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This week I’m chatting with the lovely Sophie, owner of the teamtunnah instagram page. We discuss her life so far, equestrian plans and of course her amazing grey Irish Sports Horse Louie.

Tell us a little about you and your horse

Sophie and Louie making this fence look easy with a splendidly stylish jump
I’m Sophie, a 34-year old digital marketing professional, and my horse is Louie, a grey, 9-year old cheeky Irish sports horse. We’ve been a partnership since January 2015 and are based in Morpeth, Northumberland, and enjoy dressage, show jumping, hacking & cross country. Before Covid, we would regularly be out competing at Elementary level dressage and at the end of 2019 we started to go to British Show jumping classes. Away from competitions, we enjoy hacking out around the local Northumbrian countryside and a couple of training sessions each month with our trainers.   Louie’s favourite treats are spearmint Trebor extra strong mints, he LOVES having a good scratch and in typical fashion for a grey, he’s especially good at wallowing in the mud on a hot summer’s day.

Away from horses, I’m married to Andrew – this year marks our 10-year anniversary! I also have two lovely Labradors – Harry & Moose. Harry is a black lab & now 11, & Moose is a reddy yellow and only 5 months old! Together we venture out on long walks on some of the beautiful beaches that we have on our doorstep as well woodland adventures with rivers and streams.

How did your horses come into your life?

All the way through my childhood, and even into adult life, I’ve been drawn to animals and loved being around them, mostly with dogs, rabbits, and horses. So, when I was 4 or 5, my Dad arranged some horse riding lessons on a weekend when I stayed with my Grandma. It was just along the narrow country lane and was a lovely place, I have lots of happy early memories there. I was pretty much hooked from my first afternoon there – we did everything. Tack cleaning, grooming, riding, played pony games, cleaned the yard… They were great afternoons! Later, around 8/9 I was lucky enough to get a 11.2h grey pony on loan, called Grace. She was 26 and perfect for getting me going on my own outside of a riding school.

How long have you been riding?

So, I rode probably about once a month when I was very young – it was every time I stayed with my Grandma. Once I had a pony of my own, I spent all day Saturday and Sunday at the yard, a different place to the riding school, but didn’t go there after school. I was very sporty at school, even at the age of 8 or 9, so there were a lot of sports clubs and team practice after school.

I rode constantly from when I first started at the riding schooling until I was 12 or 13… After Grace, I had Duke, who we bought as our own. He was 13.2h and a Welsh C pony, a really lovely chap! Then, after 2 years or so with him, my feet started touching the poles when I show jumped, so it was time for something bigger. I was growing. So, my Mum laid it out that I needed a 15.2h (or so someone told her) so I wouldn’t grow out of it so quickly… Well, as a 12-year-old whose friends all had whizzy ponies, I definitely did not want a 15.2h horse. But it was that or nothing. Nothing won as unfortunately I couldn’t find anything suitable and then came school exams and a horse was off the cards.

I did sort of forget about horses from age 15 until I left university, and a chance meeting of some of my now husband’s colleagues had me up at a yard to see their horses. One happened to be available for full loan. Another horse called Grace! She was a 15.1h black pretty mare and was ideal to help me get back into riding again, albeit maybe a bit smaller than I would have ideally liked. We had a great 11 months together, but her owner wanted to sell her, and I knew she wasn’t the horse for me, especially with the price that they wanted for her.

I found a beautiful big chestnut and probably over-horsed myself with him, Buddy, but he’ll always have a special place in my heart, and I keep in touch with his owner today! I bought him as a 5-year-old, and he’ll be 17 this year! We didn’t work out well and I didn’t have the right support group around me at that time, and their answer was to sell him. So I did. Although I do somewhat regret that, it’s taken me on the journey to be where I am with Louie today.
Sophie relaxing with her beloved Louie
  After Buddy, I had Thomas. He was a lovely big horse and took me around my first BE competitions. He really was a horse for anyone, but I started to feel like I wanted a bit more spice – like sometimes him just doing something that wasn’t quite so predictable. Unfortunately, after almost recovering from a hock injury, an episode of colic revealed massive tumours in his intestines, so he sadly had to be put to sleep and I was genuinely devastated.   After a few weeks, I came around to the idea of getting another one, and taking the plunge to do what I’d always wanted to do – take one from a just backed to competing – so as it was November, the hunt for a 3-year old was on. I discovered many for sale, but there really wasn’t very many nice prospects out there. And on a day when I just about gave up looking, I found Louie. Ironic to think he was on the bottom of my list and as I drove away from the viewing before him, I was almost calling to cancel because I was that disheartened by everything that I saw. I haven’t looked back once since walking around that corner and seeing him stood in the yard.

When and where do you ride?

