An Unequivocal Love for the Job: Celebrating Eventing with Bradeley Law

“He’s the first face you see on the yard and everyone’s magnetized towards him – he’s got a special aura.” Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Great event horses aren’t limited to those whose names are inscribed on trophies. The nature of our sport — bringing together inextricably linked, yet seemingly disparate and discrete phases —allows ability to shine in diverse ways, so you’d think pinning down the attributes of an exceptional eventing talent would be difficult. Sure, they need to be bold and brave, scopey and genuine, but what makes a truly great event horse? More than anything, an unequivocal love for their job.

One horse who exhibits that love unmistakeably across his distinctive face is Bradeley Law (Mill Law – Scarlet Lady), a horse who’s been such a stalwart top-level campaigner that he’s almost synonymous with the two British CCI5* offerings. His game approach to competition and his desire to gallop across the country, jumping the biggest fences in the sport, were abundantly clear from the off. At his first 5* — Badminton in 2016 — he unseated his rider, Michael Owen, at the Vicarage Vee. Not to be deterred, he turned for home and cleared a number of jumps by himself: “It’s unheard of!” Michael laughs. “That, to me, just shows that he loves it that much he wants to jump them without me even there. He goes down in history as the best loose-jumping horse ever!”

A horse who’s happiest when he’s flying between the flags. Photo by Emily Beckett, courtesy of Michael Owen.

A Special Aura

Named after the man next door who delivered him, ‘Crocky’, it turns out, was an apt epithet for the characterful gelding: “He does like to have a snap at people now and again – not in a bad way, but when he’s fit and got a little bit of attitude about him,” Michael reveals. But you’d forgive that face anything, and getting his way on the yard is as effortless for him as clearing the Cottesmore Leap: “He’s always got his ears pricked over the door wanting treats; he knows he’s number one. He’s the first face you see on the yard and everyone’s magnetized towards him — he’s got a special aura.”

Over the years, Crocky has garnered an entourage of enchanted eventing fans. Michael puts it down to his big white face, and “with his little ears pricked at everything, he just puts a smile on everyone’s face when they see him.” He’s just as popular at home as he is on the eventing circuit. Michael says, “It’s so funny; when I get any new members of staff, the first time they hack out and I say, ‘You’re riding Crocky,’ and their faces — they almost can’t believe you’ve just said it.”

Crocky clearly brings joy to all those who cross his path, and Michael is happy to share this special horse with his adoring fans: “It’s nice to see other people enjoying him; he’s not mine — it’s nice that everyone on the team can share him, and be able to ride him and enjoy the feel of him. I just love seeing the smile on everyone’s faces when they sit on him.” And he’s not just a cute face, he’s heralded by Michael as a horse that’s easy to do in every way: “He’s just a lovely horse to have around.”

The whole team is grateful then, that, although nineteen-year-old Crocky is retiring from top-level competition, his owners, the Jenning’s Syndicate, have decided to keep him at Kelsall Hill Equestrian Centre in Cheshire, where Michael is based.

A Spare Stable

Originally produced by Mary Lofthouse to Intermediate level, Crocky’s been with Michael for the past decade, after Mary had found him to be a “bit of a handful”. Michael remembers, “She phoned me one day and said, ‘I’ve been struggling a bit with Crocky,’ and asked if I would take him to try him out and see what he was like.” Circumstances were favorable, for Crocky and his new extended family: “Luckily, I had a spare stable!” Michael remarks.

In the early days, however, it wasn’t the partnership that it became.

“I took him straight to Intermediate. I think we came second at our first event, but he didn’t give me a great feel; he felt quite green — he felt very average,” Michael recollects — a far cry from the feeling he’ll miss so much now that Crocky’s top-level career has come to an end.

The solution was reasonably simple, though. He explains, “As the events went on, I found that he didn’t need much in his mouth. He’d had a big bridle on him, but I just put a Dr. Bristol snaffle on him and from then on, he just grabbed the bit and took me to everything – the rest is history, he just took off after that.”

Once Michael found the key to Crocky’s style and preferences — and bitted accordingly — “he was able to express himself a lot more; I was happy for him to run and jump and to feel like he was in control — I think that’s where he gets his flamboyant way of going, not being too over-controlled so that he can’t express himself.”

Crocky’s full self-expression: flamboyant and fun. Photo by Adam Whitehead, courtesy of Michael Owen.

Horse First

Tuning into his needs has been an important aspect of managing Crocky’s career from the start. There were doubts over his durability and Michael was told the horse was unlikely to withstand the demands of a three-day event. But Crocky had high aspirations for himself, which he undisputedly demonstrated on the cross country course.

“The second year that I had him, he moved up to Advanced and he just ate up the tracks very easily,” Michael notes. Crocky’s endurance was first truly put to the test around the hilly cross country at Blair Castle in the 4*-L; he finished on his dressage, in seventh place. The following season he took on the notoriously taxing Bramham track and was half a minute inside the optimum time. Crocky had begun to reveal the true 5* campaigner he would become, but it was a fine balance to keep him sound for the job he so obviously loved.

