If you’ve been around the show circuit for any length of time, the chances of you never having heard the names Jess and Rhys Stones are next to zero. Two of Australia’s best-loved and most decorated riders, the couple have been equestrian professionals for many years, and have combined their extensive showing and show jumping knowledge under the banner of J & R Equestrian.
They’ve both competed successfully at a national level, and have represented Australia internationally. Jess is one of Australia’s most decorated show riders, with over 100 Royal Show Championships as well as numerous State, national and Horse of the Year titles. And at this year’s Royal Melbourne Show, having placed second on two previous occasions, she added the much-coveted Garryowen Equestrienne Turnout to her lengthy list of wins.
Rhys, one of the country’s elite athletes, is a Royal, Horse of the Year and Grand National winning show rider, with the Australian Show Jumping Speed Championship, the prestigious AQUIS Gold Champions, and the Australian Mini Prix and Speed Championship all to his credit.
Along with Jess, he also has an enviable reputation as a successful trainer and producer of a wealth of quality horses. We recently caught up with Rhys and asked him for his take on some of the elements he considers essential to building a solid foundation for show ring success.
Selecting your horse: First things first: if you’ve decided that showing is the discipline for you, your choice of horse is critical – and to a very great degree, that choice will depend on the division in which you’d like to compete.
In Australia, show horses are exhibited in three divisions: Pony, Galloway and Hack. Entries in the pony class mustn’t exceed 14hh, a galloway must be over 14hh but no more than15hh, and a hack is over 15hh. Whether you enter in the show horse or show hunter class – a hunter is a horse with more substantial build and bone – is up to you, but you can’t enter in both categories.
While there’s no doubt that Thoroughbreds still dominate the show ring, Rhys believes that no matter what the breed, a nice horse is a nice horse irrespective – a certain breed or colour doesn’t necessarily equate to a winning horse.
“I think a good show horse should have attractive facial features, great conformation, elegant movement – three great paces is a must – and overall ride-ability,” he suggests.
The number one virtue: Once you have found your horse, what’s next? “Patience, patience and more patience,” Rhys quips. “Patience is the number one virtue when it comes to producing horses. Trying to rush or push them on to the next stage of their education when they’re not ready can be completely counterproductive.”
For Jess and Rhys, education is the number one priority: “We start work on our horses’ training well before we try to improve or develop their condition. If you approach it in reverse, you’ll be attempting to train a horse that’s uneducated but on full feed – and trying to get them to settle down and listen to you in that state can be unnecessarily time consuming and frustrating. Always go for education first, and as that progresses, you’ll find muscle and great definition will follow through along the way,” Rhys explains.
It’s the basics: For Rhys, success in the show ring is all about the basics: “Everybody tends to forget the basics. A good walk, trot and canter are really all you need. We train our horses to be up in the front so that they are essentially working off their hindquarters. But they’re not dressage horses that need to perform half passes or other tricky movements. They just need the fundamentals: how to go straight, to move away from your leg, and to come off your hand. I just can’t emphasise the importance of the basics strongly enough.”
Rhys reminds me that a show horse isn’t a racehorse either. “They don’t need an intense fitness regime, but they do need to be conditioned, fit and healthy – and the way to achieve that is through good management. It’s easy to get your horse to the top of their game, but much harder to maintain it. It’s only good management that takes into consideration each horse’s individual needs that keeps them in peak condition. Like any athlete, the horse needs to be at ease and confident within themselves. When they’re well, happy and relaxed, they’ll give you the best outcome. If your horse isn’t happy, it shows, and that will lose you competition points,” he adds.
In the show ring: In Rhys’s opinion, ring craft is an essential but a difficult skill to master: “The thing is that some people, like Jess, for example, have it naturally while others don’t. The skill is to remain relaxed while you’re experiencing the pressure of competing, and that can be hard. If you get flustered or upset, or if you’re anxious, that communicates itself to your horse. The slightest fear, the slightest wrong move can create a chain reaction of negative aids that will spoil your performance.”
Rhys and Jess train a lot of riders, but can’t teach them how not to be nervous. “Even the best riders get nervous,” Rhys remarks, “but it’s the way you manage your nerves that’s key. Horses pick up on the slightest nuances of body language, and they then become a mirror image of their rider.”
Rhys believes that a rider’s emotional state is of such importance to their success in the ring, that if anxiety is getting the better of them, they should consider making the time to learn techniques that will help them manage their nerves.
“The long and the short of it is that your nerves will always get in the way of you producing a winning ride. You become a good rider when you’re relaxed, confident, in the moment, and not worried about what anyone else might be thinking. That’s when you’ll produce your best result,” he concludes.
Based in NSW, husband and wife team Jess and Rhys Stones have together created J & R Equestrian. They offer a comprehensive range of services including training, breaking–in, clinics and competition preparation. Email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org for further information.