Caitlin Bell and Piwi enjoying the cross country at the Dunstan Fiber Fresh National Equestrian Centre in Christchurch

Caitlin Bell became introduced to equestrian sports when she was in an “environment that was unhealthy” in the first couple of years at high school.  Two years on, she is packing up her suitcase and horse, and heading to the Southern Institute of Technology in Balclutha to train as a rural animal technician. 

It has been an interesting journey for the 17-year-old, breaking into a sport that many of her peers had been involved in since their early days at Pony Club.

“I was going through a challenging time at high school and decided to look for a hobby as an outlet from the bullying that was affecting my mental health,” says Caitlin. 

“So, I took a few riding school lessons with Tricia Johnston at the Rolleston Riding Centre, and it started there.”

She says coming into equestrian sports as a teenager wasn’t as easy as you would think.

Caitlin lives in Rolleston, Canterbury with her career firefighter dad and her mum who multi-tasks between her Kids in Space business, relief teaching and working with Students Against Dangerous Driving.

She is the only one in the family that rides, although there have been quite a few links to horses in the past.  Along with distant aunts and cousins who rode, her great-grandfather was a steeplechase jockey in the North Island some years ago.

“It was quite difficult to find people to help you. I think they kind of looked at me and thought that – as an older rider – I should know what I am doing.  And they just didn’t think I needed a hand. 

“So, I relied on my coaches and my ‘equestrian family’ to help me get through, to be there to help me.  Especially my mum who knows nothing about horses, but she’s really helpful even though she is not a horsey person.” 

Caitlin Bell and Piwi

Caitlin does not own a horse but was given the opportunity to ride a lesson horse called Piwi, a 12-year-old Arab Pinto cross from Elranchero Pintos in Dunsandel and owned by Deidre Swain.  

She receives coaching from Emily Swain and has continued working with Trish Johnston at the Rolleston Riding Centre, often popping in to help out with lessons and the school holiday programmes. When it comes to competing, Caitlin says it is hard to keep her age and lack of experience in context with that of her peers.

“You might see a rider competing and they look your age; but you might have been riding for a year and they have been riding since childhood.

“I’ve learnt that you need to be kind to yourself and not to have expectations that you can achieve what others have been doing for many years.  Rely on your coaches and your family, and love the horse first and foremost.”

Last season, she took up eventing.  She says Piwi was bred to be an endurance horse so eventing wasn’t straight forward for the pair, but she did manage to get some good dressage results.  She has also enjoyed competing at the Secondary School Equestrian Champs in Christchurch for the past two years.

She says that horses have truly turned her life around.

“Horses have really helped me to take a step back and be in the moment.  What people say about horse therapy is true – they’re good to be around.”

Recently, Caitlin helped out at the Yileen Park racehorse stud for two weeks as farm manager in charge of 11 horses and three foals.  Owned by family friends, she has now taken on a TB mare called Trish that will travel with her next month to Telford, the SIT’s historic southern campus.  The 60-year-old facility extends over 856 hectares of farmland with halls of residence and facilities, technical workshops (machinery, carpentry and welding), classrooms and livestock units, including grazing.

“I definitely want to do some showjumping, but right now I’ll be bringing her back into work and get some fundamentals down, so that she can rely on me, and I can rely on her.  She’ll be the first horse I’ve done all the work on for myself,” she says.

Christmas fun for Caitlin and Piwi

She says that it’s the support of people she has come in contact with that has made all the difference to her journey.

“Definitely my coaches have been brilliant at helping me in my mental health journey, and not having my own horse but having the horse that they have let me ride has been incredible.

“But my advice is not to compare yourself to others your age as they are all at different levels and some ride every day like you want to.  And to put the horse before the sport.”

We met Caitlin during the Strengthen and Adapt Roadshows held throughout the country last year as part of a Sport New Zealand initiative.

“It was nice that a big and important organisation was going back to the people that matter and asking what they think about it and what they think could be improved and really cool to have a voice.”

For now, her next goal is to complete her studies.  She has a full year of study with the Level 5 certificate course at Telford. Previously, she successfully completed an equine course at the National Trade Academy and passed equine skills level 2.  She is also chasing two achievement standards to get six more level 2 English credits in NCEA. Then, she will focus on her long term goals.

“I really want to compete for New Zealand, and be that good that I would have the backing to be able to do it.  I’d also love to be a coach and teach people what I’ve learned, and be that support person for them as well,” says Caitlin.