SPOTLIGHT ON……WILLS OAKDEN
It would be fair to say that I have a professional soft spot for Wills Oakden. In the summer of 2012, I attended Burgham Horse Trials for my first official assignment with Eventing Worldwide. I was nervous but really excited, hoping that I would get some really good shots for the report. The conditions were perfect and after walking the course, I found a nice little spot across the furthest field which had a good selection of fences.
By this point, Wills had been round the course a couple of times and I was starting to recognise his hat silk! It was just after lunch time when Wills approached “my” fence on board a pretty coloured mare (Chiara D) and casually as you’d like he gathered his reins in to one hand and proceeded to give a “thumbs up” whilst clearing the fence. I couldn’t quite believe it, we photographers dream about the “wow” shots. Wills had just given me my first one!
"The Thumbs Up"
Fast forward to June 2014 and Wills was about to compete in the CCI*** Under 25 at Bramham International, with Greystone Midnight Melody (Molly) and Alfi Brown (Alfi). He kindly gave me the opportunity to chat to him about his horses, the build-up and the actual event itself.
Before I launch into that, let me tell you a little bit about this young man and how he got to this point.
Born in 1990, Wills grew up in a horsey family and showed great enthusiasm from a young age. Whilst Wills couldn’t recall his first competitive event he talked fondly of his little grey pony “Wren” whom he competed with at Pony Club. At the age of 16, Wills left school and joined Ian Stark’s yard near Selkirk as a working pupil. Wills gave me an insight to his time spent with Ian, how invaluable it was and how fair Ian was as a mentor. Under Ian’s tutelage, Wills learnt a learnt a great deal and got the opportunity to accompany him to Kentucky CCI**** and Le Lion D’Anges.
Competing in his first international event at Burgie in 2007, Wills finished in 10th place with Kingsland LC, the pair then went on to complete the Advanced at Chatsworth. Wills also jumped a double clear at Blair CCI** with Just Morse and finished the season as the Scottish Under 18 Points Champion. The accolade of Under 25 Points Champion would be added to his belt in 2009 after completing his first CIC*** at Blair on board Jo Brown.
2009 would also see Wills move away from Ian’s yard and set up on his own on the family farm at Dunbog, (separate to “Team Oakden” which is run by his father, James, and step mother, Sarah). Still based there, Wills is able to focus his time and energy on his horses, training and events.
Wills broke into the international scene in 2010, taking 2nd at Burgie CCI**, 3rd at Blair CCI*** and winning the award for highest placed Scottish rider in the FEI World Rankings. He finished the year ranked 49th in the British Eventing Top 100 Riders.
The landmark win came in 2011 after he secured the CCI** at Burgie and went on to represent Great Britain for the first time at the Young Rider Europeans. Wills climbed to 44th in the BE Top 100 Riders and was the 2nd highest placed under 21 rider.
In 2012, with multiple horses entered across some 20 events, Wills racked up an impressive 7 wins and a further 19 top 3 placing’s. Notable wins included two Novice classes at Brechin Castle with Alfi Brown and Tayvale Benedict, an Intermediate at Burgham with Monarch, CIC* at Burgie International with Prime Time and Advanced Intermediate at Eglinton with Greystone Midnight Melody. Wills also finished in 9th place in the CCI** at Blair International Horse Trials with Merikano.
Wills and Greystone Midnight Melody compete in the CIC** at Hopetoun 2012
Wills would go on to double his win streak in 2013 notching up 14 wins and a further 18 top 3 placing’s across 25 events. This year also saw him travel to Pau to compete in his first CCI**** with McFly, who he went on to place 9th with in the CCI*** at Blair International, and to Tattersalls where he would finish 9th with Alfi Brown in the Young Rider ** (CCI). Wills also picked up 9th in the CIC*** at Chatsworth with Greystone Midnight Melody and secured an impressive 4 wins at Oasby (two in BE100 classes and two in Novice classes). Nordic Diamond Dan partnered Wills to victory at Hopetoun and Eglinton whilst Cooley Bouncer and Chapeau took home Novice wins at Burgie and Kirriemuir respectively. Wills ranked inside the top 30 riders finishing with 378 points.
