They say that behind every great man there’s a strong woman. Or the other way around. So it is. Ballywalter Farms plays host to Bertram and April Allen – the two young and successful Irish siblings taking the international show jumping world by storm.
By Becky Murray & Therese Alhaug. Photo Daniela Greis, Lena Saugen, Stefano Grasso & Christophe Taniere
Born in County Wexford, Ireland in 1995 it wasn’t long before a young Bertram Allen was making his mark on the world’s show jumping circuit. With a strong equestrian influence from his father Bert and mother Geraldine, Bertram was soon attending regular shows with his first pony Charlie B.
It was perhaps a sign of things to come as Bertram won every pony showjumping championship in Dublin – the 128cm; 138cm and the 148cm. At fifteen years old Bertram made his first team debut representing Ireland in the 2010 FEI European Pony Championships held at Bishop Burton. Here he won the individual gold medal and the team silver medal aboard his pony Acapella Z. This was only the beginning of Bertram’s team selection as 2011 once again saw Bertram represent Ireland taking both individual and team silver medals at the same championships – this time, held in Jaszkowo, Poland.
“I think it is important to learn from the best. I have been lucky to train with the right people, like Marcus Ehning and Billy Twomey. It’s nice to have people like them, dragging you into the right directions.”
In 2011 Bertram had steadily secured himself as one of Ireland’s top young riders to watch. It was later that year we saw Bertram alongside his eighteen-year-old sister, April, move from their home in Ireland to set up at Ballywalter Farm in Hunxe, Germany.
– I didn’t really have a plan after school, but it all fell together. It timed well as Bertram was becoming busier and he needed somebody to coordinate the yard when he was away travelling to shows.
“I didn’t mind the responsibility, being the eldest of seven meant I was probably more mature than most people my age anyway.”
A beautiful farm
Ballywalter Farm is set in a beautiful location. On arrival, we immediately notice the rolling grass fields where horses can enjoy just being horses; away from the hustle and bustle of the show circuit. The horses appear happy and relaxed at ‘the farm’. This culture, for this, is what it surely is, brings a general sense of well-being which the horses take with them into the arena.
The yard consists of ten stables in the stallion barn and twelve in the mare barn. Their primary business focuses on developing young talented horses in the sport, but they always keep a few exceptional ones for the bigger classes – such as ‘Molly Malone’ and ‘Hector’. This was also the case with the recently retired superstar ‘Romanov’.
Facilities include an indoor arena; outdoor sand arena and a small outdoor gallop track where the horses are regularly exercised. The yard also features stunning gardens which are regularly maintained by the team, everyone lends a hand (with even Bertram cutting the grass!). Just for back-up, they have help from a gardener who visits once a month.
In general, the siblings seem to have settled well.
How did the relocation to Hunxe happen?
-Between my parents and I, we had been thinking about it for a while. The plan was originally just to go somewhere for a few months to see something different, and I suppose, better training, as Germany has better access to the shows. From there it turned into a long-term thing, says Bertram.
Moving away at a young age Bertram and April could be forgiven for missing home, but they are both very balanced and mature about their situation.
-I miss it sometimes, but I know that if I want to do what I’m doing, I have to be here in Germany. So, when I look at it that way, then it’s ok, says Bertram.
“You have to be competitive and always do your best. And, as you clearly can’t win every time, you’ve also got to stay motivated.”
Today, Bertram Allen, is one of the youngest ever stars of the sport. When you study him riding, he seems to literally fly with his horse, effortless and light, man and animal as one – a natural.
– I think it is important to learn from the best, Bertram says. – I have been lucky to train with the right people, like Marcus Ehning and Billy Twomey. It’s nice to have people like them, dragging you into the right directions. Also, you have to be competitive and always do your best. And, as you clearly can’t win every time, you’ve also got to stay motivated.
“The horses like his way. You can see the bond is very strong. He’s naturally quite connected with horses, especially his style of riding – he doesn’t interfere with them. He trusts that they’ll do it and they trust him that he’s right.”
April and Bertram have fellow countrymen among the staff, and friends from home visit often. Their father Bert had already spent time in Hunxe ahead of their move, which helped them settle in.
– It feels like a home away from home, says April.
Before the move, the Allens were lucky to add their valuable show groom to the team, Marlen Schannwell, discovered on the equestrian job search website, ‘Yard and Groom’.
