Sisters riding high as they aim for the very top

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Two young rising stars of the equestrian world are celebrating after winning a sponsorship deal that will help them to stay on track. Sheena Hastings meets Laura and Stephanie Milner.

THERE’S a peculiar fascination to siblings who compete in the same or similar fields.

Stephanie and Laura Milner

Stephanie and Laura Milner

Looking at Serena and Venus Williams or Andy and Jamie Murray in tennis, or the Olympic athletics success of Yorkshire’s Brownlee brothers, you have to wonder if either would be quite so successful if they had not had that edgy family rivalry.

They may not yet be at the very highest level of their respective sports but, hearing about the commitment and competitive pedigree of the Milners, it’s no surprise that Laura, 18, and 16-year-old Stephanie are already making their mark at national and international level.

Laura is a highly talented dressage rider who spent six months last year training with international dressage competitor and trainer Andrew Gould in Surrey, and has herself achieved outstanding results in national competitions. She helps to breed and train horses at her mother Tracey’s South Grange Stud, at the family home near Pocklington in East Yorkshire. When not grooming, riding, training horses in the arena on the farm, teaching young riders or competing, Laura trains hard at dressage for 18 hours a week and runs her own horse rug cleaning company.

Steph, currently taking GCSEs at Woldgate College, has also inherited what seems to be a gene for tireless activity. Having ridden horses since the age of eight, last year she teamed up with her father, former British Rally Driving champion Jonny, and helped Great Britain to win a gold medal in the Derby event at the Junior World Carriage Driving Championships.

This year she hopes to qualify for the National Carriage Driving finals and gain selection for next year’s World Championships in Budapest. She works a couple of evenings a week and most weekends at a beauty spa, and is starting an apprenticeship as a beauty therapist when she leaves school this summer.

It’s a busy life for the two girls, whose younger sister 13-year-old Katie has also found a sporting niche. She began to compete in junior rally driving last year. There’s a lot going on at South Grange, then, what with Jonny’s tyre business also being based there and 20 horses living beside the family on this glorious patch of Wolds countryside. A posse of friendly dogs complete the picture of bustling bucolic activity. Stephanie started horse riding first, but Laura joined in soon afterwards, competing in the many local Pony Club events. Tracey had been a keen horsewoman when she was younger.

“Mum bought one horse for us, and to begin with it was all just a bit of fun,” says Laura. “At first I competed locally at jumping but when I was 11 I got really interested in dressage. I am a bit of a perfectionist, so being marked out of 10 for each of about 20 different very precise movements was my sort of thing.” Laura was taught by renowned Driffield-based dressage competitor and trainer Verity Franks up to novice level. Since 2007 she has competed on her beloved horse Tom, who is such a high-level performer that he is categorised as a “schoolmaster”. “He definitely teaches me,” says Laura. She dropped out of A-levels when she got the opportunity to train with Andrew Gould after meeting him at a high performance dressage camp. She has no regrets.

By the age of 13 she had qualified for national junior championships. More recently she has finished fifth in a national competition. She is working hard to make the GB squad.

“My friends think I’m mad, they don’t really understand it,” says Laura. “I rarely get time to go out, so they have to come here and help if they want to see me. I’m out on the yard from 6.30am seven days a week, and each morning I take four horse for a 45-minute ride each. I also really enjoy helping mum with the stud work. It’s good to see these beautiful foals being born and growing up.”

Steph says she definitely didn’t want to compete in the same sport as Laura. “We’re competitive enough as it is and would only argue,” she says, laughing.

When she saw a neighbour out training with her horse and carriage, it was the speed of the spectacle that attracted her.

“I’d stopped riding for a couple of years, but when I saw this woman who competed with a pair of horses and carriage I really wanted to try it. I just loved it straight away. The competitions are three-day events of a 14 km cross-country marathon in which you have to find the quickest route, then dressage and obstacle driving around cones.” Once she started and her parents bought her a carriage, with the help of trainer Jane Wilson Steph went from strength to strength very quickly, winning her European gold medal in Austria after only three years. She is now one of 30 juniors up for national selection. Jonny rides behind her in the carriage to balance out the weight on bends and stop the vehicle from overturning. Steph, who puts in around 10 hours training a week, is looking forward to the national championships this summer and would like to see more young competitors joining the sport, which in the past has tended to attract older members – including Prince Phillip.The financial demands of high-level equestrian sport can cut talented riders out of the game, so finding a sponsor to help with expenses gives a crucial boost to a young career. When two sponsors, Equiform Nutrition and Baileys Horse Feed, recently came forward the family were ecstatic.

“It’s such a huge help towards the expense of keeping the horses in top condition with the best food and supplements,” says Laura.

Disciplines of equestrian sport

Dressage is a competitive equestrian sport where horse and rider are expected to perform from memory a series of predetermined movements. Its purpose is to develop a horse’s natural athletic ability and willingness to perform. At the peak of a dressage horse’s gymnastic development, the horse will respond smoothly to a skilled rider’s minimal aids.

The rider will be relaxed and appear effort-free while the horse willingly performs the requested movement. Dressage is occasionally referred to as ‘Horse ballet’.

Combined driving (also known as horse driving trials) is an equestrian sport involving carriage driving. In this discipline, the driver sits on a vehicle drawn by a single horse, a pair or a team of four.

The sport has three phases: dressage, cross-country marathon and obstacle cone driving, and is most similar to the mounted equestrian sport of eventing.