Podcast show notes episode #5
We met up with side saddle and showing rider, instructor and judge, Penny Clarke to talk about her journey to Horse of the Year Show with her stunning show horse Blue.
Penny tells us about how she started riding. Her family moved to a house backing onto a riding stable when she was just 18 months old, and from that age onward she was very focused on the ponies behind their house and having persuaded her parents to let her have riding lessons, she started riding at the age of five.
At that particular time, you were unable to have riding lessons under the age of five, so Penny waited for what seemed like an eternity before she was allowed to have her first riding lesson. After taking up lessons, throughout her childhood she then had a succession of ponies, and moved on to horses around the age of 18 when she took up showing from then onwards. The ponies she owned throughout her childhood were very ordinary little ponies, and she would do all sorts of activities with them at Pony Club and Riding Club level. She would have a go at everything during the day, from best turned out to handy pony and then jumping classes. The ponies had to be very versatile and turn their hand to anything, of which some things they did better than others!
Penny’s love was jumping and cross country - seeing flatwork as something that was a little bit boring and never something she would have thought of as being her main career with horses. But doing all of these activities has certainly stood her in good stead. The last pony that Penny owned was a lovely Connemara pony that was brought over from Ireland to jump, and at that time she had no idea that he was a really good Connemara pony. She did a lot of showjumping with him but then discovered that he was a really good Connemara pony and she started doing Mountain and Moorland showing classes and he also really excelled at Working Hunter Pony classes. This gave Penny her first taste of the show ring and she really enjoyed the combination of jumping and flat work. However, she had to make the decision to continue with jumping or specialise in flat work or showing or even dressage. At that time she realised if she was going to get to the top and have a chance to ride at top shows she had a better chance of doing this with a show horse than with pure show jumping. So, the decision was made, but in her earlier years as an adult she continued to do a lot of jumping and a lot of cross-country alongside showing.
Penny started riding side saddle after her Aunt recalled stories growing up about how she had ridden side-saddle as a child. This was the only way to ride in her Aunt’s younger days and she would go out hunting side saddle. However, Penny also remembers stories about how much her Aunt loved it when she didn't have to ride side saddle and she could ride astride like the boys! But she fondly remembers the stories of riding side saddle. Penny has also always loved history and the history of side saddle is part of the appeal as well. At fourteen or fifteen years of age the stables where she kept her pony were also very into side saddle and she had the opportunity to go to some of the big shows that really brought it to the forefront of her mind. She remembers pestering her mother about learning to ride side saddle and she was very clear with Penny about this and that only when she was eighteen years old and she's got her own job and can afford to pay for this new hobby would she by all means then fully support her in it, but she had to pay for it herself. So, armed with her first pay packet when she started work, Penny went off to have lessons and started riding side saddle and has continued from there.
Penny told us about the differences of the two styles of riding, of course the saddle is the main difference as it looks entirely different from an astride saddle. It is constructed in a very different way, and most of the side saddles that we see today are nearside saddles. We sit on the nearside, but you occasionally see one that is offside. They are designed so that as a rider you sit with more weight on your right seat bone and on your right leg, than your left one so you are actually sat in balance but a very different balance. A big different to when your astride is of course that you have no right leg, so instead of the right leg, you use a long cane which supports the horse on the right hand side. It's through that we can train horses and certainly horses can go as well side saddle as they do astride. Many actually go better, which Penny owes ‘partly because we sit a little bit further back, we have more independent hands and we can develop a really truly independent seat as well when we riding side saddle and believe it or not as long as you sit correctly side-saddle you are actually safer riding side saddle and you would be riding astride’.
