William Micklem: Horses for a Sport for Life and Sport for All

EN is excited to bring you a new series from William Micklem: Breadth As Well As Depth. The series addresses the need for breadth in eventing education and also includes his thoughts on event horse breeding, plus gives added value from the inimitable Harry Potter. Today we bring you Part 3: Horses for a Sport for Life & A Sport for All . Be sure to read Part 1 and Part 2.

Kilbaha (Capt John Ledingham) & Vivaldi (Nelson Pessoa) at Hickstead in the UK. 1st and 2nd in the Jumping Derby – both Traditional Irish Horses (TIH).

“It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live, remember that,” says Professor Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. This touches on a key part of context for riders. We can get so caught up in our dreams of equestrian success, possibly even Olympic success, and devote ourselves to this dream to such an extent that everything else falls by the wayside. Therefore it is important to think of our horse endeavors in the context of our whole life.

It’s more than just about horses …

It’s more than just about horses … and this applies to both riders and coaches. A coach has a responsibility to gradually become aware of the bigger picture relating to their students. We should understand both the demands on a rider’s life outside of riding, and our role in encouraging a balanced lifestyle that aids both mental and physical health.

Specifically it is about treating everyone as an individual and generally it is about remembering the essential truth in the often forgotten phrase that ‘happiness equals success,’ not success equals happiness. Even for elite riders life is more than just about horses, and they will probably ride better if they have this attitude.

A thought echoed by Mike Huber (a member of the 1980 Olympic Event Team, and individual Gold Medalist at the 1987 Pan American Games) talking about Jack Le Goff. “I thought he taught most of us as much about being human beings as being horsemen. He taught us outside the ring as well. He really helped to shape us in a lot of ways.”

Mike recalled being invited to Jack’s house for the first time with the other riders in his group, all of whom worried about being quizzed on who won the 1948 Olympics and similar equestrian trivia. “But he greeted us at the door, as gracious as he could be. He said, ‘By the way boys, I only have one rule — you’re not allowed to speak about horses.’ That was who he was; there was a time that you were in the ring and a time you weren’t. There’s a lot of people who live and breathe horses 24/7, and I don’t think that’s healthy.”

Another time,” said Mike, “I was being schooled heavily in the arena. The session was over and I was fuming because I thought I’d been picked on. We walked out of the indoor and I wasn’t done yet; I wanted to continue the conversation. Jack turned to me and said, ‘We’ll continue this tomorrow. Would you like to go fishing with me this afternoon?’ He taught me you’re a better horseman if you step back, at least for a few hours.” 

… but it’s very much about horses.

The other side of this coin is that horse riding (and driving) is good for us … very good for us. Horse riding stands out from the majority of sports, being both a sport for life and a sport for all. The fact that both sexes and all ages of adults can ride together and compete together, even at the highest level, gives huge added value to the sport.

In addition an association with horses stimulates us mentally, develops self-control and discipline, and aids emotional growth. And this applies even if your idea of horse heaven is simply to ride bareback through the fields at dusk! As a result an association with horses allows us to do more with our lives. Not opinion but fact.

It’s the reason why equestrian sports are considered by so many national sporting bodies to be a priority sport for young people, the reason why equine assisted learning (EAL) works, the reason why riding for disabled (RDA) works, and the reason why millions of riders have become addicted to contact with horses, and in many cases addicted to the sheer thrill of riding. For many it gives a sense of mindfulness, satisfaction, achievement and excitement like no other.

Above and beyond this eventing especially is a life enhancing sport for those participating, ironically because of the integral involvement of the horse. One of the greatest strengths of eventing has always been the humane values that are on regular display at most competitions. At the core of these values is generosity … the generosity to treat both horses and humans with respect, the generosity to be supportive of those in need, and the generosity to believe in the great heights that riders and their horses can achieve.

The context of the whole sport horse industry  

Without doubt eventing is also good for the whole horse population because of the very high standards it encourages for both stable management and training, including a more varied and natural lifestyle than is often the case. For this latter reason alone it should be treasured by all equestrian sports.

In addition eventing is also a great ‘gateway’ activity to the other disciplines. This is because having achieved the basics it is not easy or particularly fulfilling for novice riders to do pure dressage or show jumping in a small arena, therefore the statistics show a high drop-off rate at this stage.

However there is a different route to follow for these riders. It is a route that is usually both more satisfying and easier, that starts by hacking out quietly, followed by more active hacks, followed by introductory cross-country riding, with or without very small fences.

This is a wonderful way to slow down, spending stress-free time with a horse and developing not only ‘feel’, that essential of an effective rider, but also a partnership, which in itself is so good for mental health and well-being. In turn this takes a rider to a stage when specialist dressage or show jumping training has more relevance and is more practical. Therefore as a result more people stay riding and contribute to the sport horse industry as a whole.

There is another positive aspect to this: After this type of introduction there will also often be the desire, especially for the young, to start eventing, and as we know eventing is a great stimulus for an all round education, not only in riding but also in horsemastership. An education and horsemanship that is so important for dressage and show jumping, and therefore to the sport horse industry as a whole.

… so we must breed event horses

This gives even more importance to the need to breed event horses. The event horse is the ultimate sport horse. The paces and temperament to do a dressage test; the jump, courage and fifth-leg to go across country; and the soundness, scope, and carefulness to come out again and jump clear in the show jumping.

‘Jack of all trades and master of none’ is a common putdown about event horses, but surely the best horses are those that can excel in any discipline, just as with the special recognition now given to human tetrathletes, triathletes, pentathletes and decathletes.

More importantly, these all-round event horse qualities and abilities, even in smaller quantities, make event horses the ideal sport and pleasure horse for all the activities and levels that the majority of riders require. A majority of riders are increasingly mounted on less than ideal horses.

