5* First-Timers of Badminton: Team Work Makes the Dream Work for Helen Martin

Helen Martin and Andreas at Barbury. Photo by Nick Perry.

It’s been a long time in the making, and despite a number of setbacks that had her thinking it was never going to happen, Helen Martin and her 17-year-old chestnut gelding, Andreas, are on their way to their first 5* at her dream destination, Badminton Horse Trials, presented by MARS Equestrian.

Despite her father’s reluctance for her to have a pony – “My father farmed so he was never very keen for us to have ponies because a pony took up the space that a cow could take” – Helen’s love for riding couldn’t be beaten by farming logic. Starting out at her local riding school, where all she wanted was to spend “every hour of the day”, finally she was allowed a pony of her own. She says, “The pony on loan came and it had no saddle or bridle, so I used to ride it with a head collar and two lead ropes – until it took off with me, and then we got a bridle, and then we got a saddle”.

The pony meant she could join the Avon Vale branch of the Pony Club, which is where her eventing dream began. She says, “That really ignited my passion for eventing”. She’s full of praise for the Pony Club experience – “It’s so educational. It’s not just about riding the horse, it’s about looking after the pony and everything associated with it”. Helen progressed through the levels of Pony Club, finishing up with her A Test, which Helen says, “gave me a really good grounding to go on and do my British Horse Society exams”.

Going down the education and qualifications route was important to Helen – both academically and in equestrianism. She says, “It was always drummed into me, I suppose because my father’s a farmer, and he’s got that farming work ethic of, you have to have a business behind you”. She gained a degree in Geography and worked in project management for five years before a well-timed EU grant gave her the opportunity to diversify her father’s farm and set up her own yard. She says, “Up until my mid to late twenties, I was operating out of cowsheds, with no arena”.

The grant meant she was able to set up her teaching business – “I had a lot of liveries, and I trained a lot and had a lot of clients”. Now that the business is established, Helen’s been able to step back from it enough to focus on her own riding. She says, “Even as little as five years ago, I would spend 80% of my time teaching and 20% of my time riding … Now, I spend 80% of my time riding and 20% of my time teaching”.

Based just 30 minutes from the famous Badminton estate – when the wind’s blowing the right way, Andreas, or ‘Alfie’ as he’s known at home, can smell the turf on the cross country course – it’s been a long-time dream to compete there for Helen and her team: Lorna Soames, who owns Alfie with Helen; Sarah King, who’ll be grooming for Alfie at the event; Phillip Martin, farrier to Alfie and husband to Helen, and Fred Martin, Helen’s stepson and first-class helper. Helen says, “I really feel like, just to get to Badminton, it’s an achievement and it’ll be really special, not just for me, but for his owner, and for my husband and my stepson, who is really equally supportive as well”.

It’s obvious that Helen and Alfie’s Badminton adventure is a real team affair. Helen says, “I think the real turning point for me was when I met my husband and he really encouraged me to fulfill my ambitions and dreams … I’m lucky that my husband shares my passion … We’re a team”. Phillip gained his Fellowship of the Worshipful Company of Farriers last year and, as well as Alfie, he will be shoeing four other Badminton horses; he’s also judging the Best-Shod Horse prize at the event. It was Phillip who spotted Alfie for Helen. She says, “He was in a show jumping yard shoeing some horses and he just happened to ask if they had anything for sale … so it’s a result of my husband that we’ve got Alfie”.

A second great source of help and support at home is Helen’s stepson, Fred. Despite not being a keen rider himself, having been put off by a naughty pony when he was eight, he enjoys the outdoor lifestyle that horses bring – “He’s been rolling the fields for me … and he will come to events and help me, and hold horses and walk horses off”.

Another important part of Team Alfie is Lorna Soames, who owns Alfie along with Helen. Lorna has had a number of horses with Helen over the past fifteen years. Helen says, “She’s always believed in us and she’s not just an owner, but she’s a friend. She’s a very hands-on owner, she likes to be involved, and she doesn’t just support me with her horses, she supports me with all my horses … She’ll come and support me at events whether I’m riding her horse or not … She’s never frightened of a 4am start, she’ll still be there … She’s been very, very supportive”.

Badminton has been a long-time dream for Lorna too. Helen says, “She used to work with horses, grooming, and it’s always been her ambition to have a horse at Badminton. Her boss had a horse qualified, but he never got there. This will be her first horse at Badminton so it will be a really special occasion for her”. Lorna’s a welcome sight to everyone in the Martin stable yard – “She comes up pretty much every weekend with carrots for the horses and chocolate biscuits for the grooms”.

Rejoining the team especially for Badminton is Sarah King, who’ll be looking after Alfie at the event. Sarah worked for Helen for more than seven years and has been there “from day one with Alfie” – when Helen bought Alfie, it was Sarah who went and picked him up. Although she no longer works for Helen, she’s very much part of the 5* dream. Helen says, “She really cares about the horse … She’s just been so committed to him, his wellbeing and his welfare … It’s been her dream to groom at a 5* and I’ve always said she deserves to be the one to go. She’s groomed for myself and Alfie at several three-days … and I couldn’t think of anyone other than Sarah who I’d want to groom for me at Badminton. I’ve got a wonderful team of grooms at home, but I think everyone would agree that Sarah deserves the chance to go”.

