of the nuns at the convent I attended — especially when I decorated the cloakroom walls with a great Promy frieze!" she laughs.

Babette, a successful teamchaser and showing competitor who always
competes side-saddle, took Promy with her when she went to art school. The little black mare even went to work with her when she joined Peter Firmin and Oliver Postgate, creators of the TV series The Clangers and Bagpuss.

Promy died at the age of 28, but lives on Promise Solves the Problem
and other titles in her own series.

"A hundred and fifty picture books later, she’s still an inspiration," says Babette.

Some ponies teach lessons that last a lifetime. Susi Rogers-Hartley, a member of the 2010 British Para show jumping team on Dante Silver Dollar, was paralysed from the waist down 12 years ago and relies on balance and the strength of her core muscles. She says this is a legacy from the days of riding her pony, Paleface, bareback.

"He was a 14.2hh piebald cob and I had him for 14 years," she says.
"He gave me my love of jumping and he was also strong, so it doesn’t worry me if horses take hold. ‘Paley’ was a real family pony: we did gymkhanas, jumping, pony races, everything. It was all such fun."

Thesewords give the universal reasonwhy influential ponies are never forgotten. Whether they’re saints or sinners, competition stars or family friends, their riders look back and remember how much fun they had — and that’s something you can’t put a price on.