William Funnell: Do the next generation know how to care for a horse? *H&H VIP*

  • I am currently in Spain in the middle of a three-week Sunshine Tour and so far, it hasn’t lived up to its label. It’s been cold, windy and there have been only two days without rain, but it’s provided plenty of opportunity to sit down and watch amateurs and professionals alike.

    You see riders pulling when they should kick, and kicking when they should pull, but in spite of them, 90% of the time, the horse still works it out for himself. It brings home what forgiving animals they are and how lucky we are to work with them.

    With this on my mind, I came across a quote from American trainer George Morris that I feel sums it all up.

    “It’s not about the accessories, the money, the ribbons. It’s not about the winning,” he said. “It’s about the horse: how to care for the horse, how to ride the horse, and how to look after this great animal — the horse.”

    That, after all, is why we do what we do — because we love horses.

    These days, it’s common to see kids specialising early and being over-trained in their chosen discipline. They learn how to succeed, but they don’t learn the all-round horsemanship that children used to when they grew up in the Pony Club.

    The danger is that you lose sight of what it’s all about and the horses become viewed as an accessory.

    We’re lucky to have an organisation like the Pony Club in the UK, where you are taught to put the horse first and to do everything for yourself — from looking after their legs to putting on a tail bandage — and it’s disappointing to see fewer people taking this route.

    Foundations hone instincts

    When a good grounding in horsemanship becomes a rarity, it also makes me wonder where the next generation of grooms is going to come from. As well as being able to turn horses out to a high standard and look after their general wellbeing, they need to have the instincts to know when something isn’t right.

    There’s no doubt that with the lure of bigger prize-money, all disciplines have become not only more specialist but also more commercial. As big breeders, sometimes we have to sit down and remember why we do what we do and make sure we’re not looking at the horses entirely as a commodity.

    Unfortunately, we have to be commercial to survive, but I’m not in it for that reason. When it comes down to it, I will still put the welfare of the horse before money.

    Ageing gracefully, if not secretly

    When I was younger, I always imagined that when I got to 40, I’d be an old man and wouldn’t still be riding. Two weeks ago, I turned 50 and I still enjoy horses as much as ever.

    In 10 years’ time, even if I can’t emulate John Whitaker riding the way he is at 60, I will still appreciate working with horses.

    The weekend before last, I won the two-star grand prix out in Spain with Billy Congo. With myself at 50 and him at 15 — we’re both old men, but it was a good start to our year.

    As for my birthday itself, when my wife Pippa mentioned parties, I said no as I hoped that if I didn’t tell anyone, no one would realise.

    In the end, Pippa did surprise me. She said we had a few people coming for dinner but gradually I realised it was more than eight guests when my family and 30 friends arrived. So in the end, I wasn’t able to let this one quietly pass me by.

    Ref: Horse & Hound; 25 February 2016