The key thing is for your upper body to still be facing the front and you should still look as though you are riding astride. If you look at a side saddle rider from either in front or from behind they should look as if they're riding astride. Although the legs obviously go to one side, but there are two pommels which help to keep the rider very secure, so you can have one leg over the top of one pommel and one underneath the other one, and that combination, if you've got your leg position in the correct spot then you're actually incredibly secure in the saddle whether you're doing flat work or jumping. Penny decided when she took up side saddle all those years ago that anything she could do astride she would like to be able to do side saddle. She tell us ‘I have taken part in pretty much everything, I have gone cross-country, team chasing, done dressage, show jumping, working hunter as well as the showing side of things and once you've been doing that for a little while you rather forget that you're doing something different and you do feel very secure’. As long as you're sitting correctly in the first place it's a lovely art and Penny has found virtually every horse she has introduced to side saddle has taken to it enormously well.
Surprisingly horses will take to side saddle in the a surprisingly short period of time and this year Penny has taught more than shes ridden side saddle and has helped a lot of ladies get started. Ladies will come to her saying that the horse was never carried a side-saddle before and are unsure how they're going to get on, so she is able to reassure them almost certainly they will be fine. In her experience many horses take to it immediately and don't seem to have any issues with it ‘they sometimes miss having that leg on the right hand side but they very quickly adapt to that, and learn that the aids actually not very different from when you're riding astride and they do seem to go incredibly well with it’ she says.
One of the things that Penny loves is that opposed to the showing side of things with pure side saddle and with the Side Saddle Association you don't have to have a horse that's special in terms of showing. A number of people that Penny teaches love the idea that is something that can give horses a second career, ‘maybe your horse has done jumping or dressage in it's background, this is a new skill that can learn going forward, so it doesn't have to be a star of the show ring to do pure side saddle classes.’ However if showing, when you compete in show horse classes you do need a very beautiful horse as well to complete the picture.
Penny decided to set her sights on HOYS after many years. We returned to her childhood when in that era, Horse of the Year Show and Royal International, as well as Olympia all used to be on BBC One, after the nine o’clock news. She can remember as a young child of maybe seven or eight years old saying to her parents ‘that's where I'm going to ride one day’ Of course, they were very sceptical and although were supportive, she says ‘I'm sure they never thought that she actually would in reality’. That was where the dream started and it became more than just a dream and more of something that she could aspire to when one she moved on to horses as an adult. She then started to actually think about how to make it happen. Always riding in a mixture of side saddle and astride showing, when she first started it was more the astride classes, and then actually realised she could get the second class in by doing the side saddle classes as well. For Penny going a long distance to a show, it was nice to be able to do the Hunter class and the Riding Horse class, but then also be able to do the Ladies Show Horse, Side Saddle Equitation as well so it gave her a second or third class and made the journey worthwhile. She's always had the view that if you're going to a show then make it worthwhile! The two styles of riding really went hand-in-hand with both astride and the side saddle showing.
It’s been a roller coaster of a ride for Penny and she tell us how she has had lovely horses over the years but also had issues with injuries and other challenges which come in the way. ‘Not everything has always been plain sailing, and finding the right horse is easier said than done’ and although she's had some very beautiful horses, looking back critically they probably weren’t quite enough for HOYS. They might have won a lot of classes but might not necessarily have been Horse of the Year Show horses. Then there are the ones which have been very good but have had injuries, or those which Penny has had to sell on, as for many years she ran her own yard ‘sometimes I had a nice horse in, sadly they had to be sold to keep the business going and to get the new young ones in and bring it on and sell on...it hasn't always been the case of me being able to be completely single-minded trying to get to Horse of the Year Show, there's always been perhaps other things alongside, as well as well as that overriding goal and ambition to get to HOYS’.
