Choosing who should be the Big Personality leading into International Women’s Day was a tough decision to come to and one I’ve been thinking about for quite some time. It isn’t that I don’t know any inspirational women, but rather because I know a LOT. And as is the way in life, these women are amazing for many, many diverse and wonderful reasons; and there is simply no one that is better than the other.
But, when I interviewed Kirsty McWiliam about a month ago I decided there and then to save her story and use it to mark the occasion. All too often when we think of who should be held up as a beacon for these times, we look to women who are older, who have lived a long life and who have countless stories to tell. And normally, I’d say this was right; many of these women fought hard to give my generation and those coming up behind me a loud clear voice, the freedom to be our own person and ability to make a mark on the world around us.
Which is why, today, I wanted to tell the story of a young woman who has grabbed life with both hands and ridden into it with a passion and gusto that will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.
Kirsty McWilliam lives in Killiecrankie, Perthshire and has been riding horses for as far back as she can remember. When she was tiny her Mum kept horses and at the age of two she would climb onto the wall, pull herself up by the mane and sit on their backs.
“Horses are great with kids, although I would say that particular story comes with a ‘Don’t try this at home’ warning! I was just one of those little kids who was fearless. Mum’s pony died when I was about five or six and it wasn’t until I was ten I began to ride properly. I begged to go to lessons and I started with this lady who was ex-Navy. She was a real sergeant major with us too and I was a hyperactive kid who just wouldn’t listen. I didn’t make a good rider, but I loved the horses and I knew I wanted to stick with it. When I was given a taste of Equestrian Vaulting that was me; I loved it.”
Her mum enrolled her into the Gleneagles Vaulting Group where she shone from the start. By the time she was thirteen she was competing for the Scottish Team and at fifteen she was on the British Team; throughout this she showed the steely determination required for performance level sports.
“I remember all the time asking for a pony. I meant it every time I said it but I never once thought I’d get one. Then one day Mum took me to see this gorgeous pony called Dinah and told me she was going to be ours. Well, we had her on loan. She lived behind the house and I would ride her after school and get up to muck out. She was amazing. But I outgrew her and she eventually had to go to another home which is when we got Rocky.
Rocky taught me the difference between a pony and a horse. At fourteen I was showing real promise for vaulting but I needed to be more disciplined and put the work in. He was my first vaulting horse and the one I learned to ‘mount in canter on’. I would go out galloping, in the river, on the road. In fact I remember going out for an afternoon and getting lost up in the cairns at Balnaguard. There was no phone signal and I didn’t get home for hours. My mum went crazy.”
Kirsty had immersed herself in vaulting by this time; she wasn’t a fan of school or studying – ‘they didn’t support dreams like mine’ - but was driven and focused, knowing that she could become the best in her chosen field. At fifteen she competed in Slovakia and Saumur in France and was in the first British Vaulting Team to come first at an International FEI vaulting competition. From there she travelled to Italy, (coming fifth in the European team championships), Austria and Holland competing individually and as part of a team.
“I loved the whole thing. The team spirit was something I caught really early on and doing something you love with your friends seemed like the best way ever to spend your time. I was travelling all over; I really couldn’t have done it without my Mum and Dad dedicating themselves to it with me. We travelled to the Borders every weekend and you know, it’s an expensive sport at that level. There were sacrifices made so that I could do what I loved and I know that. But I think my Mum especially wanted me to have it because she would have loved to have done it at a young age. It gave both of us a huge thrill.”
She left school at only sixteen and moved to England to work with a stunt team called The Devil’s Horsemen. It is at this point in our chat I realise how just how young she was when she started laying her path to her destination. And yet, there is no hint at a thought she might have been too young, no suggestion that she knows this was an unorthodox choice for a teenage girl to make. Her plan was to become a stunt double in films and school could play no part in moving that forward. She knew she had to ‘get in there, and meet lots of people.’
“Yeah, but once I started I realised that the horses were the part I loved. I’ve always had clear ideas about what I want from life and they include a family and a home. I started to see that a life in films doing stunts just didn’t allow for that and so as much as I loved the idea of the job, the reality of it just wasn’t for me. I wanted the other things more.
Anyway, about a year and half in I had to come home due to a back injury and it gave me some time to think. My Mum practices the Bowen technique and she really helped me get well and get focused. That’s when I decided I could set up my own stunt team, train horses and build a life doing what I love here in Perthshire. I was only eighteen but I could see it right there in front of me. I had been given everything I had wanted within reason but I wouldn’t ask for this. I knew the only way I could have these horses I wanted was to get them to work for their keep.”
Kirsty set about putting her plan into motion; she needed a career to give her some financial freedom and cash to build the business. As a vaulter she had to be incredibly fit and she so she applied to the David Lloyd Centre in Glasgow to train as a PT, travelling to and from there and home, doing courses and building her reputation. She also trained in the Bowen Therapy that had helped her so much while she’d been recovering and between both, she soon found she had enough clients to give her a self-employed income while she worked on her long-term plan.
