‘He’s like an Aston Martin with the charm of George Clooney’: meet the superstar Connemara who is off to RIHS

  • Meet the stunning Ardough Boy, an impeccably bred Connemara who is helping his young rider, 15-year-old Xanthe Anstee Marriott, achieve her showjumping dreams.

    The pair won the Winter JC qualifier at South View on 5 February with an impressive triple clear and will now be aiming for the final at the Royal International (26-31 July).

    But while Xanthe’s mother Georgina describes 14-year-old “Airde” as “an Aston Martin DB7, who rides like a twitchy fighter plane, with the charm and manners of George Clooney”, he’s far from a push-button ride and the whole family have worked immensely hard behind the scenes to produce him to this level.

    “Everyone falls in love with him,” says Georgina. “He’s the most amazing character and is more pedigree than I am! He’s really beautiful and incredibly well put together – a real working hunter stamp – and he has the most amazing power and athleticism when you ride him. But he has quite a back story!”

    Legendary bloodlines

    Airde was bred by Arthur Graham in Co.Carlow and is by Shannon Prince out of Cymbaline, with his dam-line tracing back to the legendary Connemara stallion Templebready Fear Bui. The 14.1hh gelding is now co-owned with David Howden from Cornbury Park and it was David’s sister Miranda Fairhurst who bought him as a six-year-old from Diamonds Equine Centre in Galway, despite having been introduced to him with the words “there’s not many that can ride this one”.

    “I describe him as a twitchy fighter plane because he hates it if you’re out of balance and Miranda found that even putting her feet in the stirrups was frightening him,” explains Georgina. “But she fell in love with him and bought him.”

    Airde went on to compete at BE90 and BE100 with Jess Rimmer, followed by David’s eldest daughter Jemima Howden, but when she outgrew him the gelding was turned out for a while until Georgina received a call from a friend in the summer of 2020 saying “you have to try this pony!”

    “The problem was he isn’t your average child’s pony, even though he’s such a kind character,” says Georgina. “He’s got one foot in another dimension and he’s always on the lookout for something to worry him – he’d be a bit of a runaway, but because he’s also incredibly light-mouthed he won’t ever get strong. So if you put weight down the rein, he’ll just shorten his neck, his poll will be high and his back will drop and he’ll be running away with you – even in walk!

    “Nobody had sat on him for a while when we tried him, but we legged Xanthe up and she was led around the arena a bit tentatively for a while until it was suggested she moved up to trot – at which point he went straight through trot into a medium canter, running away with his chin on his chest. My husband Richard said ‘Go into half seat, keep your hands low and stay in neutral balance until he relaxes’. 45min or so later they were still going! But eventually Airde must have thought ‘This running away isn’t getting me anywhere’ and he came back to trot, then walk, and Xanthe came back to us with a huge grin on her face.

    “Miranda asked if we wanted to try a jump on him, but Richard said, ‘No, we’ll have him!’”

    A year of learning to speak the same language

    Airde was delivered to the family the next day – “Before anyone changed their minds, I think!” laughs Georgina.

    It took them around two months to get him rideable enough to take him to his first show, where Xanthe and Airde attempted their first British novice class at Arena UK.

    “Poor Airde was beside himself with concern – there were ponies and people everywhere. He has a really big bubble about him, he doesn’t like anyone in his space and he’s not super keen on men, so he came to the first fence in the collecting ring and took everything with him,” remembers Georgina.

    He continued to “bolt his way through” a few 80cm classes in the early days, with Xanthe under instruction to add lots of “roundabouts”. The pair persevered and after plenty of patient schooling rounds, they began to form a really nice partnership, although it took the best part of a year of “playing with him, learning to speak the same language” before they jumped their first Foxhunter.

    “If we hadn’t done that and just kept steering and jumping, we’d never have got past his brain racing – and credit to him,” says Georgina. “We’ve found with all our horses that if you spend a lot of time on the foundations, when you ask them the next question you’re more likely to get a positive response. We’ve always bought ponies that need producing, or reproducing, and we really enjoy the journey.

    “Airde doesn’t have a classical technique, but he’s so careful and so aware of his body that he means to jump those fences cleanly. His technique is improving and he’s getting more consistent because he knows his body and he knows where Xanthe’s going to be – in balance and forwards, she’s not going to surprise him or shock him. You can see he’s very measured.”

    Airde loves her “beautiful hands, supreme balance, and eye for a stride” says Xanthe’s coach Di Lampard.

    Heading to Hickstead

    Unfortunately as Xanthe is now 15, this will be her last year in ponies, so she’s hoping to go out in style with Airde at Hickstead in the summer. This will be her second trip to the Royal International after she qualified for the winter 138cm championship with her previous pony Printers Assassin.

    “Airde jumped his first 1.15m at Bury Farm in September then his first JC-level class at Aintree, jumping a lovely clear in the first round before having a rail in the first jump-off to finish eighth,” says Georgina.

    They headed to South View last month and, despite a fall in the JA classic beforehand with her other pony, Xanthe rode three super rounds to win the JC qualifier with Airde.

    “It was the biggest track Airde had ever done, but he went in there intending to jump three clear rounds – he was fabulous,” says Georgina.

    “Xanthe was third to go in the jump-off and she rode to her plan and went into the lead – they are very quick together. Xanthe is a very forward rider and Airde has the most amazing ground-covering stride. He’s scopey too, and he lands with his hind leg underneath him and travelling. He’s just really efficient.

    “Everyone at these premier shows is so generous we’ve found – for kids to be jumping at that level, they have to be doing something right and everyone knows how hard it is, you have to hit the bullseye every time. So many people came over to congratulate Xanthe, but also to Richard and me. It was amazing.

    “Hickstead was the major dream so we’re really looking forward to it now!”

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