Winning a national series at the Horse of the Year competition does not guarantee Emma Gillies a place in the North Otago equestrian team.
The 11-year-old Waitaki Bridge rider will have to take part in trials to earn the right to represent her district when it hosts the prestigious Springston Trophy three-day event later this year.
Emma, a year 7 pupil at Oamaru Intermediate School, is part of a horse-loving family dedicated to training and competing with its nine ponies.
Her mother, Phillipa, nee Pile, was a keen rider herself. She was a contemporary of Jonelle Price, who won England’s Badminton Horse Trials on May 6.
Mrs Gillies now coaches her three children – Samantha (12), Emma and Ben (9) – in equestrian skills.
Her husband, David, cannot always travel with them to contests across the country but supports their ventures in between running a dairy farm with 1100 cows.
The family has a huge truck that contains accommodation for all five of them plus seven ponies.
They travelled to Hastings for the Horse of the Year in March. Emma rode Amberfield Golden Charm to win the Equestrian Sports New Zealand Category A High Points 70cm class, having claimed the South Island and national titles before the series.
The pony, known on the farm as Spuddy, is a 17-year-old chestnut owned by Ben. He, too, has won a National Category A title on him.
When Ben chose to spend more time playing cricket and rugby, Emma became Spuddy’s rider. She now reckons she’s his favourite.
Spuddy has a knack of winning major prizes for his riders – former owner Pippa Collins also won a national title with him.
Emma is no stranger to top-level success, either. She won the same title two years ago on Benrose Comet, and the South Island Canterbury 90cm Showjumping Series on the family’s Kaimanawa pony Patui Ataaua.
Caring for animals is fundamental to daily life for the Gillies children. They feed their own ponies before school and again after school. They also help with farm chores and spend lots of time with their four dogs and a once-wild cat that has adopted them.
Despite the long bus trip to and from school, Emma rides every day, except when she has netball and basketball practice – also coached by Mrs Gillies.
As the days get shorter, Mrs Gillies often collects the children from their Oamaru schools to give them more time at home with the animals.
Emma and Samantha train their ponies together, taking care to give them plenty of rest after jumping.
“The girls have young ponies to work on – project ponies,” Mrs Gillies said.
“It’s a sport that keeps them busy. And you have to be fit.”
Mental as well as physical fitness is needed, as there are multiple facets to preparing a pony for dressage, cross-country and showjumping.
The sisters are training over jumps built by Mrs Gillies’ father, Bill Pile, when his own daughters were young.
They get extra tuition in dressage from Debbie Nelson.
“You’ve got to have good flat work,” Mrs Gillies said.
The girls have to clean their riding gear and groom the ponies, including plaiting their manes and tails for competitions.
Although equestrian activities are a huge commitment, “it’s worth it for the life skills they learn”, Mrs Gillies said.
They have met many friends through their travels and have not been allowed to slack off on their schooling while they’re away.
“They take homework books and school work. It’s important to keep up,” Mrs Gillies said.
The family has just sold “a couple of really nice ponies” and bought two young ones to be trained up. Each pony definitely grew a bond with its rider, she said.
Emma would like to become a professional equestrian one day. But as her mother put it, “for every keen, really dedicated kid, ponies are always there”.