Regardless of what you believe, over the past year the St Andrews riding club has been one of the most successful at the University. The club cannot claim, like the golfers can, to be in riding’s backyard. In fact, Fife is about as far from horse central as you can get. It cannot claim the same quantity of members that clubs like tennis can. Unlike football and rugby, riding is not one Britain’s favourite sports.
Despite all these factors, Pip Halpin, Catriona Mckimmie and Hannah Watson – three of the four first team members – spoke confidently about the success of the club. Contrary to the stereotype, this was not a group of posh girls who got where they are thanks to a horse daddy bought them. Sitting in front of me were three well-drilled and determined sportswomen. Driven by an inner desire to improve and their inspirational captain Kirsty Winkle, the riding club are in the process of making their own history.
As the format of competition was explained, it became clear that the whole team is hugely talented. Owing to the scoring of competitions there is absolutely no room for passengers. Each member has to ride a randomly assigned horse in the dressage test and show jumping, with the best rider getting zero points and everyone else scoring points depending on how many penalties they incur. The team’s points are then totalled up, and the fewer points you score the better you do. The team faced Aberdeen, Dundee and Robert Gordons throughout the year competing at each other’s stables.
According to the girls, this is the “fairest test” to distinguish quality as it shows more about “yourself as rider than your relationship with the horse”. This can occasionally induce some risk should you find yourself paired with a horse with which you just cannot get to grips, however.
It’s all part of the fun and games of riding, though. The girls fondly recall the image of Pip, who is most certainly the smallest member of the team, sitting atop the biggest horse trying to keep him under control.
Throughout our chat, they are humble and self-deprecating. In the four local competitions they have not come outside the top two all year. For the first time in eight years they recently qualified for the regional tournament, which they then proceeded to win. Subsequently, the four girls will head down to Gloucestershire next month to compete in the national competition as one of the best six universities. Yet they wouldn’t go further than to describe their season as “pretty good”. They want it to be exceptional.
This mentality ingrained in the team owes a lot to the captain Kirsty Winkle. A hugely talented rider herself who last year qualified for the individual national championships and now works for an international dressage rider, Kirsty made the team believe they can win.
The girls give her “huge credit” for “putting a framework in place” that stands the club in good stead for the immediate future. She’s also not been afraid to gamble and “mix things up” in terms of team selection. Taking an unprecedented step at the beginning of the year by throwing in two first years, Catriona and Pip, has paid dividends – as the results show.
Weekly training sessions at a stable just outside of St Andrews have been key to ironing out any technical faults the girls may have. Spending so much time together in such an environment has also produced a wonderful team spirit.
That said, the club is more about than just these four riders. It’s ‘B’ team ride at a high level thus making the step up fairly easy. With Hannah and Kirsty set to leave this year, there shouldn’t be a worry about replacing them. At the moment there are ten competition riders who are all capable of filling in when necessary.
Even after these ten there are another 60 members. Half of them are complete beginners who can train up to three times a week in a bid to improve their riding. The sessions, with a qualified coach for whom there is a lot of respect within the club, have been “really advantageous”. The other half are social members who simply have a love of horses and want to be involved somehow. All members are valued equally though and that positive atmosphere makes their Vic socials on a Wednesday night memorable and fun, especially when there’s a ‘Sinners’. The club truly embrace the event, with themed ‘Sinners’ such as Harry Potter, ‘farmers’ and ‘anything but riding’.
Keeping the club fun is just as important as keeping it competitive.
The three girls talk enthusiastically about the sport itself on a national level. They believe that it is “thriving” in Britain in no small part thanks to the great successes at the Olympics. Younger riders such as Charlotte Dujardin and Zara Phillips coupled with the use of social media have “added an extra element of coolness” to a sport that Britain is actually rather good at. Forget the incessant failures of the football team and the shambolic wreck that calls itself a cricket team: across nearly all the disciplines Britain are either number one in the world rankings, or world or Olympic champions.
The girls bemoan the lack of television coverage, however. The quantity of participants in the sport is unfortunately not matched by the number of viewers.
But one horse event that does attract a lot of (controversial) coverage is the Grand National. Despite an obvious, undying love of horses the girls support the event. It’s a great spectacle and part of our “national heritage”; losing it would be a blow to the status of horses in this country, they say.
But what about the inherent risk to horses’ lives? In all horse sports, including eventing and show jumping, there are fatalities. Of all people, the team would hate restrictions of any sort to be placed on horse riding. It is part of what makes these girls who they are.
Riding since the age of six or seven, they have now taken the University’s riding club to a new level. Rightly so, it was crowned ‘most improved club’ at the Sports Ball in Dundee and it is clear the club is a happy place to be. The girls’ passion and skill combined with Kirsty’s drive have proved a wonderful recipe for success this year. Regardless of the result at the upcoming National tournament, this season has been great for the riding club and they hope to continue it on to next year. Yet in their characteristically humble way, they refuse to expect anything from next year. They all know hard work and dedication is required for success.
Fortunately, that is not lacking within the club.