William Funnell: Breeding for the 2024 Olympics — what type of horse will we need? *H&H VIP*

  • It’s the time of year at the Billy Stud when we decide what type of stallions we want to use for the coming season. For a mare being put in foal this spring, we’ll be looking two Olympics ahead to try and gauge how horse sport will progress and what stamp of horse will be required.

    You only have to go back two Olympics to see how the sport can change. In eventing, movement and showjumping are becoming more important and it’s less about blood. In showjumping, you need to look at the course-building to assess the direction we’re headed.

    I thought it would be interesting to talk to Bob Ellis, and he agrees that courses can’t get more technical. Given the standard of top riders now, people can cope with distance questions — the horses are well schooled to come back and go forwards. The fences can’t get lighter — they already fall at a touch — and they can’t get bigger, as the top horses already jump such large fences. So unless the time allowed becomes ridiculous, we’re still looking at breeding the right balance of range, blood and rideability.

    The technicalities of modern course-building are also affecting the way we produce our young horses. When I was a young rider, we used to take all of our four-year-olds to shows at this time of year, but our youngsters haven’t been out competing since September. With the four-, five- and six-year-olds, we spend most of the time working on their balance and flatwork, as rideability has become so much more important for production and sales.

    As there are quite a few professional producers in our area, we hire out an arena together and have our own show. It saves money on entry fees and it’s better for the young ones as you can be a bit more hands-on to help. The horses don’t know any different and it’s amazing what we can all learn from each other.

    Another thing that cropped up in my chat with Bob was how much of our production is now done on a surface. It’s become common in January to hear people talking about preparing for one tour or another and the beauty of them is they have super grass rings.

    So few horses and riders learn to ride on a natural grass surface. As horses can’t go round the corner at any speed without slipping, riders need more feel for a horse’s balance. Apart from Hickstead and the county shows, rarely do we get a chance to gain this experience in Britain — yet many major competitions are still run on grass.

    Tumblers’ challenge

    I thought 2016 had started well for me, having won my first world rankings class at Liverpool International just two days in. Now we’ve reached the end of the month, I’ve completed “dry” January but I’m already topping the Billy Stud falls list.

    I’ve fallen off four times so far and, as last year’s booby prize was won on 13, if I continue as I am I will blow that tally completely out of the water.

    Yesterday, I was walking a young horse off in strong wind while checking emails on my phone. The tractor started up and spooked him and I couldn’t grab my reins back in time. He went from walk to gallop, over the rails at the side of the school and halfway through the hedge. Pippa was nearly in tears as I’d disappeared and there were no initial signs of movement.

    I would still have fallen off if it had happened 20 years ago but I definitely wouldn’t have been looking at emails on my phone. Let that be a lesson.

    Ref: Horse & Hound; 4 February 2016