Wills and McFly finish 9th in the CCI*** at Blair
Highest placed Under 25 rider
This leads us to the present day and I take the opportunity to catch up with Wills.
How did you feel when you qualified for Bramham?
“It was exciting. I had qualified with Molly last year so we were able to start preparations early on whilst Alfi was entered the day before the ballot!”
An unfortunate tumble at home meant that Wills missed competitions at Dalkeith and Burgie leaving Alfi without a run in 6 weeks.
“It meant that we had to go to Chatsworth and get a qualifying result”.
Tell us a little bit about your two “Bramham” horses Greystone Midnight Melody (Molly) and Alfi Brown (Alfi)
“Molly is an incredibly clued up mare who is very aware of her surroundings. She doesn’t tend to switch off so she is stabled in a quieter part of the yard to encourage her to chill out and relax. Molly enjoys being turned out but has a tendency to put herself on a diet so we have to work to keep the weight on her! Exceptionally capable and very forward thinking, you can tell she is thinking about what is coming next. Alfi is the opposite. He is very laid back and has a fantastic sense of humour. He likes to be ridden first thing on a morning and seems insulted if you should ride him later in the day! He is a big horse with a big heart and he doesn’t tend to overthink things.”
Did you make any adjustments to your typical training programme in preparation for Bramham?
“As with all of the horses, I regularly assess them and work out a training programme that will bring out the best results for each horse. For Bramham, we increased the level of canter work for both Molly and Alfi. Spillers work with us to assess the nutritional needs of each horse to ensure they are getting everything that they need to be in shape and then they regularly weigh both horses to make sure we are on target. Childeric UK also work with us to regularly check saddle measurements, making sure the horses are comfortable and that the saddles were fitting as they should.”
How did you feel before the Dressage phase?
“I was very calm. We had worked hard in training and both horses felt fit and ready. They were calm and relaxed and warmed up well. I was very lucky to have the services of Lynne Cree (superstar groom) for the week; she truly worked wonders with Molly and made life so easy for me.”
What were your hopes for Alfi and Molly in the Dressage?
“With Alfi we hoped for a test score in the low 50s and with Molly we just wanted her to produce the best test that we knew she was capable of. Les (Smith, Wills’ trainer) told me just to be brave with her.”
Wills and Alfi Brown warm up
It would appear that Wills was just about to get his wish. Alfi was about the coolest horse I had seen, completely unfazed by his surroundings and totally relaxed for his test. Their score of 52.5 positioned them in 14th place after the dressage but with 13 of the 22 entries scoring between marks of 50.0 and 55.0 it was all to play for in the jumping phases.
When Wills entered the arena for a second time, this time with Molly, there seemed to be a change in the atmosphere. Dani Evans had just completed her round of 37.3 with Raphael II, taking her in to the lead, and (pointed out by one of the officials) Sir Mark Todd was watching the rest of the class after Brazilian Gabriel Cury (who is trained by Mark) with NZB Grass Valley (a previous ride for Mark) had performed their test of 58.1.
Wills and Greystone Midnight Melody make their entrance
You could hear a pin drop as Wills and Molly seemed to float around the arena and I almost forgot that I was supposed to be taking photographs! Murmurs of “aren’t they elegant,” “look how still he is” and “definitely one for the future” swirled and there was a huge applause when Wills gave his final salute and left the arena. When the final score of 44.2 went up on the score board, confirming they were in 2nd place, I made my way to the paddock to find out how Wills felt.
Wills and Molly perform a personal best dressage test
How did you feel once both tests were completed?
