BD List 2 judge and trainer Sarah Williams, also frequently seen coming down the centreline to compete, is an heroic mix of empathy, determination and manic energy. The softer side of the ‘village girl done good’ as she describes herself, adopts dogs and parrots — and, of course, horses in need of help and attempts to heal them mind and body.
SARAH taught herself to handle and ride horses. When she came to live in the Biggin Hill area of North West Kent from Clapham as a young child, her only experience of hooved animals had been the donkeys on the beach at Camber Sands. She used to lead them all day for the donkey-rides man in return for a free ride. Proper horses and ponies, of the gypsy-type, came into her life when her family moved to a mobile home on the site of their renovation project bungalow in Downe, Kent. It came with 2.5 acres of land. The ponies were owned by the builders who were doing up the property and at one time they had been ridden by their children. Sarah recalls: “I persuaded the builders to let me play with the ponies and within a couple of years they were tidied up, groomed and wearing proper saddle cloths — like the pictures I had seen in books — and I was taking them to local gymkhanas.”
When Sarah says she copied what she saw in pictures, you may suspect that her reading skills were limited — as crazy as that seems for someone so articulate. She explains: “I didn’t like school at all but I was very good at sport and represented the school in athletics and up to County Level in gymnastics. It not only meant the teachers were pretty tolerant of my lack of academic application but also that I got some pretty good coaching.”
In her early teens, she says to her parents’ disgust, the builders gave her a pony foal she called Cream Crackers. Cream was later to compete JA and negotiate the Devil’s Dyke at Hickstead with her. Sarah said: “As a youngster Cream’d drag me through the bushes when I tried to lead her but if, instead of hanging on, I shook the line l learnt that she would stop pulling. She also taught me to ride in about three years. I can remember when I first learnt how to put a horse ‘on the bit’. I found that if I could get her head and neck down I could ride her forward and that a horse ridden like that relaxed its back and stopped trying to buck me off. Cream was very, very sharp and reactive to the aids so I eventually learnt how to ride with my weight.”
Sarah’s parents were strict and pocket money had to be earned: “I would do little jobs anywhere I could to earn some cash — car cleaning, shirt ironing, pooh picking fields and cleaning houses.” And she decided to invest the money she’d saved in buying a couple of cheap ponies advertised in the local Post Office. Sarah continued: “I cleaned them up, trained them and sold them and did quite well out of it, and soon I was giving riding lessons ‘on the cas’ to other kids. Gradually my parents came round to the idea of horses and Dad bought an old trailer, did it up and started to take me and Cream to local competitions.
“When my Dad asked me what I wanted to do when I was older, I said I want to ride horses and I want to ride for England. He laughed at me but even then I was very determined. I would still love to ride for Britain one day!”
“I left school when I was 15 with no qualifications and went to work for the Royal College of Surgeons as an animal technician at their auxiliary Dental Research Unit which was near where we lived. I looked after the monkeys. As much as I don’t like the idea of animals being used for research, these had all been bred in captivity and there was nothing too invasive or unpleasant done to them. Their teeth were being studied as the scientists were trying to develop something that would prevent tooth decay.
“As part of my job I was in charge of the breeding programme. The babies all lived together in communes and I tried to make their lives as lovely as I could. I was also supposed to keep notes on the monkeys but just scribbled something I thought was right! Luckily for me Professor Cohen, the top man at the research unit, called me into his office and said, ‘we love what you do, but we can’t read your writing’. He also said, ‘I think you’re dyslexic.’ He sent me to an American lady in London who was, I think, an educational psychologist. She established that I was severely dyslexic in several ways and so the RCS gave me half a day off a week for remedial education and I learned to read and write to a degree.
“Professor Cohen changed my life: there’s no way I could run a business as I now do without basic reading and writing skills. And when I could read and write a bit I used to look at the ads in horsey magazines and pick out those where I thought probably the horse had got too much for someone. I would go and see it and sus out both the owner and the horse, then perhaps buy it, retrain and sell it”
“I worked for the RCS for about four years but it wasn’t what I wanted as a career, which I decided was to be a Physical Education instructor. All through my teens I had continued to train at a gym. I like to use my body and be physically fit and even now when I go on holiday the hotel has to have a gym. I did a Royal Society of Arts course through the YWCA. Again I wouldn’t have been able to do the written part of that without Professor Cohen’s intervention with my dyslexia.
“Of course, all the while I was still ‘playing’ with the ponies and buying and selling. I always fill my day with something. I’m completely manic! Once qualified, over a period of eight to 10 years, I worked as an instructor in a gym, first full-time, then part-time and then freelancing. Meanwhile I did my BHSAI and II exams and filled in my time with odd jobs like cleaning houses. I also worked as an assistant saddler at Frogpool Saddlery in Chislehurst and worked in their shop. I continued to pick up riding clients and also taught at the local riding school. My parents could see I was getting serious with the horses and helped me with 50 per cent of the cash to build an arena and stables on their land and I used to have a couple of liveries or horses that I had bought to produce and sell.
