One of the biggest stories for many a year emanating from the Horse of the Year Show had to be that of a small grey 10-year-old mare from Caithness, which stole the hearts of crowds and judges alike at this year’s great event held at the NEC, Birmingham.

Scotland had much to celebrate when the Ruckleigh School Supreme Pony of the Year championship went to Coco Bongo, the first time in its 17-year history that this prestigious championship has come north of the Border. It was all the more remarkable that it was awarded to the champion working hunter pony, only the second time since its inaugural staging in 2003.

Far from being the Cinderella – as so often is the case in such championships – this attractive and charismatic working hunter pony lit up the main arena not once, but twice, as she galloped her way into the record books in the face of some high class opposition.

It was not her first visit to HOYS. Bluebell (as she is known to all her fans) first appeared there in 2016, having qualified for the ‘workers’ at the Northern Ireland Festival earlier that year. In fact, it was during the 2016 season that she also competed successfully in show jumping competitions in Northern Ireland when Chloe Common rode her for Colleen Letters, from Randalstown, Co Antrim.

In 2016, she also appeared for the first time at the Royal Highland where she came second and sixth, respectively, in the nursery stakes and 133cm classes in the working hunter pony section. This year, she improved on her performances by topping both classes when ridden by Jessica Calder and Chloe Lemieux, respectively.

During the interim period, Bluebell was sold to Scotland where she competed at shows around Inverness, all the time under the watchful eyes of James Munro and Russell Skelton, who run a very successful showing/training yard at Dale Farm, Halkirk, near Wick, Caithness.

Almost simultaneously, William Calder, a well-known local businessman in the seafood industry, had succumbed to his daughter’s love of ponies and after a short spell on the lead rein, Jessica quickly was off on her own with jumping an obvious passion. With James exerting his expertise on the flat and Russell his expertise over jumps, it was no time at all before Jessica was forging her own way to HOYS and achieved her ambition last year when she qualified her own Cui Flint for the 122cm M and M workers.

When Bluebell became available, she was an obvious recommendation from James and Russell for Jessica, who was stepping up a height for competition. Remaining – as all the Calders’ ponies do at livery at Dale Farm – her first year of competition has been remarkable to say the least.

For Jessica, in the nursery stakes class the pairing has proved almost unbeatable, with wins at the Royal Highland as well as the BSPS Summer Championships and a second place at the Royal International Horse Show rating the best among many top spots. She also managed to take a second place in a 133cm HOYS qualifier during the summer, so her eyes will be firmly set on this class next season.

Ironically, it was a broken wrist on her way to the BSPS Winter Championships that in some ways deprived Jessica of a full season in the open 133cm class, as top English jockey, Chloe Lemieux, stood in at the last minute following a request placed on social media for a replacement jockey.

Having taken major spoils with Bluebell at the show, her success continued at the Royal Highland, where she was also reserve champion; the Royal International, where she came second; and then the BSPS Summer Championships, where the combination pulled out all the stops to win the tricolour in the strongly contested Gold Cup competition.

It says much for the generosity of the Calder family that Chloe was allowed to ride Bluebell throughout the season for the English WHP team, as well as compete at HOYS when Jessica has proved to be more than an able pilot. However, there is no question that Chloe did a great job along with her own trainer and mentor, Sam Roberts, and the combination rose to the occasion at HOYS where the competition is fierce and championship wins those of which dreams are made.

Needless to say, Chloe will be hopeful that her future follows the path of the only other rider to have taken the supreme at HOYS with a working hunter pony – British Event team member, Laura Collett, who won in 2003 with Penwyn Ryan.

William Calder would be the first to credit Bluebell’s trainers at Dale Farm for much of this great little mare’s success and their talents were further on show at HOYS when they did well in the hunter section with Freda Newton’s consistent Ebony King. Still only a seven-year-old, this former ‘Small Show Hunter of the Year’ in 2017 appeared not once but twice to stand in the ribbons in both the small hunter and intermediate show hunter classes.

Having qualified at the Royal Highland for the former, James piloted him to fourth place while it was Freda’s niece, Lucy Stewart, who rode him to the final placings among the Intermediates.

At the other end of the country, Berwickshire-based professional producer, Richard Telford, enjoyed one of his most successful Horse of the Year Shows when several of his rides came right to the top.

Arguably the best of them came in the ridden native section when he brought home a winner once more for Scottish breeder, Bill Ireland, from Strathblane, whose Dales ponies have done more than most to spread the popularity of the breed. Recording an unprecedented fifth victory for any stud at HOYS for native breeds in the open ridden classes, this time it was Kilmannan Jack Sparrow who claimed the honours just as his dam, Kilmannan Black Pearl, had done previously.

Bill’s other interests lie in the Suffolk breed, of which he is a great supporter and this year his impressive mare, Eyke Diamond, ridden by Richard, took fifth place, the best of the Scottish interests in the class.

One of Richard’s other clients, Lady Anne Vestey, from Hampshire, must have been more than pleased with her horses when her heavyweight hunter, having qualified at the Royal Highland, came class third to the eventual horse supreme. There is some irony in the name of his heavy weight ride, Redbridge Tiny Tim, which is a big horse by any standards and a former Dublin winner as a youngster.

Her other entry, the heavyweight cob, Pairc an Faoi Diamond, was ridden to fifth place by his regular jockey, Stuart Ashton, who has brought him on since his early days a raw recruit from Ireland.

Of Richard’s other horses to make the front row was Lindsay McCulloch’s Golden Bird, which competed in the relatively new ‘Racehorse to Riding Horse’ class.

It goes without saying that many more Scottish riders, exhibitors and breeders did their country proud at this, the greatest horse show in the world. Nevertheless, it was Coco Bongo’s show.

HOYS is a remarkable institution to which everyone in the showing world aspires with many highs and lows along the way. Having just finished off the 2019 season, the task to qualify starts almost right away and who knows if another special victory with Scottish connections lies ahead in 2020. We can only hope.