Blazing saddles

Olivia Oakeley, with Eleanor Morgan on Zowette in background. Picture: Allan Hutchings (122853-387)
Olivia Oakeley, with Eleanor Morgan on Zowette in background. Picture: Allan Hutchings (122853-387)
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The signs of Olympic fervour are all over the place at Crofton Manor riding centre.

Union flags flutter between the stables and the equestrian stars of London 2012 smile from photographs on the walls.

(L-r) Lula-Blu (6), on Milo, Angela Goulding, Molly Allen (11), and Katie McSevich (12), at the Crofton Manor Equestrian Centre in Stubbington. (122853-062)

(L-r) Lula-Blu (6), on Milo, Angela Goulding, Molly Allen (11), and Katie McSevich (12), at the Crofton Manor Equestrian Centre in Stubbington. (122853-062)

It’s not surprising that the riding school is still revelling in the GB team’s glory. Crofton Manor in Stubbington has plenty of links to the medal winners of London 2012 and some of the competitors in the Paralympics.

Catherine Owens, who runs the riding school, has worked as a groom for Zara Phillips and gold medal winner Carl Hester. She also worked briefly with Sophie Wells, one of our Paralympics hopefuls.

Crofton owner and award-winning horse breeder Sarah Tyler-Evans has supplied successful horses to Carl.

And Norfolk Terrier Squash, who is a bit of a star at Crofton, once belonged to Hester before ‘adopting’ Catherine and coming with her to the equestrian centre near Fareham.

But the main reason for the pictures on the walls is to inspire the hopefuls and possible international successes of the future.

Catherine proudly points out some rosettes won by Carl and Zara at international competitions and says: ‘I thought it would be a nice reminder of what people can achieve,’ she says adding. ‘We have some really promising youngsters here. The message really is if you have the drive, energy and enthusiasm, then crack on.’

Many sports have noticed a rise in interest since the Olympics and the equestrian team have proved a huge inspiration. The GB riders gave the best British performance in Olympic history in their sport. And in the Paralympics there are high hopes for stars like Lee Pearson, already a nine times gold medal winner.

This has resulted in plenty of bookings for Crofton. ‘But what I’ve really noticed is the number of people who come here already but now really want give dressage a go,’ says Catherine.

It seems the mysterious discipline, which some describe as ‘horse dancing’, has sparked a wave of enthusiasm. Names like Carl Hester and gold medallist Charlotte Dujardin have been on everyone’s lips and Catherine has been thrilled to cheer on her friends and former colleagues.

As Carl’s groom she worked with Olympic horses Uthopia and Valegro (ridden by Dujardin at 2012) when they were young. And before that she worked at Princess Anne’s Gloucestershire home Gatcombe Park with eventing silver medallist Zara.

‘She is absolutely lovely,’ says Catherine. ‘And she works really hard. She would be up early mucking out the stables with us and used to ride seven or eight hours a day. No matter how much money you have you don’t just get on a horse and achieve what she did. You work for it.’

Of course in the expensive world of equestrian sports it helps to be a princess. But Catherine insists you don’t have to be rich to succeed.

‘Charlotte Dujardin comes from an ordinary background. But she’s worked extremely hard and her parents have made sacrifices.’

Even basic riding lessons at a local school don’t come cheap. But savings can be made with block bookings and beyond that, promising pupils can further their careers by being resourceful. Some work in stables for lessons and people will lend horses to talented riders.

Even the most advanced riders graft for their golds. Charlotte Dujardin worked in the stables of Carl Hester and in return received training.

Another young dressage rider, Olivia Oakeley has also been working in Hester’s stables and has high hopes for future Olympics.

The 19-year-old from Hedge End kept her horse at Crofton until recently and is still a regular visitor.

Olivia has competed in European Championships and is on a programme for promising competitors and possible future Olympians.

She’s thrilled that people are taking more interest in dressage but says there are a lot of misconceptions. ‘People say it’s not a sport, you just sit there. But the art is to make it look really easy and relaxed when in fact it’s extremely difficult.’

It takes years to train the animals and build up their muscles for the extended trots and movements that sometimes look like dancing.

The rider shows supreme skill in communicating to the horse through different sitting positions and use of the reins and legs. It’s an exercise in precision, communication and transition of pace as the horses perform required movements.

Competitive careers in showjumping, dressage and the other equestrian sports can begin at local riding schools. But Catherine points out that training can lead to many jobs including groom, equine dentist, physiotherapist and vet.

Crofton also works closely with local charity Tradissar to provide opportunities for riders with disabilities.

And it gives opportunities for pupils who want to compete, hosting many national contests, and receiving visits from famous riders.

As Catherine talks about the school, a dressage contest takes place. Many of the riders in their immaculate gear have arrived at the competition with top of the range trailers and equipment.

But Catherine says: ‘We have pupils proving that you can come from an ordinary background and get out there and take on that kind of competition.’