*Opinion* Love for the horse is our most powerful asset – we need to use it more


  • I fell in love twice on Saturday. Maybe it’s something about January. Tolstoy’s diary notes, which I first saw when shared by writer Dolly Alderton, recount a Big Night in January 1851: “I’ve fallen in love or imagine I have; went to a party and lost my head. Bought a horse which I don’t need at all”. Words to live by, perhaps. A party to have been at, definitely.

    But Saturday was a particularly good day to love horses. In what must now be at least the 123rd day of January, it served as a reminder of why we love the sport and more than that, the horse.

    It’s something I mentioned on this week’s Horse & Hound Podcast. All of us – by us I mean those connected to the equine world in some way – know how special our four-legged friends are. We know the power of the horse-human bond, we know the unique magic our sport has because of that, we have all laughed and cried into a warm hay-scented neck. They make our lives richer.

    We know all that. But as I mention on the podcast, there are those jolting moments that remind us of that and we re-fall in love with it all over again. With that magic, is power that the equestrian and racing world could do so much more with.

    Saturday (22 January) was special as it served two of those in quick succession. The much-hyped clash between Shishkin and Energumene – two greats, two champion trainers, two nations – delivered in breathtaking fashion.

    From the kings of the game ruling the day, jump exactly 100 miles east to Newmarket and those who have bowed out ruled the night at the Retraining of Racehorses (RoR) Awards.

    What these awards get right is the balance between celebration of sporting achievement – with its elite awards – and celebrating everything else that these horses bring. The joy in connection and partnership was there in the elite prizes, and there too in the wonderful personality of the year final. Red rosettes are nice, but this was a celebration of more than that.

    Nobody could fail to be moved by the stories of the three personality finalists, who have helped their owners through grief, injury and illness.

    “Sometimes people don’t know how to talk or be around you. But he didn’t treat me any differently,” said Anastasia Choma, collecting the personality prize on behalf of Henri De Boistron, who helped her through cancer.

    RoR head of welfare Jenny Hall, chair of the FEI veterinary committee and former chief veterinary officer for the British Horseracing Committee, collected the dressage prize on behalf of Crewezando, owned and ridden by Patricia Haskins.

    Dr Hall, who bred Crewezando some 15 years ago, recalled seeing him competing in his second career and how it hit home what she had created.

    “I suddenly went ‘oh my goodness, I bred that horse!’” she said, reminding other thoroughbred breeders that they too can put any horse’s name into the RoR website to find out if he is registered.

    Much was said about “hype” in the last week. What if we sold the hype of a racehorse’s retirement as part of that? Not every horse will be your Les Soers – six-goaler Matt Perry’s phenomenal 19-year-old mare, winner of the RoR polo champion award, whom he credits for helping shape his career. That’s the same with any horse, though. Some will, and there will always be places for those that are suitable for a home.

    At the end of the day, if a horse is enjoying his work and being cared for, he is in the right place. A home that meets those is of equal value to one where he is progressing up the levels in competition.

    Eventing and racing owner Jayne McGivern hit the nail on the head, when collecting the eventing prize for the exceptionally cute failed racehorse and failed polo pony Our Old Fella – “we pretend he is 15.2hh, he’s about 15hh” – who is now eventing at intermediate with Piggy March.

    “I feel owners need to take responsibility for the enjoyment they have from their horses,” she said. “They are not disposable. They are not a raffle ticket. They have so much to offer in every respect.”

    I’m a strong believer that rehoming pensions should be factored into all racehorse ownership, to go some way to providing for the horse’s next step. If more joined-up money for that was forthcoming, that would likely spark growth in the retraining side of the industry. In turn, leading to more horses receiving high quality retraining, which then creates value.

    Responsibility is the fundamental core, but what Jayne summed up so well is the fun in that responsibility.

    With racing and the horse world both keen to attract new people, that is how we should be selling responsibility at the very start. After all, what is more wonderful and more powerful than falling in love.

    Retraining of Racehorses elite awards winners:

    • Dressage champion: Crewezando (Patricia Haskins)
    • Polo champion: Les Soeurs (Matt Perry)
    • Endurance champion: He’s A Charmer (Lynn Harvey)
    • Supreme show champion: Minella Rebellion (Katie Dashwood)
    • Show series champion: Mumford (Collette McGoldrick)
    • Eventing champion: Our Old Fella (Piggy March and Jayne McGivern)
    • Hunting champion: Sire Collonges (Tom Jonason)

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