As cobs continue to shine in the spotlight, the horse world’s ‘steady Eddie’ is finally getting recognition
When showing producer Robert Walker retired So Smart from the ring, his owner Camilla Neame sent Robert a photo of the cob with the inscription “I don’t do coloureds” written underneath. It was a nod to Robert’s response to when Camilla had first rung him and said, “Oh Robert, I have a really nice coloured cob for you.”
“People were so snobby about him, but he was exceptional,” remembers Robert of the striking “Smarty” about whom he’d been apprehensive himself, but ended up standing supreme at Horse of the Year Show in 2006.
“Now you see umpteen coloured horses in classes and it’s not frowned upon if they do well, because as long as the horse has rhythm, looks and correctness it can do well,” he says.Over the course of a 27-year career showing cobs — of all colours — Robert has witnessed their ascendance in the showing world.
“If you look at even your local gymkhana or agricultural show, they all have a ridden cob class now, and they wouldn’t have had that 10 years ago,” he says. “I grew up doing the Yorkshire circuit of agricultural shows and there were hunter classes and that was about it. Their popularity was especially noticeable last season, where certain qualifiers, maybe in the hacks or the riding horses, were a little bit down numbers-wise, whereas the cob classes were huge.
“I think it’s because when you have a cob, it becomes your friend. Every cob I’ve had I can remember straight off the top of my head, whereas with every good hack or riding horse I have to dig into my memory for them. Cobs all have real personalities — for better or worse,” he adds.
Garnering star status
It is not just in the show ring where cobs are garnering star status. In the dressage arena they are part of a growing swathe of horses that don’t fit the traditional warmblood mould.
“I think people are just braver about introducing different types of horses and are seeing that there are people taking non-standard horses up to higher levels,” says British Dressage (BD) list one judge Kim Ratcliffe, crediting the effect of the BD Associated Championships, introduced in 2015, with title opportunities for all breeds, sizes and types.
“Most cobs don’t — and can’t — move in exactly the same way as your archetypal Olympic horse, but what I as a judge am usually impressed by is the energy with which they work, and the way they step well under the body.
“Because of the way they’re put together it’s the trot work that often gets all the big marks, and the canter work doesn’t get so many. But very often they have the right attitude. And while the old saying with real estate is ‘location, location, location’, particularly for the amateur rider it’s ‘temperament, temperament, temperament’.
“So, if you have a cob that has a can-do attitude, then it will have a crack at these things and will learn the movements.”
Such a democratic approach hasn’t always been the case; Kim recounts a story from 20 years ago when a cob at a regional championship provoked a wild array of responses from the judges.
“One judge said, ‘Oh, it’s a cob,’ and marked it down, one said, ‘Isn’t it going well for a cob,’ and put the mark right up, and there was another right in the middle,” she remembers.
“At that time there weren’t the same number of traditional cobs appearing at regionals for example. I don’t think you would have that reaction from the judges now; in general, they would expect to see them doing what they do.”
And what judges expect from cobs across the disciplines is seemingly at an all-time high.
“The standard of production in a cob class now is so high compared to what it used to be,” says Robert. “Producers get more out of them in general turnout and the way they present them to the judge. There were probably a lot of good cobs around years ago but maybe they wouldn’t have been presented as they are now.”
Promoting their versatility and breeding
For Flore Ryan, who sells Irish cobs from Cairnview Stud in Co. Meath, demand for cobs has been on the up over the past five years, with growing prices to match.
“They’ve been entering shows and winning, and so people have started paying attention — and that’s what has made the difference,” she says.
Andrea Betteridge at the Traditional Gypsy Cob Association, founded in 2005 as a means of promoting their versatility and breeding, agrees there has been an awakening to their talent.
“We’ve noticed that in the dressage they’re holding their own. But everyone who owns one has gone out and promoted the traditional gypsy cob,” she says.
Sussex-based showjumper Hayley Mossop admits that she’d never imagined she’d own a cob — “to me they were something you rode if you were a bit scared or something you had in a riding school” — but when her warmblood stallion started refusing to load, she was persuaded to get one to keep it company.
Fast-forward three years, and Hayley now has three traditional cobs on the yard, which she shows.
“I’ve said to three or four of my showjumping friends: ‘Until you’ve ridden them, don’t knock them,’” she says. “They expect cobs to have no power from behind, but they’re naturally uphill because they’ve pulled the cart previously, so a lot of the work is done for you before you start. I’m a massive cob convert.”
But for five-star eventer Francis Whittington, who runs a series of training clinics and has noticed the growing appreciation of cobs at the grassroots level of his sport, a soft spot for “Mr Reliable” is nothing new.
“All we’re doing is going back to where we were many years ago when more people had the trusty, faithful cob,” he says. “About 15 years ago everybody thought they wanted to have a thoroughbred, and the reality is that most people can’t ride or manage a thoroughbred. People are coming back round to the idea that cobs are manageable and they can actually do what everybody wants.
“I hope that we go back in that direction, where people find horses that are not just suitable for the way that they ride, but suitable for the level they want to compete at and their facilities at home. Invariably if someone has ended up with a cob they think: ‘This is the best decision I’ve ever made.’”
And as dressage judge Kim Ratcliffe says, any assumed negative connotations of a horse being “cobby” in stature are misplaced. “Some of these flashy horses that come out aren’t suitable for more nervous amateurs, whereas ‘Bob the cob’ can just be a joy.”
Five USPs of the cob
- Loyalty: “Cobs get very dedicated to their rider or family,” says Flore Ryan, who breeds cobs at her Cairnview Stud in Co. Meath. “They like to please and do their best to figure out what you want
- Versatility: “They’ll do a really nice dressage test, a great showjumping round, they’ll gallop round a cross-country course, they’ll do a full day’s hunting, they’ll stand and they’re sturdy,” says five-star eventer Francis Whittington.
- Ease: “They are generally good-doers. You haven’t got to throw food at them to keep them in good condition,” says producer Robert Walker, warning that they can be wilful with “chips on their shoulder” as well. “Everyone says they want a cob because they want a confidence giver, but it isn’t always the case. They often come across from Ireland pretty feral and it takes time. But the good thing with that is that you have a lot of innocence.”
- Personality: “They have this brain that absorbs what you’ve asked them, they think about it and then they do it,” says ‘cob convert’ Hayley Mossop. “And every day you come on the yard they’re happy to see you. It’s like having a dog really.”
- Presence: “If you have a cob that’s well put together, it has presence,” says grand prix dressage rider Sam Turner who competes cobs. “And when you see a big ‘tractor unit’ moving elegantly and lightly, I think that’s quite appealing.”
The social media effect
Social media has played its part in raising cobs’ status and changing perceptions over the past 10 years, says showing producer Robert Walker.
“The star of any class now gets a lot of attention, whereas perhaps they didn’t in the past,” he says, pointing to the example of the public’s connection to Allister Hood’s cob Our Cashel Blue, who came back from cancer to take the supreme ridden horse title at the 2019 Royal International Horse Show.
“He’s an appealing little chap, and I think people get a bond with a horse like that, and that’s good for any sport.”
For dressage rider Sam Turner, who has some 8,400 followers on Facebook and Instagram watching her success in the arena with her traditional gypsy cob Cuffstown Rumble, it was social media that gave her the confidence to take him up the levels to grand prix.
“I always felt like I was the odd one out and someone was going to laugh at me. But the amount of emails and messages I get on a weekly or daily basis is huge, and what people probably don’t realise is that that gave me the confidence to do it, probably as much as I have given them the confidence to have a go.”
Ref Horse & Hound; 30 January 2020