Bicton Arena's manager, Helen West, has revealed that she hopes to create an international show jumping event at the acclaimed eventing venue in little over 18-months’ time.
Helen, a professional rider of 14 years was appointed Arena Manager of Bicton Arena in Devon in 2013. Since taking on the role four years ago, the 37-year-old has elevated the venue’s status to one of international standing, but she won’t be happy until it’s up there with Badminton.
Her immediate goal is to establish a FEI accredited CSI 1*, 2* and Young Horse international show jumping event with classes up to 1m 50cm for July 2019.
“Jumping on the Continent is really popular in the winter months, with riders going off to take part in the Sunshine Tour in Spain and Portugal,” she says. “But I want to be able to say to riders, come to Costa del Bicton! Because when the sun’s shining it’s great, although I probably won’t be able to use this as a selling point if it’s tipping down with rain!
“I have spoken to lots of competitors over the years who say they would love to see an event in July where there appears to be a gap.
“We’re at the highest level we can be on a national level here at Bicton,” she continues. “We can’t really get much better. So my ambition is to branch out to the next level, to attract the top riders to our area. And currently, the closest venue to the south west of England offering international show jumping events is Wales and West where they host the Chepstow International.”
“If we do realise our ambition of establishing an international show jumping show at Bicton, we will be seeking further sponsorship to enable us to provide the significant level of prize money required, and would welcome new partners/associates to get involved with us.”
Helen’s devotion to equestrianism is tangible everywhere you look when rolling into Bicton Arena.
“I’m pretty much in charge of everything that’s green!” laughs Helen, gesturing to the verdant 360-degree panorama, studded with giant beeches.
Owned and managed by Clinton Devon Estates and set in beautiful Grade 1 listed parkland, Bicton Arena is the finest equestrian venue in the South West and one of the most reputable in Britain.
Helen’s job includes managing the brimming events diary and designing the courses, including the cross-country course escorting you into the estate. Since Torquay-born Helen took the job, the quantity and quality of events, and the footfall, have increased exponentially.
“Because I’ve ridden at such a high level, I’ve tried to put in place everything I’ve wanted as a competitor, such as investing in the grounds’ maintenance. The horses are worth an awful lot of money, so keeping them sound is a priority,” she adds.
“As a rider, you’re only as good as the horse you’re sitting on, so it’s vitally important to get it right. When I arrived, the space was under-utilised and I could see its huge potential.”
This potential is being fulfilled under Helen’s expertise, with support from a small team of committed and competent colleagues.
When Helen joined, Bicton Arena hosted one British affiliated horse trial. Now there are three, including two international horse trials. “I just thought it had all the ingredients and deserved to be up there with Blenheim and Bramham.”
Bicton Arena is currently a CIC** venue, a rating given by the International Federation for Equestrian Sports. Under Helen’s expert guidance, Clinton Devon Estates’ ambition was to turn it into a three-star venue by next year, however due to changes administered by the FEI, this won’t be possible until 2019. There are currently only two four star rated venues in the country; Badminton and Burghley, and two other three starred venues.
This summer, the venue hosted its first regional dressage championships after a successfully tendering to be the host venue. The new Western Counties Equine Vets all-weather arena opened in April which will enable the venue to meet an ever-increasing demand. In Helen’s 2017 calendar there are only two weekends spare.
Since 2015, when Helen was awarded a course design scholarship with British Eventing, she has been designing all the courses at Bicton. This led to her appointment as course designer for the prestigious Nunney International Horse Trials in June and Ballendenisk, Ireland in September.
“I was looking at ways to cut costs and just thought, crikey, I’ve ridden at 4* level, surely I must have the knowledge to design,” she explains. “When designing, I always ask myself, what kind of course would I want to ride? Another unexpected benefit of being able to design is that it’s really helped my riding.”
Helen started riding aged six and was competing within a year, including at Bicton. Eventing became her passion.
“Any eventer does it for the love of cross country,” she says. “I really love that you get to meet so many people and go to some beautiful places, but it’s an incredibly risky sport – your neck’s on the line in cross country, so what you get is an immense spirit of comradeship. Competitors are willing each other to keep safe and do well, which is rare in competitive sport.”
Eventing showcases the immense proficiency of the rider and intelligence of the horse. But is it unfair on the animals?
“No,” affirms Helen, who regularly competes on the national show jumping circuit with her “demanding but characterful” 10-year-old Irish sports horse, Eebay. “You can’t make a horse do something it doesn’t want to do,” she continues. “They have to love it. You’ll never have a horse at the top level who doesn’t want to be there.”
All Helen ever wanted to do was ride horses. Recognising her potential, her parents set up a livery business and, as a teenager, she started getting paid to train and ride other people’s horses competitively, going on to produce horses and sell them.
After selling a horse she’d produced to Captain Mark Phillips, father of the Queen’s granddaughter and Team GB rider, Zara Phillips, he offered her a job at his stables in Gloucestershire, which she took for the best part of a season.
But Helen admits that her lifestyle proved relentless and that “there isn’t a part of me I haven’t broken”. Just one week after a near fatal fall for one of her horses, another horse lost its life and Helen decided it was time to re-evaluate. “I didn’t want to ride that course with that horse that day, because it was too big for him, but I had to because it was my job,” she explains.
That same evening Helen saw the advert for the manager’s role at Bicton Arena; a place where she’s been able to continue to immerse herself in the world of horses, and the place that has brought her together with her fiancé Andrew who she will marry in December.
“Before, I had no work life balance,” says Helen, “now this job gives me the best of both worlds.”