Legends of the sport: The stellar career of brilliant showman Robert Oliver *H&H Plus*

  • The winner of more than 40 HOYS championships, Robert Oliver’s breadth of horsemanship is such that few can match. Tricia Johnson looks back at his stellar career

    Showing legend Robert Oliver, who celebrated his 80th birthday in May, holds a unique place in the record books. In a career spanning some 70 years, he has won and been champion in every category of horse class at Horse of the Year Show (HOYS) and Royal International (RIHS) – many times over – and his animals have stood supreme multiple times at both shows.

    Since posting their first HOYS wins in 1970, Oliver-produced horses have claimed more than 40 HOYS championships in total, including 12 cob, nine hunter, six hack, two riding horse, two ladies’ and five small hunter titles.

    Robert took the coveted hunter tricolour at Royal Windsor four years running with the middleweight Kings Warrior, who also topped the line at RIHS and HOYS three times, standing supreme at the latter in 1991/92.

    Other Oliver horses are legends in their own right too, and none more so than the amazing cob Super Ted, who had an eight-year unbeaten run at RIHS between 1987 and 1994 – standing overall supreme in 1990 and 1991 – and also landed six HOYS titles.

    These two stand out in Robert’s memory. “I’ve been so very lucky with the horses I’ve had, but I suppose my favourite would be Kings Warrior,” Robert says. “He won so much for me, was always sound and was a great hunter as well. Super Ted was amazing too; he never missed a show, apart from when he got injured.”

    Another star was Kempley, who took his first of three consecutive HOYS championships in 1977, going on to land his first of two titles at RIHS and the overall supreme there the following year.

    The hacks Tenterk and Rye Tangle were both triple HOYS champions – the latter standing supreme in 1986/87 with Robert’s third wife Ali, who also partnered the Bamfords’ JCB to the top riding horse spot at both HOYS and RIHS.

    Another hack, Tomadachi, was champion at RIHS three times for Robert.

    The year 1979 perhaps capped them all, though, as Robert won the cob, hack and hunter titles in addition to the remaining hunter weight and small classes at RIHS, receiving the Sherry Slippers Trophy as outstanding personality of the show. Three months later, at HOYS, he produced the champion hack, cob and hunter – Tenterk, Kempley and Dual Gold – as well as the winning small hunter, Footpath.

    More recently, the imposing heavyweight hunter Loughkeen Dancing Lord campaigned at the very top of the tree for seven seasons, ridden first by Robert and, following his retirement, by his wife Claire.

    In 2006, Robert was inducted into the British Horse Society Hall Of Fame for his outstanding achievements in showing, and he was presented with the HOYS equestrian of the year award in 2018. He has also been a long-serving president of both the British Show Pony Society and the Irish Draught Horse Society.

    Robert is also very proud of his 21-year judging stint for the SEIB Search For A Star (SFAS) series.

    “I was involved right from the word go and never missed a final,” he says.

    ‘A very strict disciplinarian’

    Robert was born in Herefordshire, the son of non-horsey parents, but his uncle – on his mother’s side – was the renowned farrier William John Watts, and he encouraged the young boy to ride.

    “He had stables behind his farrier’s shop and I also used to go all over with him,” says Robert, who began showing when riding ponies for the Eckleys at Cusop Stud. “He taught me a hell of a lot about conformation and I also learned a huge amount from the eminent equine vet John Ryan.”

    Next came a five-year stint as a farm student. “This was the making of me,” Robert maintains. “My boss, Colonel Cleghorn, was ex-army and a very strict disciplinarian. Everything had to be just so, done right and with no mistakes – I’ve never forgotten that.

    “He had a herd of 100 pedigree Friesian cows, and I’d even have to clip and wash their tails to make them look smart when they came in for milking!”

    Robert reckons that he had an easy choice of career. “I’ve always had an eye for a lovely horse and a pretty lady, so horses gave me the obvious way to be involved with both,” he jokes. “Livestock farming would have been my second choice, but I was very lucky that my parents never put any pressure on me.”

    He also had the chance to hone his skills when working for the great nagsman Ernest Evans, who had showjumpers and pointers – among them horses belonging to showjumper Sir Harry Llewellyn of Foxhunter fame.

    A period working for wealthy landowner Derek Crossman at Harwood End, Ross-on-Wye, saw Robert in charge of everything from racehorses to hunters, and he also field-mastered for the South Herefordshire Hunt.

    Robert’s first HOYS winners were Major Helme’s small hunter Lord Sorceror and the middleweight Gay Moss, who came from David Somerset – later Duke of Beaufort.

    “These two horses put me on the map,” says Robert. “Gay Moss also won at the Royal and RIHS, and was later sold to top eventer Sheila Willcox, who renamed him Law And Order and was very successful at top level with him.”

    Another successful Oliver show horse to change direction was Andy Guy, who went to Olympic gold medal event rider Richard Meade, and Robert also found Bertie Blunt, who won Badminton under Mark Todd.

    Robert’s final move came in 1974, when he and his second wife Gilly bought Upper House Farm, Gloucestershire, where he still lives.

    “We had some lovely horses,” he reflects. “One year we had seven winners at Windsor.”

    A lifelong passion

    Hunting has been Robert’s lifelong passion after showing, and he has hunted with seven different packs in all – including the cream of the Shires. He was field master for the Ledbury for five seasons and then joint-master for a further seven.

    His daughter Sophie – who helped him produce show horses for 10 years – now carries on the tradition as her partner, H&H columnist John Holliday, currently hunts the Belvoir hounds.

    “I started hunting when I was about eight, and never missed a season after I was 10,” Robert recalls. “I remember once hacking seven miles from Hereford to a meet of the Ross Harriers, and even back then, my pony was clipped out and looking smart.

