Life lessons: Top British showjumper William Funnell *H&H Plus*

  • The four-time Hickstead Derby winner on jumping gates out hunting, classroom lessons, two great icons and getting the hang of breeding...

    From a young age I’d trot happily behind my father, who was a huntsman and master, out with hounds. I’ll never forget one day when there was a huge queue coming out of a wood, so my father said: “Stay here, Son, don’t try to follow me over this gate.” It was huge and of course none of the field had wanted to jump it, but he set off over it – and smashed it clean down the middle. So I didn’t have to ignore his advice after all.

    As a 16-year-old straight out of school, I went to work for Cyril Light at the Brendon Stud. A load of unbroken horses would come in from Ireland and if we could get a saddle on them, we rode them. That was mentally tough on the horses and nowadays we deal with them in a much more natural way — we take our time, get them relaxed and we’re much more in tune with the fact that these are wild, herd animals.

    I guess that comes a lot from having all our horses from babies, too — they’re just like kids who, from an early age, have to get up, go to school and learn life lessons. As children, we all had a day when we were late with our homework, we got into trouble and the next day we had stomach ache and tried to persuade our mum we couldn’t go to school.

    Being made to face it, though, is a huge life lesson and it’s the same if a horse knocks a fence in the manège one day and thinks, “That was hard work,” then the next day doesn’t want to walk up to the manège. How you deal with that situation is a crucial lesson to a horse, too. So if you give it a kick and say, “I want you to walk up to the school,” that becomes a basic principle that stays with it forever. Obviously, though, some horses try harder not to go to school than others…

    Advice from a great

    David Broome once said to me: “A horse should carry you to take-off,” and that has stayed with me – you shouldn’t be doing any more in the saddle than if you were riding normal flatwork, and if you take your leg off or drop your hands, the horse should still carry you to a fence.

    It’s an easy mistake when you see the jump to feel you have to do something and put your leg on — but if you have to put your leg on any earlier than take-off, he’s not carrying you.

    I always walk the course twice, the first time keeping an open mind then, once I’ve worked out the flow of it and decided where to add or take out strides, I’ll walk it again and plan exactly how my round is going to happen.

    Riding into the ring is the time to refresh the course in your mind because you’ve been focusing on working your horse in the warm-up. It’s important not to watch too many other riders jump, but those who have horses close to the way of going to your own — length of stride and so on — can be useful.

    Two great icons

    We’re very lucky to have two great icons to look up to in this sport — as a horseman, John Whitaker was someone I always admired, and one of my proudest days was when he sent me some horses to ride. Then as a winner, it has to be Nick Skelton — what he’s achieved is unparalleled.

    I would love to have Comex (pictured top) in my string at the moment — I’m sure that he would have been a better horse now, because he was so careful and would be better suited to the lighter materials used for poles these days.

    I also wish I’d started breeding horses a bit earlier, so that I could be 20 years younger with the lovely youngsters we have now. We’re just getting the hang of breeding, but unfortunately I’m going to be too old!

    About William Funnell

    Showjumper William is based in Surrey with his eventer wife Pippa, where they have established The Billy Stud breeding enterprise. William, 54, has won the Hickstead Derby four times and scooped team gold at the 2013 European Championships.

    Ref: H&H 11 June 2020

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