‘He’ll always be with me’: farewell to lion-hearted top-level event horse aged 35

  • A 15.3hh former racehorse with the “heart of a lion” who completed Badminton and was the love of his owner’s life has died at the age of 35.

    In The Black (Dougie), who was born in New Zealand in 1987 and went on to compete at the highest level with Bill Levett, had to be put down on 1 June. He had spent 20 years with Heather Sheppard, who took him over from his previous owner Ann Smurfit.

    “He was my reason for getting out of bed,” Heather told H&H. “He was such a character; he got under my skin. A man who used to work at the yard used to say: ‘One day, that horse will talk to you’, and that’s how we were.”

    Having had some racing success in New Zealand, Dougie was flown to the UK in early 2000.

    He gave Bill a first Badminton ride that year, finishing in 15th place.

    “He was this little black thoroughbred who had such a brave attitude to everything,” Bill told H&H. “He was amazing.”

    Bill said he had been looking for horses, potentially for Ann, when he came across Dougie.

    “I remember thinking he was small but he just gave you that feeling,” he said. “He was up for anything. I think the [seller] thought I wasn’t interested because he was so small but he was one of those horses; there was something about him that drew you to him.”

    Bill said that like most eventers, he had long been watching videos of Badminton and, after he moved to the UK, the event in person, so to get there for the first time was “one of those moments you pinch yourself”.

    “It’s one thing to think about being there, another when you actually come out of the start box,” he said. “If you’re on a horse that hasn’t been round before, you don’t know how they will go but Dougie had the heart of a lion.

    “We had a bit of a moment at the water but I slipped my reins and he was up for it. He didn’t think about his size, he had a can-do attitude and was so brave and willing.”

    Bill paid tribute to the care Heather gave Dougie.

    “How many horses live to that age?” he said. “Heather looked after him so well, he lacked for nothing. When horses retire from eventing and go to homes like that, it’s perfect, and the life they deserve.”

    Heather was offered the chance to have Dougie after he retired in 2002, and took him for a trial.

    “I nearly sent him back because it was like riding a greasy pole!” she said. “But then I took him on a fun ride and he was impeccable. It got to the point I could take him anywhere.

    “He was sharp and reactive, and always on the ball, but he was lovely to ride, so smooth.”

    The pair contested other fun rides, and competed in dressage, winning a cup on one occasion, as well as taking part in riding club events and western riding. Heather rode him until two years ago but he was still enjoying walks along the road this spring. After his death, his ashes were returned to his last home.

    “I loved him to bits,” Heather said. “He used to raise his front leg for a Polo, and when I was doing his stable, he would come and press his muzzle up against my face. Someone said to me ‘That horse really loves you’. He had ways and means of showing it.

    “He was very special, and my reason for getting out of bed. He’ll always be with me.”

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