Out & About: Competitive couple who like to take life at a gallop

  • Out & About: Competitive couple who like to take life at a gallop
  • Out & About: Competitive couple who like to take life at a gallop
  • Out & About: Competitive couple who like to take life at a gallop

As this year's point-to-point season draws to a close, Jenny Needham talks to a competitive couple who like to take life at a gallop

Every few weeks during the point-to-point season, Alice Dawson saddles up and rides hell for leather across the countryside, taking hedges and ditches in her stride. Sometimes, husband John is watching nervously from the sidelines, hoping she doesn’t come a cropper; sometimes, he’s on a horse in the same race, doing his damnedest to beat her to the finish.

“I'd say we are both as competitive as each other,” says 26-year-old Alice. “I've ridden a handful of times against John, but I've also not yet managed to beat him, which is disappointing.” In fact, John had pipped her to the post only the week before. “I quite enjoyed it,” he laughs. “But I had to cook my own tea!”

From January to the end of May, the two of them race at point-to-point meetings across the region almost every weekend. The events have quite a history, the first taking place more than 200 years ago when, at the end of the hunting season, farmers would have a race from one church steeple to another over open countryside, bounding over hedges and ditches on the way. As its popularity increased, it became more organised… and more competitive.

“It's now quite similar to professional racing in that we generally run over three miles around a course of specially-built steeplechase fences, 4ft 3ins high,” says John. It’s not going to make the jockeys rich: The prize money is usually £150-£200, with some feature races worth more, but many people use pointing to educate or advertise young talented horses with a view to selling them or running them in professional races. Many jockeys and trainers on the professional circuit have started their careers point-to-pointing, including champion jockey Richard Johnson.

“It’s a very friendly and fun day out. Jockeys, trainers and owners are competitive, but also very supportive of each other win, lose or draw,” says John. “To get rides, you have to get yourself known. You might ride out a couple of days a week for different trainers, and make yourself available as much as possible. Most owners and trainers like to keep the same jockey on all season.”

To get fit for the season, jockeys run, swim and cycle. And before a newcomer is allowed to race, they have to go through a medical, get a licence and prove their competency riding at speed over jumps. “Some Jockeys do have to diet, but luckily we are both okay,” says Alice. Some races are for men only, some ladies’ races. “But I wouldn't say point-to-pointing is sexist at all. If you’re good enough, people will give you chances,” says John, who has had 24 winners this season and is currently leading the Yorkshire men's championship.

Growing up on a busy family farm near Sedgefield, County Durham, the 27-year-old has always had racing in his blood. He and his three siblings all learned to ride as soon as they could walk. “My parents both rode and it was second nature to us all. We all joined pony club and competed in various disciplines,” he says.

Alice, nee Petch, was also bought up on a farm, just outside Kildale on the North York Moors. Her parents had no interest in horses but her grandfather had always had a love for them and first took her to a riding school when she was four. “He bought an unbroken chestnut mare as my first pony, swapping her for a cow,” says Alice. “She wasn't the best, but it taught me how to ride.”

The couple met at a hunt ball eight years ago, talked horses and courses and went on a few dates. “We've always got on very well and enjoy each other's company,” says Alice.

John proposed on her 24th birthday. “We went away to the Yorkshire Dales, one of Alice’s favourite places. She loves the hills and I asked her to marry me at the top of Hawes,” he says. “We got married the year after at Kildale church and had the reception at Alice's family's hill farm. Now we live just outside Great Ayton.”

It was John who helped Alice fulfil her dream of racing. She competed in the show ring from a young age and hunted in the winter. “I had always fancied a go point-to-pointing but it seemed impossible,” she says. John helped her find an old schoolmaster – a horse to train on and gain confidence – and she was off. When she’s not riding, Alice works as a contract shepherd, lambing and shearing. “I ride whenever I can, but it's usually during the winter months,” she says.

Alongside farming, John’s parents train point-to-pointers, so the desire to ride in them took hold early on. “Once I reached 16, I got my licence and had my first ride,” he says. After school, he turned professional for two seasons but decided he wasn’t going to reach the top in the professional ranks and made the decision to return to point-to-pointing. He is now in his first season of training point-to-pointers and breaking in young horses with a yard that he rents from the Reveley family, near Saltburn.

Anyone who has been to a point-to-point has probably seen a fair few falls and both John and Alice have had their share.

“I’ve had a few nasty falls but, touch wood, I have been lucky with injuries,” says John. “I have ridden some dodgy horses but feel lucky now to be able to ride some nice horses for some very good trainers. My first winner was at our local track on a horse called Benwell trained by George and Jill Sunter and that was an amazing feeling.” Last year, he rode his hundredth winner.

As for Alice, she has been tanked off with a few times, and once broke her jaw and three ribs being bucked off on the way to the starting line.

“I don't really think about danger as the adrenaline kicks in and that's it,” she says. “My favourite moment was probably my second winner on Graham Russ's Oaklands Bobby at Hurworth. On the way to the start he slipped, I fell off, then he galloped to the other side of the track. I knew all my friends and family would be watching, so felt like a bit of a plonker as I ran over to catch him. John legged me back up at the start and we set off. He went flat to the boards in front and nobody caught us.”

  • Both Anna and John will be riding at South Durham Point-to-Point, at Sedgefield, on May 28

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