Alfie with Sarah King: Badminton groom and long-time friend.
Photo courtesy of Helen Martin.

Helen grew up watching Badminton and has taken young horses to the young event horse classes there. It’s always been her ambition to qualify a horse for the 5*, but it’s been “a really long journey to get to where we are now, with lots of highs and lows, but the lows kind of make the highs more special”.

Alfie’s road to 5* hasn’t been smooth sailing. Helen says, “He’s been a little bit plagued by unfortunate injuries, which haven’t been career threatening, but they’ve needed a significant amount of time out”. Because of this, despite his seventeen years, Alfie’s got relatively low mileage. With injuries to ligaments, viruses, reactions to vaccinations, floating cysts, laser treatment, and vet bills in the thousands, Helen says, “I did get to a point where I wondered if we’d ever get anywhere, but I’m very, very lucky that he has an owner who’s been hugely supportive and always believed in the horse, whereas a lot of people would have probably got frustrated along the way”.

As well as all the usual care and attention horses need, Alfie has an annual eye test after experiencing floating cysts in his eyes – something Helen noticed when he started to have uncharacteristic mistakes cross country. He had laser treatment and came back to work, and seemed to be really progressing. Then, familiar mistakes crept back into his cross country rounds and, after dropping down a level and making the same mistakes, Helen guessed that the cysts had returned. They were removed once more and since then (Helen will be touching wood right now), haven’t reappeared.

But that wasn’t the end of Helen’s bumpy ride. In the fall of 2021 Helen took Alfie to the 4*-L in Strzegom. It seemed like they’d put all their troubles behind them and were at the top of their game, until being eliminated at the final horse inspection. She says, “After the disappointment of Bicton 4*-L not really going to plan, and then we sorted out his eyes and he felt really good and confident at the end of the season … I thought, Oh it’s such a shame to finish now, let’s go to Strzegom. Luckily I have a friend who lives locally and was taking two horses so we traveled together, because I could never have gone on my own. I can remember going and being elated – leading after the dressage and jumping clear cross country. He gave me such a good feel. And then after the trot up I had to just put him away, and I went and sat in the lorry on my own and I just sobbed. I was like, it’s never fair”.

But things have been on the up. Helen says, “Alfie’s taken myself and Lorna to some places that we would never have expected to go. He had his win in the 4*-L in Kronenberg last year, which was really special”.

And now, Helen says, “He’s on really good form,” and she’s got her fingers crossed for a positive Badminton experience. She says, “He’s a warm blood. He can be a bit spooky, but equally, he’s a brave horse. But you just don’t know how they’re going to react to the crowds, do you? So who knows ‘til we get out of the start box. But he’s certainly feeling fit and good at the moment”.

Alfie and Helen enjoying a run round Ballindenisk 4*-S.
Photo by Phillip Martin, courtesy of Helen Martin.

In terms of what she’s hoping for from their performance at Badminton, Helen says, “My dream would be to do a respectable, competitive dressage, because he is a good mover, but he can equally be spooky and a little bit tricky in the dressage if he decides there’s something that he doesn’t like the look of. So, basically, for him to behave in the dressage because he knows the movements and he’s got nice paces, but just for him to keep a level head and be rideable. Cross country, it would be a dream come true to jump round clear. And then, show jumping – he’s got a show jumping background and his show jumping at three-days has usually been quite solid and quite good. So again, a respectable, good sort of show jumping round. I’d expect to end up with some time penalties, but being a first time at the level, I’m not looking to necessarily go and challenge the leaders, but I want to be able to go and feel that I can take on the course and ride, and that he gives me a positive round”.

And how does Helen feel about taking on Badminton as her first 5*? “We felt he was qualified and, at the time, I sort of thought, there’s bound to be a waiting list. He had the points, hopefully, to get in, having won a 4*-L, but as it turned out, that wasn’t an issue. I thought, Well, you might not choose Badminton as your first one, but with an older horse, do you choose an event that’s half an hour down the road from you, or several days, where it could be 30 degrees heat and firm going? … When we drive into Badminton and it’s that moment of actually getting there, then I might get a little bit like, Oh, we’re actually here. But I also want to enjoy it”.

In terms of future plans, Helen’s already hoping for another go round Badminton with Alfie. She says, “He doesn’t look or feel like an old horse, so I’d really hope if he did jump around Badminton this year then we would look to go back again next year. I know it’s a bit crazy, but it’s a local event for me and it’s such a special event”. Her husband’s hobby features in her future plans too – “He’s very interested in the breeding side and has got a couple of brood mares that he breeds from. He’s got a couple of four-year-olds waiting in the wings that I’ve got to crack on with after Badminton, and he’s got two yearlings and two mares in foal this year … It would be a dream come true to be able to bring one of the homebreds up through the levels”.

For now though, until after Badminton at least, she’s been banned from riding naughty horses!

Badminton Horse Trials: [Website] [Entries] [Schedule] [Live Stream – Badminton TV] [Radio Badminton] [Tickets] [EN’s Coverage]

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