My girl and me

These dynamic mother-daughter duos each share a love of horses and a very special relationship as Helen Firth discovers

TGinny and Hazel Thompson (Image: Libby Law)

There’s no doubt that many of our country’s top riders appear to be born, not made, having had the luck to land in an equestrian family. In particular, having a horsey mum who’ll give you lessons on the lunge or keep your pony in work while you’re busy gaining an education is invaluable, as these top riders describe.

But is it all really fun and games when you and your mum share not only an address but the same sport too? For a start, teaching one’s own children anything at all can be challenging at best. And how do horsey mums balance the needs of other, non-horsey, siblings? 

These mothers and daughters have each been remarkably successful in their chosen disciplines and all have one thing in a common – an unshakeable bond strengthened by their shared passion for horses.

A ‘bucket-load of guts’

Event rider Ginny Thompson is definitely her mother’s daughter – Ginny and her mum Hazel are both beautiful riders who have done a super job of producing many horses over the years. At one stage Ginny and Hazel were competing at one-star level at the same time, but Hazel has now retired from eventing to concentrate on dressage.

These days, Ginny is a full-time event rider based in the UK, while Hazel has reclaimed her life after several years of being Ginny’s main support crew.

Ginny and Star Nouveau at Badminton last year (Libby Law)

Scottish-born Hazel has always ridden; growing up in Aberdeen, she was first plonked on a pony at the age of three by her horsey father Bert. Although she gave up riding for a while to go nursing, when she moved to New Zealand with her Kiwi husband, Bryan, horses soon crept into her life again. The young couple bought 10 acres at Taupaki, and had their three children in quick succession; Steph, Ginny and Andrew were both within three years.

Hazel with Remi, and Ginny with Henton Armani (image: Libby Law)

The girls were both keen for ponies, but Hazel says she “totally wasn’t fussed” if they rode or not. And though elder sister Steph lost interest once she moved on to hacks, Ginny became increasingly competitive.

Her first hack, Johnny Suede, was a lazy little thoroughbred with a heart of gold, and with him she tasted her first national success, winning the CCI* at the Taupo three-day event.

Hazel, meanwhile, was becoming much more serious about her own riding, though juggling three children and three-day eventing wasn’t easy! Her top horse, Louisianan Roux, was “a lot flasher” that Ginny’s Johnny, but the pair each had much success at one-star.

Hazel says when she was competing alongside Ginny, she didn’t used to get nearly so nervous about her daughter setting off on cross-country because she was too distracted. These days she gets much more worried. “I do get quite ill,” confesses Hazel. “I’m thrilled that she is eventing because of the huge passion that I have for the sport, but at the same time it’s tainted with this awful ‘what if?’. You have to really work hard at forgetting that, because it would stop any kind of enjoyment.” Another thing Hazel admits to being slightly nervous about was watching Ginny trundle off behind the wheel of her precious truck for the first time. “That was quite something.”

While Hazel was there with Ginny from the beginning, she didn’t ever really give her formal lessons. They both trained with the same coaches – Coralie Williams on the flat and Kirstin Kelly for jumping – and say they ride in a similar style. “Sometimes I would ask Mum to give me a hand if I was struggling with something, although I would never say she was my instructor as such,” recalls Ginny. “But we walked courses and did everything together, so I definitely learned a lot off her.”

Hazel congratulates Ginny after her Puhinui CCI3* win in 2015 (Libby Law)

The amount of time they spent with each other obviously brought the mother and daughter closer together, which Hazel admits was a little difficult with her other children. “When they were little, they all came to the horse trials, and that was fine, but later it was tricky. Steph still wanted to come with us, but Andrew desperately didn’t want to. I think in the end he resented it, because it was something Ginny was really good at and got lots of attention for doing and that totally turned him off. He ended up cycling for his school and having weekends away cycling with Bryan.”

Hazel says there have been a few speed bumps between the pair over the years, although Ginny was very driven. “She was so self-disciplined with the horses I would actually tell her to take a day off school and do something wild,” laughs Hazel.

“We honestly never argued, even all through those awful teenage years, because I was so busy doing my own thing. If I could help, great, and if not, then she was so independent.”

“It was good in a way – I never felt any pressure to do well,” says Ginny. “I see lots of parents putting so much pressure on their kids, but mum never pushed me to go up a level and it was never about winning.”

The first rocky patch came when Ginny left home and headed to university in Palmerston North (she has a degree in genetics). 

