Amateur Eventer Katie Preston Proves You Don't Have to Be a Pro to Go All the Way

Amateur Eventer Katie Preston Proves You Don't Have to Be a Pro to Go All the Way

Of the many riders heading to the Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials next week, only a select few have had to request time off work in order to be able to compete. As one of eventing’s premier events, Badminton is dominated by top-class professionals hailing from around the world. Can an amateur with a full-time job really cut it there? Katie Preston thinks so.

Badminton will be the 32-year-old equine veternarians’s third CCI5*-L with Templar Justice, known as “TJ” around the barn, and she will be aiming for a third clear, fast cross-country round.

“For a long time I’ve joked that he is my Badminton horse, but I don’t think you ever really believe you will get there,” Katie confesses. “I’m not really nervous, I’m just excited — but I can’t get too excited yet. He has a habit of injuring himself just before a competition. He’s so tough that he comes right just in time, but he’s bound to do something to himself before we get there.”

Small Bargain, Big Reward

Katie, who is a veterinarian for Milbourn Equine Vets in Kent, England, bought TJ as a two-year-old from Templar Stud. At the time, she was a student focusing on her veterinary medicine studies at Liverpool University and knew she could never afford the caliber of horse she wanted if it was four or five years old and more developed.

“My parents aren’t horsey but they are very supportive, and when Mum bought the field opposite our house, it seemed like a good idea to buy some youngsters to put in it,” Katie says.

TJ cost a grand total of £1,500 — a bargain for the type of horse he’d eventually become.

As Katie’s first advanced horse, the pair have worked their way up through the levels. At their debut CCI5*-L event at the 2018 Luhmühlen Horse Trials, they finished 18th with a clear cross-country round and only three seconds over the optimum time. Although the show jumping phase didn’t go as planned — they accrued 24 jumping penalties — a five-star completion was theirs and a proud moment for the duo.

Following Luhmühlen, the pair headed to the Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials to tackle one of the toughest cross-country tracks in the sport. Standing at 15.2 hands, TJ may not have been the biggest horse in the field, but, Katie says, she had no fear.

“I was a little nervous before Burghley, but from the moment we got there and hacked out in front of the house, I was like, ‘This is cool.’ Cantering down the center line I thought, ‘I’m at Burghley!’

"Find a horse that, every day, you want to go home and ride and work with."

“We know each other inside out and trust each other. At every level, TJ has found it easy. When I walked Burghley, I knew the course was made for him. He’s clever, he’s brave, but not stupid brave. He will take a stride out if he’s being cocky, but you can put your hands down and say, ‘Okay, do what you want,’ and he’ll put one in and sort himself out. He’s so quick with his feet,” Katie explains.

“He jumps out of the field at home but he has never jumped out to a place where he hadn’t checked the landing first. He never jumps himself into trouble, and it’s the same when you are sat on him.”

Although small in stature, TJ’s bravery makes up for it and has never swayed Katie’s confidence in the gelding.

“I spent my gap year before university working for Lucinda and Clayton Fredericks when Lucinda had Headley Britannia [the 15.2-hand mare with whom Lucinda won Badminton, Burghley, and Kentucky]. She always said, ‘If they are good enough, they are big enough.’”

At Burghley they were again clear on cross-country, collecting just 8.8 time faults, and tremendously improved their show jumping score from Luhmühlen to finish in 24th place.

Photo by Nico Morgan.

“I was disappointed at Luhmühlen because he’s better than that — he’s a good jumper, but he’s too keen and rushes his fences. It probably isn’t helped by the fact that I don’t jump many big courses, so maybe I’m not there as much to help him as some of the professional riders. But I’ve been working on it a lot with Francis Whittington, who is a friend, a client, and my trainer,” Katie says.

Francis is happily flexible to teach Katie at 6 a.m. or 8 p.m. if necessary because, of course, Katie’s riding has to fit around her work schedule.

“It was quite easy when I just had two horses — I’d ride one before and one after work,” she says. “I’ve got three at the moment so I have to decide which to ride first as they can’t all be ridden every day, and it’s a juggling act which means that one of them will be for sale soon, sadly.”

Living the Amateur Life

Katie plays down the difficulties of working five days a week — plus being on call one weekend out of five — and competing at the top level of sport. But she manages to get everything done and done well.

“My facilities are pretty basic: a six-acre field and two stables, but the horses all live out 24/7 all year round, so there isn’t any mucking out. I live five minutes away and work is another five minutes away, so if I have to be at my first client’s at 9 a.m., often I can still be riding at 8:30 a.m.,” she explains. “And, being a vet, I don’t have to do my hair and makeup and put smart clothes on before I go to work. My clients don’t mind me smelling of horse!”

Two years ago Katie built an arena, which has, she says, “transformed my life.” The hacking is a major plus with full access to miles and miles of Bedgebury Forest. “That means I can ride in the dark by the light of my head torch without worrying. TJ is very used to being ridden in the dark!” she smiles.

(Going out with a buddy is standard, too. Ride one, pony one. That's multi-tasking at its finest.)

Sensibly, Katie has no desire to join the professional ranks despite her competing at the top level.

“Lots of my friends do it full time,” she says. “They work a lot harder than I do for a lot less return money-wise. They are struggling to run their horses at that top level. They have to sell their top horses, and my job means I can afford to run TJ as I want to and enjoy him. I wouldn’t make any money eventing — you can be a fabulous rider and still be scrubbing along. I love eventing, but I couldn’t do it full time.”

She adds, “And what I have learned as a vet from competing and from keeping TJ on the road is invaluable for my clients.”

The Final Touches for Badminton

In order to make up for the hours in the saddle the professionals have over her, Katie takes her own fitness regime extremely serious.

“This year one of my clients, who’s also a good friend, has trained as a personal trainer, and I have been working with her on strength, core stability, and flexibility,” Katie says. “And I’ve also played hockey all winter, which has really helped. We train once a week and play once a week, and I’ve really enjoyed it. I can’t motivate myself to go running, but when you do something as part of a team, like hockey, other people motivate you.”

Would you move an ocean away from home to further your riding career?

TJ and Katie whizzed round their final prep event before Badminton, Burnham Market International Horse Trials, producing a clear round with 4 time penalties in the CCI4*-S. But what are their goals for the world’s most famous three-day event?

“I’d like to jump clear cross-country with as few time faults as possible because I know we are more than capable of it. In the dressage, I’d like him to stay relaxed and with me. He doesn’t find it easy because he isn’t built for it; he’s downhill, quite weak, and doesn’t have the best paces. As he is getting stronger he is getting better and he is consistent and obedient. I’d be over the moon with a mark of around 35 [they scored 37.2 at Burghley].

“Obviously I’d love to show jump clear — he’s capable of it — but I don’t expect he will, and I can live with a couple of rails down. The price you pay for having a bold cross-country horse is that they can be a bit bold in the show jumping, too.”

She is remarkably cool about her first run at Badminton, which is rushing towards her like the tide. But that’s why Katie and TJ are good bets to achieve her aim of a respectable completion. She believes in herself and in her horse, and she wants to enjoy every minute of their time together.

“That is my advice to other amateur riders — find a horse that, every day, you want to go home and ride and work with,” she says. “If it is hard work, or you aren’t enjoying, it becomes a chore. I love every moment of riding TJ, and I know that if I get him right, we can achieve whatever we want. That’s my motivation.”

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Feature photo by Shannon Brinkman.

Written by Catherine Austen

Catherine Austen is a UK-based freelance journalist specializing in all things equestrian sport and racing. She reserves all equine related over-the-top mushiness for her own horse, the very beautiful Molly, whom she hunts with the Heythrop.