Ms Versatile: Philippa Howells

Claire Wilson catches up with show jumping course designer, selector, breeder, trainer, manager and competitor, Philippa Howells

Philippa Howells is a very well-liked member of a New Zealand show jumping family. She frequently works behind the scenes, contributing significantly, and often without recognition. Philippa is a true blue horse enthusiast, and is a very valuable asset to our sport!

Philippa on the job!

How long have you been course building, and who got you interested in this?

It would be about the year 2000, when I was asked to design for some local pony club days, and it grew from there. Before then, I used to spend a lot of time out in the ring helping the course designer. I had never thought about becoming a designer myself but just carried on from there. I then started designing for a winter jumping series at Waikato Equestrian Centre ran by Kerry Murphy, so would say he really kick-started my career. I was fortunate that I had some great support people behind me during the early days who allowed me to develop my skills; Jen Hamilton was another. 

Many riders have spotted you out, late at night, altering a course slightly, so it is just right for the morning class. Are you a perfectionist?

I suppose I am in a way. I think all course designers are. It is a piece of artwork that we have developed; we all want our courses looking good. You may see something that you want to change, as you know it isn’t going to lead to good jumping, something as small as a fence being on slightly the wrong angle. 

Do you think that all your years riding has given you a better feel for designing a good course of jumps?

They certainly have. Having ridden gives a course designer a better feel for the design of the course, and how it should ride. 

Do you have plans to further your career as a course builder?

In the beginning I never dreamt that I would progress this far, but it has been a fantastic road through. The FEI courses have been very beneficial in my development over the last few years; I completed my first one, FEI Level 1, in May 2011. I would love to have the opportunity to head overseas to gain further experience. I like to keep up-skilling and furthering my knowledge in the things I do.

Who do you admire the most as a course designer and why?

On the national scene Kevin Hansen and Geritt Beker – both of whom are very talented, and have been great mentors. They build flowing, rhythmical tracks – which always lead to confident jumping, but there is always a test to see if the rider is on their game.

Internationally, I really enjoyed working with Frank Rothenburger and John Vallance.

Most course designers stamp their signature on their courses in some way. What is one familiar trend to your courses?

I do like related lines, but also like to add in the ‘lonely oxer’ occasionally. Both of these have come from my days of regular clinics with Jen Hamilton. I like a course to flow, and not affect the horse’s balance, and better still encourage the development of this, especially with young horses, along with rhythm.

Are other members of your family involved as volunteers or officials in the show jumping scene?

I’m actually the third generation of officiating! My grandmother, Judith Carr, judges show jumping, as does my mother, Mandy Howells. Both have been involved in other roles as officials in other disciplines. Mandy was an eventing steward at the Olympics in Beijing and Athens. Judith was a dressage and cross-country judge as well, and a member of the Pakuranga Hunt. 

I believe your family are well respected in the thoroughbred breeding industry. Do you get very involved with this?

They sure are, as they run Ainsley Downs Stud at Waerenga, where they breed their own, as well as buying weanlings in Australia and NZ for the National Yearling Sales held at Karaka. They used to stand stallions, but decided a few years ago to move away from this.

I currently hold a Class B Trainer’s Licence, and have done since about 2000. I also help out with the stud work, when I can, as most weekends I’m away course designing.

Philippa with Prince of Seville at the Taupo Races

Has your family ever tried breeding sporthorses?

They certainly have. My parents bred and stood at stud the sire of Vincent St James – Wharf’s Son (TB), who was by their foundation sire Wharf. Trish MacPherson had the last two by this sire, All Expenses of Renton and Our Airfare of Renton. Dad also helped develop the Sport Horse Promotion Board, and the Sporthorse Stallion Parade in their early years, but now he concentrates on breeding for the racing industry. 

You had a stint as a show jumping Young Rider selector. Given the grief that unfolded during the selection process, how did you feel when Emily Fraser won the Youth Olympic gold medal?

It was a fantastic result for New Zealand, and for a rider who was so dedicated in her preparation leading up to the event. For me it was a great thrill to be part of Emily’s amazing journey to gold. I had a great run in the role, especially the last season, which consisted of two wins against Australia and of course, the Youth Olympic gold.

Philippa with some of her charges; she was chef d’equipe for the team contesting the FEI Children’s Challenge in 2014 (l-r): Briar Burnett-Grant on Mighty Maximus, Matthew Irvine on Fun House, Steffi Whittaker on Moonlight Glow and Molly Buist-Brown on Pull the Trigger II (Kampic)

You have been involved as an eventer, show jumper, breeder, selector, manager, course-builder, trainer of grooms and trainer of racehorses. What other equestrian roles are on your bucket list?

I have even been a swabbing assistant at the races too! I’m not really sure what else I would do now. When I look at the list, there are a lot of different roles there. Maybe I’ll look at stewarding at some stage. In fact, I had a taste of this voluntarily at HOY a few years ago. I arrived on Sunday, with a horse on board for a good friend, and was sent to the racecourse for the night, as Cyclone Pam was due to hit. When I arrived there, Helen Hansen asked if I could be the ‘overseer’ there – checking in everyone else who arrived, and being the contact person if anything happened to go wrong. 

What has been the highlight in your riding career, so far?

There have been many. One highlight would be winning the six-bar at the 1994 National Horse Expo in Malaysia, where I jumped 1.70m on a little NZ-bred thoroughbred who I had only just sat on prior to the class. The owner had been chatting to us on the trade stand that my father and I were managing there, and asked if I would like to ride his horse. It was a great experience. 

You used to be called the ‘Queen of the Amateur Classes’, with your success with Mr Versatile. Are you happy with how the Amateur series has developed?

I was called that, but there are others who have taken that role now! The Pro-Am series has certainly encouraged a lot of riders to step up to the next level, as it filled a gap that was missing at a lot of shows. It has also encouraged the confident amateurs to step up. 

Philippa and Mr Versatile had much success in the Amateur Rider series (

Tell me about that amazing horse, Mr Versatile?

He was a great competitor, always there to do a job, but had his quirks. He was by Prince Ferdinand, who my parents stood at stud – an English-bred thoroughbred, who was a track-record-holder at Royal Ascot. I did event him (we competed in the last long-format 3DE) in his earlier days, after I trained him as a racehorse. He actually did a bit of both as a four-year-old! But he did find the dressage hard physically, and of course there were no jumps! So show jumping it was, and he loved it. If I had a bad round, it was because I gave him a bad ride. We had a special relationship, and I was fortunate that I was part of it. 

  • This article was first published in the May 2015 issue of NZ Horse & Pony