It is this big, bold ‘let’s do it’ attitude that I find so fixating about Kirsty; just how rare a thing it is to be THAT focused at the aged of eighteen? Don’t get me wrong, to know what you want, what needs to happen to get you there and how long the inevitable detour will take is comparable to some degree to the route many teenagers take when they decide on a career, head to Uni and work hard. But this wasn’t Uni. This was something else altogether and in order to make it happen, Kirsty had to carve her own path. There was no application form, no support service and certainly no equivalent of a student lifestyle. That is why it is so damn impressive.
“I started with the vaulting group, Pegasus. I set it up as a non-profit making organisation and offered lessons to young kids in the area. Rocky was of course, our lead horse and I spent my time training him and the kids. I created a group that I wanted to be part of - we’re very much a family at Pegasus – and that’s probably why it worked. It’s not about one person, it’s about a team.
Once the group had been going a couple of years I selected a few of the team who had shown real dedication and asked them if they wanted to try something different. Enough of them said yes and so I set up Riders of The Storm when I was twenty one and launched it with me and the kids as the stunt team.”
I know! It sounds like something out of a Disney movie. In fact I’m thinking I should re-write this and send it to Hollywood as a script! Kirsty explains that they put word out they were now a Stunt Display Team, used her PT earnings to pay for the initial set up and on March 1st 2011 the website went live. Four days later they had their first booking from Drymen Show.
“They had booked us for the May and although we’d been practicing suddenly it was real. It was so exciting. Our first show was Scottish themed with these old tartan cloth costumes. I learned as I went with a lot of it – I remember the insurance being really expensive and although the shows covered the cost of us getting there and back we weren’t making any money. But I was okay with that because I knew we had to do it that way to get our name out there. I could promote the lessons and generate more interest in Riders of The Storm.”
At the time they were the only Scottish trick riding team, although there was a French group based on the borders. However, the combination of trick riding and vaulting was unique and they were the only youth team around. The sheer spectacle of this young woman, a group of kids and gymnastics on horse-back was enough to grab everyone’s attention and they received an amazing response.
“Looking back it wasn’t nearly as good as we are now but we were different and everyone loved us. We started travelling around doing different shows and seeing new places. The little ones are like sisters now, everyone is so close.”
Kirsty choreographs all their original shows, and over the four years they have been working together they have developed a breath-taking repertoire of thrilling displays and awe-inducing stunts. However, first and foremost the show must be entertaining and she takes her inspiration from cycle stunt teams, ballet and other dance acts.
“The fluidity and shapes are the same, you just need to think a little outside the box to make it work on horseback. Twice a year we write down ten things that would be really cool to do and then we figure out what we could make work. The kids are all involved and of course they don’t rein in their imaginations; they run wild with ideas. Last year they wanted to do something with two of us on a horse and one really long coat – you know, like in the cartoons. We figured out where it would work and we fitted it in so I was sitting on the horse with one of the kids sitting on my shoulders, and wearing this really long coat. It is very funny.”
The themes for the show now cover Scottish - still the busiest – Wild West, Medieval and Circus. They also do Charlie’s Angels with three bigger Angels and three smaller ones taking the mickey. They have had a rave on horseback in the dark, and last year they started theatre shows which they write themselves.
“We act and tell a story on horseback; we did ‘Freezin’ last year which was an adaptation of Frozen and we sold out at the Angus RDA centre. The Hallowe’en one is now in year two and it’s becoming really quite famous, with the Professor Alcatraz story now in two parts! We built in all sorts of spooky stuff like turning the kids into ponies and using the trick riding to move the story forward. It’s really impressive and we’re hoping to sell it to bigger arenas – the admin of the ticket sales was a pain. We want someone to book us, pay us and do all of that! And then all we have to do is practice, turn up and put on an amazing show!”
The idea of acting and using the horses in a production has always been with her, after all her first thought was to do films. But it was after Kirsty was invited to do some film work for the BBC that things took off for her in this area. The director Folko Boermans approached her after working with her being interviewed on the Landward Show and asked her to join them on the filming of The Quest for Bannockburn. They needed someone to train the horses and then carry out the stunt work on camera. She had only four months to train a small horse – it had to look like Robert The Bruce’s horse – and then get it on set and galloping across the Scottish countryside in battle.
“It was epic to see it on screen. I was a bit overwhelmed to be honest. Since then I’ve gotten involved in the Soldiers of Killiecrankie re-enactment and I train all the horses for this as well. We’ve got ten horses in the business now and I need to think of ways to keep them all gainfully employed!”
She has certainly achieved that. As the demand for Riders Of The Storm has grown, so too has Kirsty’s business savvy and she began to realise that people had a real interest in their amazing displays of horsemanship. With her Mum on board helping she branched into horse schooling and boarding, paying the girls who come to the vaulting to help with the mucking out and riding. They all love it of course, and it draws a very neat circle around her business.
She then began to look at other ways she could use her skills and the horses they were now keeping and training. Over the past four years they have added day camps and residential camps to the mix, inviting people to come along and have a go at stunt riding. They also offer rider confidence courses, showing people how to fall off a horse, and they offer Ultimate Stunt Days once a month. Throw in Pony Parties for kids, Hen and Stag get-togethers and fabulous Riders of The Storm merchandise to buy on the way out the door and you will begin to see that the drive and focus that had a young teenage Kirsty drive to Glasgow to train as a PT so that she might fund her big idea, has never left her.
