The UK Young Riders System

Last week, EN contributor ‘lec‘ wrote about grassroots eventing in the UK.  This week, lec was kind enough to write about the UK young rider system.  Thanks for writing this lec and thank you for reading.

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From lec:

This week thought I would look at the Young Riders System that we have in place here in the UK. This is the system that any rider under the age of 21 can take part in and have access to top class training and specialised competitions.  

Anyone over the age of 12 years old can take part in BE. BE recently lowered the age and I was one of those that was against this move as felt it was unnecessary as they had plenty of opportunity in pony club which adult riders did not have. But to be fair to them they ride better than adults, look much safer and generally there have not been many of them. 

Anyone over the age of 12 can take part on a horse or pony but in Europe we have a specialist group called Pony Riders. They can take part in Pony trials for the European Pony Championships that takes place every year. The Ponies have to be under 14.2hh and are measured. The championships compete over 1* level courses. The top ponies look like mini sports horses (think Teddy O Connor). The top ponies sell for big money as you can only take part in pony trials up to the age of 16 but as anyone knows ponies will keep going a long time! There is one pony called Noble Springbok. He has never come home from a championship without a medal. He is now on his 3rd child rider. 

Pony trials are dreadfully competitive and it’s not the children! I once dressage stewarded next to the Pony trials arena and I could have killed the adults who were getting in my way and shouting at their child. The trials are always watched by expert eyes in the form of team selectors and trainers. Anyone who wants to do pony trials has to attend training and get officially approved for safety reasons. 

Next we have Juniors. They are aged 16-18 years old. As with ponies success can be bought. It’s a sad fact about our sport but money talks. The juniors have a European Championship every year which is held over a 1* course. Those vying for team places will have specialist team training and access to some lottery funding to help support them but on the whole there are maybe 15-20 on the long list.  

For those juniors who are good riders but perhaps not team material we have a nationally run class called Junior Regional Novices (JRN) these are run over prelim height and are watched by specialist trainers to pull anyone up who is not safe or help those who are struggling. If you do well in JRNs you will be selected to run at the prestigious junior championships held at Weston Park. This is held over a 1* course.  

The juniors can be easily recognised. For girls the look is that of long blonde hair, lots of make up and skin tight breeches or short tweed skirts when not riding. The boys are normally never far from mummy who has done all the work on the horse for son to just get on and ride. A ridiculous amount of floppy hair seems to go with the boys as well! I have several friends who refuse to compete at the 1* at Weston park as it’s a nightmare with all the juniors partying all night long, throwing tantrums and generally being teenagers. With one or two you can ignore it but when there are 500 of them it’s hard to get away. They also tend to have large entourages! (NB these are massive generalisations in case you are 18 and seriously offended! But as with every generalisation there is a grain of truth.) 

Finally we have Young Riders. These are aged 18-21. They are normally hard working and have made their own horses. They have a yearly European Championship which is held over 2*. The Young Riders are normally incredibly good riders, have often come up through the system and some have a good horse they have bought on themselves and make it for the young riders team. The final trial for Young Riders is normally held at Bramham over CCI3*. Many of the Young Riders are pretty much pros by this stage and may have been riding full time or balancing it with university. They can also access team training and lottery funding. 

For those that are not team material but still competitive there are Open Intermediates for Riders under 21 (OIU21) These are very similar to the JRNs and also have their annual championship at Weston Park but over the 2* course. 

So does the system work? 

The one thing that many struggle with who came through the system is that effectively as soon as you are 22 you are spat into the big nasty world of being a senior. Many successful young riders will never be heard of again as they lack the horse power or the years of dedication in the wilderness. Pippa Funnell is a typical case. Pippa won medals at Junior and Young Riders European Championships on her amazing horse Sir Barnaby. This little horse also took her to being placed at Badminton but was never considered for senior teams. Pippa then spent years in the wilderness as a senior with horses never being good enough for senior teams even though she won at 2* and 3*. It was about 12 years later that she finally managed to get a senior team place on Bits and Pieces in 1997.  Pippa had the tenacity to keep going but many riders realise they cannot make a living out of the sport or parents cannot afford to keep helping them. Many pony riders and juniors are pushed so hard that they just give up. 

Out of the current British Senior Team, there are several who successfully came through the system – Tina Cook, Piggy French, William Fox Pitt and Lucy Weigersma. But all four of them had horsey parents and were tremendously supported and helped. It is practically impossible to get on the pony, junior or young riders teams without serious amounts of parental/mentor support. Equally half of the current senior squad did not come through the system (Oliver Townend, Nicola Wilson and Mary King)  and got there in there own way so it is not essential to have done it – phew still gives me hope! ;). 

At the less serious end the JRNs and the OIU21s encourage good riding, get access to good training and the end of year championships are a big aim. Many of the juniors and young riders are very good. It is also achievable for the average horse that they can do 1* and in the process teach their rider a lot. There is a big market for JRN horses. They are horses who are comfortable at 1* but advanced or being competitive at 2* is a stretch too far and they are genuine horses who will teach their riders the ropes.  

One or two of the teenage riders will develop egos but usually the harsh realities of horses will ground them. I never really notice them unless they are being obnoxious but then usually that kind of behaviour is being encouraged by a parent. We do have what are called JRN brats whose parents have bought them the Butet saddles, the massive lorry with pop out sides and a string of previously advanced horses but I guess I am only jealous as never had that kind of opportunity and I think its prevalent in every aspect of society. Luckily in eventing the only place that success comes before work is in the dictionary.

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