Equestrian is a sport that many know little about. It entered the public eye during the London 2012 Olympics when the vast media coverage of the games meant that viewers at home could flick through numerous channels and watch sports that, before, they had limited knowledge of.
However, for some, like 3rd year Chemical Engineer student Helen McAll, Equestrian, or horse riding more widely, has been their life. McAll recently realised a life-long dream by being selected to compete for Great Britain Student Riders at competitions in Romania and in the Netherlands.
“I was so proud, it’s been like a dream to compete for my country”
The competitions are split into two sections, Dressage and Show Jumping. The most recent competition took place over the course of a long, cold November weekend in Zwiep, Netherlands. McAll and her two British teammates managed a very impressive 6th placed finish out of the 15 nations taking part.
“I was so proud, it’s been like a dream to compete for my country”, McAll proudly exclaims. The international competition allowed McAll to ride some of the best horses in the world. “The Dutch are renowned for having really nice horses, so that aspect of it was really good.”
Despite the 6th place finish, McAll believes the British team were deserving of an even better result. “We did really well, it was just a shame that the judges didn’t go our way.” McAll describes how the judges play a vital role in the scoring system. “The first two rounds are quite subjective on the judge’s opinion”, she explains, “but hopefully next time it’ll go our way.”
The event saw the gathering of 45 of the best young riders from all over the world; Germany, Ireland and hosts Netherlands amongst those with the best pedigree. Individually, McAll finished in 19th for Dressage and 23rd for Show Jumping, giving the Newcastle undergraduate an overall position of 21st out of the 45.
It’s not the first time McAll has represented her country. The riding star was first called up to the Great Britain Student Riders team in May this year, where she travelled out to Romania. The trip proved an eye-opening experience for McAll. “We were in the middle of Transylvania and the person who owned the place where it was, was the first person to bring a car into the village.”
“I was really lucky to get to Romania”, claims McAll. “I don’t know how he did it but he managed to get some fabulous all the way to Romania. We were in the middle of nowhere and there was no phone signal or anything.”
“My aim would be to go to the University World Championships which is in Sweden next June, that would be incredible. They only come around every 2 years, so that would be the goal”
Despite the long trek across Europe and the lack of contact with the outside world, McAll excelled in her individual performance, coming 6th in Dressage and 10th overall. Not only could McAll boast being in the top 10 young riders in the world, but also outperformed her compatriots, making her the best young rider in Britain.
The continued success has got McAll dreaming of more international competitions. “My aim would be to go to the University World Championships which is in Sweden next June and that would be incredible. They only come around every 2 years, so that would be the goal.”
Back on the toon, McAll is the President of the Newcastle University Equestrian club, where expansion has been the latest development. “We’ve got three teams now. Last year I was made President and I really wanted a C team. If you only have 2 teams then there’s not as many spaces, it’s a lot nicer to make it bigger and it gives more people a chance.”
The expansion has given McAll and her team increased hope of success at BUCS (British University and College Sports) level. “Our aim, and I think we can do it, is for the A-team to win all their competitions and I think we have a really strong B team as well, so hopefully go to regionals and do well with both of them.”
With international experience now under her belt, McAll doesn’t rule out leading her team onto further progress at the BUCS Nationals. With more teams meaning increased competition, McAll foresees the potential for good efforts across the board. “I definitely think the B team will get through to the Nationals, I’m hoping the A team will too but it’s quite a hard regionals competition.”
Last year McAll impressed on the national stage with solid all round performances for Team Newcastle. “I got to Nationals last year, I came 5th in Show Jumping, which was really good, although it’s there’s a certain amount of luck involved.”
Indeed, it seems the young rider’s results were, on this occasion limited by an unfortunate draw and a rather fatigued horse. “You draw your horse and I drew last and my horse was really tired so that was a bit of a shame. The horse knocked a couple of poles down and meant I didn’t make it through to the final, but I couldn’t have really asked for more.”
As McAll explains, Equestrian results aren’t always a fair reflection of a rider’s abilities and it can come down to the animal’s temperament. “That’s horses though, you might get a horse that might not be feeling like it on the day or it might completely throw its toys out the pram.”
"Equestrian isn’t just about the nature of the horse though, the sport combines that with the skill of the rider, a skill that Helen McAll has proven to have in abundance"
At the beginning of November, McAll and her Newcastle teammates hosted their A team competition against Northumbria and Sunderland, winning comfortably by over 100 points and picking up just 26 penalties, to Northumbria’s 156. “You obviously have an advantage when you’re at home with BUCS competitions because you know all the horses and you’ve ridden them all, so that worked in our favour this time.”
Equestrian isn’t just about the nature of the horse though, the sport combines that with the skill of the rider, a skill that Helen McAll has proven to have in abundance. McAll explains, “with the sport of horses, a lot of people think it’s all down to the horse, but it’s about your riding more than the horse and how well you can adapt to the horse.”
“In Show Jumping you have two minutes then you’re in, so you really have to adapt quite quickly”, she explains. “I’ve been doing this since I could walk really. I’ve always been quite lucky that I’ve been able to ride a variety of horses, that’s really helped me.”
McAll will hope to continue to fire on three levels next year (regional, national and international). 2016 may yet prove to be the most fruitful yet, as she leads her Newcastle team, inevitably, to more success, all with the constant ambition to reach Sweden in June.