It is an iconic competition at Royal Windsor Horse Show, and no visitor leaves without catching at least a glimpse of the Shetlands charging around the Castle Arena. However, alongside the fun, the Shetland Pony Grand National has been raising money for charity for several decades now. We caught up with SPGN organisers Sebastian Garner and Vera Akehurst to talk about what Royal Windsor means to them.
The brainchild of the late horse show organiser and commentator Raymond Brooks-Ward (father of Simon Brooks-Ward, current Show Director) the Shetland Pony Grand National has been raising money for charity since its inception. “It’s been going for about forty years now,” says Sebastian Garner, who usually at this time of year would be fulfilling his Windsor duties as Chief Steward. “And Vera and I have run it together for six.”
“I’ve loved every minute of it,” he says. “It’s achieved a lot – and every year the amount raised for charity gets bigger. We raised £48,000 for the Bob Champion Cancer trust last year.”
The season usually starts at Badminton, the weekend before Windsor, and then continues through to the Final at Olympia in December. “They’re races and heats,” explains Vera, “But we do select who comes to Windsor because it’s a big show early in the season.”
“It’s the atmosphere at Royal Windsor that makes it so special I think,” says Vera. “All the children and parents feel honoured and privileged to be there. It does make it different from other shows to have royalty there.”
Having been involved with the SPGN for many years now, Vera has many special memories of the event. “The Queen’s 90th Birthday Celebrations were probably my favourite,” she says. “It was just such a memorable event, although having said that. . .” she pauses. “Maybe when Drambuie raced in the Queen’s colours.”
Of course, Drambuie; if one pony could sum up the thrills and legacy of the Shetland Pony Grand National it would have to be him. The legendary 37” Shetland raced for over fifteen years in the Shetland Pony Grand National and not only carried his riders to victory on many occasions, but kickstarted the careers of many young jockeys – including Sam and Willie Twiston-Davies, Jack Mitchell, Tom Garner and Joe Akehurst. During his last year of racing, Drambuie was honoured by being allowed to sport the colours of Her Majesty the Queen.
“It’s amazing for the kids,” says Vera, “The children make friends for life – in fact mine and Sebbie’s sons met doing the Shetland Pony Grand National and they were at each other’s weddings. It can be very competitive in the ring, but once they’re off they’re all such good friends.”
So, what do you look for in a racing Shetland? “Overall speed and agility,” says Vera. “The rider has to be of a high standard, and the pony has to be safe and able to jump – and competitive. They have to want to do it.” (We think anyone who has tried to persuade a Shetland to do something they don’t want to would agree with that!)
“It’s worth saying though,” says Sebbie, “That anyone can do it. As long as the rider is in the correct age bracket and under the right height they’ll be allowed to join in – it’s not exclusive.”
“We’ve been the start for a lot of riders,” agrees Vera, “Not just jockeys – although obviously people like Jim Crowley who was crowned Champion Flat jockey in 2016, George Wood, [Eventer] Francis Whittington did a lot of Shetland racing.”
We look forward to welcoming back the stars of the future on their miniature steeds for Royal Windsor Horse Show, 2021.