Popular five-star event horse The Lion has been retired at the age of 19 after jumping a double clear in the CCI4*-S at Land Rover Blair Castle Horse Trials.
“He’s the horse who made my dreams come true,” said his rider and part-owner Matt Heath. “He’s given me the opportunity to ride at the highest level, and will never want for anything – I owe him masses.”
Matt says he and The Lion might have tackled one more Burghley if the event was running, but chose Blair as their final outing because it was “a decent track at a beautiful place and one of my favourite events.
“He has retired on a real high and is feeling fantastic,” said Matt, who will keep the Ricardo Z gelding at home at his Rutland yard.
Matt began riding The Lion at the end of the 2011 season, when he was bought for him by Henny Kenney-Herbert. He is now owned by Henny’s sister Emma Clarke, Matt himself and Clare Davis. Various riders had evented the horse, most latterly Daisy Trayford, who had taken him to CCI4*-S level.
“He was cheeky and playful – if he was a child, you’d have said he had ADHD as he struggled to concentrate,” says Matt. “He was quite strong to start with, although he got much better in time. He was always a very, very good jumper.”
They first tackled a CCI5* – Burghley – in 2013.
“We’d had a few 20 penalties here and there across country, and it was actually Piggy March who talked me into entering him at about 11am the day the entries closed,” remembers Matt. “He had a cheeky left-hand run-out on the cross-country, but he was class everywhere else; he found it very straightforward and I had a genuinely nice ride round.”
At their second competition the following season at Lincoln, The Lion again ran out at a left-handed corner, so Matt rang Andrew Nicholson to see if he could help.
“I had one session with Andrew and he changed the way I rode him – he told me to pick a spot and ride him at it, and to trust him – and we haven’t had any problems since,” said Matt.
After an excellent double clear round at Burghley in 2014, the wheels fell off their five-star campaign in 2015 when The Lion failed the first trot-up at Badminton.
“He used to get stage-fright and get very uptight at his trot-ups,” explained Matt. “I walked him for far too long beforehand and we both got wound-up.”
However, after that, vet Peter “Spike” Milligan diagnosed The Lion with quite severe kissing spines which, with the help of Spike and Matt’s farrier, Mark Humphrey, Matt was able to manage successfully.
“Both Spike and Mark have had a huge influence on the longevity of his career; they have been fantastic and we couldn’t have done what we have done without them,” said Matt. “He would never have able to retire and find a hacking home at that stage – he’d have hated it and been bored out of his mind. He was incredibly capable – it was just about finding a way to manage him differently. I took the pressure off on the dressage side, which he has never been fond of or found easy, and the bigger and stronger across his body I can get him, the better he goes.”
The Lion’s official eventing record shows that he failed the second trot-up at Burghley later that year, but Matt explained: “He was very sound and in great form, but he crunched his stifle on the downhill wall fence on the run down to Discovery Valley. It was just bruising, but we shouldn’t have re-presented him once he had been ‘held’ on Sunday morning. After that I made the decision to keep him at short-format and have some fun showing him off as the jumping machine he is, and I did some Event Rider Masters classes with him in 2016.”
But The Lion felt so good and so enthusiastic about his job that, in 2017, Matt decided to take him back to Burghley.
“He was incredible across country, but I got myself worked up about a distance in Discovery Valley, got it wrong and fell off him. He’s never been a particularly fast horse, and I have always been conscious of that and have never tried to force him to be one, but that was probably the fastest he has gone, typically! I let him down a bit there – it was my error,” admitted Matt.
He worked out a route to Burghley that worked for them – Upton House, Aston-le-walls and Gatcombe – and kept The Lion as fresh as possible for Burghley in 2018.
“He got his best dressage mark, felt amazing across country and showjumped clear,” said Matt. “I have always been aware that we were never going to win at that level. He’s too cheeky on the flat – any horse that squeals when you go down the centre line, you know you’re in trouble in that phase – and he’s not quick, but he’s always been so much fun to ride at big events and he loves being there.”
The pair hadn’t attempted to go back to Badminton since that failed trot-up in 2015, but in early 2019, The Lion felt “in such incredible form” that Matt rang his co-owners and said that they were going to Gloucestershire.
“Each year he seemed to get looser and easier in his movement, and his nervousness about trot-ups had gone because I had learnt to deal with him at them better and he’d had more exposure to a big atmosphere,” said Matt. “But Emma and Clare practically had kittens when I told them what the plan was!”
This time, they ticked that hugely important “Badminton completion box”, going clear on the cross-country.
“That was probably the most I have ever enjoyed riding him across country – he was great, and I was so pleased that we did take him to Badminton and that we had that opportunity,” said Matt. “The only downside was that I think I saved him a bit too much on the Saturday, because he was very excited and fresh on Sunday and had three showjumps down.”
Eventing is never a game that goes entirely to plan, and the decision to take a different route to Burghley that year, encompassing Blair, didn’t work out.
Matt said with a laugh: “He was wild! He was so fresh and fit and ready that he had six showjumps down, and then I missed out a fence on the cross-country. However, in some ways it wasn’t a bad thing – he’d had a good spin uphill and let some steam off across country, and yet he went to Burghley feeling really well and quite fresh – which he needed to be, because it was the biggest and most intense cross-country track that year I have ever seen. I was very glad I was sat on The Lion.”
Again they jumped a double clear round, and Matt admitted to being “very emotional” when he came out of the showjumping arena.
“I had gone to Burghley for the past three years thinking I’d probably retire him afterwards, but he always felt so fantastic and made it feel so easy that I felt that it wasn’t the right decision,” said Matt. “But Covid robbed him of at least a couple more five-stars, sadly.”
Blair 2021 was, however, his swansong.
“I told him that if he behaved himself, this was the last time he ever needed to wear a dressage saddle,” Matt said with a laugh. “And I purposely rode him in the morning before his showjumping and let him have a buck and a kick and jumped a few fences to get that initial freshness out. His showjumping round was probably the best he’s ever jumped and he went happily round the cross-country in his own time. He finished with a smile on his face and his ears pricked. He doesn’t make the decision to retire him an easy one!”
He continued: “He’s everybody’s favourite – a cheeky, loving horse who knows he’s king of the yard. He can get sulky if he doesn’t go out in the lorry from time to time, and he can sulk at three-day events if I have several horses there and I don’t ride him until the end of the day – he thinks he should always be first in my priorities, every day.
“Now he will get to do his favourite thing – eat grass with the sun on his back all summer. And I hope I can hunt him a bit; he’s never done it and I can’t hazard a guess as to how it will go, but we’ll have a try. My baby son Edward has sat on him; he is very special to me and I owe him so much for all the opportunities he has given me.”
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