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“God, he is enormous,” says Olympic, world and European dressage team member Carl Hester.

At William Funnell’s yard in Dorking, he looks over Julie Slade’s Cortaflex Mondriaan, stable name Danny, for the first time. The tightly pricked ears and kind expression of this year’s Hickstead Derby winner help to calm Carl’s butterflies.

“He looks seriously powerful, I do hope he’s well bitted,” asks Carl. The answer — a snaffle — does not fill him with confidence.

Although Carl’s name is synonymous with dressage, in the past he evented to intermediate level. But show jumping a horse of this calibre is an entirely new ballgame.

When the big bay 12-year-old is tacked up Carl climbs on to the, thankfully large, mounting block as a step up to Danny’s 17.2hh. For the Dutch-bred gelding it is also a bit of a change, since William can count the number of people who have jumped him on one hand.

“The first time I sat on him when he was a four-year-old I knew the jump was there,” says William. “I promise you he’s a very easy horse to ride. If you steer him to the fence, I can guarantee he’ll take you to it and jump it.”

Carl Hester enjoys jumping William Funnell's top ride Mondriaan

Carl settles in the saddle and begins the session with a little bit of dressage. “He is very responsive,” notes Carl, doing some lateral work. “I thought today I was going to get a break from going sideways.”

William gives Carl a placing pole to a cross of planks to break him in gently and Danny jumps it in style. The planks are raised, the placing pole is removed, and Carl is told to canter to it.
“Ooh, I’m not sure about that,” he says, but Danny is foot-perfect.

Meanwhile, the “work force” has been building a course and, despite his trepidations, Carl is sent off to jump the seven fences. His grin afterwards says it all.

“He really makes you feel like you can ride,” he says. “You feel so safe on him and you can tell that, whatever, he’ll look after you.”

“Now it’s getting serious,” says William and puts the course up to around 1.40m. “Are you sure this is ok?” asks Carl, as he inspects the new height. “You’ll be fine,” replies William, “just ride more forward through the turns, particularly down the last line.

Now Carl is flying, and Danny puts in a perfect round, finishing with a bounce and a toss of his head. It is difficult to tell who has had the most fun.

“Dressage is my first love,” he says, “but this was a chance to throw caution to the wind and just go for the thrill, and boy did he give me one. What a horse to have the chance of riding. It didn’t matter what I did, he was ready for it. It almost makes me wish I did do a bit of show jumping, although I was relieved to discover the horse wasn’t jumping at Olympia.

“I hadn’t realised how supple a show jumper has to be,” continues Carl. “To move a horse through a combination, and shorten, lengthen and make minor adjustments to a fence, you have to be made of India rubber.

“Twelve months ago, I jumped for the first time in years — someone sent me through a very short double on a show jumper. It felt like I had nearly broken my back. This has confirmed that my perception of a show jumper as unfit is completely untrue. I’ve used muscles and bent my body in ways I didn’t think possible. In twenty-four hours time, I’ll have the bruises to prove it.”

  • This feature was first published in Horse & Hound (21 December, ’06)