Sarah’s equestrian business got busier but when her parents decided to divorce she needed a new home and a new base. Fortuitously, the 5.5-acre Yonder Farm nearby in Downe had just come on the market. Sarah says: “It was mainly a pig farm then and had an Agricultural restriction, but I knew horses had been kept there at one time, so I threw everything I had into it. I managed to get a change of use to Equestrian and started to refurbish it with the help of one of the builder’s sons who came to work for me. Immediately I had lots of liveries wanting to come and they all pulled together to make it work. We rode in the field until planning permission for an arena came through.
“I call Yonder Farm ‘The Machine’ as it took on its own life and swallowed me up. It was built on my reputation and all my business comes through word of mouth”
Sarah is the non-academic member of a high achieving family. Her parents established a successful commercial insurance business and her brother trained as an accountant and became top money man at a company that was later listed on the Stock Exchange.
As a self-financed businesswoman Sarah has never had the budget for mega horses so she has taken on a lot of difficult ones and turned them around. Sarah explains: “My Mum never let me have friends home when I was growing up, it was too much trouble. My bedroom was not ‘my space’; it was kept how she wanted it, so I gravitated outdoors and connected with the animals. My belief is that horses aren’t ever bad; we humans make them like that. I’m physically and mentally strong and quite determined. If I have a horse that’s a bit challenging to begin with I can normally get round it. When it starts to trust me and to see me as its herd leader I can then work out why it’s doing what it’s doing and go from there.
“I have probably nicked three or four horses off death row in my career. Malaika, who is still with me aged 20, was unrideable when she came for remedial training. You couldn’t get near her, she was an absolute bitch. I didn’t let her bully me with her tricks of humping her back and running backwards. You have to insist that a horse goes forward whatever they’re trying to throw at you. If I’m on a dangerous horse I make them travel to a contact. It’s the safest way.”
But Sarah admits she’s hit the deck a few times, but mostly has been “very lucky”. Getting the horse travelling forward to a contact, however, wasn’t an option when she was leaving the school on a loose rein on April Fool’s Day this year. Sarah explains: “The horse stretched down to the bit on the left side and took a flex, but when he went to stretch down on the right side, he must have felt a jolt of pain from a pinched nerve or something. He stood bolt upright and I was vertical in a nano second. When I was coming off and realised he was going to fall on me, I tried to push myself away from him and rolled into a ball. I took a deep breath, filling my lungs with air, as I knew I mustn’t let him crush me. When he landed on me it took a quite a while to get him off, kicking and elbowing him, because of his downhill balance. I then got onto my hands and knees, not realising that I had two collapsed lungs and told myself not to panic. I took tiny, quick breaths, because it doesn’t help to gasp when you’re winded.”
Sarah was taken by ambulance to Kings College Hospital (“they were wonderful”) where they eventually detected five fractures in her lower back and four fractures in her pelvis. Thanks both to her quick thinking at the time of the accident, and to her core muscle strength that could support her frame, Sarah was able to get back in the saddle long before any normal, sensible ‘wimp’ would have done.
Six months on Sarah will be competing eight-year-old San Remo Hitt in the Elementary National Championships this month — another horse with history. He is known as ‘Bear’, or ‘grumpy old Bear’. He was left with Sarah when the owner decided the only solution was to put him down, as ‘enough was enough’. Sarah comments: “I couldn’t let him put down a perfectly healthy six-year-old. I had trained him on Bear but I hadn’t ridden him myself at that point. I thought he was an amazing horse but very difficult: he stood up, he tried to rub his rider off on the fence, and bronc. I didn’t really have the time for him, I didn’t know if I could fix him, so I stuck him in the field.
“When I decided to try riding him I knew I had to get him forward so I lunged him with draw reins looped behind the stirrups and galloped him with instructions to my helper on the ground to pop some steps beside him the moment he stopped and I would jump on and immediately ride him forward. I’m not saying there haven’t been hairy moments but once I had a connection I could put in him a double, supple him, move him around and get him moving freely. I can now ride him in a snaffle in a competition.”
However, her AES graded Rascalino x Werther stallion Amo II, below, is the apple of her eye, and as a four-year-old stood near the top of the line in the Shearwater finals at Stoneleigh.
Sarah says: “I used to do a lot of business with Christian Heinrich (German dealer and breeder). He promised me he would find me a super, super one. Amo’s a mega character. When he first goes into a warm-up arena he shows off a lot, stallion flicking and talking to everybody, but he settles down by the time he goes into the ring and nothing frightens him.”
© Celia Cadwallader, 5 September 2017