European medallist and five-star horse dies: ‘He was a gentleman and learnt to jump corners for carrots’

  • Chequers Play The Game, who picked up a European team bronze medal and won at four-star with Italian event rider Vittoria Panizzon, has been put down aged 19.

    “He was the sort of gentleman you want to marry – very polite, very charming, with a sense of humour and good fun,” Vittoria told H&H. “He liked to have fun and have a buck and to play with stuff lying around, but he never let you down when it mattered.”

    Known as Elvis, Chequers Play The Game belonged to Amy Lambert and her mother Patricia, with supporting involvement from Flora Hurrell and Jan and Peter Price. He started his eventing career with Amy and Sophie Allison, on whose livery yard Amy kept the horse when he was not with Vittoria, and was also ridden by New Zealand’s Jock Paget before Vittoria started competing him in 2015.

    Elvis won the services’ jumping championship at the Olympia Horse Show with Amy in 2015 and after he retired from serious competition last year, finished second in a BE100open with Amy in October.

    Vittoria said Elvis had to be put down after suffering from a form of arthritis over the winter, which progressed faster than expected.

    “He always had six-star care – the highest level of veterinary attention and TLC – so I know Amy will have tried every route possible. He was such a happy horse and a real soldier, so when he looked less happy, it suggested he really wasn’t very comfortable and it wouldn’t have been good to let things progress and get any worse,” said Vittoria, who said she felt lucky she was able to go and say goodbye to Elvis.

    “I feel for Amy as it’s the hardest decision you have to make and the hardest thing you have to go through as a horse person.”

    With Vittoria, Elvis’s career highlights included second in the British intermediate championships in 2015, winning Tattersalls CCI3* (now CCI4*-L) in 2017, a European team bronze in Strzegom that year, ninth at Luhmühlen CCI4* (now CCI5*) in 2018 and second place in the CCI4*-L at Burnham Market in 2020. He also won twice at two-star (now three-star).

    Vittoria Panizzon and Chequers Play The Game take second in the British intermediate championships in 2015

    Vittoria Panizzon and Chequers Play The Game take second in the British intermediate championships in 2015.

    “He came to me as a horse who was deemed unreliable above novice level, but I always believed in him,” said Vittoria.

    “I clicked with him straight away. He didn’t have as much flash as some other top horses these days – he wasn’t the biggest mover or jumper in the world, but he was the best horse I’ve ever had for both dressage and cross-country. That’s what I like about eventing – it’s not about who’s got the biggest flash, but if a horse has a big heart and gives 100% to the job, that counts for more.

    “He made me feel like I could do dressage. I’ve ridden some lovely horses across country, but I really loved riding him – I could see really good forward strides and I felt he brought out the best in me. I was grateful to him for that and I liked having him as a run at the beginning of the season to get me into gear.

    “When he first arrived I took him hunting a couple of times and that helped us make friends really quickly. He was such a charming horse – polite and kind but with a cheeky sense of humour. If you were jumping at home he liked to have a buck after the fences, not to get you off but just because he was happy. I never quashed that as I think you should allow a happy horse to be a happy horse and they will knuckle down in the ring.”

    When Chequers Play The Game came to Vittoria, he had a historical problem with left-handed corners.

    “I had some extra insight from a communicator who helped me, as he wasn’t a horse I’d produced myself so I didn’t know all the history,” said Vittoria. “I was certain he wasn’t nasty or naughty or ungenerous, it was just a mental block

    “I retrained him with carrots – he loves carrots so I taught him to jump corners for carrots and it solved the problem for ever. He learnt to link corners to reward. At home I’d always jump a corner before an event and have carrots ready – he’d literally turn his head round ready for a carrot. I even did it once at an event – jumped a corner, gave him a carrot and carried on.

    “It was deleted from his mind as an issue and he jumped round all the trickiest courses. He made Luhmühlen five-star feel so easy – he was easy to steer, didn’t pull and was adjustable with a decent stride. I remember coming through the finish feeling like I’d popped round an intermediate, not like I’d jumped round a five-star.”

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