Irish event rider Sam Watson describes his progression with Horseware Ardagh Highlight, with whom he won a team silver medal at the World Equestrian Games in September, as “definitely one of the most interesting journeys I’ve had with a horse”.
Sam had always known that Horseware Lukeswell — who went on to be his 2015 European Championships ride — and his three-year older brother GFG Rambo Man, a three-star horse with Austin O’Connor after starting his career with Sam, had another brother, one year older than Lukeswell. All three were bred by Teresa Walsh and are by Puissance out of the Kings Servant mare Gentle Servant.
“Ardagh Highlight had sort of been the missing horse from that family — we knew there was a horse that age that had been bred at some point but we didn’t know where he was,” explains Sam. “Initially, I just got a phone call from someone who’d spotted him entered for a sale at Goresbridge and as I wasn’t going to make the sale, I rang the owner and asked about him.
“I ended up buying him over the phone, without being able to sit on him or see him in the flesh, which wouldn’t be characteristic how I normally do things, so that terrified [my wife] Sparkles a little bit.”
But it was when the horse arrived on Sam’s yard, at that time in Britain although he is now based in Ireland, that things really took a strange turn.
Sam explains: “He turned up with ‘Ben’ on his passport — which is the same name as Sparks’ brother who had died about a year earlier, so that was quite spooky — but the really spooky thing is that he’s got the same birthday as her brother too. They were both born on the same day in February, which was really weird.”
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Sam says that Ben was “a talented horse from the word go”, who reminded him a lot of Horseware Bushman, his first four-star and championship horse — another by Puissance.
“He shares his desire to do his job and his enthusiasm for cross-country,” says Sam. “That’s Ben’s real passion — to gallop and keep ears pricked and look for the next fence.”
In his first season eventing, as a nine-year-old, Ben progressed quickly from BE100 level in March to a CIC2* in July, winning three novices on the way. In August, Sam sold Ben to Belinda Keir, whose teenage daughter Annie competed him up to one-star level for a couple of seasons.
Sam continues: “That’s what we’ve got to do to make a living and I was really happy he’d gone to the Keirs. Annie loved him cross-country, but I think he was probably a bit spooky in the dressage and showjumping. Even I still struggle to keep him straight, as we all saw at WEG — I gave one of uprights in the showjumping a rub with my right foot.”
Since returning to Sam, Ben has made a meteoric rise through the levels, moving up from two-star level in 2016 to winning Ballindenisk CIC3* in September 2017 and on to sixth place at Luhmühlen CCI4* this June. The pair then finished 14th on their dressage score at WEG.
“The last two years have just been incredible,” says Sam. “I decided that rather than trying to get Ben perfect at one-star level when I got him back, I was really happy stepping him up the grades because his cross-country is so good. And I would just keep training him to try and get his dressage and showjumping as good as we can get it. So he made that really quick rise up the levels and it’s paid off. He delivered his best jumping performance on that final day at WEG and that’s when we needed it so it all came together.”
Read more about how Sam has improved Ben’s showjumping performance and how he combines fatherhood, top-level competition and running a business in this week’s Horse & Hound magazine (issue dated 22 November).