Billed as the UK's premier riding club championship event, the Show Teams And Rising Stars Champions of Champions Show (STARS), lived up to its billing as I recently found out during an unseasonal judging appointment 'down south'.

I had accepted contrary to my better judgement borne out by the fact that it was one of the coldest weekends of the year however, with hindsight, it was one of the best decisions that I've made of late as I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of my STARS experience.

The venue was the Aintree Equestrian Centre based in the grounds of Liverpool's famous racecourse, which has become the show's home since its inception in 2018. With easy motorway access, a full range of facilities including stabling and experienced ground staff, it may be costly but it's perfect for the job. The large single indoor arena may have its restrictions in terms of timetabling however this was outweighed by the very impressive sight created within it by the STARS team.

The Scottish Farmer: Aberdeenshire-based Chelsea Leslie took an impressive second place from 64 entries in the STARS Coloured Horse or Pony Final at Stars with her 4 year old pony, Milo. Credit EquinationalAberdeenshire-based Chelsea Leslie took an impressive second place from 64 entries in the STARS Coloured Horse or Pony Final at Stars with her 4 year old pony, Milo. Credit Equinational

Despite all of the characteristics of HOYS in place ranging from the big entrance curtains, generous swags around the walls, copious baskets of flowers including the two presentation pedestals, music, professional announcers and the iconic HOYS champion's spotlight, it created a character all of its own. Trade stands provided a backdrop to a constant flow of enthusiastic show-goers, who packed the ringside; there was a great buzz all day with explosions of excitement and joy as the placings were announced.

There are so many elements of the experience that are worth sharing starting with the inspirational organisers, Sharon Harrison and her daughter, Sarah. First of all, it's important to note that there is no committee, no board, no council, just two individuals accountable to themselves with an unselfish goal to provide for their enthusiastic exhibitors a lavish, unforgettable experience, almost a mirror image of HOYS itself.

With no sign of inflated egos or personal gain, their drive and work ethic are inspirational, to say the least. Better still, they know their industry, know their exhibitors and know how to put their knowledge of the showing industry into action. It is no wonder that they are surrounded by an exceptional team of experienced people to whom they entrust the delivery of a great show.

Their own experience started at the riding club level before a spell with professional producers which took them to HOYS. The duo currently produce horses and ponies successfully from home and are regulars at HOYS, where they took their first championship in 2021 when Sarah rode to victory with their coloured gelding, Lockstock Up To.

Sharon and Sarah know all about the showing 'journey' and through STARS they are determined to provide an end of season finale for the amateur competitors with the aim of giving many young (and not so young) aspiring equestrians something to aim for as well as provide a potential springboard to go on to greater things. Sharon was keen to point out that, to date, 19 of their previous STARS winners (affectionately called Starlets) had gone on to compete at HOYS.

With 2000 entries this year representing 60 riding clubs based all over Britain, it surely goes without saying that they are achieving their goal. From an organisational point of view and, importantly, with no accountability to a membership, they operate a restricted set of rules to ease clarity and use. They include some key features: no producers can enter and no professionally produced ponies are eligible to compete.

No HOYS qualified ponies for the current year can compete nor can those placed in the top five at the Royal International Horse Show. This is very popular as are the rules concerning qualification; the show is for champions with reserves and second reserves eligible according to previous qualifications - critically no change of rider or handler is allowed. If HOYS took a leaf out of the STARS book on this rule, the annual moan about professional riders popping on and off ponies all season in order to qualify them would soon evaporate and help level the alleged 'unlevel' playing field.

The Scottish Farmer: Emily Bastow from Tillicoultry takes the STARS Riding Club Pony Final of 54 entries with her New Forest pony Howen Tawny Owl. Credit EquinationalEmily Bastow from Tillicoultry takes the STARS Riding Club Pony Final of 54 entries with her New Forest pony Howen Tawny Owl. Credit Equinational

From a judging perspective, the quality of stewards along with ring organisation at big events is critical; STARS had both in bucket loads. Classes were of enormous proportions (64 in my last class) so to avoid fatigue, two teams of judges and stewards alternated classes throughout the day, in my view, a stroke of genius. Classes were split and section times allocated and announced; a walk round before lining up around the perimeter of the arena allowed two judges to confer before setting off to allocate individual marks. A minimum of six stewards made up the team, many of whom I already knew or recognised to be some of the top judges/producers in Britain.

Presented with such inexperienced exhibitors and exhibits, many of whom were a bit overcome by the occasion, the stewards' attention to detail with reassurance to competitors and their equines was ultra impressive and something I hadn't come across previously. Armed with literally boxes of peppermints to pacify anxious ponies/horses or holding the rein to help steady nerves, the stewards' experience, vigilance and compassion added a new dimension to this event.

One of my lasting memories will be that of a fairly tall, young steward, taking the reins of an excited pony in one hand and the hand of its young handler in his other, setting off to do a lap of honour after the rosettes were handed out. Needless to say, there was rapturous applause from the crowd and rightly so.

Helpers assisting in the ring was not uncommon although new for me and I was impressed by the number of handlers/riders with some sort of disability who could be easily identified by the voluntary wearing of a rainbow-coloured tie or bow tie. This made judges and stewards alike aware that assistance may be required. Having spent a professional lifetime championing the cause, it was music to my ears and a first for me to witness a show demonstrating true inclusion.

Mention must be made of the horses and ponies. I didn't see a lot of absolutely top class examples but I did see a few and some had HOYS potential. Even the hairiest were well turned out, the majority well-produced with more than a few exceptional and a credit to their owners.

There were a few stiff movers but no 'unlevel' ones, in my view, although there seemed to be a good number of older ponies and horses and they all looked great and a joy to judge. The individual in hand performances would be the weakest link and a potential focus for further education; having said that, our Young Handler champion was exceptional – how I wished she lived near Waxwing! Commendably there were very few exhibits overweight and none obese; most were fit and well covered and looked as if they did other jobs for their owners.

It goes without saying that I came home from STARS totally inspired with a renewed enthusiasm for the future of showing which surely lies with enthusiasts like those I had encountered at Aintree. It certainly places a question mark in my mind regarding the role of those at the high end of the market, the showing industry's elite, whose presence at STARS was not, in my view, missed in any way.