    “I’ve always loved the thrill of crossing the country on a high-class horse – I’ve been very lucky as I’ve never had to ride any bad ones – and I’ve hunted most of my show horses.

    “It kept them sweet and I can honestly say that none of my family ever crocked one up by hunting it,” he says proudly.

    “My only fear was getting one kicked by another horse so woe betide anyone who came too close – they got a proper bollocking!

    “In 1981, I was kindly invited by the Duke to send down a couple of horses I would like to hunt with the Beaufort, so off went the show champions Dual Gold and Brigadier; I had the most wonderful season with them. Plus, they both stayed sound, which I wonder how many show hunters would today.

    “After that, my great friend Guy Landau would always call me ‘Lord Oliver’ in the ring, much to everyone’s amusement.”

    Sadly, at the opening meet of the Ledbury in 2005, a crashing fall resulted in Robert’s hospitalisation with several broken vertebrae.

    “We jumped a ditch, but it had concealed wire which flipped the horse upside down,” he relates. “I hit the ground very hard and was taken to Gloucester Royal. I wouldn’t let them call the air ambulance – apparently I lay on the floor shouting, ‘It’s too bloody expensive!’

    “After that I wasn’t allowed to hunt or jump, and my last ride in the ring was on Loughkeen Dancing Lord in 2010, when he was reserve at HOYS.”

    Winning many trophies

    Robert still helps from the ground, but no longer rides at home. “I used to mind a lot, but I don’t really miss the riding now,” he says. “I have plenty to keep me busy.”

    The Olivers breed Norfolk terriers, and have had the champion bitch at Crufts. Robert also bred and showed Border canaries very successfully for several years, winning many trophies. But that ended after his helper, Graham Booth, bought a champion show bird for £400, only for it to die the week after.

    “That finished me,” says Robert. “Within a week I’d sold the lot.

    “This is something I’ve done all my life: I’ve always made snap decisions, saying yes or no on the spot, right or wrong. My other fixation is punctuality. That dates from my time with Colonel Cleghorn; to this day, I can’t abide people being late.

    “I also never bear a grudge. Forgive and forget is my motto, but I can’t stand bad losers – in or out of the ring. My school motto was ‘manners maketh man’ and I’ve always tried to stick to that.”

    Robert on Bill Bryan

    “I really looked up to the great showman Bill Bryan, with whom I spent a lot of time when I was young; I used to ride for him sometimes,” says Robert. “Year after year, he would break in a youngster, show it to be champion, hunt it and then point-to-point or hunter chase it. He did this on several occasions, and one was a lovely brown middleweight called Basnet, who won many classes and was second with me at The Royal. Then he went chasing and was favourite for the Grand National one year.”

    Jethro on Robert

    “I’ve been passionate about horses ever since I was a small child, and then when I had some nice ones of my own, the next step was to find a good rider,” recalls Cornish comedian Jethro. “I thought to myself, ‘Who is the best around?’ and came up with Robert’s name.

    “Our association lasted more than 15 years; my word, did we have some fun along the way and we never disagreed.

    “We used to party at people’s wagons after the day’s classes – it was all about nonsense and mickey-taking then; there was never any bad feeling between competitors. I remember once at Royal Cornwall, Robert got me so drunk I couldn’t walk – somehow he got me back to my lorry. To this day, I have no idea how.”

    Racehorse training

    Robert and his wife Claire were among the first to embrace the concept of retraining racehorses for the show ring, and one of their success stories was Another Man, a full-brother to the Hales family’s Cheltenham Gold Cup winner One Man. This smart grey won the SEIB Racehorse to Riding Horse final at HOYS in 2008.

    Allister Hood on Robert

    “Robert always made his horses look so good, and I hoped I would be able to get mine going as well as he did,” says Allister, Robert’s friend and rival. “He invariably looked comfortable, as though he was just sitting there enjoying himself.

    “He once gave me a piece of advice which I’ve never forgotten. We were at HOYS when it was at Wembley, and he told me the preparation for this show was like no other. He said that when you work your horse in, and get to the point where you feel it’s going well and you’ve done enough, give it 10 to 20 minutes more work – 20 if it is a bit sharp; 10 if it’s more level-headed. I still do that.”

    Alan Edmunds on Robert

    “When judging Robert’s horses, you knew they would all ride in a very similar way,” says Alan, a judge. “They’d be light in the hand and going forward from the leg; you only had to think of the next gear and they went straight into it, taking a good contact and holding their shape.

    “One of my favourite horses of Robert’s was Meynell Tumbler – he was a grand horse: a true lightweight. He stood only around 16.1hh, but with great depth and front and a lovely line of shoulder. He was a lovely mover that just stroked the ground, and he was ideal to carry up to 12st 7lb.

    “Robert always convinced you – or tried to! – that he had the best horse in the ring.”

    Robert’s highlights

    “Apart from the 1979 HOYS and RIHS tally, which was magical, my best result came in 2008, when Claire was hunter champion and supreme at the Royal of England with Jethro’s hunter, Masterful,” Robert says. “This was particularly special for me as I’d bought the horse for £2,000 at Malvern Sales as an unbroken three-year-old and persuaded Jethro to buy him.”

    Things haven’t always gone according to plan, however. “I was in the hunters at HOYS one year when my horse bucked me off in a corner of the ring,” he remembers. “I was so badly bruised that I couldn’t ride for the rest of the week… Ali [his then-wife] took over all my rides.”

    Robert’s career in numbers

    29 HOYS section championships

    23 RIHS championships

    6 HOYS supremes

    6 RIHS supremes

    Ref Horse & Hound; 2 July 2020