My first pony

Spoiled Shetland pony or racetrack reject – everyone has fond memories of their first horse or pony. Take a trip down memory lane as famous riders share the special equines that got them started

Bill Noble, dressage rider

Growing up in Herefordshire, England, Bill Noble can’t recall a time when he didn’t ride. His mother, Pobbles Noble, was a keen pleasure and hunt rider.

A very young Bill Noble on Rebel Star

“We were on the Welsh border and so I rode a lot of Welsh Mountain ponies,” says Bill. “The first one I really remember was Rebel Star, who was a smart little pony. I did all the pony club stuff on him – jumping and eventing. I was like most children, in that all I wanted to do was jump, and it was only later on in my teens that I became interested in dressage.”

Notably, Bill and the 11.2hh Rebel Star appeared in a BBC film on the life of British composer Sir Edward Elgar. The film’s director, Ken Russell, had contacted the local pony club looking for a boy rider, and 11-year-old Bill was suggested. The film role required Bill to ride about over Elgar’s beloved Malvern Hills, a high, narrow range close to Bill’s birthplace. A still photo of Bill and Rebel Star was also used on an Elgar LP (pictured above).

“I had been riding over those hills my whole life, so I just had to do what I always did – gallop around the hills, but wearing a funny costume,” recalls Bill. “I remember I got a lot of grief about it in school!”

Heelan Tompkins, eventer

The three Tompkins sisters, Heelan, Claire and Jean, all rode for as long as Heelan can remember. Her mother, Jill, ran a riding school at Oakura, so there were always plenty of ponies around. Heelan’s very first pony was called Scamp, but she died of old age – Heelan’s mother had actually learned to ride on her too.

Heelan and the rather wayward, but successful, Honey Bun

At six, Heelan moved on to the 9hh Honey Bun, a black mare with a white stripe (above), who she used to ride with grass reins and a crupper. Heelan and Honey Bun won many lead rein classes, although Heelan remembers her mother having to wear thick gloves, because the pony was a biter.

“Honey Bun could jump twice her height out hunting – she was a good pony, but very sharp and tricky, so you always had to be on your toes,” recalls Heelan. “She also taught you not to get left behind when riding in a group, because if you didn’t keep up with the bunch she would buck and run off.”

Claire Wilson, show jumper

Waipukurau show jumper Claire Wilson started riding as soon as she was able to cling on, which is hardly surprising given her family background. With a father who hunted and played polo, and a mother who bred and produced young horses, Claire had the perfect start. She had many ponies in her early days, including Joey, Johnny, Flicker, Dandelion and Podgey (below) and she can’t remember which was the first.

A very young Claire Wilson, or Murphy as she was then, on Podgey

One of Claire’s real favourites was Sammy, an 11.3hh grey Welsh gelding, who was passed around Hawke’s Bay, teaching other children to ride, for more than 25 years.

“I used to hunt Sammy and he even jumped full wire, although he went in a pelham and used to bolt down the hills. He also hated men and I didn’t do very well in the chocolate biscuit race when a man was holding the biscuit, as I could never get Sammy near them!” recalls Claire.

Vanessa Way, dressage rider

Growing up in New Plymouth in a totally non-horsey family, Vanessa Way longed for a pony of her own, but initially had to make do with weekly riding lessons. Then, when she was 10, Vanessa started riding ponies for Nola Ellis, of Tarahua Pony Stud. Over the years, Vanessa broke many ponies in for Nola including Crackerjack (below) and also did lots of showing classes – her favourite pony was Tarahua Lady Jessica, a 14.2hh Anglo-Arab mare she trained to Elementary dressage level.

Vanessa Way had much success in the show ring as a young rider

This showing background has served Vanessa well: “I’ve always had a good eye for a horse, and that goes back to my days in the show ring with Nola. It’s definitely an advantage today when it comes to picking dressage horses.”

Finally, at the age of 17, Vanessa got her own horse, the 15.3hh ex-racehorse Kungfu Boy, purchased from the Stratford Sales for the princely sum of $500. The chestnut had an eye-catching blaze and socks, but was in very poor condition. “I went from riding pretty ponies to him – people at pony club used to tease me and say he looked like a camel!”

David Goodin, show jumper

In his 80s, David Goodin is still competing – he also farms at Te Kauwhata and rides a couple of horses most days. Father of Olympic show jumper Bruce Goodin, trainer to top riders such as Anna Trent and Kate Lambie, and breeder of Balmoral Sensation, David has seen many changes in the equestrian scene over the years.

David Goodin on Lady Sue

One of David’s first childhood memories is riding in a gymkhana at Pukekohe, when he was seven or eight: “It was all round-the-ring, there was no FEI in those days, and we wore short pants and shoes,” he recalls. “I remember being told I would never make a rider in the Best Boy Rider class and my father was furious with the judge.”

David began riding at age five or six and used to ride to school. His first ponies were the Shetlands Timmy and Tubby, but the first pony he remembers vividly was Lady Sue (above).  David and the not quite 13hh Lady Sue did well in all the various showing classes – best pony on the flat, best round-the-ring jumping, cleverest hunter, bending and flag races.

Many years later, Lady Sue became Bruce’s first pony as well. The Olympic show jumper started riding when he was four – Lady Sue was well into her twenties by then.

Nicoli Fife, rider, breeder and judge

The Fife family is famous for its many horsey connections – Nicoli’s parents, Beth and Charlie, both rode and bred horses, and the five Fife children all had some equestrian involvement.

