Some say old age is a licence to misbehave. These former stars certainly think so, finds Andrea Oakes, who tracks down some who still get up to crazy antics
He may have hung up his horseshoes, but former international eventer Twinkle Bee is not yet ready for the carpet slippers. Instead, the grandfather of Anna Warnecke’s yard seems intent on growing old disgracefully – like so many high-profile horses who still rule the roost in retirement.
Known as “Trusty”, the 25-year-old gelding has a number of tricks to keep Anna and her groom Laurie Robinson on their toes.
“When he’s led out to the field, he will suddenly jump metres into the air,” explains Anna, whose tactic with the still-powerful OAP is to “hang on and hope for the best”.
“He does the same coming in; he flies in, as he knows he gets his dinner first.”
Trusty completed 10 seasons with Anna at top level, running at Badminton or Burghley – often both – for eight consecutive years and winning a European team bronze for Germany in 2005. From his viewpoint, he’s still a champion and Anna is keen to let him maintain this belief.
“He’s not ridden now but has all the same treatment,” she says. “He’s groomed and clipped, and made to feel happy. It was the way he was looked after in the competition years; everything revolved around him, and he is adamant that things should still be done in the same way.”
While his behaviour may not be deemed age-appropriate, Anna admits that it is nothing new.
“He always had very clear ideas about what was acceptable and he hated being told off,” she says. “He thrived on the atmosphere and he just loved the sport. He’s still pretty naughty.”
“You learn to go with it,” agrees Laurie, who has been on the receiving end of Trusty’s over enthusiasm during the past 15 years as his groom. “He’s never nasty, just opinionated.
“Even now he gets excited if the lorry starts moving,” she adds of the much-loved veteran. “It’s as if he has an inbuilt calendar, because his behaviour [during early retirement] always seemed worse during Badminton and Burghley week.”
Relaxation of the rules
After the discipline of the competition circuit, retirement can mean a certain relaxation of the rules.
Understandably, some horses are keen to capitalise on this, among them Hello Sailor, Tina Fletcher’s former Nations Cup showjumper.
“He still acts like a 10-year-old about to jump around Hickstead,” says the Fletchers’ long-term groom Stacey Greenshield, who was given Sailor, now 21, five years ago. “He’ll drag me around or spook and spin at a flower he sees out hacking, but maybe I let him get away with it. I travelled worldwide with him when he was jumping, so he’s super-special and of huge sentimental value.”
Since moving to live with Stacey, Sailor is adjusting to life at a more leisurely pace.
“If he was at the Fletchers, he wouldn’t understand that he wasn’t still top dog,” she says. “He seems to know he’s in retirement now and will happily graze, or come in for some hay and a snooze.”
For others, old habits die hard. Attack II, who jumped international grand prix with Daniel Neilson and Amanda Derbyshire in his heyday, shows no signs of mellowing at 20.
“He’s as wild as ever and quite savage in the stable, but I adore him,” says Kristy Christopher, who bought “Archie” five years ago and can’t help admire his hell-raising ways.
Now competing in affiliated dressage, Archie recently qualified for the winter regionals and is moving up to elementary.
“If he doesn’t go to a show, he gets upset,” says Kristy, who claims that the Grandeur gelding could never be a field ornament. “He’s not big, but he has such presence and he loves being in the limelight. It’s as if he wants to win.
“He also loves chocolate, so I buy him Wagon Wheels,” she adds. “He rules the yard and knows he’s number one. I just imported a three-year-old Spanish horse and I can feel Archie glaring at me when I’m with him. He hates him!”
Sprightly former event gelding Patris Filius is another who “doesn’t do retirement”.
“We always knew it wouldn’t be his thing,” says Ailie Haddow, whose sister Olivia completed Badminton in 2008 with the 15hh coloured part-cob. “Filius may be 26, but he doesn’t like holidays and isn’t slowing down.”
Filius teamed up with the Haddows at six, having been bought by earlier owners at Abergavenny market. Ailie, who was just 14 at the time, resumed the ride when he started coming back down the eventing levels in his late teens.
“He did his first ever ‘90’ competition last year, around a British Eventing track at a British Riding Club one-day event, and we were recently placed in a hunter trial,” she says. “He’s always excited to be out and is in his element jumping on angles and tackling skinnies. I’m just a passenger.
