One of the most memorable Welsh section As ever campaigned on the private driving circuit has died at the age of 25.
Thistledown Eric, owned by the Salter family and driven by Nicola Salter, was twice British Driving Society (BDS) national champion, once at Burghley and once at Towerlands, and took the private driving championship at most of the county shows, including the Royal Welsh.
The grey gelding was a chance find who was first spotted on an allotment local to the Salter’s Nottinghamshire home but went from his humble start to a high-profile career.
“We were driving home one day when we came off one of the major roads near us and cut through a village where there were some little allotments. One had been fenced into a little pony paddock, with cabbages one side and runner beans the other, and as we passed slowly Malcolm [husband] said ‘what a pretty pony, isn’t he lovely’,” Nicola said.
“We had often bought a pony, broken it to harness and then sold it on and when we bought the next local free ad paper, we were looking through and there was this grey Welsh section A. We knew the phone number was local and we said ‘wouldn’t it be spooky if that is the pony we’ve just seen’ and lo and behold, it was. We went to look at him and brought him home.”
Nicola and Malcolm had planned to break Eric to harness and then sell him on after a year, as they knew a local young driver who they thought he might suit. But when the three-year-old pony arrived home, their son Oliver asked to keep him.
“He said he had always wanted a little grey to show in hand, so I said ‘OK’,” Nicola said.
Oliver showed him locally in hand for a summer but once the pony was broken to harness he started to shine.
“I never regretted a day of that decision!” Nicola said. “Some of our happiest memories as a family were days spent showing Eric.
“He met The Queen on three occasions. We’d met her when we won the Welsh championship at Windsor and then when we were showing at the Great Yorkshire a few weeks later, she asked to meet the private driving class.
“She came over to Eric and said ‘I’ve seen this pony before haven’t I?’”, so she had remembered him.”
Eric stood out for his particularly impressive extended trot, which often outshone much larger horses in the ring.
“We never did anything to enhance his paces, other than get him fit and muscled up, it was all naturally him,” Nicola said. “He was a bit of a freak. I have never seen another Welsh section A like that.”
Eric retired from driving as a single at the age of 13, having also stood reserve BDS national champion twice and appeared at Horse of the Year Show (HOYS) on six occasions — although that title eluded him as HOYS was “a bit too exciting for him”.
Because of the acclaim Eric had brought to the Thistledown Stud, breeder Sandy Anderson offered the Salters the chance to chose another pony of his to compete.
They took another gelding, Thistledown Prado, and tried them as a pair and in tandem with a view to returning to the ring, but he was never able to match Eric’s incredible action.
“I would have loved for it to have happened but Eric’s attitude was ‘I can do this, I don’t need him!” Nicola said.
Eric was put down in May owing to complications linked to the onset of Cushing’s disease (PPID).
‘He was a horse no one expected anything from, but he gave everything’
“He had been absolutely fine until the last few weeks, he was the same independent, awkward character who ruled us at home,” Nicola said.
“If you turned him out in bad weather he would call to be brought back in but on a nice day, he was such a little monster you couldn’t catch him.
“He’d been really fit and well and showing off but in the last month I could see he was unhappy and he’d always been such a happy little chap who was always pleased to see you that I knew it was the right time.”
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