Surprisingly, Nicoli wasn’t allowed a pony until the age of eight; after her older sister Vanette had a fall as a four-year-old and got a fright, her parents decided the younger children had to wait until they were older to learn to ride.

Nicoli’s first pony was an old one of her mother’s called Buddy, who proved to be a complete devil. Every day, Nicoli would take him out for a ride, but he’d spin around, Nicoli would fall off and Buddy galloped home. “They say you have to fall off a certain number of times to ride, well I fell off at least five times a night,” laughs Nicoli. “I think that’s when my parents decided I needed a decent pony, or at least one that went further than the point he decided to turn at.”

Nicoli Fife on Little Sister

The next pony was a 14.1hh coloured mare called Little Sister (above), who was only a two-year-old when Nicoli started on her, but a great learner’s pony who went on to teach hundreds of children to ride. Little Sister stayed in the Fife family until she died, and along the way had four foals who were all genuine ponies as well.

“I started eventing on Little Sister, although she had a height limit of about 80cm,” says Nicoli. “But she had a gorgeous nature. She had to be kind to put up with me because I was pretty floppy – everyone used to tell Mum I would never make a rider because I just slopped around. We all had to learn to ride without stirrups and had good balance, but I was certainly never a stiff show rider.”

Katie Laurie, show jumper

Pony mad from the day dot, Katie got her first pony at the age of three. A coloured Shetland pony stallion called Billy (below), the 9hh gelding was bundled into the back of a Suzuki jeep to go home with the McVeans. He was very naughty, so Katie only rode him on the lead-rein and he was really more of an ornament than he was a riding pony.

LIttle Katie on Billy, with sister Emma-Lee

“One day I painted all his white bits black with Stockholm tar and he had to be shampooed and stand in the wash-box with the heaters on all night,” Katie giggles

Sadly, Billy was left behind in England when the McVeans moved home to New Zealand, which Katie still remembers. “One of the Belgium rider’s wives bought him. Our last show in England was Hickstead, so we took him to the show, and we had to drive away and see him tied to someone else’s stables – it was awful!”

Catriona Williams, Founder  of the Catwalk SCI Trust

Former international show jumper and eventer Catriona Williams grew up in Martinborough, a town she says nobody knew back then. These days, of course, it’s very trendy, but Catriona lives in Masterton with her husband Sam at Little Avondale Stud.

Catriona started riding when she was four, in front of the saddle, with her mother, Maureen. Her first pony was the ancient 13.2hh Dawn (below), who would always buck with two children on board. “I learnt to stay on…shame about the second passenger,” laughs Catriona. “But she was otherwise fabulous.”

Catriona and Dawn

Catriona can’t remember exactly when she started show jumping, but did her first Grand Prix at the age of 11 on a pony called Flicka. “Flicka was fearless and she gave me the confidence that anything was possible – I just had to keep kicking and hang on,” recalls Catriona. “I was lucky enough to go on to win two Pony of the Year titles, with Harlequin in 1986 and Meisha in 1987, and also had another starry pony called Ballyhoo.”

Samantha McIntosh, international show jumper

It’s hardly surprising horses were part of Samantha’s life from day one – as the daughter of top show jumpers Penny Stevenson and Colin McIntosh, Sam was plonked on horses’ backs as a toddler. Sam loved playing around with her horses and even when the McIntoshes had several grooms, she would still ‘do’ her own ponies, unlike her brother Adam who thought it was pretty cool to have them ready and waiting.

Sam’s first pony was the part-Welsh Trixie (below), who was “about 120 years old and came from a grotty farm up the back of Kaitaia” where she spent most of her life grazing tethered on the roadside!

Young Sam McIntosh and Trixie

Penny says Sam sat well and correctly from the first moment she rode – she seemed to have a natural feel and her horses really liked her. “However, at the start she was very timid and would take a lot of coaxing to jump and she was also quite determined about what she did and didn’t want to do,” recalls Penny. “I remember Sam being part of a group of children I was teaching on a school holiday course. Every kid in the group was happy to jump a small fence except Sam, who flatly refused to. After several minutes of encouraging her, and on the verge of having a major family row in front of everyone, I said, ‘Okay, no problem, leave it.’ I turned my back and with that she took herself off and jumped the fence. Little did I think then she would end up being one of the top female show jumpers in the world.”

By the time she was a teenager, Sam had already built up her own team of very special mares, Blush, Girl Friday and Mrs King, who all went to Europe with her. Mrs King was the most successful and became quite famous, winning lots of speed events. “The crowds loved this combination of the flamboyant black bush mare and this little Kiwi kid going like the clappers and beating all the big warmbloods.”

Kallista Field, dressage rider

While Kallista Field was always keen on horses, it was her older sister Chelsea who got a pony first. “Wherever Chelsea went on her pony, Kallista would run along behind, with her sister whipping it, saying ‘get away, get away,’” recalls their mother, Sharon.

Kallista Field – already with a dressage rider’s posture – on Bimbo

Finally, after a year of running along behind, Kallista got her wish – Bimbo (above) was handed down to her. Kallista was five or six at the time, and she remembers him being quite naughty. “When he’d had enough he used to lie down and try and roll us off,” she laughs. “He died when he was about 40-something. Only the good die young!”

  • This article was first published in the March 2008 issue of NZ Horse & Pony