Tales from the eventing Euros: the medal contender who is 15.2hh on her tiptoes — ‘she’s got a big heart’

She might be the smallest horse in this year’s field at the Longines FEI European Eventing Championships in Luhmühlen (28 August-1 September), but according to her connections, Rioghan Rua doesn’t know it.

“We tried to measure her one day and she didn’t like it, but we got her at around 156/157cm, which is just under 15.2hh,” says her jockey, Irishman Cathal Daniels, who is also one of the youngest competitors in the line-up at just 22. “Her lack of size doesn’t matter — she’s got a big heart.”

Cathal, who is from Co. Kildare, was given the on ‘Red’, who is by Jack Of Diamonds, out of a Flagmount King mare, by her owner/breeder Margaret Kinsella, when she was six.

“Margaret called me after I set up my own yard and she asked me if I would like to have a go competing Red,” explains Cathal. “She’d done a bit of pre-novice eventing [1m] and the idea was that I would produce her to sell on as a junior eventer for her owner.”

But that plan soon went out of the window after clocking up some remarkable results, including winning team gold at the junior European championships in their first year together in 2013, when Red was six and Cathal just 16.

“Her owner then decided to keep her and have a bit of fun. So the next year we went to the junior Europeans at Bishop Burton and won team gold and individual silver. The following year we went to the young rider Europeans in Strzegom, where we were sixth and won team bronze and then went to Boekelo [CCI4*-L] that autumn for the senior Nations Cup where we were on the winning team.”

The rise and rise of Cathal and Red didn’t stop there though. When she was nine she finished 12th in what was both their first five-star and then it was full steam ahead to Badminton in 2017.

“She had a big scare in the dressage at Badminton and that took a long time for her confidence to bounce back from that,” explains Cathal. “We went into the arena and the roof of the grandstands were flapping in the wind. We got into the arena but halfway through our test she noticed the crowd was all around her and was a bit like a deer in the headlights. She stopped and started looking around and didn’t know how to go left, right or forwards or backwards. Crowds affected her after that — when she saw them she would get very stressed.”

Cathal says that he went back to the drawing board with Red to try and get over this issue.

“My trainer Ian Woodhead has put hours and hours into her and we’ve had to try a lot of different things, but we’re starting to get her relaxed.”

Since that Badminton debut, and despite the dressage blip, Cathal and Red have continued to impress on the international stage.

“In the past two years we’ve won Chatsworth CCI4*-S, won a team silver medal at the World Equestrian Games in Tryon and this year she won the Bramham CCI4*-L under-25 class and now she’s here. She’s been an incredible horse and she’s still young at 12 — hopefully she’s got a big future ahead of her.”

Cathal says that Red is quite a character, but then that is probably what makes her so good.

“She’s really nice to be around — for a chestnut mare she’s not sour or anything like that, but she’s highly opinionated. She’s tricky but she’s good, so we’ll put up with it,” he laughs, also saying that she didn’t necessarily stand out from the crowd due to her stature at a young age.

“She was always a little chestnut mare and maybe not a lot was thought of her at the start. I always liked riding her but she was difficult so you’d never know which way it was going to go with her. She’s always got better and better across country and when she went to her first championships as a very young horse at six, she always stepped up to the game across country very easily without feeling like she was under any pressure. And I kind of thought that it might be like that as we went up the grades but never knew for sure, so we just kept testing the water and she kept answering the questions. She’s got a lot of fight in her.”

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As cross-country day at the 2019 Europeans dawns, Cathal and Red have a real shot at a team medal and a strong individual result thanks to producing a test worthy of a mark of 29, which puts them in 13th place at the moment.

“I couldn’t be happier with her score,” says Cathal. “She’s never found the dressage easy and with a lot of work and time we’ve got into the 20s at a championship, which for us is a big deal. I thought she coped in there very well — I’m so happy she’s gone in and produced a test that we know she’s capable of.”

Check back for more updates from the Eventing European Championships in Luhmühlen all week, plus full report in next week’s Horse & Hound magazine (dated 5 September).