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27-year-old pony ‘still absolutely flying’ ticks major title off his ‘bucket list’

Rider Jas Willis pictured with mounted games pony Merlin at the Horse of the Year Show

A mounted games pony who had won titles around the world has finally ticked the Prince Philip Cup off his “bucket list” aged 27.

Gemma Hopkin’s 12.2hh Welsh pony Merlin, ridden by Jasmine Willis, was part of the North Herefordshire Pony Club team that took the honours at the Horse of the Year Show (HOYS) last month. The team also won the Naylors Cup.

Monmouthshire-based Gemma bought Merlin, an established mounted games pony then competing for England, 14 years ago and over the years he taught her two sons, Ben and Sam, to ride.

“Ben was only seven and people couldn’t understand why I was buying him, but I knew if I didn’t the opportunity wouldn’t come up again,” Gemma told H&H.

“For 18 months I took Ben and Merlin to the riding school every week and Ben learned to ride and jump. When Ben was about nine they started competing with the Pony Club.”

Ben and Merlin became the ones to beat in mounted games. Over the years they won six individual world titles, six world pairs titles, and a number of European wins. They were also part of the winning Welsh team at Royal Windsor.

Ben’s younger brother Sam took over the reins in 2018 and enjoyed much team success with Merlin, before the pandemic struck. When competitions restarted Sam had outgrown him and young rider Jasmine now has the ride.

“He’s won just about everything and we’ve travelled all over the world with him, but the Prince Philip Cup was the one we still had to tick off the bucket list. Ben and Merlin were second with Monmouthshire Pony Club in 2017, so for Merlin to finally get the win is really special. It felt like he deserved it,” said Gemma.

Merlin is managed for PPID [pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction], but at 27 Gemma says he is the “picture of health” and “looks a million dollars”.

“He’ll compete next year, but we’ll drop him down to Pony Club level. He is such a character and he loves life, he just thrives on it. He was bouncing behind those purple curtains at HOYS waiting to come out. He loves those lights,” she said.

“It’s not the end of the road for him and he’s still absolutely flying. But he doesn’t owe us anything. He has a heart of gold and the heart of a lion.”

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