From Olympic gold medallists to works of art, famous horses take many shapes and guises. Here Horse & Hound selects the most famous horses of all, and explains what brought them such fame. We begin with famous racehorses, racing being the horse sport most widely followed. A few brave thoroughbreds have really caught the public’s imagination, even helping to raise spirits in challenging times. One of those was Red Rum…
Famous horses in racing
Red Rum remains in the hearts of every racing fan who witnessed him winning the Grand National in 1973, 1974 and 1977. The horse came second in 1975 and 1976, too. His third win is considered one of the greatest moments in racing history. That 25-length victory was greeted by tumultuous applause and BBC commentator Peter O’Sullevan stating: “It’s hats off and a tremendous reception; you’ve never heard one like it at Liverpool. Red Rum wins the National.”
Red Rum was bred to win sprint races on the Flat and was an anonymous seven-year-old when a small-time trainer from Lancashire bought him in 1972. That trainer, Ginger McCain, a former second-hand car dealer, gave 6,000gns for the fifth-hand horse. He housed him in run-down stables behind his used-car showroom in a suburb outside Liverpool.
The gelding was lame on arrival and suffered from pedalostitis – an incurable inflammation of the bone inside the hoof. His condition was managed with therapeutic visits to nearby Southport beach, where he would gallop on the sand before cooling down in the sea.
In his previous role as a taxi driver, Ginger befriended regular customer Noel le Mare, then 84, who wanted a Grand National winner. Noel gave Ginger the money to buy Red Rum.
In a nationwide poll in 2006, 45% of the public asked to name a horse picked Red Rum. He retired a celebrity on the eve of the 1978 Grand National, when he pulled up lame after a gallop. Then 13, he was still one of the favourites.
The Josh Gifford-trained racehorse Aldaniti was part of one of the most tear-jerking racing stories in history. He won the 1981 Grand National under Bob Champion. The jockey and horse were a perfect pair. Having both been written off with serious health problems, they made remarkable comebacks. By winning the big race at Aintree, they captured the heart of a nation.
Bob had been diagnosed with cancer in 1979 and given a small chance of survival. He underwent a gruelling programme of chemotherapy, which gave him some hope. Aldaniti, who belonged to Nick Embiricos, made a spectacular return to the racecourse following a bad leg injury. He picked up the problem at Sandown in November 1979, and it put him on the sidelines for a year. When the duo lined up for the Grand National in 1981, no one expected them to win. But their story saw the public back them into 10/1 second-favourites behind Spartan Missile.
Aldaniti very nearly didn’t make it past the first fence, having landed too steeply and gone down onto his knees. However, Bob held on and the pair finished 41⁄2 lengths in front of Spartan Missile – literally beating the odds. It was one of the most popular successes in the history of the Grand National.
The chestnut gelding was bred in the UK by Harrowgate Stud and his name was derived from the names of breeder Tommy Barron’s four grandchildren; Alastair, David, Nicola and Timothy. In his retirement, the horse helped raise funds for the Bob Champion Cancer Trust, set up by Bob in 1983.
Aldaniti played himself in a film made about the moving story in 1984 called Champions, in which actor John Hurt played Bob. The horse died at the home of his owner in Sussex in 1997, aged 27, having suffered a heart attack.
A star of the racetrack in his lifetime, Whistlejacket achieved greater fame as the subject of George Stubbs’ renowned portrait. One of the world’s most famous horses, he hangs in the National Gallery, London. George Stubbs’ life-size portrait of the chestnut has a slightly wild look in his eye. The 1762 oil painting was last sold for £11m, and has been fêted as “a paradigm of the flawless beauty of an Arabian thoroughbred”.
Stories abound about how this masterpiece came to be. Some contemporaries suggested it was an unfinished portrait of King George III, being on a scale typically reserved for kings. When the real Whistlejacket saw his likeness on canvas, he is said to have reacted violently. Stubbs then considered his work complete and the king was never painted in. Others say funding simply ran out – although the 40 guineas commission looks a worthwhile investment today.