“Filius is a handful on the ground though and seems to get worse with age,” adds Ailie, who refers to him as her “tiny tiger”.
“I’ve seen him rear up and tow my sister up the driveway so he can get to the field and roll in the mud. He’s the smallest on the yard, but definitely the naughtiest.”
They might be old enough to know better, but some horses never drop the laddish behaviour. Gareth Hughes’ big tour dressage partner Classic Sandman is as cheeky at 21 as he was in his prime, according to yard manager Steph Sharples.
“He cannot be led anywhere without a chifney, even to the stable next door, as he’ll find an object on which he can scrape you off and take himself for a walk,” she explains. “He once got away from me at Hickstead. One minute you’re leading a donkey-looking horse in a chifney, and the next he’s off on his own.”
Nicknamed “Slash” when he was a troublesome youngster, he made a big impression from the outset.
“I remember the first weekend that Rebecca [now Gareth’s wife] came to stay, as she and Gareth had started dating,” says Steph. “She had to bring Slash because he was apparently too naughty to leave at home with the girls at the yard. Gareth offered to unload him, telling Rebecca that he wouldn’t need a chifney, so Slash walked down the ramp and promptly trotted off – leaving Gareth looking very embarrassed.”
The yard rule is that new staff members are not allowed to lead Slash for the first six months.
“If he thinks you’re a wimp, he’ll try to get away with murder,” laughs Steph, adding that the characterful liver chestnut still considers deworming as an opportunity to squash his handler. “He’s now fat and happy, retired in our field, but still has his funny ways.”
Extra brakes at turnout time are also essential for eventer DHI Topper W, winner of both the Olympic test event and the Blenheim Palace CCI3* in 2011 with Piggy March. Hanna Holmes, who had “Topsy” on loan last year from his owner Beccy Harris, often found herself airborne as the exuberant 20-year-old gelding rediscovered some youthful moves.
“He bucked me off twice in a month,” says Hanna. “I think he’s feeling rather too well. He is so friendly and the favourite of the yard, but he knows he is a king.”
Vittoria Panizzon’s former international eventer Merlots Magic provides the entertainment at her Gloucestershire farm. Safely pottering around free-range gives “Woody”, 19, ample opportunity for mischief.
“He loves terrorising the stabled horses, or checking their boxes for leftover food when they’re out for exercise,” says Vittoria’s friend and former head girl, Bryony Milton. “Occasionally, he’ll load himself in the lorry if the ramp is down, or sneak into the hay barn.
“He’s still ridden most days and loves to take the mick out of the new working pupils,” she adds. “He pretends he has no idea how to go on the bit and might put in a naughty stop if they don’t have enough leg on. If he’s bored out hacking, he’ll discover something incredibly spooky – when he’s supposed to be nannying a newly backed baby.
“Woody has certainly taught us all a thing or two, even if we have occasionally landed on our bums.”
A born performer will always find a stage, as Susanna Aromando’s international dressage star Von Velten proves. The 27-year-old gelding still displays amazing movement – albeit loose across the arena, before dropping for a roll, while Susanna’s eventing husband Warren Lamperd is trying to teach.
“His character has certainly emerged during his free-range retirement,” says Susanna of her talented Italian team partner, who kick-started his career in 1998 as the British Dressage five-year-old champion. “He has the loudest, high-pitched whinny to attract attention and he lives in 11 acres with a herd of much younger mares – loving life.”
“Given an inch, he’ll take off”
Polo ponies can sometimes be a little bland, according to British player and H&H polo correspondent Aurora Eastwood, yet her old-timer Cuervo continues to buck the trend.
“He’s always been bouncy, but he gets more bonkers with age,” she says of the 22-year-old Argentinian-bred gelding, whose devil-may-care approach took him to the top in polo and made for some high-octane days on the hunting field. “When you ride him, he feels like he’ll explode – pogoing on the spot, prancing sideways and snorting fire. Given an inch, he’ll tank off.
“At home, Cuervo gallops across the field at 1,000mph before sliding to a stop in front of me,” adds Aurora. “His party trick is chasing a new horse in his paddock through the fence, and he can hook his ear under his lead-rope to prise off his bridle in seconds.
“I only play arena polo with him now, on a softer surface, but he’s still an absolute weapon. He’ll take you right to where the action is, leaping around as if he was four. He’s epic.”
Ref Horse & Hound; 8 October 2020