Among the assets which have helped make Erin Williams one of the brightest talents on the international pony circuit and beyond, dedication, humility and the ambition to progress further towards the pinnacle of her sport, are immediately visible. Indeed, strength of character runs in the blood: paternal grandmother Betty is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate (1976) for her work in bringing peace to Northern Ireland, and some of her tenacity has clearly rubbed off on Erin
, a very grounded, exceptionally motivated and hard-working teenager, who is aware that she is blessed with both a propitious set up and a string of top horses and ponies, but takes neither for granted: in fact, awareness of her good fortune is what spurs her to work even harder.
Every morning, Erin is in the saddle at 6am in order to get all her riding done before school. She is lucky in that she attends a school, Sheffield High School, which is thoroughly understanding – in fact totally supportive – of her sporting endeavours. Erin is not in a unique position at the all-girls’ school, where other talented young individuals, including a top ice skater who is currently a junior champion, all enjoy the same flexibility. And since Erin rides her horses before heading to school, such flexibility is essential. “If something goes wrong with a horse, if you’re having issues during a schooling session, you can’t just stop there and leave. You need to work on it until it’s fixed, and thankfully my teachers understand this and don’t mind if, occasionally, I come in late,” she said. Evenings are then reserved for homework or other activities such as netball (Erin is on her school’s netball team).
Time in the morning, even rising with the birds, is nonetheless limited as the ambitious Erin has plenty to get through. Riding three very different horses and ponies every day helps a lot with her riding, of course. “The basics are the same with every horse, irrespective of the differences,” says the eloquent teenager. “You have to go back to basics all the time, have the Scales of Training in front of your eyes all the time,” which can be taken literally in this case as the six Training Scales are beautifully painted in large characters on the long side of her indoor arena. “We’ve had them for half a year and it’s such a useful constant reminder. Sonia (Webster-Baines, Erin’s trainer) is quite a strict classical trainer, always stressing the importance of stretching and of the Scales.”
Her top pony is Dynasty, a picture-perfect palomino mare (hence her stable-name Blondie: “she’s the only true blonde in the family” laughs Erin’s mother Clare), an 8-year-old pony by Deinhard B, bred by Hermann Arts, whom Erin has produced from a six year old. “She has amazing temperament, and is not fazed by anything – she’s very German!” The pony is gifted with enormous movement and, because her paces are so big for a small pony, the main challenge Erin has with her is keeping her balanced at all times. Similar work was spent on producing 5-year-old pony Der Kleine Lord (by Der Feine Lord) to FEI level over the past 18 months, but Erin has passed the ride to family friend Alexandra Hellings to campaign in 2013. “I am starting to look a bit tall on Lordy and struggling to find enough time to get him out competing.”
That leaves her more time to dedicate to her liver chestnut mare Fleurie, a Hanoverian by Florestan x Akzent II, who is 12 and has been with Erin for 18 months now. 2013 will be her second season on the mare, who works and competes at PSG. She is amazingly expressive, clearly talented but also a “very sensitive girl”, who needs to be kept happy: “She doesn’t like strong riders”, explains Erin. “I couldn’t ride her with a whip or strong spurs as it would upset her. She clearly likes the way Sonia and I ride and she is increasingly happy in her work.” Sonia adds: “she’s the perfect example that it’s essential to work with horses’ mental attitude, never against it. You need to be nice to her, in order to get her on your side.”
Finally, Erin has a 6-year-old black stallion, Billonaire (Billy), an Oldenburg by Romanov x Donnerhall who arrived at the yard a few months ago. "He has lots of potential, he’s very talented but still quite green. We don’t want to rush him at all: we want to take our time with him and make sure that he progresses correctly. I am very fortunate to have a young horse in the pipeline, but the journey with him will really be about producing a Grand Prix horse and teaching me how to feel that progression; in other words, making me into a GP rider." The whole team strongly believes that this blend of schoolmasters and young prospects is key to allow Erin to reach her maximum potential as a rider. “You can’t have schoolmasters your whole life, or you’d never learn," lucidly condenses Sonia.
Erin has a long-standing team behind her: Sonia has been training her “right from the start” – from her very first pony Moonie (Moonlight) seven years ago. This consistency of training has been paying dividends: as Sonia says, “It’s good (to train somebody for so long), because you understand everything about the other person, and this is especially useful in a competition environment". "When we are away at shows, Sonia knows how to keep me calm, motivated and focused," chips in Erin.
Sonia, who also runs her own dressage yard not too far away from Erin’s premises, acts as Erin’s eye on the ground most days and is a fixed presence at shows. She also attends the training sessions that Erin has with squad trainers, such as Stephen Clarke and Peter Storr. Open-mindedness and the ability to work with, not against, other trainers is a key quality for a young rider trainer. “You do most of the work at home, but you can take something out of everybody. It’s really good to have the chance to have others look at a training programme objectively, because at times at home, working on your own, you risk getting stuck on one thing." Therefore, input from top trainers (and, in Stephen’s case, top judges too, which brings the even more beneficial judge’s point of view) is much appreciated.