Penny first found Blue when he came on to her radar in 2018, being based at a yard nearby to Ian Smeeth and Vincent Seddon’s yard where she had been going for some time. Unfortunately, her horse at the time had a suspensory injury and Penny was sidelined for the best part of twelve months. However, she was going everyday and riding two or three horses at Ian’s yard. Blue arrived from a showjumping background with the view that maybe he could make it as a show horse. Somebody then bought him, but in the meantime Penny was able to continue riding him. She fell in love with him at first sight, as soon as she saw him she thought he would make a really lovely ladies show horse but never thought that the opportunity would come up to buy him. But only three months after he arrived he came back up for sale and Ian knowing how much she loved this horse, he immediately gave her first refusal. But financially she wasn't in a position to buy him, as she still had her other horse. She was really lucky as a lady that she teaches kindly came in and helped buy Blue and still co-owns him together with Penny. She says ‘it was love at first sight with him as soon as I got him I introduced into doing side saddle. I put a side saddle on him and he floated around the arena from the first time and recalls ‘I said on that day this horse will go to HOYS, so I just knew he was the horse that I've been looking for, it was just amazing’.
Blue was bred for international young horse show jumping classes and to then move up through the ranks of showjumping. He is dutch bred and started off with a Dutch Olympic Rider who realised he wasn't quite going to make it. Penny has lovely photos of him jumping some seriously large fences, but accepting that he wasn't quite going to make it to the very top in the show jumping world, the decision was made that he had to be sold and hence turned up at the showing yard. She says as “He was always a good looking showjumper so it was fate that he turned up on a showing yard and he certainly loves the life of being a show horse. He's a real primadonna. Show him a camera and an adoring public and he loves the whole ‘yes I'm beautiful routine’ which is part of what it takes to be a really good show horse. Because you can have a horse who has really lovely conformation but it hasn't got that ‘look at me’ presence. He is a horse that once he gets in the show ring he sparkles and he comes alive and you can't take your eyes off him!”
Penny tells us that the first step to HOYS is finding out the qualifiers and which shows you need to go to. There's not many qualifiers in the country - there's only about 21 qualifiers for Horse of the Year Show itself so having an idea of your timescale.
In terms of training, a lot of that is done at home and Blue does a lot of flat work and she intersperses that with hacking and jumping to keep the horses interested in what they're doing and don't get too much drilled into them in one particular way. For the showing classes they have to have various skills; they have to be good when they go round in a group and look amazing and catch the judge’s eye in the first place. They'll be ridden by the horses owner here, so in this case by Penny, in walk trot canter and gallop, a change of rein and do all of that with flair and give a lovely light balance ride. Then the judges take over and have a ride on the horse and a big part of the training is getting the horse to give a lovely light balance ride for any of the ride judges. So as far as training is concerned she will put a variety of different riders on the horse to get them used to that aspect. They have also got to get used to standing still for quite long periods of time and there is a skill involved in that as well. Over the years she has taken many horses to a riding school and got them used to riding in a group as well as standing still! The trotting up in hand for the conformation judge is also an art which a lot of people overlook, as well as standing them up correctly, you need to make sure that they walk away and they trot back correctly for the conformation judge. All of those factors play a part in terms of homework that Penny does with her horses. All of those things are well practiced, so by the time she goes to the show it's easy and there's nothing left to chance. ‘When we get to the show and we know that the horse can do all of those things’ she says.
People say to Penny ‘of course showing is the easier option’ but actually like all sports the more you know about it, the more you realise it is isn't actually anything like as easy as it looks! A lot of work goes into making the overall picture look as if it's easy and that's really part of the skill, and turning them out correctly, making sure that they are turned out correctly for the type of class that they're going in to.
One piece of advice that Penny would give to anyone starting out is to go and have a look at the top shows. “Go and have a look at what is expected in each class, look at what type of horses fulfil the criteria in terms of what's winning at the big shows, watch the producers watch the professionals in action and you can learn so much’ which is certainly something she has done over the years and it helped a lot to do that.
‘Having the right instructors and having somebody you know you can work with is really crucial’ when Penny first started off in showing she was based at the yard of a top producer and likewise latterly. ‘You can learn from so much from the top producers and we're learning all the time, they just help you to fine-tune all of those little bits along the way’. Penny has been lucky enough to judge at shows all across the country and abroad, and she always thinks that when you're judging you're again changing your own views of what you like and you see how people are doing things and you're picking up little ideas along the way.
