When Grimsby-based riding school proprietor Sophie Brown (28) broke her collar bone in June after falling from a young horse, her life-long dream of riding at The Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials was in danger of slipping away.
It was sheer determination and an infallible belief in her quirky ‘Billy bargain’ horse that pulled her through, and today – just a week after getting the all clear from the doctor – she completed a 50.4 dressage at her first ever four-star.
As with most brilliant horses, the 14-year-old grey Dutch gelding Wil, has his own story to tell. Sophie spotted him eight years ago ‘taped into a stable with electric fencing’ at a yard, while looking at another horse.
“When I queried why he was taped in, they told me he kept trying to escape and that was the only way to keep him in,” said Sophie, who didn’t start riding ‘properly’ until the age of 15. “He was quite feral, white-eyed, and had curly, overgrown feet, but we loved the look of him and how he was put together. We saw him lunged and trotted up and agreed to buy him for £3,500 on the condition that he was delivered to us.”
Sophie’s plan was to produce him and sell him in order to fund her next event horse, but the gelding by Silverstone out of a Corland mare, exceeded all her expectations.
“He just hasn’t said no to anything I’ve asked of him. Dressage isn’t his best phase, and although he’s very careful, he’s spooky showjumping which has been testing, but once you’ve got his brain on side he’s amazing,” she added.
It’s been a long journey – Wil hasn’t been the easiest of horses.
“It took us about six months to back him,” Sophie revealed. “He accepted the bridle and lunged really well, but as soon as you put anything on his back he would rear up and bronc, so we spent a lot of time putting dummies on him.
“I remember going to my first clinic with Sue Ringrose and she chucked me out, telling me to go and put a body protector on before coming back.”
Sophie was told that the horse would either be phenomenal or unrideable. Luckily he became phenomenal.
“That sharpness has stayed with him,” she admitted. “I train with Ian Woodhead and Caroline Moore and we have a system that we stick to, because if he ever feels trapped, he loses it. It’s taken sheer determination, patience and time – there aren’t any short cuts with him – that’s what’s got him here.”
Alongside eventing, Sophie, a BHSII and UKCC Level 3 coach, runs Cottagers Plot Equestrian Centre, a thriving livery yard and riding school, which she bought with her mother Suzanne 10 years ago. It is her coaching and training that pays for her eventing and has helped her fulfill her life-long ambition.
“Burghley has always been a dream of mine,” Sophie added. “We’ve been coming for 20 years and everything we’ve done has been aiming towards it. I was really pleased with his dressage performance. Even if tomorrow doesn’t go to plan, just to be here and to have achieved what we have so far is way more than I ever expected with him. I’ll go a long way to replace him – he’s a horse of a lifetime.