I tend to ride on evenings after work, although on the odd occasion, maybe if I’m travelling away for work with a lunchtime or afternoon flight, I’ll ride in the morning before I go. During the week I’ll stay local to the yard, mostly going in the arena or enjoying a hack around the fields during the summer. In the winter after work I’m pretty much confined to the arena.   I also ride on weekends, both days usually. Before Covid I’d have a bit more structure, but commonly, if I was competing one of the days, I’d hack on the other. If I wasn’t competing, I’d go away training and hack the other day. Occasionally we’d go to 2 or 3 day shows for a long weekend which I really enjoy and would recommend to anyone who enjoys the competition side to riding.
Sophie and Louie in the rosettes again

I am a bit of a stickler for good surfaces, so I can be a bit picky on where I will go and train or compete, which can mean that I’ll sometime miss out on what appear like great opportunities with strong coaches. I also enjoy changing up our schooling and when the ground is right, I’ll often go and school or lunge on a grass area or stubble field. I think that it’s a great way get a more forward way of going and for you or your horse to become less “bored” of the same four boundaries of an arena. At the last yard, I’d always envisioned being able to school on the beach when the tide was out during the winter, but Louie’s erratic phobia of soft sand put an end to that!

What are you and your horses currently working on?

Well, I recently got back in the saddle after 13 week out due to an injury – I had a fairly bad fall when out hacking resulting in me getting stood on and leaving a deep wound in the back of my leg. So, right now we’re both working on our fitness, strength and reducing those extra few pounds that we’re carrying!   That means we’re doing plenty of pole work, hill work and lots of lateral work, circles & transitions to help build our stamina back up and maintain suppleness. I’ve really taken the opportunity to try and reset some of the old (and bad habits) that I had through correcting some basic muscle memory when riding. Some sessions that I’ve done while back riding have been relatively basic in terms of the exercises but are designed so I can focus on me and my position to hopefully correct the old ways.
Halt
  However, ordinarily we’d be working on becoming more established at Elementary level, becoming more consistent around the BS Novice level (90cm – 1m) and generally improving Louie’s cardio fitness too.

What do you love about riding?

Riding for me is a complete little oasis away from the world, whether it’s simply wandering the fields after a busy day in the office or taking baby steps towards our goals in the arena. That time is just me and Louie doing our thing together.   One of my weaknesses is ‘perfectionism’, which if that creeps into my training it has a detrimental effect on our partnership, productivity, and progress, and I’ve really had to learn that the hard way! But, when I combine my strong ambition to reach my goals and allow myself time to break it into minute steps, I find that really helps keep me focus and is a driving motivator to continue to improve.

What you would you like to be doing in the future and do you have any goals?

Sophie & Louie putting their best foot forward during a dressage test
I’d like to re-affiliate to British Dressage and get qualified for a few Championships again – those weekends away at Regionals and Nationals are great ones and have left me with so many memories and proud moments! I hope we have many more to come…   I’d also like to affiliate (for the first time ever!) to British Show jumping and enjoy going to more local shows to jump, as well as heading further afield to 3-day shows and Championships.   It’s funny really, because since I first got Louie, all I ever wanted to do was event him, but since starting to go show jumping, I’m not sure I’m so fussed anymore. I really want to get my double clears and progress in the jumping world – I’m never going to be a big jumper but within the grassroots levels I’d like to. So, I’m not sure if an event will be on the cards for us or not. We’ll see…

Just reading back those couple of paragraphs, I sound mega competitive, which is 100% true. I am a competitive person, however, so long as I am enjoying my horse, having a good time doing whatever that is with him, and that he is happy, comfortable and enjoying his job too, then that’s my end goal!
The end of another successful day for the competitive Sophie and her amazing Louie
 

Have you ever had to deal with nerves in riding?  

  Yes! I had a fall on the road when hacking in 2008, and it really knocked my confidence to go out hacking. I finally built it back up, and in 2010 had another fall, this time in a field while cantering. I was concentrating on getting my balance sorted and even, and looked down to the right, just as the horse spooked to the left. I tumbled straight over the right shoulder but wasn’t hurt and didn’t think much to it.   However, the next time I got on (in the arena), I could barely find the confidence to trot around the track. Just going over a pole on the floor was terrifying. I went to see a friend on an old yard for coffee, and her husband (an old fashioned huntsman) said to me ‘this hobby is meant to be for enjoyment, if you don’t enjoy whatever part of it you don’t, just don’t do it’. Sounds harsh written down, but he said it in such an encouraging way, and I thought, ‘yes, you’re right’.   I spent the next few weeks singing 10 green bottles over and over at the top of my (awful) singing voice when I rode as a distraction, and I soon found myself thinking that trot was OK and so was canter, so what difference would a small pole make? Then I moved to jumping…and I got it back from there really.