“There was an adapting period,” says Hazel tactfully. “Because we weren’t together all the time as we had been, we rubbed against each other for a wee bit.”

These days, she says she is careful about voicing her opinion. “It wasn’t hard when she was younger, but she doesn’t want to hear what I’ve got to say now,” laughs Hazel. “Yes,” admits Ginny. “We do argue, although I try not to.”

Ginny, however, is very respectful when it comes to her mother’s eye for a horse and her skill at starting youngsters. “She’s got a lot more patience than I do.” And Hazel credits her daughter’s incredible eye for a stride. “She’s a real natural over fences and she has bucketloads more guts than me.”

Ginny and Star Nouveau at Puhinui (Libby Law)

Fun first and foremost

Rising star show jumper Emma Watson has a great role model to follow in her mum Melissa, who is a former Pony of the Year winner. Emma won the Country TV Pony Grand Prix series a record three times in a row with her super Maddox Fun House.

Emma Watson and her mother, Melissa (supplied)

Emma’s mum Melissa (nee Rowe) won Pony of the Year in 1993 aboard the fantastic little stationbred Déjà Vu and was also in the winning Waikato team at Pony Club Champs in 1992, finishing fourth individually. Melissa comes from a very horsey family, as both her great-grandfather and grandfather drove and trained trotters and were also both life members of Leamington Pony Club. Her parents both rode, and they hunted together as a family for many years.

Melissa on her way to winning the Pony of the Year on Deja Vu in 1993 (NZHP library)

Melissa’s husband Bruce is a keen polo player, and sons Kaleb and Ari both ride too.

“I don’t remember ever having to push the kids into riding; it was just something we all did,” says Melissa. “We always put a pony on the truck for the kids to ride around at polo. Emma did hate being on the lead, so as soon as we had a trustworthy pony she was off by herself jumping everything she could – I think she was about four or five.

“We always wanted to give our kids the opportunity to ride, but it was up to them – they have to put the hard work in. This sport is too expensive to do it just ‘because’, but Emma wanted to jump and the bigger the better – she always had her eyes on ring one!”

Emma and Maddox Fun House in the Pony of the Year (Libby Law)

Melissa was 25 when Kaleb was born and says her own riding has been a bit on and off ever since. In between Emma and Ari she had a couple of nice young horses and started to get back out competing in the age-group and Amateur series classes, but once Emma started doing show hunter, Melissa was torn between being with her daughter and competing herself, and ended up selling her horses.

These days Melissa still rides at home, helping Emma to work her ponies; most of the time she has three of her own and a couple of schoolers as well, which helps cover some of the costs of running her team. “I do look forward to competing again – when Emma makes me a nice horse and I can finally fit my riding clothes again!” she laughs.

Melissa says that when she was growing up she didn’t really listen to her mother at all when it came to riding, so she tried to approach helping her own children in a different way. “I wanted them to be cowboys first and learn by having fun and mucking around,” she explains. “I liked to ride with them and help by showing them, not standing on the ground getting sick of my own voice.

“Emma is one of those lucky kids who just has a feel for a horse. I would like to think we have a similar style but Emma is far more natural and has stronger legs than I ever had. Of course she has much to learn, but having confidence and feel is a great start. It does my head in when she forgets some of her courses, but to be fair I did plenty of that too!”

Emma and Melissa treasure their weekends together at shows (supplied)

Emma goes to Jeff McVean for a lesson about once a month for a bit of fine-tuning; Melissa also trained with Jeff from the age of 13 so it was only natural for Emma to follow too. Melissa confesses she loves handing Emma over to Jeff at shows for the big classes – then she gets to play mum and just take photos. 

Melissa is a little sad that her family is split most weekends during the season, with the lads heading to polo and Melissa and Emma to show jumping, but says they are lucky to be doing things they love. “The best days of all are when the five of us get to go hacking together,” says Melissa. “We support our kids in any sport they take up and are with them all the way, coaching, managing or just there watching….except for cricket. We have decided no more cricket – it’s far too boring!”

Emma, meanwhile, thinks riding is a cool way to spend time with her mum. “It’s very special knowing that Mum has done it all before and that I can trust everything she tells me,” she says. “Another positive is that Mum is good at picking nice horses and ponies for me. I am pretty lucky about that.”

‘It’s special knowing Mum has done it all before,’ says Emma (supplied)

My mum is my inspiration

Some of Blenheim-based dressage rider Tessa van Bruggen’s earliest memories are of riding her grandfather’s Prix St Georges horse on the lunge when she was barely three years old. Tessa was lucky enough to be born into a great dressage dynasty, as the daughter of Grand Prix rider Fränzi van Bruggen-Smit and the grand-daughter of the late Melle van Bruggen, who once coached the US dressage team.

