‘Every child has dreams — thanks to It’s Otto all of mine have come true’

  • It's Otto was the horse who put Geoff Billington's showjumping career on the map. This week's guest editor tells us what his former stablestar was like...

    ‘Otto’ was sent to Geoff Billinton by his owner Gerard Lever as a six-year-old — along with another horse called Mancuso, who, according to Geoff, was also a good horse but was eventually sold to America.

    I knew Otto was special straight away,” says Geoff. “By the time he was eight we were competing on Nations Cup teams.

    “Before I got the ride on Otto he had won just £100, by the time his career finished he had won £700,000 in prize-money.”

    He was a horse who not only captured the hearts of showjumping fans but also cemented Geoff’s career in the saddle.

    “What made him so special was that he was just better than the rest. He had an abundance of scope and was very brave — he loved his job. He wouldn’t just give a fence inches — he would give it feet,” he reflects.

    “When I first got him, he was a massive horse (16.2hh) and had no clue about what to do with his body. He was a big novice horse and it took him at least six months to figure out how to use himself.”

    The Dutch-bred gelding was sired by Sultan — a stallion Geoff says is best known for siring dressage horses.

    ‘He never ran out of scope’

    Together Geoff and Otto formed a formidable partnership, competing in two Olympics — Atlanta in 1996 and Sydney in 2000 — plus numerous Nations Cup appearances.

    They went on to compete at the 1997 European Championships in Mannheim and then the 1998 Rome World Championships — where they picked up team bronze medals on both occasions.

    “We didn’t actually win that many grands prix — we were second a lot. Twice in fact in Calgary which is considered the biggest grand prix in the world,’ says Geoff.

    “He wasn’t the quickest horse because he was careful and spent so much time in the air. He was a horse who never ran out of scope.”

    ‘There wasn’t a dry eye in there’

    Geoff fondly describes Otto as the best horse he’s ever ridden. “He loved attention and always knew he was the best. He was incredibly spoilt and loved carrots and polos. He was fond of people but never that keen on being near other horses, he would pull faces in the warm-up,” says Geoff.

    He was a quirky character — in the ring he would face anything you put him at but at home he was spooky and often needed a lead hacking around the farm.”

    Otto was retired at the age of 15, nearly a decade after Geoff had first sat on him. “After the Sydney Olympics we decided we wanted to retire him at the top. He had a huge send off at Olympia — I don’t think there was a dry eye in there,” remembers Geoff. “At the time I said: ‘Every child has dreams — thanks to It’s Otto all of mine have come true.’”

    Continued below…

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    ‘He touched people’s hearts’

    In retirement Otto remained at Geoff’s Cheshire yard and he would often ride him during lecture demonstrations.

    “During his career, Otto was only ever hand-grazed for hours on end because of the risk of injury — when he was retired we turned him out. I thought he would go mad but he stuck his head down straightaway.”

    He enjoyed the life of Riley for nine years in retirement before being put down aged 23 and he is buried on the farm where Geoff is still based.

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    “He was such a popular horse — after Milton retired he was the next horse people really loved. He had a huge fan club who always sent him treats.

    “He was a horse who simply touched people’s hearts.”

    Don’t miss this week’s showjumping special issue of Horse & Hound magazine (31 March 2016), guest edited by Geoff Billington

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