It feels like a big month for high-profile retirements, and the latest to hit the airwaves will leave a serious hole in five-star entry lists: at the age of eighteen, Sarah Bullimore‘s odd, wonderful Oldenburg Reve du Rouet (Balou du Rouet x Onassis Queen) has stepped down from the top.
In a recent episode of The Eventing Podcast, Sarah shared the news that she’d made the tough call to retire her stalwart partner, who’s owned by husband Brett and Christopher and Susan Gillespie, from the upper levels of the sport. The decision, she explains, came after she began his fitness work for Burghley this autumn.
“He was aiming for Burghley, and then when we started up his canter work, I thought, ‘he’s just looking his age’,” she explains in the podcast. “We’re not in it to kill him, and he doesn’t need to go and do it — and he didn’t need to go and be an also-ran. If he was going to do it, it would be to go and be competitive.”
Reve du Rouet — or Blou, as he’s known at home — has been a familiar face at five-stars in Britain and beyond since stepping up to the level in 2014 at Kentucky, where he finished in thirteenth place. Since then, he’s amassed an exceptional 18 five-star starts, making him one of the most prolific top level horses around.
Part of that comes down to his extraordinary physical toughness, which comes paired with the unusual, tricky brain that made him as famous as his ability did: “He’s been so tough and sound — I’ll be very, very lucky to find another like him,” says Sarah. “He’s like Ironman. When he was younger he was a little bit tricky, and could have won a lot more things, but his tricky little demons would come out — he’d have a moment in one phase or another. But anytime he went to the vet for a check-up they’d spin him in a circle on the concrete and he’d be long and low and loose. We always joked that if there was a competition for concrete circle trotting, he’d win that hands down!”
Blou’s reputation for trickiness came after some high-profile incidents earlier on in his five-star career, in which he bolted in the dressage arena due to a genuine terror of crowds and atmosphere. But as he got older, and gained valuable experience in the tactful hands of his rider, he began to embrace the big day, which earned him impressive scores in hot company.
“He’s a tricky character, but he’s been amazing — I think it’s really sort of thrown me,” says Sarah. “He’s been there at five-star for so long, and he’s eighteen now, so there was always going to come a point — but it’s just weird. He’s been tough and sound and he’s never taken a lame step in his life. He is tricky in his mind, and keeping his head right; he does take quite a bit of work. Not so much physical work, but just mentally keeping him right and keeping him used to crowds and things like that.”
Though Blou had well and truly overcome his stage fright before the onset of the pandemic, two years away from crowds meant that he found readjusting to them a bit tricky this spring, which resulted in an uncharacteristic dressage score of 34.4 — a score he put to bed in his final international run in the CCI4*-S at Burgham, where he posted a 25.2 for third place.
“Being back at Badminton in the spring was just weird, because of Covid — and that’s what finished him off, really,” says Sarah. “He had two years of not really doing it, and he missed it. That was the funny thing — I’ve always said he’s terrified of crowds, and genuinely, but when he wasn’t going, he missed it. So it was like, ‘okay, you do actually love what you do’, which is great, but then being back at Badminton, because he hadn’t seen those sorts of crowds in two years, it was like being back in 2017 again. He was kind of looking around, and while he was amazing on cross-country, he just doesn’t gallop. He was fabulous with the fences, but he spent so much time looking at the crowds that it feels like you’re galloping backwards.”
Blou’s quirks go further than just the dressage ring: he’s also an oddball to handle, and Sarah has often speculated that he might have a form of equine autism, because he finds minor changes so distressing and had to be taught by another horse — fellow 5* mount Conpierre — how to interact with other horses.
“We genuinely believe he’s autistic, because of the way he has to do things – even things like putting him in his stable,” Sarah told EN back in 2019. “He has to turn a certain way, or he gets confused and upset. It’s all a compromise – I have to keep my promises, and I have to hope that he does, too.”
Throughout his career, Blou earned a number of placings at five-star, taking fourth at Burghley in both 2018 and 2019 and fifth at Luhmühlen in 2019 — but his best result came at an extraordinarily tough Pau in 2017, where much of the field failed to make it past the first quarter of the course. Blou made it look like an easy job — as did both of Sarah’s other rides that day — and ultimately finished second, losing the win to Gwendolen Fer and Romantic Love by a couple of hundredths of a penalty. That, though, felt like a real turning point for the gelding, who stepped into his own golden era from then onward.
For us, he was always great fun to write about – particularly in the many, many form guide entries we penned over the years. Here’s one such description of the gelding, from our Luhmühlen 2019 guide, which we’re prepared to stand by, frankly:
“The consummate heartbreaker, Reve du Rouet is the sort of guy you’d match with on Tinder knowing, even through the brain fog of that third glass of Savvy B, that for better or for worse, this one would change your life. For a while, you’d imagine he’s changing it for the better – he’d show up unannounced with your favourite takeaway, looking sickeningly handsome with his crooked grin and slightly-too-long hair. He’d make you feel like he really got you, and he’d know lines of Pablo Neruda poems by heart, which is either lovely or incredibly cringe-worthy, depending on the sort of person you are. Then, you’d be sure he’s changed your life for the worse when, fuelled by his commitmentphobia and one too many whiskeys, he’d call you a very rude name in a bar and end up snogging some girl you’re pretty sure you sat behind in high school Trigonometry. Eventually, he’d grow up and get over himself and settle down with you, but he’d never quite lose the air of sheepishness for having been such a committed knobhead once upon a time. But you’d love him nonetheless.
That’s Reve du Rouet all over – gorgeous, crazy talented, and sometimes, well, just plain crazy, he’s spent years putting us all on the edge of our seats wondering which side of the Jekyll and Hyde coin we’d be given today. His flightiness is down to a genuine fear of crowds, which has seen his tension boil over dramatically in the past but – dare we say it? – seems to be under control these days. This is largely due to some seriously tactical riding – Sarah sneaks most of his schooling into her hacking and fast work, so he never realises the pressure that’s being put on. As a result, he finished his 2018 season with a first-phase PB at Burghley, posting a 27.3. That beat their previous PB of 28.5, delivered the previous season at Pau, and on both occasions, he backed up his impressive starts: he finished second at Pau by just a tenth of a point and was fourth at Burghley. Sarah, who has compared her partnership with ‘Blou’ to that of a battered wife, will be hoping to go one better than that Pau result from 2017, and she certainly could do.”
And so what next for the horse who has so reliably captivated fans of the sport?
For right now, the future is a bit of a question mark for Blou, who Sarah feels isn’t quite ready to be totally turned away, but wouldn’t be happy leaving her yard, either.
“He’s here and he’s having a holiday at the moment, and then we need to make a decision about him. I’m not sure dropping down and doing some OIs would really sort of cut it for him, or whether he’d cope with going to a different yard. We don’t think anything of it, because we’ve had him since a three-year-old and we’re used to him — to us, he’s normal, but actually, when you take him out of that, he can’t cope with it. You put him in a different environment, or without us being there, and he doesn’t cope and he stops eating. We’ll sit down with the owners and have a long chat, because he needs something to do — he’s not ready to just stagnate in a field.”
Watch this space: perhaps, somewhere down the line, there’ll be an opportunity for a locally-based young rider to learn the ropes from one of the sport’s strangest, most talented horses. Lucky them!