“Absolutely over the moon! I knew she [Molly] was capable of scoring a high test and she just went so well. She just seemed more settled and rideable today. I kept catching the scoreboard out of the corner of my eye and some of the marks weren’t as high as I would have liked so I continued to ride for every point and hope we were doing well. I couldn’t quite believe it when I saw the final score! Alfi did a brilliant job, he was such a cool customer and I’m really happy with him.”
Wills and Molly after “THAT” dressage test
What were your thoughts after walking the cross country course? Were there any elements that concerned you?
“The course looked fantastic and I couldn’t wait to jump round it! It was beautifully designed with plenty of impressive fences. There were plenty of questions but I didn’t really feel too concerned. Fences 8 (Suregrow Fertiliser Owl Hole), 10 (Horse Deals Kidney Pools) and 14ab (Woodhead Seeds Hollow) caught my attention and I felt that these would be key fences to get past.”
Wills and Alfi would be the pathfinders for the cross country phase in the Under 25 section. The weather had been pretty awful from the start, the organisers brought forward the cross country start time to 9.00am to try and avoid the worst of the weather due later that afternoon. The visibility and rain varied throughout the day and there were a number of incidents meaning it was very stop/start and a few on course holdings whilst fence and ground repairs took place.
You got off to a great start with Alfi but were held on course just after Fence 6C (The Equi Trek Leap). Did that affect you in any way?
“With some horses you do worry when you are stopped but not with Alfi, he is just so relaxed about it all. He put in a very honest jump at the Leap and we were held just after it.” During this time the fence judge approached Wills and said “Sorry to break your flow” to which Wills responded “Don’t worry, we haven’t got much flow yet so it’s good to be starting again”.
What goes through your mind when you are held on course?
“I just keep myself very calm, I don’t want the horse to feel any nervous energy so I just keep them walking, keep them relaxed without letting them switch off. I keep checking with the jump judge so I can make sure we get warmed up properly and think about what fences are coming next.”
Fortunately, Wills and Alfi weren’t held for too long and completed a lovely clear round with only 8.4 time penalties, the second best round in his class and catapulting them from 14th place after dressage to 3rd place after cross country.
You must have been thrilled with Alfi’s cross country performance?
“Absolutely. After our restart we got in to a really good rhythm and I just felt him grow in confidence the further he progressed round the course. He gave me a really great round and he finished still feeling very fresh.”
Wills and Alfi clear the Yorkshire Equine Practice Footbridge
Are you vocal with your horses during the cross country phase?
“I think it is very important for the horse to know when they have done well, particularly if you have encountered a difficult fence your reaction can affect how they feel. You want to give praise and instil confidence going forward to the next fence.”
Wills and Alfi would be 1 of only 8 clear rounds in the Under 25’s, whilst 2 pairs completed with penalties and 12 pairs did not finish. We had seen the conditions deteriorate and the ground jury worked hard all day to maintain the fences and take off/landing spots. The decision was made to remove Fence 3, the KBIS Arch, from the rest of the competition shortly after Laura Cocking, Tom McEwan and Kirsty Short all suffered falls in quick succession. Wills and Molly had been due to set off at 13.58pm but it was a good 45 minutes after that before they entered the start box and began their round.
“We had to gauge the warm up times due to the stop/starts that were occurring. Lynne worked with me to keep Molly settled and relaxed.” Once underway, Wills and Molly found a good rhythm and settled in pretty quickly. Then there would come some favourable news. “It was around fence 4 (Supreme Products Stick Piles) that I heard over the tannoy that Dani (Evans – leader after dressage) had incurred 20 penalties so I knew that we could afford a long route should we need it.”
“We took the direct route at fence 8 (Suregrow Fertiliser Owl Hole) as I had great confidence in Molly’s ability to tackle it. She jumped it well and then we had a beautiful jump over fence 9 (Joules Clothing London 2012 Chess Table). Unfortunately we just got in too deep at the first element of the Horse Deals Kidney Pools and just couldn’t quite manage to clear it.”
