Have you ever competed at an Equestrian Life Championships, the chances are you’ve been judged by one of the most flambouyant, funny and knowledgeable judges on the circuit.
It would be hard to miss his irrepressible character but we wanted to delve a little deeper to find out where the knowledge and love of horses originated.
Russell Marks’ grandfather used to work in the pits and would regularly be seen giving Russell rides around the villages. This led to Russell having his own pony at around the age of eight and becoming a member of Rugby Riding Club.
After school hobby!
Still at a very young age, Russell got chatting to a dealer by the name of Malcolm Smith and he would go and ride his ponies for him at the weekends; they were all showjumpers and competing on the affiliated circuit.
It wasn’t long before Russell found himself working for another dealer by the name of Ernie Morrow, who was based locally to him in Kopspatch. He would go and ride four or five ponies every evening after school, schooling them and earning commission on them when they sold.
Fast forward a few years and Russell clearly had both the bug and the knack of bringing horses on. A visit to Ireland to stay with a friend found him at another dealers’ yard belonging to Roddy Dean and Brian Lusk. He was only supposed to stay a few weeks and that turned into several years. Russell said “this yard was like nothing I’d experienced before. There was a guy who just did the long-reining, another who backed them. My job was to ride them away and then they’d be sold”.
Russell continued “I was about 21 years old and found myself moving jobs to go and work for Nicky Hutton as travelling groom. Nicky was on the Young Riders Team and we travelled extensively over a four-five year period.”
After this invaluable learning period working for Nicky, Russell went to stay with a friend in London and, after visiting a local livery yard ended up staying longer than he had bargained for, working at a really busy yard with close to 50 full livery horses, and with it being the 80s, many of these were owned by well-known TV stars and singers. Russell said “they were mostly hobby horses to be honest, the glamorati wanted their equestrian fix!”
Hitting the Big Time
Russell got bored though of the livery lifestyle and wanted to competition lifestyle again and found himself working for event rider Chris Hunnable. He worked for Chris for five years and travelled everywhere with him and the horses, taking in all the big events, including Badminton Horse Trials. “He’s absolutely the most amazing person to work for, a great guy!”
After five exciting and busy years at Chris’s yard, where Chris had shown Russell the basics of showing as well as eventing, Russell met someone and it took him across the UK to Worcestershire. Looking to keep his equestrian connections, he quickly met a lady by the name of Julia from Saltmarsh Stud. Julia specialised in Welsh Cs, Ds and part-breds and was a keen competitor in driving trials. Julia judged and was on many panels and it was here that Russell really developed his love of showing and the native ponies. Julia had encouraged Russell to really learn all he could, both ride and conformation and pushed for him to get onto many judging panels, which he did and so many he is still a Member of today.
The love of Judging
Russell’s riding started to take a back seat as the interest in judging took over. When not judging, he was teaching a child regularly and it was through this connection that he came to be so involved with Bill Bird Shoes. The child’s Mum used to make shoes and the process fascinated Russell, so she taught him the basics of how to make a pair of shoes, and as thorough as Russell is, he became extremely proficient very quickly. He approached a local business, Bill Bird Shoes who offered him a part-time job for three hours a day.
Russell started at the bottom at Bill Bird, working through each department and learning all the technical aspects of the business. Fast forward 20 years and Russell is now a majority shareholder at Bill Bird Shoes and runs the workshop. He is in the fortunate position to be able to work his hours around his passion for showing and judging.
Russell says “M&Ms are my passion. Being on 16/17 panels, I love it and I do a lot for TSR, mentoring and assessing and I’m massively excited to be involved in a new Society starting soon called R.E.S.S. (Rescue Equine Showing Society). I love to give back to the showing community and will do my best, if free, to judge at local level too. Riders generally appreciate the feedback and grassroots has produced some fabulous combinations over the years who have gone on to make great names for themselves and achieve some brilliant results.”
Russell married his long-time partner, Simon, a few years ago and they have continued to make their home close to the Bill Bird offices. Simon, himself a knowledgeable Judge had to sadly take a back seat when he was taken ill with cancer. Fortunately in remission but suffering with joint pain, Simon spends many hours at home, happy to potter about.
Being home most of the day has though introduced a new hobby for the pair, dog breeding. Russell said “not sure how it happened, but one dog has become eight! We really enjoy breeding them though and the Frenchies have the best temperaments It started initially as a way to keep Simon company, but we keep expanding our family and we love it.”
Lockdown has brought its own challenges to many families but Simon, finding Russell at home 24/7 decided the best way to occupy his time and ignore the interruptions, has taken up Crochet. His efforts can be caught on camera when Russell surreptitiously will video him, however, what started as a bit of fun has become a small cottage industry with Simon getting orders from followers and friends.
The other sad fact of Covid-19 has been the cancellation of so many events for 2020. Russell commented “I’m missing the shows and the social side of life but, looking ahead, I am obviously having to think of Simon who is shielded, so it is not so easy for me to take any Judging appointments, however, it might just not be practical for this year unless the strictest of rules are in place, so I’m not worrying too much about 2020 for now, but depending on what happens, if we can get out to an event, it will be wonderful to see everyone (at a safe distance). Should that not be feasible, then roll on 2021, which we will make a year to remember.”
Read this and other great interviews, stories and features in the June/July issue – online from Monday 1st June.
Photos courtesy of www.emmpix.co.uk