The BSPS M and M ‘Working Hunter Pony of the Year’ title is one of the most hotly contested championships in the showing calendar and one which has twice previously fallen to Scottish exhibitors during its 25-year history.

In 2000, it was the Highland pony, Dunedin Harris, which claimed the tri-colour for his owner/breeder, Anne Mitchell, and more recently in 2014, the Welsh Section C gelding, Cothamdene Just-Dylan, came out on top for Chris MacMillan.

It was no wonder then that there were celebrations in the Scottish camp at HOYS this year when the Stirling-based Fell stallion, Greenholme Emblem, took his class in the morning and championship at night. Bred in Cumbria, near Shap – literally within a stone’s throw of the M6 – this eight-year-old stallion, owned by Stewart and Gwen Rae, has enjoyed the best of seasons, including the hugely popular M and M ‘worker’ section at the Royal Highland for the second year in succession.

He has been nurtured from his novice days by well-known producer, Kirsty Aird, who also secured a place in the NPS/Baileys Horse Feed’s M and M ridden Fell class with the Raes’ home-bred young stallion, Nicholwalls Black Jack, which came a creditable eighth on his first appearance at HOYS following qualification at the Great Yorkshire.

Back to the M and M workers, Kirsty had no sooner received her red ribbon in the 133cm class with Emblem than she made a quick change to Cheryl Macintosh’s Connemara gelding, Woodbank Smokey Sam – which is by Fly the Last Flute, a previous winner on the flat at HOYS. Smokey Sam topped a good 143cm class, where there were 10 clear rounds and only four marks separating the top six placings – a one point advantage on conformation gave him a narrow advantage over the second place.

Interestingly, it had also been a tightly fought competition for Emblem, however with the top conformation score for the whole competition, he enjoyed a bigger winning margin in his class.

In general terms, the jumping phase played a less prominent role in the overall placings over a course which offered few questions due to the number of jumps within the limited size of the area. The individual performances both over the jumps and on the flat made their influences felt, as did the conformation phase, which was judged by one of Scotland’s top judges, Caroline Nelson, from Kelso.

A former judge and competitor herself at the Horse of the Year Show (and dare I say a judge of the ‘old school’ with good limbs high on her agenda) it was little wonder that later in the week her winner of the ridden part-bred class went on to secure the supreme pony championship of the show.

Scottish interests were not to be out done in the NPS/Snuggy Hood’s working hunter pony championships for plaited ponies, where Tinkas Flash and Hannah Sloan returned to reclaim their crown amidst the highly competitive intermediates but just failed to complete the double when Ruby Ward headed them in the championship with the 133cm winner, Pebbly Peppermint.

Tinkas Flash has been such a great ambassador for the Sloan family over the years with every major championship to his credit and it says much for the Sloans that they have kept him at such a high level of performance for such a long time.

Also from Dumfries, friends and equally competitive and successful have been the Weirs, whose successes at top level are also part of WHP history. This time they just missed the top slot but came a creditable second with their 143cm Beech Hall Ryan, which earned a qualifying ticket at one of the toughest competitions in the country at Royal Cheshire, in June.

Well-known hay merchant and popular ring steward, Philip Judge, sponsored the international ridden heavy horse championship which, year on year, has witnessed a huge improvement in production in the short time it has been running. The 10 qualifiers fairly filled the international arena and made a fine spectacle on the second day with the four Scottish entries making a good account of themselves – with the top three horses finishing on equal marks, the placings were effectively settled by small margins by the conformation judge.

He may well have had the upper hand at the top of the line, however it was low ride marks which saw John Anderson’s two entries, the Royal Three County’s qualifier, Gautby Arclid Flashman, and his Royal Highland winner, Glenside Matthews Flower of Scotland, finish out of the money this time.

However, Scotland had much to celebrate when Isla Miller, from Caithness, stood reserve to the eventual champion with Stobilee Zac, a six-year-old Clydesdale gelding which she bought as a foal to win both in hand and now under saddle. Bred by well-known exhibitor Robbie Morton, from Cleghorn, Lanark, the gelding won a strong class at the Royal Cheshire County Show, in June, to qualify.

In a repeat of last year, third place went to Kirsty Aird riding Jonathan Wilkie’s Royal Three County’s winner, Westbank Jessie J, which also stood top of the HOYS qualifier at the Blair Castle International Horse Trials, where the HOYS ticket went to Melindwr Lady Olwen, a Shire mare from Anglesey.

Notwithstanding the creditable placings which fell to other Scottish riders and exhibitors during the week, mention must go to one who featured in the top three not once but twice this year.

Melissa McCluskey, from Edinburgh, a well-known rider in pony classes round the Scottish shows, although currently devoting a lot of time to her studies, still finds time to compete with her eight-year-old bay mare, Mount Stephen Hidden Gem, which is produced in Yorkshire by Rachael Helliwell and her team.

By the leading sire Kilvington Scoundrel, the combination followed up their intermediate supreme at the BSPS championships in 2017 with a qualifying championship at Derbyshire Festival, in June, this year.

Their success in this section, which is deemed to be an introduction from junior ranks to those of adults, seems to be working as they had earlier in the week risen to the occasion in the small hack class were they came third and Melissa was one of the youngest to compete amidst a host of big names.

With such amazing qualifying stories to be told behind each and every one of the horses and ponies which qualified for HOYS, it seems a bit harsh to talk about minor placings outwith the top three, when it is a huge achievement in itself to make it to arguably the greatest horse show in the world. So, well done to all of you who represented Scotland but missed out on a place but who will no doubt treasure your qualifier’s rosette as much as the one you received the day you bagged your HOYS ticket.

The Horse of the Year Show celebrated its 70th anniversary in some style this year, ranging from top class show jumping, dressage and showing to main ring entertainment, which included the famous Household Cavalry musical ride to a French rider, Anzee Fromant, who gave a brilliant high school dressage display without a bridle.

Needless to say, the highlight for me were the HOYS favourites from 2014 and 2015, GB Vaulters, who provided a flawless display headed by the family combination of John Eccles and his daughters, Joanne and HOYS Ambassador, Hannah, along with a host of youngsters including Rebecca Norval, who recently competed at the FEI World equestrian Games, in North Carolina.

A worthy tribute

Amidst all the euphoria of entertainment and competition at HOYS – regardless of what it was – this year’s show will no doubt be remembered for a different story which would unfold in the main arena.

Following the hunter championship on Friday evening, the international arena fell silent as one of the show’s leading announcers, Carey Knox, paid tribute to a young 14-year-old lad from Llanelli, Bradley John, who tragically took his own life at school following an alleged bullying incident.

Like his father, Bradley was a keen horseman and whipper-in to the Three Counties Blood Hounds, one of the so-called ‘clean-boot’ hunts which follow a human scent. Such has been the impact of his death that friends started a social media video campaign to remember him while others have sought to honour Bradley by beginning a ‘Blow for Bradley’ campaign, where people mimic the sound of a hunting horn.

In a tribute also aimed at halting bullying, wherever it may occur, it was apt that another keen hunting lad and Bradley’s contemporary, Sam Walker, from Cheshire (whose father had just taken the the hunter championship), sounded ‘Gone away’ to an eerie silence and not a dry eye in the house.

Full marks to the show’s organisers for displaying such a compassionate gesture towards Bradley and his family.