To many, managing horses is now all about the science. Of course, sensors that measure under-rug temperature and remote training devices can help us no end. But working with another living being is never an exact science.
That’s why apprentices to the horse world need to work on watching, listening, feeling and developing gut instinct. Honing equine sensitivity takes time, common sense and, sometimes, thinking outside the box.
The late, great racehorse trainer Henry Cecil also owned dressage horses. And I once asked him if, when he had two equally good horses entered for the Derby, he could tell which would win?
Yes, he told me. Every morning at silly o’clock when the yard was still quiet, he would creep round his stables watching his horses. Currently, Henry confided at the time, he had a two-year-old called Frankel. Nobody knew it yet, but that horse would be the biggest winner he’d ever had.
I wish I’d placed that bet.
Defying the odds
Some horses need minimal work and more hacks, some need to jump, some need seven days’ riding, some need holidays. And it’s up to us to work it out.
One of my horses, Belmondo, had the following written on his veterinary notes: “Have told the owner to put down and she won’t.” Well, several years of competing and international placings later, he retires this year sound, to teaching. How? No shoes, no boots or bandages, but time in the field with regular work.
I’m a firm believer that with some horses you can work them sound. Riding a horse straight, level and with an even contact, thus working the muscles correctly, can act as a type of physiotherapy.
It can also work with people. When he saw the results of a bad break in my back and a crooked spine, a doctor prescribed no more riding and a disabled car sticker. I was left with a choice; to give up or to try harder not to. So I unretired, doubled my exercise and lowered my blood pressure. My should-be-dead horse and I have loved this season, however unscientifically.
‘A valuable lesson’
Another scientific intervention I dislike is results predicted by computerised statistical analysis. Where’s the fun in watching tests with commentators telling us, “This pair is predicted to get 80%”?
Gareth Hughes’ European Championships performance defied those statistics. Gareth, you blew them out the water! Carl Hester, too, is a genius, and Lottie Fry was a superstar.
I hope Charlotte Dujardin will take away a valuable lesson from Rotterdam. Many years ago, I too marked a horse with a spur; it happens and I lost that owner. I learnt my lesson — to move forward, one has to accept with humility the damage done.
We should never hurt horses in any way, and to remain mainstream media friendly, equestrian sport cannot afford horses to have any blood on show. Airbrushing incidents is not the correct approach to take. Racing and now showjumping have air-cushioned whips; is it time spurs were reinvented?
I’ve been asked which is the greater sin, rollkur or blood on the horse’s side. The answer, in my opinion, is both.
Ref Horse & Hound; 26 September 2019