– In the end, Marlen was the reason the move overall went so well; she was brilliant. From day one she came out with Bertram. I think the key is to have good people around you, April says.
Some would say that it’s a daunting responsibility to set up a yard when only eighteen years of age. April confidently explains she was well prepared.
– I didn’t mind the responsibility, being the eldest of seven meant I was probably more mature than most people my age anyway, she says.
This maturity is evident in both of them, it belies their ages. They are confident and relaxed about the whole situation, essential when running a modern competition yard.
Bertram is well known for his performance in the show jumping arena but did April ever wish to join him in the competition ring?
– I used to compete in dressage for a number of years, so I brought the dressage horses to Germany with me to start with. I had planned to compete here also, but as the yard became very busy, I didn’t have the time. My own mare is now used as a broodmare, she explains.
“Bertram knows that I’ll have things organised when he’s away. It works both ways though, if he says he’ll do something then he’ll do it. There is a lot of trust and faith in each other. ”
Treat every horse differently
Keeping the horses happy is the main key to April and Bertram.
– Because I run the yard here with the girls, we do it the way we would do it in Ireland. Every single horse is different and in little small ways between the girls and me minding them you just might need to do something a little bit different or slower or gentler. You have to think about every horse when you’re doing them, what this one needs to get the best out of them, Bertram explains.
The move to Hunxe certainly proved to be a fruitful one as Bertram was selected to represent Ireland in the FEI Junior European Jumping Championships held in Ebreichsdorf, Austria in 2012, gaining individual and team silver.
In 2013 the FEI Junior European Championships held in Vejer de la Frontera, Spain, saw him once again as part of the Irish team which successfully secured team gold.
Going from strength to strength during this same year he stepped up to make his international debut representing Ireland as part of the Irish Nation’s Cup team in Linz, Austria where he produced a stylish double clear.
Teamwork and success
Bertram takes teamwork very seriously both inside and away from the show jumping arena. The two have assembled a strong team that ensures the smooth running of Ballywalter Farms, where the horses’ welfare is always at the forefront. The team consists of Marlen, and Bertram’s second show groom, Frederike Milse. They also have a talented home rider, Natalie Heusinkveld, and a home groom, Aga Czubak. This teamwork produces the team spirit that is so valuable at Ballywalter Farm. Culminating in the success and consistent results over the recent years.
– We feed at 7am, and the team starts at 7.45am. Some of the horses go to the field, while others go to the walker, and then everyone does the boxes together. We have lunch together every day, and we do a lot socially as well as working together, April says. – I think this is really important; it shows that we appreciate what the team does and how hard they work. In the beginning, there was plenty of hiccups along the way, things like vaccinations being missed – but we all worked well together, so there was never any disasters, April reveals.
“We have lunch together every day, and we do a lot socially as well as working together. I think this is really important; it shows that we appreciate what the team does and how hard they work.”
– How do you keep the horses at their best?
– It’s a mixture of different things, Bertram explains. -It’s about having the right system at home, keeping the horses fresh and not doing too many shows. The horses being able to go in the field keeps them fresh. The team at home and the people that ride the horses when I’m away is also equally important, Bertram says.
– The horses are allowed out in the field, and they can go into the arena to have a buck, they go hacking, and they enjoy life. They are not treated as machines; they are allowed to be horses. I think this is the key. Everything is kept quite simple, but the basics are solid. The quality of the hay is also very important, and in their boxes, they have nice deep beds of straw and some on shavings. Our horses have time by themselves in the stable and in the field – there is not someone always fussing over them, April says.
“The horses are allowed out in the field, and they can go into the arena to have a buck, they go hacking, and they enjoy life. They are not treated as machines; they are allowed to be horses. I think this is the key. Everything is kept quite simple, but the basics are solid.”
Characters and personalities
With eighteen horses at Ballywalter Farm, there are of course some standout individuals to mention! Seeing the stallion, Hector van D’Abdijhoeve showing off in the competition ring, simply makes showjumping much more fun to watch. Then you have Molly – the gentle fighter, who wants to do well and deliver all the time.
– Yes, they are all different, April confirms. – “Dave” (High Valley) has a big personality and is always up to mischief. “Casper” (GK Casper) loves attention from people, and “Molly” (Molly Malone V) is very sweet. Then you have “Hector” (Hector van D’Abdijhoeve) – a great personality – he has an awful lot of character about him, even though he is actually very sweet in the stable. He simply loves attention. And Katherine is a little bit of a clown; she’s always breaking things, laughs April.
