Horse heroes: a poisoned chalice for riders? *H&H VIP*

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  • When horses reach a certain level of success and fame it can feel as if they have become public property — with everyone having an opinion on the horse’s care, to how it is worked and competed.

    But is the pressure of riding — and, especially, taking on — such high-profile horses too much for riders?

    Is it unfair that they are burdened with such responsibility?

    During the past couple of years, eventer Laura Collett has been thrown into the spotlight after taking on legendary racehorse Kauto Star.

    When the horse retired in 2012 with victories in two Cheltenham Gold Cups, four Betfair Chases and a record five King George VI Chases to his name, owner Clive Smith, in consultation with Retraining of Racehorses, moved the horse from trainer Paul Nicholls’ yard in Ditcheat to Laura’s Lambourn base.

    The aim was to retrain him for a career in dressage and, as one of the most successful and popular National Hunt stars of all time, it was an “honour and a privilege”, said Laura, to take him on.

    His owner Clive Smith wanted the horse to be kept active in retirement and added: “I wanted to give him a nice time for the rest of his life.”

    However, as soon as he moved, the horse was subject to constant scrutiny.

    Last month (29 June) the 15-year-old gelding was put down following a field accident. A social media debate ensued, which left Laura saying she felt “bullied and hurt” by accusations that she’d lied about the circumstances of his death.

    “It’s been a harrowing week but I would like to say a huge thank you to everyone who has shown their kind support,” she said, declining to comment further.

    Charlotte Alexander also understands the pressure of taking on a famous horse, having had Foxhunter winner Earthmover and Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Denman in her charge.

    “The worry of something going wrong is more enormous than if it is an unknown horse,” she told H&H.

    In order to counter this she competes Denman under an alias in unaffiliated events, which she does as training for his main sports — hunting and team chasing.

    “Sometimes no one recognises him, and sometimes people do and are thrilled to see him,” she added.

    She added that the pressure was “huge” when she went hunting at Ditcheat earlier this year, his home of so many years when in training with Paul Nicholls.

    “I was so proud of him and it was lovely that people were amazed at what a sensible hunter he had become,” she said.

    “Denman is just as precious to me as any of my other horses as I love them all dearly. It is handling people’s expectations that is where the pressure comes from. There is nothing more amazing than riding a horse of such quality at speed over hedges. I am spoilt to have the experience of riding such an amazing athlete as Denman.”

    ‘People would say, is that him?’

    The issue is particularly felt in ex-racehorses, due to racing being the second biggest spectator sport in the country after football, but other disciplines are not exempt.

    Yasmin Ingham took on Imperial Cavalier last year when she was just 17, after Mary King’s Olympic silver medal winner was retired after Badminton.

    Yasmin was going to Aston-le-Walls with another horse for the Davies, Imperial Cavalier’s owners, when they asked her to pick up “Archie”.

    “I was gobsmacked that he was even on my yard,” she said. “And when they offered me the ride I almost dropped to the floor. It was the best day of my life.”

    Yasmin said that although it was an “amazing feeling” she did feel the pressure.

    “When we first went out I could hear people saying, ‘Is that him?’ and it did make me nervous,” she added. “I felt I had to do well. But as the year went on my confidence grew. We gelled quickly.”

    Mary still keeps in touch, and the pair have been long-listed for the Junior Europeans.

    “It is daunting — you’re so worried something might go wrong, and you have the responsibility of looking after a valuable horse,” added Yasmin. “But horses are horses; with any of them you just want them to be happy and healthy.”

    Big footsteps to fill

    When Matthias Rath took over the ride on Totilas from Edward Gal in 2010 it ended weeks of speculation about who would have charge of the popular stallion.

    The star had gained many followers, not all of whom were pleased to see the partnership with Edward end.

    Matthias was just 26 when the horse was bought by his stepmother Ann Kathrin Linsenhoff and Paul Schockemöhle.

    “Of course I am very happy to ride the world’s best dressage horse. I know it is a big challenge to fill Edward’s footsteps,” he said at the time.

    However, under Matthias a string of illnesses and injures, to both rider and horse, have been less in the spotlight in recent times. The pair recently made their comeback at Hagen and are currently aiming at the European Championships, having missed the World Equestrian Games in 2014 due to injury.

    Concentrate on yourself

    In comparison showjumper Trevor Breen took gaining the ride on Loughnatousa WB after the horse won the 2102 Hickstead Derby with Paul Beecher in his stride.

    “I suppose ultimately when you take on a horse, what he’s done in the past is irrelevant,” he told H&H.

    “If you’re caught up with what they’ve done before, you will never go forward. You have to ride them the best you can. Some people get on better with some horses than others. Horses I do well on might not go so well for others, and vice versa.”

    Rider, trainer, and master practitioner in NLP (neurolinguistic programming) Lucy Thompson told H&H: “Riders are very good at feeling they’re not worthy of this top horse they’ve taken on, but it’s terribly important to accept the horse doesn’t know more, it just knows it in a different language so they have to learn together.

    “The insecurity comes from the horror of letting the horse down.

    You just have to say ‘aren’t I lucky’ and accept the fact people are going to talk about it and watch you. Anything you can’t change you have to develop a thick skin about, and anything you can change you have to work hard on.

    “I didn’t find it easy to take on Welton Romance from Ginny Elliott, but I just thought I need to worry about the relationship with the horse, no one else, and make it super.”

    Ref: H&H 15 July, 2015