Too many pleasure and lower level competition riders use horses initially bred for elite dressage and show jumping, that are often too challenging and too big. For this reason it can be difficult to find a second career for many retired specialist dressage and jumping horses, whereas a retired event horse will usually have several other jobs to do.

Breeding more event horse types would also be to the undoubted benefit of the sport horse breeding world in general. This benefit includes temperament and willingness, soundness and longevity, flexibility and adaptability, size and type, and rider suitability. This is why we should be breeding event type horses and why they should be an integral part of sport horse breeding, despite the fashion to do otherwise.

The event horse is the supreme athlete

The multi-discipline possibilities of one horse, or rider, are certainly something that motivates me, and this idea has always been a major focus of my training and breeding. In the case of High Kingdom (who is almost 94% Thoroughbred), ridden by Zara Tindall, I have come very close to breeding a horse that has the potential to be successful at elite level in all major disciplines.

As Irish show jumping legend John Ledingham says, “The all round ability and scope of High Kingdom is unbelievable. There is nothing small about his paces, jump and athleticism but he remains so rideable.” The exciting thing for me is that I have another in the pipeline from the same family that could repeat his story, and of course my stallion Jackaroo.

Some laugh at me about the same horse being competitive in two disciplines in the modern competition horse world, but it says more about the limitations of their imaginations rather than the limitations of special horses.

Vivaldi and Kilbaha

I want to give two examples, Nelson Pessoa’s Vivaldi and John Ledingham’s Kilbaha. My brother John was sent Vivaldi as a 4-year-old because he was so difficult! But as I watched him being lunged all I could think about was ‘dressage horse’!

Vivaldi had wonderful paces, a rare ability to collect and a natural extended trot. He was three-fourths Thoroughbred, being by Imperious, the sire of Master Imp, out of a Water Serpent mare. Water Serpent was a prolific sire of international show jumpers and also sire of Jimmy Wofford’s triple Olympic event horse Kilkenny.

Like Kilkenny, who also won international show jumping competitions, Vivaldi was muti-talented but was directed to show jumping where he was a regular Grand Prix horse for Nelson, including going to the world championships and becoming one of the most famous show jumping derby horses of all time, winning the Hamburg Jumping Derby three times and the Hickstead Derby once at the age of 19 when Nelson was 60! (As I said riding is truly a sport for life.)

The tracks at Hamburg or Hickstead are identical every year and clear rounds are a rarity. For those who may not understand the huge challenge of these tracks and the courage required here is a link to a wonderful round in the Hamburg Derby in 2012.

Kilbaha not only was placed twice in Hamburg but won the Hickstead Derby twice and was twice placed second, jumping double clear rounds on two occasions, creating a unique overall derby record. He also has the record for Nations Cups appearances for Ireland. I fell in love with him when I first saw him and again all I thought of was dressage horse! He had a natural passage and in addition he could have obviously been a top event horse. Like Vivaldi he was just ridden in a plain snaffle.

The Traditional Irish Horse (TIH)

The success and way of going of these two horses was obviously also due to the brilliance of those two beautiful horsemen Nelson Pessoa and John Ledinham, but it still takes an extraordinarily brave and willing horse to tackle the ditches, water, banks, including the 10-foot-6 Hickstead bank, and sheer size and length of these two derby courses.

They are both traditionally bred Irish horses of the type that made Ireland famous for sport horses but are now becoming a rarity in modern breeding, although the Traditional Irish Horse Association is working hard to change this.

Therefore imagine my joy when I found that both Vivaldi and Kilbaha are closely related to my family of traditional horses! As I said Vivaldi was by Imperious, the sire of Master Imp, who is the sire of High Kingdom and Jackaroo. But in addition Kilbaha’s sire Tudor Rocket is a half brother of Imperious.

To add to the connection Kilbaha’s dam was out of a Rhett Butler mare whose dam was by High Hat, and High Hat was the sire of Chair Lift, the sire of Jackaroo’s dam High Dolly. Not only that but Chair Lift’s damsire was Buisson Ardent who was also the dam sire of Tudor Rocket.

Add several more genetic connections to both horses through the wonderful Hyperion and Pharos and you can see why these genes are so special; especially now that I have studied the top thousand most successful Thoroughbred sport horse sires and understand how few consistently successful Thoroughbred lines there are.

The breadth of the three foundation sires

I also discovered that High Hat was owned by Winston Churchill, a real Professor Dumbledore character if there ever was one! But more interesting from a breeding point of view is that my family, now led by Jackaroo, bring together all three foundation sires of the Thoroughbred horse, the Byerley Turk, Darley Arabian and Godolphin Barb.

This genetic breadth is now very rare, as Thoroughbred breeding is dominated by the Darley Arabian with more than 95% of the Thoroughbred population descending from him. Therefore Jackaroo’s genes are a factor both in his genetic vigor and his suitability as a breeding outcross.

Imperious was by Hugh Lupus who was a rare representative of the Byerley Turk sire line. While Precipitation, the sire of both Furioso and Prefairy, the damsire of Jackaroo’s dam High Dolly, is one of only two stallions responsible for maintaining the Matchem sireline, famous for their excellent temperament and durability. The grandsire of Matchem was the Godolphin Barb, while for good measure the Byerley Turk is in his dam line.

So will Jackaroo’s genes be good enough for the magic to continue. Time will tell but I can’t sit here dreaming forever, as life goes on and I need to further reduce my list of the top event horses of all time and decide what I should cook for the family dinner!

©William Micklem

Next Time: BREADTH AS WELL AS DEPTH (LESSONS FROM HARRY POTTER) Part 4 – Learning from five of the top event horses of all time