A young Wairarapa equestrian and self-confessed “adrenaline junkie” is riding high – having been selected to represent her country two years in a row.
Fifteen-year-old Alexandria “Poppet” Anstis has earned a spot in the Under 18 New Zealand mounted games team – heading for the World Mounted Games Team Championships in Australia in October.
This will be Poppet’s third appearance in the international ring. Last year, she was one of the youngest riders to qualify for the New Zealand Under 18 squad – accompanying the team to the World Championships in France as a reserve, and competing in several side tournaments.
A week later, she competed in the World Pairs Championships in Ireland, where she and her partner finished fourth in their age group.
Poppet’s international selection has come as part of a successful competitive season, with several podium finishes – including first equal at the Under 15 New Zealand Individual Championships over Easter weekend.
The season ended last weekend, with her qualifying for an all-ages squad heading to South Africa for the Mounted Games Nations Championships [for non-European countries] in December.
In the mounted games discipline, riders take on various fast-paced tasks from the back of a cantering pony: Hitting targets, collecting and dropping off various objects [such as mugs, bottles, socks and tool boxes], and passing items between team members.
Some tasks involve leaning over the side of a pony to pick up an object, or dismounting and remounting in quick succession – and all must be completed at high speed.
The secret to Poppet’s success in the “extreme sport” of the equestrian world? “A lot of training” – and an unflappable attitude.
“After each game, lots of riders listen to their scores when they’re read out. I never listen – I block my ears every time,” the St Matthew’s Collegiate student said.
“If you know your score, you can get into your head and get nervous. I have no idea where I am, or if I’m ahead or behind anyone else. I just go out there and ride, and try and get it right.
“It helps if you’re a bit of an adrenaline junkie as well.”
Poppet’s cool head has earned her several high placements this season: Including second in the national Under 15 Pairs, fourth in the Under 18 pairs, and first in the New Zealand Junior Teams Championships.
All her titles were achieved on a borrowed horse, as the pony she usually competes with was recovering from an injury.
Competing with a less-than-familiar horse can be “nerve-wracking”, but nothing Poppet, as a seasoned equestrian, can’t handle.
“I did have about a month to train with the pony I have been using. But I have gone into some games with a pony I’d only just sat on that morning.
“It is harder, especially if your borrowed pony isn’t as used to mounted games. You have to help them out a bit. But you do what you can – otherwise, you don’t compete.”
For riders and their ponies, physical fitness is paramount – and Poppet spends most afternoons and evenings training.
“You have to do a lot of basic dressage routines to build up your pony’s muscles – so they can do things like stop suddenly and make quick turns. I usually train for at least two hours after school, or until it gets dark. Mum usually helps me set up and reassemble all the equipment.”
Poppet said competing in France last year was a “good learning curve” – getting used to riding on sand instead of grass, early morning and late night training during a record heat wave, and competing on a pony trained in “a completely different riding style”.
She wasn’t as happy with her performance in the reserves tournaments, but thrilled with her result at the Pairs Championships in Ireland – where she rode on yet another borrowed pony and with a UK partner she’d only met the day before.
“I was assigned to two other people, but they pulled out. I didn’t know much about Heidi [her eventual partner], other than that she was a good rider.
“But we got on really well. You need to have a lot of trust in your partner – you have to hand things to one another while going past at high speed, and if anyone makes a tiny mistake, it can all fall apart.”
Her performance earned her high praise from the president of the New Zealand Mounted Games Association, mum Louise Hight said.
“He said she’s done the best he’s seen any New Zealander do overseas, on a borrowed pony – and that she can be very proud of herself.
“We’re all proud of her. She’s accomplished so much.”
Poppet will begin training with the New Zealand team later this month, with monthly training sessions divided between the North and South Island.