‘As a judge you have to have huge integrity and most judges do have huge integrity but of course we do all have our own preferred types of horses. Conformation is subjective to a point, but there are certain things that should never be overlooked in terms of a good horse’ There are standards of conformation that all judges should all be looking at when they're assessing horses, what type is a different matter and what one judge may love and other person may not. Penny recalls she has had a few horses over the years that have been ‘very much like Marmite, some judges have loved them and others not’. But she says ‘it keeps the fun and the interest in the sport, otherwise we may have the same horse winning every single show in the country. So it's nice to have a little bit of variety within that and you do find out which judge likes your type of horse and which are less keen on it’.
Penny is a great believer that she wants to enjoy the shows that she goes to and it's not just about trying to qualify for Horse of the Year Show, so she does pick the shows that she goes to every year because she loves that particular show. It's all about enjoying your horses along the way and Penny loves every horse that she's ever had, and the winning is the icing on the cake saying ‘it's more important that you're enjoying every day that you spend with them and of course with the shows, that you're enjoying them and it's not just about qualifying. It is about trying to have lasting memories of fun times’ and Penny is glad to say that she has many of those
It was an amazing experience when Blue got his golden tickets, he qualified for the Ladies Show Horse class in May at the Derbyshire Festival of Showing. Penny recalls ‘it was a surreal sort of day, my mother had actually passed away prior to that, she had been hugely supportive throughout competing at shows and had supported and groomed for Penny at shows for many years. Her mother always maintained a massive interest in everything Penny did with the horses and knew it was Penny's goal to get to HOYS and how Penny knew Blue was the horse to do it. Penny was ecstatically proud of Blue but also tinged with sadness that her mother wasn’t there to see it happen, but Penny hopes she was looking down to see what she has achieved.
‘I was extremely happy because for Blue, it was about his sixth time of doing a side saddle class, it was his first Horse of the Year Show qualifier and that he'd done this on his first attempt was even better’ says Penny. It was a real reward for what I knew he could do, as from the moment I set eyes on him, knew that he was a Horse of the Year Show Ladies horse. So he did fulfil his potential and it took the pressure off qualifying, they then turned their attention to trying to qualify for the Lightweight Hunter class which was his other class and we're lucky enough to qualify for that as well at Stoneleigh Horse Show in August.
‘The run up was partly slightly nerve-wracking’, she says ‘because you start worrying about all the things that could go wrong, particularly having had horses with injuries in the past. There's always a chance that something could go wrong, so he was little bit wrapped up in cotton wool in the run-up. But it's also maintaining all of the training, without getting him bored and you want to retain their enthusiasm. In the last 4 to 5 weeks in the run up to the Horse of the Year Show they had two or three shows, one of which was the National Championships which provided a really good opportunity to give a pre-HOYS outing. This was as near to HOYS as we could get, with an evening performance and with lots of cameras and lights and cheering and standing around.
‘It's quite a different atmosphere with the noise, the lighting and just a general sort of atmosphere with the crowds of people around and the National Championships are is near to that as anything else, but even that is not quite the same.’ says Penny.
But that put them in good stead because he won that for the second year running in the Ladies Show Horse of the Year class and that was a really good final show outing before going to HOYS. In terms of preparation in those last couple of weeks we went out to indoor schools, had other horses going round in there, putting other people on him to ride him and Penny had a couple of lessons from Ian too, just to make sure that everything was ticked off and they hadn't left anything to chance, ‘once you get to Horse of the Year Show you want to know that all the homework has been done’ knowing they done everything that they could to keep it going as smoothly as possible at HOYS.
‘It's quite a unique experience’ Penny recalls, ‘from turning up at the car park, because you basically spend a few days in the middle of a car park, so you turn up and you see the big horse boxes’. Penny suddenly got butterflies arriving there, and going through the vets check and stabling Blue. They then had their first opportunity to ride in the arena at an unearthly hour in the morning for a familiarisation, ‘which is something like half four, five in the morning which was quite surreal wandering through with all the neon lights of Birmingham round. That went quite well but Blue was quite apprehensive, he behaved himself in the warm-up but I knew he was a little bit tenser than he normally would be’.