Tessa on Fortunato with Fränzi (supplied)

Tessa rides under her mother Fränzi’s watchful eye daily and says her mother is her biggest inspiration. “She makes me want to do this sport. I only hope that one day I can ride and train a horse just like her.” 

Tessa, who is a trainee midwife, and full-time rider Fränzi, have four horses on the go, and unusually, they share all four of them. Fränzi, a Burkner Medal winner, explains that she was raised in a similar way in a riding environment herself. “It’s not just that one person rides one horse; we swap around according to which horse needs attention. My father would also concentrate on horses that needed to advance themselves in certain areas.”

Franzi was born in Switzerland, where her father had a riding school, and rode from a young age. Although she was one of four, she was the only one who rode, and she had the same sort of close relationship with her father that she now shares with Tessa.

Tessa says there was never any pressure from her mother to follow in her horsey footsteps. “In fact, I think it was kind of the opposite,” says Tessa. “It wasn’t that Mum didn’t want me to ride, she just always made me work hard; it had to come from myself.”

Fränzi agrees: “My father never tacked up a horse for me and he always made us ride the most difficult horses. You were either hungry for it, or you might as well leave it alone.”

Fränzi had a close relationship with her father, leading Swiss dressage rider and trainer, Melle van Bruggen (supplied)

Fränzi says it’s never been tricky teaching her own daughter, because Tessa has such a lovely, easy kind of nature.“You can’t really argue with someone who has more knowledge than you,” she says.

One thing the mother and daughter do disagree on is favourite riders: Fränzi’s pick is Edward Gal, while Tessa spends hours watching Charlotte Dujardin on YouTube. “I was trained the European way, and put on the lunge line with no stirrups and reins for a year,” says Fränzi. “I’m very much old-school whereas I can see Tessa’s seat does change a little, but I’m actually glad she sits a little bit in the more modern way.”

Fränzi is careful not to put too many expectations on Tessa when competing, and says she could throttle some parents who make negative comments as their children come out of the arena. “It’s just not appropriate, and if you’ve ridden yourself you would never make those little digs. You’re working with an animal that has its own mind and it’s not always your doing.

“My father was like that too, but the one thing he would never tolerate was a course error. I remember competing a horse in Auckland and making a course error in the Inter 1…my trip from halting at X to going out of the arena was the slowest imaginable, because I had to face my dad.”

Five Kiwi equestrian dynasties we’d love to be part of

The White-Pottinger clan

Event rider Amanda Pottinger has sone the National Three-day eventing crown twice with Just Kidding, which is not all that surprising given her stellar eventing heritage: her famous mum Tinks claimed team bronze at the 1998 Seoul Olympics aboard Volunteer. Tinks’ sister, Ginny MacLeod, was also a top eventer, and their mother Tiny White represented New Zealand in dressage. In keeping with the rest of her family (Tiny’s proper name is Helen, while Tinks is really Judith), Amanda more often goes by her nickname, ‘Muzi’.

The Macintosh-Stevensons

Sam is New Zealand’s most successful international show jumper and is the daughter of Colin McIntosh, who show jumped at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, and former Grand Prix rider Penny Stevenson. Currently based in France, Sam has an exciting new string of horses and is definitely one to watch.

The McVeans

The daughter of international show jumpers Jeff and Vicki McVean, Katie Laurie’s destiny was confirmed when she won her first pony Grand Prix at the tender age of nine. Katie’s sister Emma-Lea was also a top young show jumper and is now a respected racehorse trainer. With Katie’s nieces already show jumping plus a pony in the paddock for her daughter Grace, the McVean legacy looks set to continue.

The Hills

Louisa Hill is the only New Zealand dressage rider to compete at two Olympics; she and her mum Jenny are treasured stalwarts of the discipline. While Lou’s been without a top-level horse since the sale of her London ride Antonello, we don’t doubt she’ll produce another superstar before she hangs up her spurs.

The Fields

Kallista Field and her mum Sharon are two of the most prolific producers of Grand Prix dressage horses in New Zealand and Kallista is still our most successful international dressage rider with her 18th place at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. After a short hiatus, Kallista has a couple of horses at top level and Sharon’s also eyeing a return to Grand Prix with Waimoana FE – watch this space!

This article was first published in the May 2016 issue of NZ Horse & Pony.

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