Growing old disgracefully

  • “My 20-year-old Trakehner, Muschamp Kangaroo, is known as Victor Meldrew at home,” says leading four-in-hand driver Karen Bassett. “He gets more and more grumpy in the stable — snapping his jaws and stamping his feet — these days. He’s the left lead in the carriage, but if I have to put him in the wheel, he sulks, pulling the carriage on his own and upsetting the others.”

    He’s not the only one. Eventer Karen Dixon acknowledges that her 18-year-old Too Smart wouldn’t have many friends if he were human.

    “If my little girl is toddling past the stable door, I wouldn’t put it past him to lean over and nip at her,” she says.

    If the “grumpy old men” syndrome often sets in with the passing of years, it doesn’t seem to affect performance. Many of the horse world’s still-competing senior citizens remain at the top of their game. While some become set in their ways, devising ways to get out of competitions does not rank high on the list of tricks acquired.

    Believing they know better than their riders, or anticipating what is coming in competition, however, is common and can have all kinds of repercussions. When Anna Ross competes Diana Fry’s dressage master, 20-year-old Mr Beau Jangles, at prix st georges, she has no need of a caller.

    “He knows the test so well, you couldn’t take him off the pattern,” she says. “When we did our first intermediaire I, he was convinced he should be doing a prix st georges!”

    When it comes to jumping — cross country or in the ring — it seems that the old timers do not so much anticipate the way around a course as know indisputably how to tackle it.
    Owner Robert Verburgt and rider Di Lampard have just retired the outstanding show jumper Abbervail Dream at 17.

    “He certainly became course-wise. Making up his own mind about how a track should be jumped became both his strength and his weakness,” says Robert.

    John Whitaker twice won the Hickstead Derby with veterans and his son Robert now competes the 20-year-old Randi. For the Whitakers’ older equines, it seems it’s a matter of “courses for horses”.

    “They let you know the kind of course, type of arena and so on that suit them, and those are the competitions you pick for them,” explains John.

    Carolyne Ryan-Bell says that her 24-year-old eventer, Hooray Henry II, knows that he mustn’t touch the poles in the show jumping phase, even though they knock down easily. With five Badmintons and three Burghleys under his girth and now competing in open novice classes with Livy Maxwell-Jones, there is nothing this old campaigner doesn’t know about eventing.

    “No martingale when you tack him up means dressage — and excitement,” laughs Carolyn. “He does tend to predict the test in the arena, extending the minute he gets on
    a diagonal.”

    Like Hooray Henry, many veterans round off their careers as schoolmasters to younger riders. One widespread characteristic, it seems, is refusing to do something — perform a dressage movement or jump a fence well — unless ridden correctly.

    Rosie Morton-Deakin, who has taken on Vicky Thompson’s one-time dressage ride, the 18-year-old Enfant, and recently did her first grand prix with him, nods in agreement.

    “He knows where the pirouettes are in a test and will collect in readiness, but he won’t do them unless you ask properly,” she says. “However, he can count — if you forget to ask for the last flying change in a series, he’ll put it in anyway!”

    If all these horses and others like them have developed foibles in older age, what of ponies — who have “wily” programmed on to the hard disc? Top event pony 17-year-old Harry Hotshot is convinced he is at last 2hh higher than he really is. Now ridden by 15-year-old Charlie Knapp and scooping up the prizes, the pony eschews any home practice.

    “He’ll just run out at jumps; the more embarrassing he can make it the better he likes it,” says Charlie’s mum, Ros. “At a lesson with Dick Waygood at Combermere Barracks in Windsor, Harry pinged over a big combination, but when Dick beckoned to a couple of soldiers to watch, he immediately ran out at the second part.”

    It is, of course, the care shown to all these veteran equines, combined with the fact that they know and enjoy what they are doing (providing the rider comes up to their high expectations!), that keeps them going and helps them maintain their success.

    If they are quirky, grumpy, or will only do things their way, their owners understand and love them for it, not least because they know that they will rise to that big occasion. Take them to a show and the idiosyncrasies — and years — fall away.

  • This feature was published in full in Horse & Hound (15 July). To purchase a back issue (tel: 020 8532 3628)

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