“The summer is busy, jam packed with shows. And we do our vaulting lessons with the Pegasus team all year round. But we needed a way to make it all work off season and in between shows so we started to offer the extras and you know, people came. It’s been amazing.
It feels as though it’s been gradual, building a bit on every season and adding to what we do with new ideas and better offers. We started the residential camps last year and work with Faskally chalets for accommodation. People come for five days and enjoy an intensive trick riding course. We wanted to make it really easy for them so it includes the accommodation, use of the pool, all their meals and fab goodie bags of Riders of The Storm stuff. I’d have loved it if I hadn’t been involved – and thankfully everyone who came agreed. “
I wanted to know when she realised they had made something that was WOW, in demand. When did it become real for her?
“It crept up a bit really. When I got the brochure back this time round I was amazed at all the different parts of the business and all the photographs of us in action. It was a bit like... ‘Do we do that? Do we do this?’.
I appeared on the front cover of Equi-Ads, a horsey mag and then Murrayfield called me recently to enquire about a private event. These big people are contacting us now and it’s so exciting for everyone involved. But it was when The Duncombe country park in England called I felt like we’d gotten somewhere, our first show over the border. I know there are teams down there that they could have booked so it’s thrilling that they chose us.
Apart from that, the vaulting team competes at national level. Pegasus is still a not-for-profit company, training young athletes and helping them work up to a performance level. We came second at the British Championships last year and we’re hoping to go again this year. There are eighteen kids come every week to lessons and to train for competitions, and then some of them come back again as Riders of The Storm to practice for shows and open days. They’re all dedicated to making this work.”
I recall her opening statement about the Navy Mistress she trained with and I wonder if Kirsty’s own phenomenal standards and drive spills over into how she teaches others. Is she a bit of a task master?
She flashes me her extra wide smile and laughs.
“I don’t think I am. I do have high standards but I’m not a sergeant major. I lead by example so everyone who comes to my classes sees me mucking out, sees me training hard and grafting. At the end of a long day I’m there with them, part of this family we’ve created and I think they all respect that. We need certain standards because health and safety is so important – we’re basically kids and horses and stunts – can you imagine the risk assessment?
I ask them to do the fitness regimes, I ask them to do their conditioning. But they all come back, three times a week when schools out. They have jobs with us because they love it so much. So, yes, I do have high standards but then I think we all do now. We do it properly and we do it well because that’s what we all want.”
Finally, I wonder if this wonder woman on horseback ever takes a breath.
“Well, I bought a house last year with my boyfriend so that’s taking up some of our time, and we like to go skiing together. I started because he does it, it’s good to have something we do together. I know my life is full on and I love that he gets it; he supports me a lot. In fact he does all the music and lightening for our theatre show – it’s quite useful that he’s a bit of geek really!
For me it’s all about living life for experiences. I did the Beast Race last year and it was brilliant – I was just head down, focus and training and running. By the end of the summer season I always need a holiday and we had a week in Aviemore skiing this year. But I don’t really know what to do with all that time away without the horses and the kids so I end up calling my Mum everyday asking her questions about them all! I find it hard to switch off, but I’m getting better at it. I’m just a work hard, play hard sort of person I guess.”
Kirsty McWilliam is twenty six years old today. She has single-mindedly stepped off of life’s traditional path to tread her own, bolder, brighter track. She has dreamed big, focused, worked hard and created something huge out of her own vivid imagination. And in doing so, she has opened the minds and fired the passion of an entirely new generation of children below her. She has taken the opportunities that generations of women before her fought for turned them into a life free of restrictions and doubt and full of rich, colourful experiences.
In a year when the theme for International Woman’s Day is ‘Make It Happen’, I’d say Kirsty was my obvious choice.
Happy Birthday to her. And Happy International Women’s Day to all of you.
If you’ve been tempted into trying out Kirsty’s Ultimate Stunt Days or if you’d like to keep up to date with where they’re heading for next check out the website or follow them on social.
They provide lessons in vaulting, trick riding, jousting and horse boarding. Private and group booking available throughout the year. Experience holidays and camp days run throughout the Easter, Summer and October holidays. Pony parties, birthday, stag and hen parties are welcome, with bespoke packages to suit.
For more information contact Kirsty on 07784119377 or email info@ridersofthestorm.
Ben Wilde has an impressive resume. At the age of 25 he is director of his own audio business with a solid reputation in the music industry, and a cli
Scott Burton's path from troubled teenager to minister of St Matthews on Tay Street is as surprising as his pink mohawk! Here's how it all happened!
August 10th Friday
Graeme Pallister, Chef Patron of 63 Tay Street in Perth talks about his life's great passions and the road that has brought him to rest at happy.
August 3rd Friday
Read all about Peggy Brunache, the woman behind the soul food at Southern Fried Festival in Perth.
July 20th Friday