Whistlejacket belonged to the second Marquess of Rockingham. Born in 1749, he was by the Godolphin Arabian son Mogul out of a Bolton Sweepstakes mare. He was named after a cold remedy of the times, containing gin and treacle. He was a star of the track in his day, defeated only four times in a six-year career, and winning £2,000 in his final race. He retired to the Rockingham stud aged 10, where he was only moderately successful. He was known to have “a nearly ungovernable temper”.
Famous horses in service
Burmese was the first of four horses given to The Queen by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). The Queen took on the mare in 1969 when the RCMP visited Britain to ride in a display at Royal Windsor Horse Show. Burmese was trained by RCMP Staff Sergeant Fred Rasmussen.
Her Majesty rode the mare for 18 consecutive years in her birthday parade, Trooping the Colour. After 21 years’ service, Burmese was retired to Windsor in 1986. She died in 1990 and is buried at Windsor. While not serving as The Queen’s charger in Trooping the Colour, Burmese served her adoptive country in the Metropolitan Police Mounted Branch.
The horse’s fame became more pronounced when in the 1981 Trooping the Colour a young man fired blanks at the pair. Burmese skittered briefly, and was instantly calmed by her rider.
Warrior was born in 1908, a compact thoroughbred by Straybit out of Cinderella, and prophetically named. Of those famous horses who took part in battle, Warrior’s is perhaps the greatest story of all. Ridden for most of his 33 years by his breeder, General Jack Seely, Warrior survived four years of war. He spearheaded a crucial and gruesome cavalry charge to check the German offensive in Moreuil Wood in 1918. It is barely believable that Warrior survived all those blood-soaked battles in France. The Canadian cavalry, led by Seely, would say “the bullet hadn’t been made that could kill Warrior”.
On the very rare occasions he was lame and Seely had to ride another horse, his substitutes were killed. Once, while on watch, Warrior’s nose touching another horse, the other was shot. Twice, his stable was blown up moments after he was let out. Seely remembers during the Battle of Amiens, when Warrior was stabled in the drawing room of an abandoned French villa, it too was shelled.
“I said, ‘I’m afraid that is the end of Warrior,’” Seely writes in his 1934 book about his great charger. “But his head was poking out of the few bricks still standing, with the joist of the ceiling on his back.”
Seely’s grandson, racing broadcaster Brough Scott, says: “Warrior was the ultimate symbol of unquestioning, upstanding courage.”
In 1982, the IRA detonated explosives that killed seven horses. Sefton, one who survived, became a symbol of hope. It was 20 July 1982. Eleven soldiers died in the two explosions on that day. Four were soldiers of the Blues and Royals. Seven bandsmen of the Royal Green Jackets died in another explosion in Regent’s Park. “The poor horses; my poor soldiers,” The Queen reportedly said on learning of it. The names of the soldiers and horses are commemorated on a plaque inside Knightsbridge Barracks.
Sefton recovered from terrible injuries. He retired to the Horse Trust, where he died at the grand age of 30. He was then returned to Melton Mowbray, where he was interred at the Defence Animal Centre, in the aptly named Remount Road. His grave has a marble headstone and overlooks the fields where his modern-day successors graze contentedly.
Famous horses in dressage
Born in 2002, Valegro is the world famous horse who brought dressage to a wider audience with his rider Charlotte Dujardin. The pair won team gold at the 2012 Olympics and individual gold at the 2016 Olympics. At Olympia in 2014, Valegro beat his own world record in the grand prix freestyle, scoring 93.4%. During his career he set new records in all three types of grand prix.
The horse’s part-owner, Olympic gold medallist Carl Hester, gave the ride to his protégée Charlotte. She was to produce him as a young horse for Carl to ride later. But their partnership proved too strong to dissolve.
Although Valegro retired from competition after retaining individual Olympic gold at the Rio 2016 Games, he remains in work. The gelding continues to entertain his fans with special appearances. His official retirement ceremony took place at Olympia in 2016. There he produced an outstanding performance of his London 2012 freestyle to a packed house.
The black stallion Totilas broke records in all three grand prix tests ahead of Valegro’s time, ridden by Edward Gal. He was also the first horse to break the 90% barrier. British Olympic rider Richard Davison said of the horse: “You had to fight through people just to get a glimpse of him. He was incredible, the talk of the town.”
