In February 2019, Australian eventer Sophie Adams, 31, flew out of Melbourne to begin working and training in the United Kingdom with her 8-year-old thoroughbred gelding, Touch Heaven, and 10-year-old Irish Sport Horse gelding, Ridire Dorcha. Sophie has ridden at FEI level since she was 19 and has competed as high as four-star here in Australia — however, it was time to broaden her horizons and gain international experience.
Her UK adventure began with the rider that sits atop the FEI Eventing World Athlete Rankings, Oliver Townend. “Ridire Dorcha had been previously owned and ridden by Oliver and we had known each other for some time, so it was the obvious place to start,” says Sophie. She spent most of the 2019 season there, before renting a yard in Surrey on the property of good friends Bryony Holloway and Paul Wedge. “I got a few more horses to ride for the end of the season and rode some here, there and everywhere for other people.”
When the 2019 season came to a close, Sophie had to sadly part with Aussie thoroughbred Touch Heaven. “It was incredibly sad but I had to find a way to pay for my season somehow,” she explains. The reality is that making it work abroad often comes with tough decisions.
However, the closing of the 2019 season also brought positivity in the shape of new opportunities. “When the season finished and all of the eventers went out in October, I had some spare time on my hands before I went home for Christmas. An Aussie friend was working for Will and Pippa Funnell at The Billy Stud, which happened to be close to my yard, and suggested I give them a call to see if they needed any riders. I ended up riding for them for six weeks until I went home for Christmas and absolutely loved it…. so much so I agreed to base myself with Pippa and ride for The Billy Stud full time!”
Run by Pippa and her showjumper husband William Funnell, The Billy Stud began as a joint venture between William and friend Donal Barnwell more than 20 years ago. Over the years they developed a successful breeding program for the production of homebred British sports horses, and today the stud produces many horses that compete at the elite level.
Sophie describes the past six months at the stud as an amazing experience. “Where do I start! Pippa is an incredible trainer. She is very generous with her time in training me from the ground, but I often learn just as much from watching her ride. She will often talk me through what she is doing and feeling as she is riding and as it’s happening.”
A British eventing legend, Pippa Funnell has been at the top of the sport since the ’90s and boasts Olympic, WEG and European Championship medals for Great Britain. She was dominant in the early to mid-2000s in the big CCI5* events (previously four-star), winning Badminton in 2002, 2003 and 2005, as well as Kentucky and Burghley in 2003. Her hat-trick of wins in 2003 meant she was the first person to claim the Rolex Grand Slam of Eventing. Although her success continued over the years that followed, a big win eluded her and she was plagued with pain from a couple of serious falls that at one point had her questioning whether she should retire from competition. Fast forward to 2019, and the reinvigorated 51-year-old won Burghley CCI5* on five-star debutant MGH Grafton Street. It was an outstanding win that perhaps surprised Pippa more than anyone!