It’s horses for courses in the working hunters at the Royal International

  • What does it take to win as a working hunter at the Royal International Horse Show? Ahead of the 2021 show, H&H’s showing editor Alex Robinson speaks to those who know the track best...

    ALL artists go into their projects with a vision, and for course-designer Kevin Millman, the grassy, undulating turf of ring five at Hickstead, home of the Prenetics Royal International Horse Show (RIHS), provides the perfect canvas.

    “It’s a true hunting course over true hunting obstacles,” explains RIHS senior working hunter course-designer Kevin, who has been designing the track for some 20 years. “It’s a championship class so naturally we’re not expecting lots of clears, though this does depend on the judges; some will request a really tough course which will produce only one or two clears, while others will ask for more clean rounds so the show and conformation section has more weight.

    “We walk the course together and the decision on the final course is ultimately down to them, at my discretion.”

    The 12-fence course, which is set on a slope and requires 15 to 16 efforts from the combinations, is a mix of seven permanent fences – including a Cornish wall, an open ditch and a hedge – and some temporary constructions.

    While Kevin says the course is arguably not as sizable as it was 15 years ago, mainly due to health-and-safety regulations, questions are still asked and the nature of the fences certainly separates the wheat from the chaff.

    “Competitors often come back after the class in the evening to measure some of the fences so they can build them at home,” says Kevin. “True hunter types tend to fare better, and while the course is built forward and some horses have no problem with the pace, it’s the required stamina which can let them down.

    “Experience has told me only to make the horses pull up the hill twice; a third time and they run out of puff and I’m aware they need to perform a show afterwards.”

    The fence which usually puts the cat among the pigeons is a small ditch with a tree and wings on either side.

    “There’s a definite place to jump and plenty of room to get to and away from it but it catches a lot of people out,” Kevin adds. “If your animal hunts he’ll have no problem. It’s a horse-friendly course, but fitness – of both rider and horse – needs to be there. It’s a testing track and it’s a stressful, exciting experience, so ensuring you’re both fit and ready to go counts for a lot.”

    JUSTINE ARMSTRONG-SMALL is a familiar face in the class. She won the lightweights and stood section reserve in 2004 with her former Horse of the Year Show (HOYS) supreme Zin Zan and she has also achieved that same result on two other occasions with Caroline Clark’s heavyweight Pipers Ovation.

    “It’s a magical ring,” said Justine. “Over the years a lot of the features have gone, such as the double of ditches with rails above, and the hedges are smaller, but it’s still a course you really have to ride forward at.”

    The other major championship for open workers will be held at HOYS in October, but it couldn’t be more different to the RIHS experience.

    “The terrain [at Hickstead] is very up and down, so it’s different to jumping on a flat surface, let alone an arena,” added Justine. “HOYS is a much smaller space, too, and the horses need to be more focused to take on the big oxers set off corners and obstacles around the fences. There are more related distances at HOYS and the lights and atmosphere of the indoor arena creates a different feel.”

    Katy Green first shone at the RIHS in the nursery stakes aged eight, and has competed in plaited ranks ever since. Her own prolific worker I’m A Diamond (Jack) – now 18 – has jumped round the course 12 times.

    This year she is returning with Jack and she’ll also have her six-year-old prospect, Kuriheka Temptation, on the lorry.

    “Jack is a machine and he’s a real comfort blanket,” says Katy, who always endeavours to attend the Hickstead Derby meeting a few weeks before as a RIHS warm-up. “It’s a big ask for a young horse. It’s a big arena with lots of distractions, plus the collecting ring is at one end of the ring so you need a horse to be confident to go off on his own.

    “They also need to be strong and capable of jumping 4ft oxers uphill. I find it takes the younger horses a couple of years to find their feet at the RIHS.”

    Fitness training for Katy’s horses starts in June and includes ample hill work.

    “I’ll go cross-country schooling and take them on the gallops,” she says. “My horses are in work six days a week all year round but I’ll add in more variation at this time of year.

    “While the fences aren’t as dressed up at the Derby, it gives me a good gauge of how I’ll get on at the RIHS. The features at the RIHS are usually the same each year, the classic bullfinch and the wall included, so I jump scaled-down versions at home so as not to overface the horses. The water jump often takes a horse by surprise – it’s always dark as the trees hang over it – so at home I’ll use black plastic to make my own.”

    KATRINA BRAITHWAITE won the lightweights with Kilderry Rupert four years running from 2015, also standing champion on two of these occasions.

    “I have so many cherished memories of that horse at Hickstead and the place holds no demons for me,” enthuses Katrina, who also won the plaited workers in the 1990s with her “machine of a ride” Versalis, and has qualified Rupert’s nine-year-old half-brother for the 2021 final.

    “Rupert had hunted and whipped-in before I got him so that stood him in good stead as he was brave and he respected the natural obstacles and lack of poles.

    “While it’s a well-filled, solid track, you might not think it looks very big looking from the outside in, but once you’re in there you’re in for a big test; you have to really ride, and the horse has to really jump and cope with the terrain, slope and undulations.”

    Rupert’s winning formula was also in part down to his credentials as a flat horse.

    “He was exceptionally polite and was mannerly enough for a lady but upstanding enough for a gentleman,” says Katrina. “He also had good limbs throughout his career. Prior to the RIHS I’d always do my homework and I’d have him fit as it’s a big, open ring.

    “Hunting also helped me as a rider; I was never worried about attacking the course and I had confidence to really ride it.”

    • Watch the Saracen Horse Feeds working hunter finals in the Science Supplements ring five on Friday 23 July, commencing at 7.30am. The championship is to be held in the Longines International Arenaat 1.15pm.

    Bring on the natives

    ATHLETIC natives will also arrive by the bucketload to compete for the National Pony Society (NPS) working hunter pony championship title. A winning effort will require apt scope and stamina as they also take on an up-to-height 12-fence course.

    “I do give them the first fence heading towards home,” says course-designer Kevin Millman. “Of course we want a championship track, but we also want competitors to come back next year, so we try our best to give them a positive experience.”

    The premise of the 2.5m-wide water splash is for combinations just to “get to the other side”:

    “They can jump it, or trot or gallop through it, as long as they just make it across,” Kevin confirms.

    Tori Oakes claimed the inaugural championship in 2006 riding Welsh section A Chetwynd Casper, and she was victorious again in 2014 with “freak of nature” Highland pony Cairns Fergus (Humpty, pictured), who will be returning to the show this term.

    “It really feels like you’re out hunting and ultimately that’s what it’s all about,” says Tori. “You need a pony who will power through and take on the fences, especially the bullfinch, which is always massive. The first year it was held the water splash was bright blue and it caused so much trauma; no one knew what to expect.

    “You must be moving in a forward rhythm and, as the late Rory Gilsenan would say, get up out of the saddle and just crack on. For me, nothing will beat the championship experience, galloping in front of the grandstand. Humpty absolutely flew.”


    This feature is also available to read in 15 July issue of Horse & Hound magazine

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