  Someone asked if I was nervous to get back on after my recent accident, and I wasn’t. I’m not. However, what I would say is that I’m more conscious of taking risks. On a day Louie was on isolation and particularly wired, spooking at his own hay net he was pulling on (!!!), I chose not to go do the hill work but stuck to the arena, or when I went on my first hack back out, I went with a friend for safety in numbers. I actually ended up on the buckle end most of the way, distracted by us chatting. My fall wasn’t because of any risk that I took, but it made me see that going from the buckle end to 100mph can happen in 0.1ms… I had a freak accident where if I hadn’t lost both stirrups, I wouldn’t have ended up underneath the horse in quite the same way!

How do you deal with them?

  I’ve answered above really. But in addition, I’ve dealt with competition nerves over the years. Now I don’t really get nervous for a dressage competition, only as the judge beeps and I doubt I’ve learnt my test, which is just ridiculous thinking! Once I’ve turned left or right at the bottom of that centre line, that thought has gone. But jumping, I still feel a few, but to fight them I basically break everything down into minute mini-steps – anything from the pattern of where I’ll go before the buzzer to markers around the arena where I need to look for my line and then what part of the top pole I can focus on for 2-3 strides and then where to look up at over and beyond the fence a few strides out, and then look at the next turn/fence. I break it down so far that no individual step is enough to make those nerves appear and have a negative effect.

Your Top Tip 

Sophie & Louie. Communication with your horse is everything.
Communication with your horse is everything – you must understand what they are saying back to you as much as they need to understand what you are asking of them. Spend time on this “forgotten” basic and any partnership will flourish…

The Final Furlong 

 

Who would be your dream horse to ride?

I’ve always loved Laura Tomlinson’s Alf (Mistral Hojris). He is big, chestnut with striking white markings and I think he just looks like he always tries his heart out and appears like such a lovely person.   Apart from the fact that I’d most likely be far too big for him, I’d love to be able to ride the amazing Lenamore. Who wouldn’t want the opportunity to take a ride on such a plucky, fun looking horse with so many records to his name!!

Who is your equestrian hero?

I don’t usually go for the high-profile riders, but in this case, I’d pick Charlotte Dujardin for two specific reasons:

  1. She isn’t from a horsey family background. She has had a supportive family for sure, but she chose to follow her love of horses, and when you watch some of the Carl Hester early TV footage, you can see Charlotte away hard at work in the background whether on the yard, competitions or in masterclass
  2. She put dressage on the map to the non-horsey sports fans. Sure London 2012 gained more front-page press than perhaps other “away” Olympics, but when has dressage ever been on the front page of tabloids and broadsheets!? Charlotte’s achievements created that. Now, if I say to non-horsey folk I do some dressage, their response is usually something like ‘oh, like the beautiful dancing horse in London?’…to which I have to provide some context that it’s not quite as dance like as that!

If you could have 5 people to dinner who would they be?

I’d have to have somebody funny, and a comedian I think is funny & witty with general life is Greg Davies, so he’d get an invite.   I was fortunate enough to spend an hour or so in Yogi Breisner’s 121 company and he has so many stories to tell across his lifetime of experience that I’d love to hear more of these!   So that’s a funny guest and a horsey guest…I’d have to have someone incredibly good looking 😉   So maybe Gerard Butler or perhaps Daniel Craig. Just to look at!   Someone from the past that really pushed beyond the boundaries of what we know about the world we live in…and there’s a lot to pick from Yuri Gagarin, Christopher Columbus, Alexander Bell, Benjamin Franklin. However, there’s one person who I think has done remarkable things for our planet by simply connecting with EVERY generation of audience – Sir David Attenborough.   There’s four, and I suppose I had best invite my husband too. He’s the chef of our house, so there wouldn’t be much dinner without him!

Favourite colour horse?

I really love unusual markings on a horse, but for my own horse, it must be a grey. I know! I can’t believe I picked that either – the washing and cleaning kills me! But… there is nothing more beautiful than an immaculately turned out grey horse. Just stunning, especially with a sprinkling of flea bitten colouring!

Favourite horse event

Easy. Bramham. I grew up around there, spent my weekends hacking around the estate and remember some friend’s parents taking a few of the kids from the yard one year (probably about 1998) and just being captivated by everything that was going on! I love going back each year and think I’ve only missed one year going since getting back into riding at the end of 2007. I missed it in 2018 when I needed to stay home to nurse Louie 47 times a day with his fractured humerus…

Favourite food

Easy again, cheese. No contest.

Favourite way to relax

Whether laid out in the garden or wrapped under a throw on the sofa, just listening to music or watching a classic film. So long as I’m lying there not using my brain.

Favourite film

Since I first watched it as a purchased film through NTL cable TV in late 2000, I have always loved The Green Mile. But I’ve only watched it about 4 times. An oldie that I love is The Great Escape, and a new (ish) one would be American Sniper. I really like films based on true events…   If you enjoyed this article, you can read more interviews with some of the most popular instagram equestrian accounts at https://themulberrytree.co.uk/category/chatting-with  
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Sharon Howe

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