They continued with their preparations, as groom Kirsty was busy made sure that Blue looked immaculate as Penny got herself ready. They went down to the ring with plenty of time to spare, and the moment arrived ‘when you go down through the tunnel, through the curtains and into the ring...another goosebumps moment and you’re actually riding into the ring’. Penny remembers looking up and seeing her family and friends who had come along a long to support her and that gave her a lovely feeling to see all of them watching ‘it's an incredible experience... I've never been more focused than that day at Horse of the Year Show, really riding every stride, thinking, have I got him just how I need him, lovely and soft and loose, his neck at the right angle and all those things, there was a constant mental checklist going through my head.’ It was a great experience and Penny was glad that he went beautifully and she was thrilled that he went so well in both classes.
Both classes went very well indeed, although the results were the opposite to what she might have expected. The Ladies class was the primary focus because he has been virtually unbeatable in the Ladies classes and Penny thought that's where he had the better chance, ‘maybe he was a fraction less relaxed and he perhaps could have been within the class, but he did go very well’ But he did not get into the top nine, and although Penny wasn't worried about that, she was just really happy to be there and it's certainly fulfilled a lot of dreams. She then went on to the Lightweight Hunter, ‘he is a beautiful stamp of a Lightweight Hunter’ she says, but had less expectations in this class, ‘again he went absolutely beautifully maybe a little bit more relaxed than in the Ladies class and gave a beautiful ride’. To her delight they were third in that class, and her lovely groom got the best turned out horse of the class as well. So it was a really special day. ‘It's one of those memories that even through this time of coronavirus at the moment with everything not going great as a country and in the world, I only have to look at those photographs from HOYS and it certainly lifts the spirit enormously. Absolutely fantastic memories.’ she says.
Her advice to anybody who would like to compete at HOYS, ‘the main thing isnever lose sight of your dream’. Penny had times when she thought to herself ‘is this actually going to happen?’ but she never lost that belief. She would go to watch Horse of the Year Show every single year and every year, she would think ‘I will ride here. I will do this at some point.’ So she never gave up on that dream, and the biggest bit of advice that she would give is, to set yourself goals. ‘I’m a great one for setting goals, on the 1st of January’ she says ‘I set goals for the current year and some of those goals I achieve and others I don’t, some of the goals are short-term and smaller goals that goes along the way to achieving whatever that end result is that you're really hoping for. They form part of a plan of how you're going to try and achieve those goals’.
One of the biggest pieces of advice she gives ‘do watch and learn from the professionals, in the main they are extremely approachable, have a word with them, better, a lesson with a top person in your chosen sport or discipline within equestrianism. I just try and learn from those who are already doing it. Go to the shows and watch them, help out by grooming at shows - in the early days and that was a great experience. Just look at every opportunity to learn and try and improve. Ultimately finding the right horse to do this - you've got to have that right horse and you will need a special one to get the Horse of the Year Show, but in the end it's a dream that can be achieved.’
Enjoying the journey is also the key, ‘you've got to enjoy the journey along the way and it isn't just about getting the Golden Ticket to Horse of the Year Show, all of these other shows whether it be a Qualifier or a smaller local Agricultural Show, that's all part of the experience and you've got to enjoy all aspects. Also, you've got to enjoy your horse in the stable, being around them. They are wonderful creatures and anything over and above that if you are lucky enough to get to HOYS or to Royal International that is the cherry on the top of the cake. Just working with horses is special in its own right. They are great levellers and sometimes it can be a bit of a roller coaster journey, but they really are wonderful creatures, and we should never lose sight of that.’
Penny will be back to the podcast sharing her knowledge and insight into showing and side saddle and the future.
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