The horse’s conformation was harmonious from front to back. He was said to possess the ideal topline for collection and connection, with superb flexibility, too. He had an extraordinary ability to open his elbow, which created his expressive front leg action.
Totilas was sold to German owners in 2010 to be ridden by Matthias Rath. The new pairing were beset with problems. They missed out on the London Olympics when Matthias contracted glandular fever. Totilas then missed the 2014 World Equestrian Games due to injury. The pair did hit form for a time, beating Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro twice, but never reproduced top form on the world stage. After helping the German team to European Championship bronze in 2015, Totilas was retired from competition. He continued breeding duties until his death in 2021.
Blue Circle Boy
Sir Lee Pearson says both he and four-year-old Blue Circle Boy “knew nothing about dressage” when they started. But the pair went on to win three gold medals at the Athens Paralympics – in the team, individual and freestyle events. They repeated the feat with triple gold at the 2002 European Championships in Portugal. At the 2005 European Championships, they won another team gold, plus individual and freestyle silver.
“My being disabled and having a horse of such beauty and power made people sit up and look,” says Lee. “We took on the world within para dressage. He carried me to become the first British dressage rider with a disability to become a national champion [elementary restricted in 2004]. He put para dressage on the map.”
The first time Lee saw Blue Circle Boy, he’d gone to buy a horse from a local lady in Staffordshire who had a yearling colt she kept in her garden. “He was bright dun, his dam had died when he was a day old and he was bottle-fed,” Lee recalls. “Three-and-a-half years later the lady phoned and said she had this stallion in the field. I went to see him and he was a massive, shaggy thing with hair down to his knees. A couple of months later, after castration, we put him on the lunge and we were dragged round the field by this golden monster. I just planted myself with my crutches while he kept slipping around. He was a bugger, but a very talented horse.”
Famous horses in eventing
New Zealand event rider Mark Todd’s Olympic gold medal-winning ride Charisma achieved a great deal more than would be expected of any 15.3hh gelding. The horse became a national hero and one of the most famous horses in New Zealand after winning two consecutive gold medals at the 1984 and 1988 Olympics.
Nicknamed “Podge” because of his love of food, Mark fondly described the horse as “a fat, hairy pony”. He had a prolific international record, winning the British open championships twice and enjoying several wins across Europe.
In 1987, Mark had his eye on a Badminton victory, which was not to be as the event was cancelled due to bad weather.
“1987 was the year the Whitbread Trophy had Podge’s name on it, or so I believed,” said Mark in his first autobiography, So Far, So Good. “I was devastated. If I kept him in training the following year as a 16-year-old, it would be to defend his Olympic crown in Seoul, which would definitely rule him out of Badminton, so he’d missed his last chance.”
So despite winning back-to-back individual Olympic gold medals, Charisma never won a British four-star (now five-star). He finished second at Badminton in 1984 and 1985 and at Burghley in 1987. Officially retired at the age of 16, Charisma was flown back to New Zealand, where he completed a gold medal tour of the country, and then spent his retirement on Mark’s Rivermonte Farm.
Postmen in British event rider Mary King’s Devon village became accustomed to fielding letters addressed to: “King William, Devon” in the 1990s. “I suppose there weren’t any other King Williams,” laughs Mary.
The fan mail started after she and the 17hh gelding won Gatcombe in 1991 and by the following year, hundreds of letters were arriving. With his prominent blaze, alert demeanour and increasingly consistent one-day-event record, the famous horse was easy to recognise.
His celebrity status was cemented in the biblical rain and mud at Badminton in 1992. Arriving in the 10-minute box, 38th to go, Mark Phillips delivered Mary the news that no one had yet gone clear. As she set off, Mary found herself praying: “Please God, look after William.” They rode the first clear of the day, with Mark’s advice to kick on and ignore the mud ringing in Mary’s ears. Despite painstakingly rubbing nearly every showjump on the final day, King William knocked just one. Mary took the Badminton title for the first time; a childhood dream realised at the age of 30.
“Winning Badminton is in a league of its own; it’s like a jockey winning the Grand National – virtually everyone in the world has heard of this occasion, and it’s your big, famous moment,” she wrote in her 2009 autobiography.