This is a hard moment for any competitor, especially when things seem to be going in your favour, so I didn’t want to dwell on it too much with Wills.
“It was just one of those unfortunate things that happen in this sport. There is nothing that Molly could have done and it was in no way her fault. The jump judges and vet got to us very quickly and our main concern was making sure that she was okay.” Fortunately, both Molly and Wills (although disappointed) were able to walk away relatively unscathed and without any permanent injuries.
Wills and Molly leap over the Joules London 2012 Chess Board
The sun found its way back to Bramham for the final day of competition on the Sunday. Only 9 pairs would present for the final inspection in the Under 25 section, after Dani had withdrawn Raphael II as he was a little sore after the cross country. Alfi was more than happy to pose for the photographers whilst waiting for his turn and, unsurprisingly, was accepted after his trot up – he looked as fresh as a daisy!
Wills and Alfi in front of Bramham House
Whilst the show jumping did not go entirely to plan Wills and Alfi completed their first Bramham International 3*and finished in 6th place. It was not the podium place that Wills wanted but they did such a fantastic job and it will only be a matter of time before they clinch that top spot.
The final phase
The last question wasn’t for Wills but for me. Quite simply, what did I learn about Wills Oakden?
The stand out thing for me was Wills’ ability and willingness to adapt himself to each horse, rather than try and change the horse. They each get his unwavering attention in equal measure and he fully understands their ability and needs. He is focused and works hard to achieve his goals, constantly striving to better himself and learn from any mistakes. He is very positive; he doesn’t allow himself to linger on the negative except for what he can learn from it. Wills is completely capable of achieving his ambitions and there is no doubt that he is heading for the top.
Quick fire question round …
What do you love most about competing?
What’s the highlight of your eventing career so far?
“I would say having three horses at 3 star level, Alfi, Molly and Merikano (previously ridden by Jamie Atkinson) that I have brought on from BE100.”
What has been a challenging/ scary moment in your career?
“Fortunately I can’t think of one as yet. Perhaps that is still to come!”
When you were younger who was your riding idol?
“Andrew Nicholson and Ian Stark, both of whom are great horsemen and I still continue to admire.”
Do you have a good luck charm or any rituals/superstitions that you follow?
“Not really any rituals or superstitions … but I do have a pair of lucky socks!”
How do you relax or celebrate after a good day’s eventing?
“I can switch off pretty easily so I tend to just relax at home or watch some television.”
How would you rank all three phases of eventing from most to least favourite?
“Favourite would definitely be cross country, and then show jumping (you have to rely on the horse not to knock the pole down) and then dressage (you are reliant on someone else’s opinion of your performance and you never know how the horse will react to the atmosphere)”.
If you could take a ride on any horse, past or present, who would it be?
“Ian Starks’ Arakai. He wasn’t the most well-known of Ian’s horses but there was just something special about him.”
What is your favourite cross-country course in the world?
“When I was at Kentucky I remember how stunning the park and course were and that the crowd were really enthusiastic but ultimately it would have to be Badminton. It is steeped in tradition and is truly challenging.”
What piece of equipment could you not live without?
“They would definitely be my Childeric saddle, which is fitted specifically for both you and the horse improving the comfort and contact that you have, and my FreeJump Stirrups, which take away the fear of being caught in the saddle in the event of a fall.”
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
“Work hard! And take every opportunity and make the best of it.”
What are your career hopes?
“Of course it would be an honour to get the chance to represent my country in the future. And to ride round Badminton! It all depends on the right horse at the right time and all of the pieces coming together at the same time.”
Whilst I agree with Wills that timing and the horse have to be right, so does the rider. There is an exceptionally promising future ahead of Wills and somehow I don’t think that his career hopes are out of his reach.
Article and photographs by Katie Neat/Katie Neat Photography. All rights reserved. Article originally published June 2014.