‘He was my best friend’: rider pays tribute as eventing superstar put down aged 33

  • Former top-level eventer Karen Dixon has paid tribute to her “best friend” Too Smart, who was put down on Monday (6 May) aged 33.

    Karen said “Barrel” had been well in himself, and looked “amazing” but that the legs that had carried him round two Olympic Games and to three top-five finishes at Burghley had failed at last.

    “He was such a laugh and such a character,” she told H&H. “He always had a wicked sense of humour, like me; I think that’s why we got on so well.”

    Barrel spent almost his whole life with Karen; she and her mother Elaine Straker bought him as a two-year-old from Peter Dennis, who had also sold them Karen’s other top ride Get Smart. When he was six, Jack and Beryl Brignall became his half-owners, watching nearly every event he competed in.

    “We broke him in and he was as cheeky as!” Karen said. “I remember once, a student who was working for us rode him out with my mum on Get Smart and the student fell off three times.

    “He was only pint-sized, about 15.3hh, but he thought he was 17.2hh. When I was competing at the top level, I’d ask Gary Parsonage to trot him up as he was tall, and Barrel felt about 18hh.”

    He and Karen competed at the 1996 and 2000 Olympics for Britain, finished second, third and fifth at Burghley in 1999, 1994 and 1995 respectively and won the British Eventing Open Championships at Gatcombe in 1994.

    “He achieved so much, so quickly,” Karen said. “At eight he won Punchestown CCI3* (now CCI4*-L) and came third at Burghley, but then he went through a naughty phase. We did some fairly alarming dressage tests, and he liked to keep me on my toes, but I got him back.”

    Too Smart had been enjoying very good health during his retirement

    At the age of 19, Barrel won a CIC2* (now CCI3*-S) at Floors Castle and Karen did some smaller events on him but without sizable obstacles for him to respect, the horse gave Karen some “wholly alarming” rides, and he was retired, although he continued to be ridden by Elaine until he was 25.

    “He had done seven four-stars (now five-star) and was still perfect, with clean legs, but I didn’t want to be eventing him when he was 20,” Karen said.

    “It was a hard decision to make when we moved to Ireland about two and a half years ago as he was 30, but bringing him here was the best decision I’ve ever made because he totally loved it here. He was the heart and soul of the place, and he settled us in here and made it a home like we’d had in”

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    Karen continued: “I used to treat him a bit like a hen so he’d wander off to do some free-range grazing, come and see everyone, then buzz off for some more grazing. He had the run of the place and all the horses loved him; they’d whinny when they saw him.”

    Karen said that although the Olympics were “amazing”, she counted his wins at Gatcombe and Punchestown, as well as the Burghley places, as the combination’s top achievements.

    His second place at Burghley came as a new time-penalty system was being trialled; any other year, he and Karen would have taken the victory that went to Mark Todd on Diamond Hall Red.

    “I think horses make you who you are,” she said. “They shape your life and they shape you as a person. He was my best friend.”

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