The team is completed by steady grooms Sammy and Nicky, and of course Erin’s parents, who each bring a different something to the picture. Her dad, and Erin’s lorry driver of choice, is a former professional footballer and Northern Ireland international. His past career as a competitive athlete means that he is in an ideal position to teach Erin how to take care of her body as an athlete. “He gives me a lot of advice on stuff like correct nutrition, water intake, and proper breathing. It’s really useful – I can’t say I listen to everything he says, of course – he’s my dad, after all,” notes Erin tongue-in-cheek, “but I do take a lot of what he says on board”. Her mum Clare is the other dressage enthusiast in the family, with a couple of good dressage horses whom she enjoys schooling, but not so much competing (in fact, Sonia has recently been competing Clare’s Dutch-bred Waverly at Advanced Medium and is aiming for PSG with her next season). “Mum is the opposite of me”, says Erin. “She was a University Lecturer and is academic, not competitive, whereas I am, almost to a fault. I thrive on pressure and competitions”.
It was exactly this desire to always push herself outside her comfort zone that led Erin and her team to decide to make the move up to horses before the time. “We felt it was essential to move out of ponies as soon as Erin was physically and mentally ready”, says Sonia. “That’s how we reached the decision to run the two together”. Erin continues: “Moving up to horses definitely made me a better pony rider too. I know that having Fleurie last year definitely helped me with Blondie: the Junior tests are harder, horses can be less forgiving (than ponies), and I definitely feel that it has made me much quicker.”
Erin has already competed a couple of PSGs with Fleurie, with solid scores in the mid-60s. “There’s a lot to learn in PSG, but hopefully it will just make the Junior tests look less complicated. It’s an excellent way to push myself even more and think even quicker.”
This experience has made the transition from ponies to horses pretty seamless. Erin intends to run the two together in 2013 too, ideally campaigning both the pony and the horse, although of course “if the right person came along (wishing to buy Dynasty), then we’d consider selling her as we have the new horse to compete too. But it would really have to be the right person,” adds Clare, “because she is such a special pony.”
Last year Erin was in the enviable position of being selected for both the pony and the junior squad, an almost unprecedented situation. “It was really nice to have the choice! To be frank, it was early days with Fleurie still, so it was an easy decision to make. But if the same were to happen in 2013, it would be much harder: I will have to go on collectives!” she jokes. “Seriously, it was nice to have the choice. After Danny died, it made us realise that you have to have options. In a way, Danny’s death forced us to really crack on with Fleurie. (Campaigning Fleurie) came a bit earlier than we had originally planned but it has worked,” as demonstrated, of course, by their standing as highest-ranking British combination at the 2012 European Pony Championships in Fontainebleau.
Indeed, this time last year was particularly tough for the Williams, as they shockingly lost top pony Danny Boy B, “the best pony in the world ever” in Erin’s words, to cancer. Erin had to deal with the totally heartbreaking loss of her best friend in a professional way, and the fact that she was able to rise to the top again almost immediately with a second pony confirms her strength of character, even more exceptional considering she is only 15.
As well as a Dimaggio youngster in the field, Erin also has a rising 5-year-old by Johnson, called Joe. He was bred by Clare’s best friend, who always wanted Erin to have him, and his future career has been the centre of “long discussions over a glass of wine or two.” He will be aimed at the 5-year old classes next year, with either Sonia or Erin – or both.
Indeed, there is no risk that in-house rivalry will affect the ideal balance in this team. “Sonia and I have the same kind of relationship as Carl and Charlotte; we’re really inspired by them”, says Erin. “We can compete in the same classes: it’s fine, as long as one of us wins!” Carl and Charlotte and, more generally, Britain’s successes in the very recent past have definitely been an inspiration, and not only for Erin and Sonia. “People at school are far more aware of the sport now; people know that the Brits aren’t too bad at dressage! It’s fantastic, as a country, to finally be at the top of a sport after so many years of incessant work”.
The increased awareness of equestrianism in the non-horsey world has certainly helped Erin secure some of her most recent sponsors, such as Kick energy drinks, but her enviable list of sponsorship deals is primarily due to business acumen and, again, hard work.
“I work very hard at promoting myself – I run a Facebook page as well as my own website, I blog with Pony Magazine, I did video diaries for Horse & Country TV from the Europeans... We take this very seriously: we know that, in order to attract a good sponsor, you have to be able to promote yourself in the first place.” Erin is getting additional help through the BEF Excel Talent Programme (the British Equestrian Federation’s precursor to the World Class Programme, aimed at future development of young athletes). As well as training with Gareth Hughes and position analysis/sport psychology sessions, the programme also offers media and sponsorship training sessions that have been instrumental in helping Erin learn how to conduct interviews and secure sponsorships.
And this experience is important for her long-term plans too, as Erin firmly wants a career outside of horses. “I want to be a businesswoman, with horses as more of a hobby,” she explains, before quickly qualifying “albeit at international Grand Prix level – an Olympic hobby! I want to get a degree at university and keep riding at the same time; it’s good to keep options open. Plus, if you are self-employed, you have elements of freedom, which are invaluable. Say, for instance, if you have to go to Rio for a few weeks….”
Text and Photos © Selene Scarsi for Eurodressage
British Junior/Young Rider Squads for 2013 Announced
British Team Selected for 2012 European Pony Championships
Danny Boy B Passed Away
Antoinette te Riele's Fleurie Sold to Erin Williams
Strong Young Riders Base in 2012-2013 BEF Excel Talent Programme