‘Born with a smile on his face’: farewell to five-star eventer after happy retirement

  • An event horse who went from a “wayward” start to success at the highest level of the sport and “always had a smile on his face” has been put down aged 23 after a happy retirement.

    Martin and Debby Ewing’s Stormhill Kossack (Devon) was selected for the World Equestrian Games (WEG) and shortlisted for the London Olympics, and completed Pau CCI4* (now CCI5*) twice, coming 12th and 10th, the latter being Gemma Tattersall’s first cross-country clear at that level.

    Debby told H&H that although Devon was still “a fairly live wire”, old age was taking its toll and after days of sunshine this week, on a “beautiful morning befitting a beautiful horse”, he was put down on 3 November.

    Devon came into the Ewings’ lives as a five-year-old who had slightly lost his way, Debby said, in dressage and showjumping.

    “I thought he was a stunning horse, big and elastic, but I wasn’t sure at that point [how far he would go],” Debby said. “He was a bit of a thicker-set horse, and a highly respected showing judge said ‘You should be getting rid of him as a working hunter’ but for me to ride, he had this amazing elasticity; I’ve never sat on anything that’s felt quite as springy and airborne as he did.”

    At 17.2hh, Devon was a big horse, who needed time and support to “organise his body”, but after 18 months of hard work with the help of trainer Dot Willis, he was ready to compete.

    The Ewings wanted to keep him at home, and New Zealand rider Andrew Nicholson agreed to have Devon taken to his yard regularly for him to ride, and competed him up to three-star (now four-star) level.

    The horse then went to Italian Giovanni Ugolotti, with whom he was shortlisted for the Olympics and selected for WEG 2014. He did not go to the latter, as it was not felt he had enough experience at this point to justify the journey, but he and Giovanni finished fifth at Saumur CCI3* in 2010 and won the debutant’s prize at Pau CCI4* the same year, coming 12th.

    Two years later, the ride went to Gemma, who rode him at one event, then Pau 2012. The following spring he was being prepared for Badminton with Gemma but suffered a career-ending injury to a hind leg.

    “He was a fabulous horse, a horse of a lifetime,” Debby said. “It sounds silly to say but our first highlight was his first advanced event with Andrew. I evented in my younger years, to about intermediate, so to have a horse who was doing an advanced event was an enormous step, it was wonderful.

    “Saumur with ‘Gio’ was probably one of his best all-round performances, and a fantastic event, and also the last one with Gemma, to see the horse come out and do what we’d always thought he could. All we ever wanted was for him to fulfill his potential.

    “We only ever have a few horses, and don’t spend big money on them, so to have a horse competing at that level, and be part of the training, was a huge privilege.”

    After his injury, and 18 months of box rest and rehab, Devon came sound, and did some dressage and hacking with Debby. He was retired fully about six years ago, and enjoyed a happy life “keeping the youngsters in order”.

    “Horses like that are a class apart,” Debby said. “There’s something different about them, I can’t describe it, but people would come and look at him, to see a horse competing at that level.

    “When he got shortlisted for the Olympics, there was a primary school down the road from where we lived and the headmistress came out to say some parents were a bit worried about us hacking past. She said ‘They’ve heard this horse is going to the Olympics and they’re frightened they might drive into him’!

    “We had to avoid school-run times after that, but it was like he was a celebrity in our area.”

    Debby said Devon was a “handful” at times.

    “He was full of joie de vivre, and born with a smile on his face,” she said.

    “He could be idiotic and you took your life in your hands at times; I’ve been jumped into people’s front gardens because he’d decided he’d never seen a tractor before, but any excuse to get all four feet off the ground was what kept him happy.”

    But as soon as Devon retired, Debby said, he changed, becoming “an older statesman and a complete gentleman”.

    “He was happy with his lot,” she said. “Thank you to Annie Ratcliff for breeding our horse of a lifetime.

    “God speed, Devon We will listen for your hoofbeats in the rumble of thunder and smile, knowing you are still running free.”

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