A young rider who moved to the UK from South Africa and found new friends – and ponies – thanks to Instagram has qualified for the Royal Highland 128cm showjumping final on an 11.2hh with the “biggest heart”.
David and Leanne Lawson’s Dakota VII was piloted round the one-metre track by Sophie Calderwood, 11, at Tillyoch Equestrian in Aberdeen, on 1 April.
The 18-year-old mare has been owned by the Lawson family for nine years and is no stranger to the big tracks, having been brought up the ranks by David and Leanne’s daughter Millie, who is now flying the Scottish flag on the 148cm circuit. Since Millie, Dakota has become a popular schoolmistress for teaching many young riders the ropes.
Sophie and her family moved to the UK from South Africa in January 2022 for her father’s new job, and it was thanks to Instagram they met the Lawsons.
“Sophie competed to a good level in South Africa, but when we moved she had to give up so much, her pony, her friends and her home country. So when we arrived here I had a bee in my bonnet that I had to get her back into riding as quickly as possible,” Jessica, Sophie’s mother, told H&H.
“I looked on Instagram to find some other riders in the area and I came across Millie. I then reached out to David and told him we’d just arrived from South Africa and we were looking to find other horsey people. He came straight back and said he had a pony he needed a child to ride it for sales video and he told us to come round that afternoon. By 4pm Sophie was riding – and we never left. It’s been an amazing story.”
Sophie went on to ride and compete 148cm mare Robe Silver Lady for David and after they “instantly gelled” Jessica bought her. The pair are continuing to enjoy a successful relationship together, but as it was Sophie’s last year on 128cms she was offered the opportunity to ride Dakota, and she now has her on lease to compete alongside Lady.
“In South Africa we don’t have the same age and height categories as the UK, so I was all new to this. I was told Sophie would lose out in riding against her age group so that was the aim of riding Dakota, to give her that chance,” said Jessica.
“We thought we’ve only got one year before Sophie will move up to 138cms so we set our sights on the Royal Highland Show. We were told Dakota would really teach Sophie how to ride and place a pony because you can’t just gallop round, you really need to ride her properly to those big fences.”
Sophie and Dakota had missed out on a Highland ticket on two previous attempts at qualifying, but the pair jumped a double clear and were second at Tillyoch. Rebecca Lawson, David and Leanne’s niece, won the class with Riverview Sandy, another former ride of Millie’s. The pair had already qualified for the Highland at a previous show.
“After the previous attempts we were starting to think ‘What if we don’t qualify?’, so when it all came together it was just fantastic,” said Jessica.
“We’ve heard the Highland is another kettle of fish with a huge crowd and atmosphere, so now the pressure is off we can concentrate on getting ready for that.”
Jessica told H&H she was happy with her round.
“At number two we didn’t have the best jump, but after that it went really well,” she said.
“If you line Dakota up to a jump she will always try really hard and I’m looking forward to the Highland show.”
Despite qualifying for the Highland with Millie, and another of her previous jockeys’ Taylor McDaid, this summer will be Dakota’s first time competing in the final; she missed out one year to injury, and another year to the pandemic. Discussing what makes Dakota so special, David told H&H she has “the biggest heart”.
“She just always tries, she loves her kids and she does it for them. She’s the pony we’ll never sell, she is here for life. When Sophie moves on to 138cms we’ll find her another little jockey to teach,” he told H&H.
Jessica added that Dakota has taught Sophie “so much”.
“She’s a tiny pony and needs to work hard to get over those jumps, but she’s so honest. She tries her best and she never says no. She’s taught Sophie so much, and for me as her mum, it’s amazing to see these ponies making Sophie into a real ride,” she said.
“It would have taken years to find a pony like Dakota, and the fact we were welcomed by David and Leanne like that makes it all very special. Millie looks after Sophie and Sophie really looks up to her, Millie has such a great work ethic and Sophie is learning it’s about making those opportunities and working for it. I’m very blessed to have the Lawson family in my life.”
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Credit: Jamie Agnew Photography
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