“I’ve Been Trying to Win This for Over Half My Life!” Gemma Stevens Takes Hickstead Eventers Challenge Win

A super-speedy Gemma Stevens celebrates after sailing the last with Flash Cooley. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

We so often see eventing Grand Prix classes relegated to the depths of winter and the dramatic floodlights of indoor shows, which is one of the reasons that the Ashby Underwriting Eventers Challenge at the All-England Jumping Course at Hickstead feels so special: it’s something of a summer sweetener in the midst of a busy season, and though it’s undeniably fast, furious, and enormously competitive, it’s also a welcome bit of fun in the calendar for riders and horses alike.

That sense of fun is certainly something that Gemma Stevens – nee Tattersall — has been cultivating in ten-year-old Flash Cooley, who she inherited from Liz Halliday-Sharp on the rider’s return to the US. The petite grey has been delivering some exciting results over the year they’ve been together, including a twelfth place finish in Blenheim’s eight- and nine-year-old class in 2021 and a move-up to CCI4*-L at Bramham this year. Throughout, he’s earned himself a reputation as a promisingly swift little horse – but never has he shown that with more certainty than in the ring today, when he delivered a round so fast that even a knocked pole didn’t cost him the win.

“That was absolutely brilliant – what a cool little horse he is,” says Gemma, who took the win by just over a second and a half over second-placed Helen Wilson and My Ernie, who had led for much of the class. “Two weeks ago he was up at Bolesworth doing the Mini Major and the Ride and Drive, and then last weekend he won an Advanced eventing class at Aston le Walls, and now he’s won an Eventers Grand Prix. He’s just so much fun and he absolutely loves the speed.”

Each of the top three — Gemma, second-placed Helen, and third-placed Pippa Funnell and Majas Hope — are local to Hickstead, which sweetened their superb rounds all the more.

“As my father just told me, I’ve been trying to win this for over half my life – so at long last, I’ve managed to win,” laughs Gemma. “It’s really cool, and I’m really happy. It’s like being home, basically, at Hickstead – I live fifteen minutes away and I come schooling here all the time, so it’s really cool to win here. That arena still gives me such butterflies, because it’s just such a cool arena. Everyone comes to Hickstead to want to jump in the main ring, so I’m just really lucky not only to jump in there but to have a win, too.”

Gemma is no stranger to Hickstead’s iconic main arena, either — she’s been gaining some serious mileage in the ring over top-level courses with her pure showjumping mare, the nine-year-old MGH Candy Girl.

“I’m very lucky to have the amazing MGH Candy Girl, and at the last show I was extremely lucky to be in the four-star showjumping, which is really exciting. I jumped two 1.45s and a 1.50m – and very big and very terrifying! I’ve actually been invited to do the Queens Cup, which is absolutely a dream come true. We’re just going to jump her today and hopefully I’ll do it – as long as it’s the right thing. I might walk the course and freak out!”

Flash Cooley makes easy work of the tough Normandy Bank. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Even with ring experience over considerably bigger fences, Gemma wasn’t totally free of nerves ahead of today’s class, which featured a mix of portable cross-country fences and knockable derby-style showjumping fences.

“It’s really fun, and I felt really relaxed all day, but then I was like, ‘oh god, I’m actually really nervous!’ Because, you know, we’re all competitive and we all want to give it a go, and I always want to win. I’m not scared of doing the jumps, I just don’t want to mess it up. I want to do well and give it my best shot – and also, I know what it takes and how fast I’ve got to go, and that is actually scary. Although it’s fun and exciting, too!”

“Helen [Wilson] is incredibly competitive, and she’s an absolutely fantastic rider and that’s a fantastic horse. So I knew I’d have to really go for it, and then we just hit that little fence because bless him, he was trying to be so careful and we just got a little close. So then I was like, ‘well, I’m not going to beat the time, but I’m going to give it a go!’ And somehow I managed it. He’s actually a very speedy little horse, and he’s so nippy, and he’s really careful, so I can just trust him.”

Helen Wilson and My Ernie set a nearly unsurpassable standard but ultimately are pipped at the post for second. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Helen Wilson‘s very near win with her five-star mount My Ernie was certainly a popular one, not least because she’s local: the petite black gelding’s trajectory has been a unique and appealing one that’s helped him become a fan favourite. Bought as a bargain basement project due to his quirks, he hunted extensively with Helen at the local Surrey Union hunt before starting his eventing career in 2019. By last year, he’d made enough headway to finish sixth in the CCI4*-L at Blenheim, and though his Badminton debut this year was an educational one, there’s no doubt that he’s one of the most exciting up-and-coming horses on the British scene – and undeniably one of the most fun to watch.

Pippa Funnell and her Pratoni-longlisted Majas Hope take third. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Pippa Funnell was the first ever winner of this class back in 2000, when she piloted The Tourmaline Rose to victory over a very different track, and she certainly made a good bid for another win today, jumping a swift clear with her European Championships mount Majas Hope. But they’d find themselves just over a second and a half too slow for victory despite their best efforts, ultimately taking third place.

The course caused plenty of influence throughout the class, with a number of horses knocking rails at the Devil’s Dyke rails and ditch, and others hesitating when coming down Hickstead’s iconic derby bank and Normandy bank complexes. The reigning winners, 2019 champions Nicky Hill and Kilrodan Sailorette, set off at a remarkable pace, but ultimately fell at the third fence after misreading the stride. Both were unharmed, as was Tom Crisp, who took a tumble from Vendome Biats in the Devil’s Dyke.