“He’s been particularly difficult — you wouldn’t overtrain him because he would have probably just broken. So it was about managing his one-day events, not running him too fast, just saving him for the big three-days,” Michael explains. And it’s not just his competition diary that needs careful planning and forethought; his work at home is the foundation of Crocky’s management, and has been approached by Michael in much the same way as his tack choices and entries: horse first. “He doesn’t spend too much time in the arena: he goes hacking, he goes ‘round fields, he goes to the gallops, and he goes in the school once a week — just to vary his work; and on different ground: grass, and arenas, and on the roads. That seems to condition his legs well enough to keep him sound for the three-day events.”

The variety in Crocky’s work extends beyond exercise routine and footing; Michael believes that the gelding enjoys having a range of riders, schooling him just twice a week himself whilst his staff take on the hacking and trips to the gallops, again showing the deliberate approach he’s taken to the horse’s experience of working life. “He’s never actually fed up of me; it’s kept him fresh,” he says.

Michael Owen and Bradeley Law. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

A Personal Best and A Blessing in Disguise

Like all great event horses, “when he gets to a show, he knows it’s party time.” Burghley was to be his last 5*, and although the team set off with no expectations as Crocky had nothing more to prove — just gratitude for and pride in the horse — he delivered the best dressage test of his career, leaving Michael “thrilled” and earning Crocky a big kiss on the neck as the pair left the Main Arena for the final time.

But the following day, Michael didn’t get the feel from Crocky that he was so used to: “The day of cross country, it was just one of those things where it was a warm day, and I’d warmed him up and there was just something — I couldn’t put my finger on it, but he just didn’t feel his old self. Warming up, he jumped everything fine, but he just felt a bit flat — just not him — that X-factor that he gives me, that feeling wasn’t really there. Even walking round the start box, he was so relaxed, he was almost too relaxed, and I was thinking, I hope you wake up. He did wake up as he came out of the box and he jumped well. Then we came off the Leaf Pit and I went on a bit of a long one to that brush like a lot of people did, and he just had to overstretch. I think the old Crocky would have stretched forward and locked on and jumped it; a couple of years ago, he would have got onto that distance. We’re so ‘as one’ normally, and it was just a split second delay to go for it.”

That momentary lapse was enough to cause a glance off at the angled brush coming out, which Michael believes was probably “a blessing in disguise”.

“Things happen for a reason. I’m just so proud of him and what he’s done over the years. That’s the top of the sport — it doesn’t always go to plan — and he can hold his head up high. I’m just glad he went there and got the accolade of retiring and people seeing him for the last time. You can’t always have the fairytale ending, can you?”

And anyway, Crocky thinks he won Burghley, I couldn’t help interjecting. “Exactly!” Michael laughs. “He’s had a lovely time, he’s told all his friends when he’s come home”.

The Party Continues

And now that Crocky’s 5* adventures have come to an end, how will his retirement play out? For a horse who’s so in love with galloping around top-level tracks, it’s another case of prudent and mindful management on Michael’s part.

“He’s not one who can be just turned out and left. He’s going to have a little eight week break, and then he’ll come in and do his normal road work and conditioning work.”

Crocky may be nineteen, but his love of competition hasn’t waned, and Michael’s clear in his attitude to keeping the old guy happy and healthy: “I think it’s ‘use it or lose it’; I think he’d only seize up and go downhill quick if he was just left. It’s like, as humans get older, they still need to stay mobile and active in their mind to stay youthful.” To this effect, Michael’s wife, Ashleigh, plans to do some low-level competing with Crocky, and they see no reason why he won’t be “popping ‘round some small events in his twenties.”

“He’s such a good looking horse. You just can’t put your finger on what it actually is, but he’s just got something special about him.” Photo courtesy of Michael Owen.

Michael’s got a decade’s worth of memories of his partnership with Crocky, and it’s the feel he’s given him and all the 5* clears the horse has achieved that he’ll treasure most. He acknowledges, “It’s so difficult to jump round five-stars numerous times clear — even good, good horses and riders can have a blip. You never forget jumping your Vicarage Vees and your Cottesmore Leaps, and for him to do it so easily and regularly, he’s a very, very special horse. I’ll never, ever forget any of that, ever. Over the last ten years, I’ve had an absolute blast with him”.

While Crocky’s out partying at competitions with Ashleigh, Michael has some exciting prospects in the pipeline, with four horses he’s produced from scratch stepping up to Advanced. He hopes to be back on the 5* circuit next season with Treworder, a “very flashy, and very, very good on the flat, good galloping and jumping horse,” and feels his string is the strongest it’s ever been.

Of course, that’s — at least in part — thanks to Crocky, taking center stage in the field, waxing lyrical to the next generation about all those times he’s delivered at the top of his sport, and that one time he jumped round Badminton all by himself.

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