God, he is enormous, says Olympic, world and European dressage team member Carl Hester.
At William Funnells yard in Dorking, he looks over Julie Slades Cortaflex Mondriaan, stable name Danny, for the first time. The tightly pricked ears and kind expression of this years Hickstead Derby winner help to calm Carls butterflies.
He looks seriously powerful, I do hope hes well bitted, asks Carl. The answer a snaffle does not fill him with confidence.
Although Carls name is synonymous with dressage, in the past he evented to intermediate level. But show jumping a horse of this calibre is an entirely new ballgame.
When the big bay 12-year-old is tacked up Carl climbs on to the, thankfully large, mounting block as a step up to Dannys 17.2hh. For the Dutch-bred gelding it is also a bit of a change, since William can count the number of people who have jumped him on one hand.
The first time I sat on him when he was a four-year-old I knew the jump was there, says William. I promise you hes a very easy horse to ride. If you steer him to the fence, I can guarantee hell take you to it and jump it.
Carl settles in the saddle and begins the session with a little bit of dressage. He is very responsive, notes Carl, doing some lateral work. I thought today I was going to get a break from going sideways.
William gives Carl a placing pole to a cross of planks to break him in gently and Danny jumps it in style. The planks are raised, the placing pole is removed, and Carl is told to canter to it.
Ooh, Im not sure about that, he says, but Danny is foot-perfect.
Meanwhile, the work force has been building a course and, despite his trepidations, Carl is sent off to jump the seven fences. His grin afterwards says it all.
He really makes you feel like you can ride, he says. You feel so safe on him and you can tell that, whatever, hell look after you.
Now its getting serious, says William and puts the course up to around 1.40m. Are you sure this is ok? asks Carl, as he inspects the new height. Youll be fine, replies William, just ride more forward through the turns, particularly down the last line.
Now Carl is flying, and Danny puts in a perfect round, finishing with a bounce and a toss of his head. It is difficult to tell who has had the most fun.
Dressage is my first love, he says, but this was a chance to throw caution to the wind and just go for the thrill, and boy did he give me one. What a horse to have the chance of riding. It didnt matter what I did, he was ready for it. It almost makes me wish I did do a bit of show jumping, although I was relieved to discover the horse wasnt jumping at Olympia.
I hadnt realised how supple a show jumper has to be, continues Carl. To move a horse through a combination, and shorten, lengthen and make minor adjustments to a fence, you have to be made of India rubber.
Twelve months ago, I jumped for the first time in years someone sent me through a very short double on a show jumper. It felt like I had nearly broken my back. This has confirmed that my perception of a show jumper as unfit is completely untrue. Ive used muscles and bent my body in ways I didnt think possible. In twenty-four hours time, Ill have the bruises to prove it.
- This feature was first published in Horse & Hound (21 December, ’06)