Priceless was arguably the greatest of Ginny Elliot’s famous horses, taking her to her first Olympics and giving her the confidence to aim high with all the horses that followed. His purchase price of £900 turned out to be an incredible investment, although he was suffering from a curb when Ginny went to view him at Diana Scott’s Brendon Hill Farm in Devon. Diana had bred him, by Ben Faerie and out of an Irish hunter mare, Reckless, and had hunted him as a four-year-old.
“Priceless was plain and small — he stood at only 16hh — but in his favour he was a big mover,” recalls Ginny. “The decision on whether or not to buy him rested on how he jumped a ditch, and he flew it. He turned out to be an incredible eventer. He never deviated from a line and you could turn him on a sixpence. This gave him an advantage and he almost always made the optimum time despite this being the era of long-format three-day events.”
Priceless won Burghley, Badminton and world and European gold. At the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, he clinched team silver and individual bronze. Despite the cross-country being an imposing four-star, Priceless didn’t make a single mistake, and he also showjumped clear. The gelding was retired at 12 – having achieved so much, it was only right that he should bow out while still at the top of his game.
Famous horses in showjumping
Stroller was a showjumping sensation, a little bay pony who took on the world’s greatest and most famous horses – and beat them. At around 14.2hh, Stroller was among the smallest of stars but also among the greatest. He was a TV sensation whose fans wrote to ask for hairs from his tail. Bought as a junior showjumping pony for a Hampshire farmer’s daughter, Marion Coakes, Stroller and his rise to international fame summed up every young rider’s dream.
“When I came out of juniors at 16, Dad wanted to sell Stroller. It seemed the natural thing to graduate to horses,” Marion recalls. “I pleaded with Dad not to sell him, but to let me start open jumping with him.”
It became a showjumping sensation that a child’s pony was soaring over spreads, parallels, banks and ditches better than most of the world’s great horses. He won the formidable Hamburg Derby in 1970. Marion recalled: “When we sailed over the last fence, having completed the only clear round, the crowd of 25,000 went crazy. It was the most exciting moment. We had completed the 50th clear round ever on the course – and the first by a woman rider.”
Stroller’s greatest triumph was in the 1968 Mexico Olympics. He was suffering from a decayed and split upper tooth. It was decided to give him painkillers and steam inhalations rather than risk an extraction just before the contest. Marion won the silver medal and was fêted on her return to Britain and named Sportswoman of the Year. Retired in the 1970s, Stroller lived until the age of 36.
One of showjumping’s most famous horses, the 2008 Olympic gold medallist’s life and career was cut short when he was 15. In 2008, Eric Lamaze became Canada’s first Olympic showjumping champion following a thrilling climax to the equestrian Olympics in Hong Kong riding Hickstead. All the medals were decided in a jump-off and the gold only at the very last fence.
Eric and Hickstead jumped off against Sweden’s Rolf Bengtsson on the compact Ninja for gold. Eric and Rolf had jumped the sole double clears of the competition. They both finished on the same time, 38.39sec, but Ninja crashed through the final fence, a multi-coloured wall.
Hickstead died in particularly tragic circumstances when competing in Verona, where he had been taking part in the fourth round of the World Cup. Hickstead and Eric had just completed their round when the 15-year-old stallion collapsed. The cause was later revealed to be a rupture of the main artery supplying his heart. Riders requested that the competition be cancelled and filed into the arena in tears to pay their respects with a minute’s silence. FEI president at the time Princess Haya described Hickstead as “a horse in a million”.
Foxhunter is credited with bringing showjumping to the attention of the British public, making him one of Britain’s most famous horses. Sir Harry Llewellyn began his partnership with the horse after buying the six-year-old bay for £1,500 in 1947. The gelding won an incredible 78 international competitions, including the King George V Gold Cup three times. He won a bronze medal at the 1948 Olympics, then most notably team gold, this being the only British gold medal at the 1952 Olympics. He retired in 1955.
Norman Holmes of Thrussington, Leicestershire, produced Foxhunter. He bought the horse as an unbroken four-year-old in 1944 for £60 from his breeder and hunted him with the Quorn only a fortnight later. He changed the horse’s name from Eelskin to Foxhunter, schooled him as a showjumper and went on to win top-level classes at county shows. “He was very easy to break in, had a kind eye and so much quality,” said Norman.
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