Among it all, we can’t help noticing another four-legged star walking around like he owned the place. Doing exactly as he likes. – It’s the 25-year-old pony Magic Shadow, Bertram’s best pony back in the days, April says.
The sweet little pony is certainly enjoying his retirement at Ballywalter Farms.
Back in 2014, we saw Bertram, the youngest rider in the competition, win the first leg of the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games showjumping in Normandy, France. Finishing the series in a respectable 7th place individually, aboard the mare Molly, of whom April speaks so fondly. This pairing continued to excel; 2015 brought Bertram third place in the show jumping World Cup Finals held in Las Vegas. That same year saw another team appearance for Bertram, competing at the FEI Senior European Championships in Aachen, Germany, where Ireland took 7th place in the team competition.
“We don’t do too much extra coming up to the big championships. There are so many competitions through the year, so we try to keep it at a level, so the horses remain in the same routine.”
Having a packed schedule throughout the year has Bertram flying to some of the most prestigious show jumping competitions in the world. It is a wonder how they can maintain the buzz of excitement and edge, ahead of these big shows. 2016 alone saw Bertram compete in Cannes, Hamburg, Hong Kong, Monaco, Paris, Stockholm and Miami!
– There is excitement, but you can have so many ups and downs throughout the year. We don’t do too much extra coming up to the big championships. There are so many competitions through the year, so we try to keep it at a level, so the horses remain in the same routine.
Perhaps one of Bertram’s most notable equine partners along his journey was the great stallion Romanov. Together they produced winning rounds at the Global Champions’ Tour in Sellier, Paris and Hamburg in 2016. In March 2017 Bertram announced the retirement of the nineteen-year-old talented stallion.
– I do miss him a lot. He was a fantastic horse, and I had a special bond with him. But I know that he is happy with being back in Ireland, and it was time for his retirement now, Bertram says.
– We wanted Romanov to finish on the top of the sport and be remembered as the superstar he was, April adds fondly.
“I do miss him a lot. He was a fantastic horse, and I had a special bond with him.”
Bertram has already competed in Miami, Mexico Shanghai and Madrid this year, as part of the Longines Global Champions Tour, so we asked him about his plans for the rest of the year.
– Almost every week we’re somewhere! We have a hectic year, so we’re trying to get the right balance. I’ll be doing most of the Global Champions Tour, and I’ll try and do a few Nations Cups, then aim for the European Championships in Sweden later this year, says Bertram.
While Bertram is away, April has a full and varied day at Ballywalter Farm. From tending the horses and overseeing the running of the yard, to dealing with the paperwork.
– My day can vary a lot, but I’m happy to do what needs to be done. Bertram and I work apart a lot as he is away often, but we work well together. Our mum helps out too. She has a huge involvement and is always at the shows, Aprils says.
Bertram is happy about how things work out.
– Yes, April is in charge when I’m away, and she’s in charge when I’m here too, laughs Bertram.
Despite the siblings often working apart it is evident just how strong the bond is between them.
– Bertram knows that I’ll have things organised when he’s away. It works both ways though, if he says he’ll do something then he’ll do it. There is a lot of trust and faith in each other, says April.
A positive mindset
It isn’t just the bond between Bertram and April that we notice. The relationship between the rider and his horses is also a special one. Despite his success, Bertram himself is one of the more modest young men in the showjumping sport. He is rather quiet and relaxed by nature, gifted with an incredible talent and a strong dedication to the sport. He seems to have a kind of a positive mindset and lightness in his riding that makes the horses want to compete and fight for him.
– The horses like his way, April confirms. – You can see the bond is very strong. He’s naturally quite connected with horses, especially his style of riding – he doesn’t interfere with them. He trusts that they’ll do it and they trust him that he’s right, tells April.
“Every single horse is different and in little small ways between the girls and me minding them you just might need to do something a little bit different or slower or gentler.”
The siblings have been based in Hunxe for six years now and the pair confirms they have no plans to move from Germany. On the contrary, could the sibling duo become a trio now that younger brother, Harry Allen, is sixteen? A similar age to Bertram when he made his move to Germany.
– Harry is on his last year of ponies, and he comes here for competitions with us during the Easter and Christmas holidays and comes out as much as he can. I would think he’ll join us – he would love to anyway, the boys work well together – they bounce of each other well, says April.