Will Plunkett on his quest for improvement, letting a horse find its own balance and his childlike love of riding
I describe myself as a sport horse trainer – though that’s never an option in the drop-down menu when you’re doing the car insurance. I’m known for doing breakers – for people like the Billy Stud and Peter Charles – but in reality my wife Laura and I also have home-breds and other horses that we compete for clients. Including the kids’ ponies, we probably own about a dozen horses ourselves. Laura does all the admin; I wouldn’t last a single day without her.
My background wasn’t horsey, but luckily I was bitten by the bug when I was young as I passionately hated school. I’m dyslexic so I just counted down the days to leaving school and working with horses.
We didn’t have a lot of funds, so while I was learning to ride at the local riding school, I hung around at our neighbour’s yard until she eventually helped find me my first horse, Sundance. I hacked 90 minutes each way to shows so I’d get up super-early and take a short cut across the playing fields. It was lucky Sundance was an Arab as it gave him the stamina to do it.
I’ve had a lot of tricky horses. You become known for being able to ride difficult, sharp ones, so you get sent more. I didn’t have any kind of competition career as a kid, but I was brave, plucky and determined, and realised that if I rode those horses, I’d get opportunities. Then I had the chance to compete and kept improving; that was how I carved out a career. I always want to improve and if I thought I couldn’t any more, I’d probably give up riding.
I’ve trained with the Dutch Olympic medalist Albert Voorn in the Netherlands for the past decade. His whole philosophy is about not forcing the horse into a frame, which really appeals to me. Over the years I’d already figured out it’s best to let horses find their own balance, but Albert teaches how to make them rideable without force.
I do everything with the breakers myself. Half the job is about getting them tacked up in a relaxed way and it tells me all about their character and mood. An added bonus is that I don’t have to try to learn all their names; there are so many breakers that they end up getting called things like The Grey Billy On The Right.
With the Billy horses, there’s a master list for the year and, while they’re here, I make notes about their temperament, their mouth, their canter. When they’re ready to leave, I match up all their microchips with my notes.
Many of those I’ve started have gone on to jump internationally, but sometimes the best horses are very blood and not always the easiest to start.
There was one, Billy Dorito, who was extremely sharp and you’d be scared to blink on him. He eventually got sold to Darragh Kenny and one
day I was on social media and there was Dorito in a fancy-dress class with Darragh. I laughed and thought, ‘Yikes!’ It’s amazing how horses change and grow into their careers.
Just before the first lockdown, I broke my first bone at the age of 42. It was a freak accident; it was windy, something banged and a breaker shot off and slipped over on me on the yard.
I couldn’t get out of the way in time and the stirrup iron bent back on my foot. My tendon pinged and a bit of bone snapped off with it. I cut up some old boots so I could get back on two days later, but it was more painful than I’d anticipated, so I took a couple of weeks off.
One of the very few upsides of Covid is that I’ve been able to take a few hours off on the odd Sunday. Normally I have breakers in plus shows at the weekend, so I work all hours. I try to take a week off each year but as we’re a family of five that can get expensive, so we often go camping.
I can moan for Britain – I could win an Olympic medal. But actually I just love riding horses, and deep down inside is the kid who hacked across the playing fields on Sundance.
This feature is also available to read in this Thursday’s H&H magazine (15 April, 2021)
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