Winning bloodlines for Petplan champion

  • Written By: British Dressage | Camille Peters
  • Published: Wed, 22 Nov 2023 16:13

From Bechers Brook to the white boards, meet Petplan Equine Prelim Silver Summer Area Festival Champion Kate Johnston. Kate inspired us with her win on board Lotus Key SR at Arena UK last month, Camille Peters caught up with her after the event to hear about her story. 

“I thought I’d flunked it actually! I was so in the zone thinking about straightness I was still in the Novice test,” Kate admitted, reflecting on her winning performance in the Arena UK Indoor, “I went to go left and then just before I got to the judge’s box I remembered that I had to go right. I was cursing myself! But, I got my act together and once I had my concentration head on and had regained my confidence I felt like I rode correctly.”

“Overall, I was really pleased and it was a really nice test, we had a small error in the free walk where we went to stretch and slightly tripped – it was unfortunate because he usually does this really well. I was a little worried that it was going to bring the mark down, but my trainer Jess Carr reassured me that it wasn’t that bad!” Kate’s performance earned 70.764% from the judges panel of Tracey Trotter (E), Cherry Elvin (C) and Sandra Smith (M), am impressive achievement in a class of 39 horse and rider combinations where only the top three went above the magic 70% mark. 

Kate, now 60, is no stranger to the winners’ circle and told of her remarkable background in horse racing. The then 26-year-old rode to great success in amateur National Hunt racing, including winning the Cheltenham Foxhunter Chase in 1989 becoming one of the first successful lady riders at Cheltenham. This success was attributable to a great friendship between both sides of her family; Kate’s winning ride Three Counties was bought by her grandmother Greta Lyons and fondly nicknamed ‘Billy’ after her grandfather Sir William Lyons, the founder of British car manufacturer Jaguar knighted in 1956 for his services to the automotive industry. ‘Billy’ was in training with Kate’s other grandmother Mercy Rimell, a hugely successful trainer in her own right and an undoubted influence on Kate’s success, both current and future. “He was a leading hunter chaser and I had so much fun,” she said of her time in a racing saddle which saw her grace the cover of Horse & Hound twice. Kate’s grandfather was none other than Fred Rimell, a trainer with a formidable record having trained four Grand National winners as well as belonging to a very select club of professionals who have been both Champion Jockey and Champion Trainer. 

As a family affair, Kate explained that she learnt much from the racing world and credited plenty of her knowledge to her grandmother Mercy in particular; “Gran was especially a stickler for good confirmation, having grown up in showing – her mother too was incredibly sharp on this subject having ridden for the King of Spain of a child. She [Mercy] was a redoubtable force both training and winning in a man’s world and understood that confirmation is critical to performance and sales, I learned from her how important this element of equestrian is. They had a horse called Nicolaus Silver who won the Grand National in 1961 who had conformation good enough to win in the show ring.”  

Before her time on the racetrack, Kate’s ties to dressage began at an even younger age. Explaining about how she found her feet in equestrian she continued, “I did a cooking course after school...but I didn’t want to pursue that! I persuaded my mother to let me follow equestrian and I went to Jennie Loriston Clark for a year as a student. It was amazing, but I felt like I knew nothing about dressage when I arrived!”

“I looked after Dutch Gold in his early days. He didn’t just do dressage, we went eventing and the stud side was fascinating too. Jennie was amazing, she did everything and I learned so much from her. She also had the most wicked sense of humour, we all worked beautifully for her – she was formidable and fantastic.”

Kate got into racing soon after completing her time with the doyenne of British Dressage but added that she “always kept her hand in with trying to ride nicely.”

The success for the Gainsborough based rider not only spans racing and dressage, but also the world of showing. Just three days before her Petplan performance, Kate was in the final line up at Horse of the Year Show in the Working Hunter category with Lotus Key SR and said that it was a quick turnaround to “swap jobs from jumping to poncing!”

As multi-talented as his rider, Lotus Key SR, known fondly as ‘Nibbles’ has proven his ability with proven results. Kate was full of praise for the eight-year-old whom she bought as a two-year-old from successful showjumper Andrew Saywell and backed and produced herself: “He’s an absolute dream to ride and always has been, you can even ride him bareback in from the field. He really is very special and multi-talented. He can jump, he has movement and he has amazing confirmation. I’m very lucky that the judges seem to love him and his movement too.”

The Dutch gelding, bred for showjumping and sired by the popular Arezzo VDL, has just one vice in Kate’s eyes, “don’t get me wrong he can be a terror! He hates standing on the lorry on his own, but the good ones always have something don’t they! His other nickname is Naughty Nibble...which captures this side of his personality perfectly!”

Next up for the duo is a go at Novice Freestyle to Music, with Elementary as a goal on the horizon with a caveat of “...if I can remember the test,” which Kate added with a laugh! Reflecting on her winning experience she concluded, “I don’t do huge amounts and I’m still learning all the rules, but the whole Area Festival experience has been a blast.”