By Lynne Clark
When I arrive at Oldtown Equine to interview Country Ways sponsored event rider Eilidh Costelloe, the wind is howling an absolute gale and the rain is horizontal. I make a mad dash from the car to the barn and find the horses looking as happy as I am to be inside (them still in their pyjamas, me, alas, not). I am greeted warmly by Eilidh, and invited to sit down on the yard sofa (yep, a yard sofa – how cool!) and offered a much welcome cup of tea.
As I sit down, I spot Buddy (or ‘Westmuir Quality’ to give him his formal title) munching away in his stable, looking every inch the cool dude that he is. I tell Eilidh I feel a little star struck in his presence, and that I’ll have to make sure to get a selfie with the superstar before I leave. She laughs and agrees that Buddy has indeed become a star in his own right (he was after all Mark Todd’s ride for his demo evening), but just now, he looks every inch a mud monster! I smile in reply because it’s great to see him relaxing happily at home. Almost like getting a private glimpse of a famous person before they put their makeup on!
I ask Eilidh how she found him, and she explains that it was on a visit to Ireland where her husband’s best friend insisted that she buy this horse he had seen. She wasn’t looking at the time though, and certainly not for a massive 17.2hh who was built slightly downhill in his conformation. But the friend was not to be dissuaded and so she agreed to try him. “He had these big swinging paces and was so obedient off the leg. And boy could he jump. Any angle, any stride. And he was so obedient. I knew then that he was special”.
Two weeks later, Buddy landed in Scotland, having never evented nor done a dressage test. Within 2 years, the pair were competing at 3*. A meteoric rise when you consider Buddy made his debut at BE100 having never seen a solid fence and Eilidh having only owned him for two weeks! This isn’t just testimony to Buddy’s inherent natural talent, but also to Eilidh’s drive and determination, “I’ve never been one to stay at a level too long, I love the buzz of pushing myself and the bigger the better”.
And they certainly are getting bigger. This year, the two piloted their way around some of the biggest dates and beefiest tracks on the BE calendar, including Tattersalls, Blenheim and Blair. Blenheim Palace was particularly special to Eilidh. When I ask what her proudest moment of her 2018 season was, she replies, “completing my first long format CCI 3* at Blenheim was a great feeling”. Perhaps it goes hand in glove that Blenheim was also her favourite event of the year. “Blenheim Palace was amazing! We were invited into the Palace by the Duke of Marlborough for drinks – I felt very important! The shopping was brilliant, the course was lovely and just the whole atmosphere. I loved it!”
Of course, there is also the fact that she won the Ladies Best Dressed Trot Up Award at Blenheim too. The winning outfit was provided by Country Ways and consisted of a Dubarry Tweed Skirt, Fairfax & Favour Boots, a Dubarry turtle neck top and a Hicks & Brown hat. “I do love wearing the hats”, Eilidh laughs. “I have had so many lovely outfits from Country Ways to wear. The winning outfit at Blenheim was so far removed from what I normally wear! So maybe that tells me something! Haha!”
Joking aside, sponsorship is now a fundamental underpinning of the sport at the elite level. Horses are expensive. Fact. And there’s no getting away from it. Eventing is expensive. And there’s no getting away from that either. Especially when you are running a string of horses and aiming to climb the ladder to the top. Eilidh is emphatic in just how grateful she is to have the support of Country Ways, but she’s smart too and knows that in this digital age, where the world is viewed through the social media lens, raising and maintaining your profile is key. “I really enjoy being associated with Country Ways because it’s so well known. Even my non-horsey aunty knew who Country Ways were”. In tangible terms, Eilidh tells me that her Instagram profile had 200 more followers the day she won Best Dressed at Blenheim. I was surprised to learn that there were as many as 500+ photographers at the trot up alone. It pays to look good and stand out where that level of coverage is concerned.
She admits that self-promotion didn’t come easily to her, that she struggled to find the balance initially between maintaining a line between her private and professional life. “It’s a balance, and one I’ve had to work at”. She uses the example of Buddy’s recent wind operation, designed to help him gallop easier next year, as an example of the conflict she faces between how much to share and how much to keep private. It’s a dilemma faced by any one in the public eye, not just professional riders.
Talking of the spotlight and those in it, I take the opportunity to ask Eilidh if she has any role models of her own? “I have never had role models as such”, she replies, before continuing, “I love watching and learning from all the top riders, looking at their training techniques, warm up routines or horse management. And take bits from each to apply to my routine or plans”. She explains how she spends a great deal of time watching collecting rings and how much you can learn from them. Conversely I ask what advice she, as a role model herself, would give to aspiring eventers? “Go for it! If you have the confidence and desire then don’t hold back. While you have a sound horse and gain the qualifications, keep going!” I get the feeling that Eilidh is as bold and brave as Buddy – no wonder they make such a great team. Her passion for the sport is something which has driven her to qualify as a BE Development Coach, something which she says she always wanted, to allow her to share her experience and knowledge from going through the levels herself to other budding event riders. “I’m out there doing it at that level. That way I can give first hand feedback”.
