A young eventer who bought a £400 horse she was convinced was destined for the meat lorry and has taken him to two-star level is hoping her story will inspire others to persevere with a tricky horse.
Emma Shackell was just 16 when she visited Ascot sales in 2010, looking for a project horse to bring on.
While she was hoping to buy “a 16.2hh ex-racehorse, around six years old,” she ended up coming home with Bollin Alan, a three-year-old colt who stood just 15.3hh.
“I went with a family friend who knew his way around ex-racehorses, and when Alan came in the ring, he said ‘don’t bid’,” Emma told H&H.
“But Alan looked straight at me, I was only 16 and I was all upset thinking he would end up going for meat. I said ‘but he’s so pretty’! and ended up buying him just before the third fall of the hammer.
“When we got in contact with his trainer, we found he’d ended up at the sales because he wouldn’t leave the start and used to flip himself over.”
Alan was sent straight for castration, and given some time off but on his return to work, the little thoroughbred proved difficult to ride, with a tendency to nap and rear.
“He was quiet to handle, it was really just the napping issue,” said Emma. “It can still happen now sometimes, but then he wouldn’t be Alan otherwise!”
“I travelled in the back of an ambulance more times in the first year than I ever had in my entire life and at our first dressage competition, I broke my back.
“It was something silly, like someone put up an umbrella and he started rearing and wouldn’t stop. I was holding on for ages but the next thing I knew, I hit the floor at a really bad angle and couldn’t feel my legs. My mum said ‘get back on, keep walking’ and I said ‘not this time’.
“A lot of the time my mum was saying ‘please stop [riding him]’ but there was nothing she could do really as I’d just get back on,” Emma added. “There was a time at Pony Club they said ‘this horse needs to be shot, it’s dangerous’ and I said ‘no, I’m not doing that!’
“Looking back, I don’t know if I was brave or young and naïve — I think I bounced a lot more when I was younger!”
Emma recovered from the fractured vertebra and despite the challenges, said she always had “a gut feeling” about Alan and persevered even when others were telling her to give up. The turnaround came when she decided to take a break from schooling for a while and go hunting.
“He loved it — I think a break from the pressure really helped. He was so quiet out hunting and was up there jumping with the master,” said Emma, who went on to be a working pupil with eventer Nick Gauntlett.
“I was petrified to go cross-country, but he encouraged me and got us going and from there I went to work for [American eventer] Tiana Coudray. Both of them were a huge help, and I still train with Tiana.”
The feisty bay started to defy expectations, and has gone on to secure some excellent results eventing, jumping clear round the CIC2* cross-country at Barbury this year and securing third place in the intermediate at Keysoe on his last run this season.
Despite being so petite that he wears 5’9” rugs and a pony bridle, Alan has been taking on 1.30m showjumping tracks and the pair have their sights on a three-star next season.
“He is just insane the way he takes you to a fence — even in a Waterford gag I’m like ‘Alan, slow down!’ His ears just prick when he sees a jump,” Emma said. “I think we’ll give the three-star at Barbury a go if I can get my brave pants on!
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“I still can’t believe how far we’ve come,” she added. “I’ve never been one for fate, I think you make your own luck but something that day was telling me to buy that horse and I am so glad I did.
“I don’t think there’s any way I’d ever part with him now.”
For a full report from Blenheim International Horse Trials, don’t miss next week’s Horse & Hound, out 21 September.