If that’s what it takes to be a great coach, what makes a great event horse I ask? “They need a genuine, bold and honest temperament above all. Then good conformation to stay sound for the job”. It helps to have a good eye of course, as Eilidh continues, “I always get a good gut feeling about a horse. Most of the time I have been right”. No doubt about that when it comes to Buddy. I ask what it is that makes him so special? “His heart”, Eilidh replies. It moves me that of all the things she could have chosen about this remarkable horse, his heart is what is most important to her. It speaks volumes of what must be a deep and profound bond between the pair. And as horse people, we all understand that. She continues, “he keeps jumping and doesn’t ever look for the exit, only between the flags! He isn’t a natural on the flat and finds it hard. He is built downhill, making things harder for him. But he is genuine and obedient”. It makes me think even more about that heart of his.
Given Buddy is an Irish lad, it prompts me to ask whether she looks for all her horses over there? “Mostly”, she replies, explaining that her and Paddy (her husband) have a lot of contacts over there. Paddy’s Dad is a showjumping judge in Ireland, so they know all the right people! But they’ve also been successful at breeding their own at home too, with 5 healthy foals and no issues. “We’ve been very lucky”, and she points out to me the youngsters of what she calls the ‘Boys Squad’. Clearly they are set to be a talented bunch if Ozzy’s results are anything to go by. May Day III, to give him his formal name, completed his first 1* at Osberton in September, having begun the season at Novice. He is out of another homebred, a mare which Eilidh took to 2*. It was actually Paddy who started Ozzy as a 4 year old and evented him to BE100. Eilidh explains that he was due to compete him at Kirriemuir, but when he couldn’t manage at the last minute, she took the ride – and never gave it back! “I keep stealing horses off him”, she laughs, pointing to a palomino gelding and explaining it’s a recent purchase of Paddy’s that he’s had to buy in order to keep at least one ride! As if on queue, the yard door swings open and Paddy walks in carrying a new rug for one of the youngsters. Eilidh explains our laughter as he exclaims “I better produce it quickly then!”
It must be pretty great having a horsey husband I say, especially given they broke ground on the new livery yard just a week before their wedding, and were taking phone calls on their honeymoon about the build! “It’s been stressful”, Eilidh says, which I think anyone would agree with! Especially considering her liveries also moved in the week before Blair! Oh and they moved house too. “My poor husband barely sees me and when he does, it’s to pick up the pieces! Haha. My family have been very supportive and involved in the yard build as well as planning the wedding and helping with the house move! I would be stuck without them”.
It took 5 years for planning permission for the yard to come through as the land is green belt. Just as well Eilidh studied business at university to deal with all that paperwork! She explains how she wants the yard to be a rehab type facility, as well as being able to offer schooling and coaching to her clients. To this end, a horse walker has already been installed in the barn. Eilidh fires it up and shows me just how it works with one of the horses – a handy bit of kit for both rehabbing and fitness work.
Aside from the physical challenges of the build, I ask her how it feels to be running a livery yard now, as opposed to having her own place? I have a wry smile on my face as I do so, because we all know what us liveries can be like about our horses! 😉 She replies that it’s again about striking the right balance between meeting their demands and pursuing her own goals, and admits the company takes a bit of getting used to when you have been on your own so long. She strikes me as being completely at ease with the role however, along with all her others.
As winter takes hold and we all hunker down against the dark and cold, I ask her what her plans are for the next few months? “This winter I am making continued improvements for the new yard. Filling drains, fencing, all of that! Buddy has had his wind op, which I hope will help him gallop easier next year, so he is coming back into work now. The other event horses are doing lots of flatwork training and jump practise. So it’s full on and planning for next season begins now”. That means weekly dressage lessons and showjumping competitions, as Eilidh explains how she will register BS to jump some bigger tracks. It also means working on her own fitness too, and we have an interesting chat about the difference between being ‘riding fit’ as opposed to general fitness. Eilidh has 6-8 horses to ride every day (totally putting me to shame for making excuses when I don’t find the time to ride my one horse! Haha). She explains how she would love to find the time to do more off the horse exercise such as Pilates, planking and more floor exercises. “After all, the rider is the athlete too”, she says. “Oh and I really need to do more sitting trot!” Don’t we all! And we both laugh.
How Eilidh can possibly find time to squeeze anything else in I have no idea! She explains that it’s again about striking the right work/life balance. But when your passion overlaps with your profession, where do you draw the line between the two I wonder? “You have to love what you do”, Eilidh replies simply. I guess you just couldn’t do it otherwise. And if there’s one thing all us horse folk can agree on, it’s how much we love the sport and our four legged friends, whatever we choose to do with them, at whatever level.
Looking beyond the cold winter months (as hard as that seems now!) and to the 2019 event season, I ask her what her goals are and what she would like to achieve next season? “I would love to do more 3*’s and be consistent in gaining more qualifying runs”, she replies, “and the younger horses getting confident runs to move up the levels”.
It seems a natural conclusion to the interview to end with looking forward to the future. As I drive away from Oldtown, I think to myself what a remarkable young woman Eilidh is to have already achieved all that she has, and to keep all those spinning plates in the air at once. I think what an excellent role model and ambassador for Country Ways she is and how exciting the future is for her.
And then I turn the corner and think how I should start doing more sitting trot too… and get back to Pilates 😉
Over and out for 2018! Lynne x