William Micklem: Learning from 5 of the Best Event Horses of All Time

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 4: Learning from 5 of the Best Event Horses of All Time. Be sure to read Part 1Part 2 and Part 3

Michael Jung and La Biosthetique Sam FBW. Photo by Shannon Brinkman.

“You sort of start thinking anything’s possible if you’ve got enough nerve,” says Harry Potter in The Half-Blood Prince, and if we added ‘horse’ to make it ‘horse nerve’ he could have been talking about the very best event horses in history.

Nerve in the dictionary is defined as ‘steadiness, courage and sense of purpose when facing a demanding situation.’ I look upon this as being the defining quality of the best event horses in the world. Some of this nerve and courage is down to nurture but a good portion is simply down to their nature, the genes they carry.

This is why the use of racing genes, from horses that have to show huge courage and fight to win at the end of the race, are so important in event horses.

Top 5 of all time?

Everyone has their favourite event horses. I have five that I would put on my all time very subjective list of all time favourites. They all performed successfully at the highest level, they all had great paces, gallop and jump, and most importantly they all had bucket loads of nerve and courage. In addition they are all horses that would still be competitive in modern championship events, or in one case are currently competitive.

The five are Merely-A-Monarch, Durlas Eile, Kilkenny, Biko and La Biosthetique-Sam. The breeding of all these horses confirms my belief and the belief of most leading riders about the need for quality in the event horses at the highest level. Biko is a full TB but the other four are all at least 75% TB, being by TB horses out of half bred mares. They all also had the jump to be show jumpers, and in the case of Merely-A- Monarch, Durlas Eile, and Kilkenny actually won international show jumping classes.

Merely-A-Monarch – (87.5%TB UK bred-1955) — ridden by Anneli Drummond-Hay, he won the very first Burghley Horse Trials in 1961 when he was just a 6-year-old, winning the first prize of £100! The following year he won Badminton before turning to show jumping, winning his first Grand Prix just five months later. He was a consistent winner, including the Ladies European Championship and the Queen Elizabeth II Cup. He was also a regular member of the British Nations Cup team and remarkably was short-listed for both the eventing and show jumping teams for the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, and long-listed for the dressage team!

His dressage was so good that Rosemary Springer, the five time German champion and Olympian, tried very hard to buy him! So he remains the finest multi-purpose horse I have ever seen in the flesh. In a world wide poll Année Hippique and the FEI chose him as one of the best 50 horses of the last century from all disciplines.

He was by the wonderful Thoroughbred Happy Monarch, out of a mare that was a ¾ TB quality pony with a ‘difficult’ temperament. Sadly she was put down immediately after Merely-A- Monarch was weaned!

Durlas Eile – (75%TB Irish bred, b. 1955) — ridden by Ireland’s Eddie Boylan, he was by the very successful sire of steeplechasers Artist’s Son, who was by the legendary Gainsborough. They won an international Prix St George dressage class in 1965 in London, having won Badminton earlier that year. He was also fourth individually and part of the Gold medal winning Irish team at the first World Eventing Championships at Burghley in 1966. The following year they became European individual champions at Punchestown with a dressage score of 84%!

He was originally owned by the Army Equitation School, winning a number of classes, and was a Puissance specialist. So he is probably the only horse in history to have won international classes in three disciplines. Prior to the 1968 Mexico Olympics he was sold to the Canadian rider Barry Sonshine for a then record price of £19,000.

Kilkenny – (75%TB Irish bred, b. 1957) – ridden by Ireland’s Tommy Brennan and Jimmy Wofford. He was by the most successful dual-purpose sire of his time Water Serpent, and even jumped 6-feet 7-inches in the Puissance at Rotterdam before his first Olympics. He started his Olympic Games career at the age of just seven, going on to two more, winning team silver medals each time with Jimmy Wofford. He also went to two World Championships, finishing third individually with Jimmy in 1970 at Punchestown in Ireland. He completed every event in which he started and never finished a cross country tired.

Writing recently about the 1970 World Championships, Jimmy tells a story to confirm this: “Having finished our round … I went over to my mother who was near the finish line. She asked if we were all right and I reassured her that both of us were fine.”

“That’s a relief,” she said, “you got left behind so badly at the last fence I thought you might have gotten hurt.”

“I replied that he had stood off the last fence from a stride away, and the distance was so long I was sure he would put in another stride. This, from a horse that had just galloped 22 miles. We both just smiled and shook our heads at such a striking display of courage and stamina, but it says all I need to say about his qualities.”

However Jimmy, as many know, is without doubt the best equestrian wordsmith in the USA today, and he did say more, in probably the finest eulogy ever written about a horse.

“I would not have had a career without him. Most of the public notice I have received was due to him, and the only thing that can be said for me is that I was brave enough, as a young man, to let him be himself. If you wanted to see the ‘look of eagles,’ you had only to see him once, and you would know it forever. He had a gallop that took a young man to enjoy and took a fierce hold cross-country, but I rode him throughout his career in a snaffle because I then held the belief that my horse’s affection is the strongest bridle of all and believe that to this moment. He was afraid of only two things: bagpipes and not trying hard enough.”

Biko – (TB Irish bred, b. 1984) — Karen O’Connor’s great Olympic partner by Beau Charmeur was chosen as USEA Horse of the Century. He also holds the number six spot on the USEA Top 10 All American High Point Horses of the Century. Biko was the stalwart of the U.S. Team in the 1990s and in 1996 helped the U.S. win silver at the Olympic Games in Atlanta. He and O’Connor represented the country on multiple occasions and finished third at Badminton in 1995, and 2nd and 5th at Rolex in 1996 and 1998. Karen said about him, “He had an amazing work ethic and loved to be ridden every day. He also had an unbelievable gallop and incredible brain.”

It is true that he didn’t actually win a huge number of competitions but he was always reliable and always knocking at the door of the winner’s enclosure at the highest level. Ironically he would probably have won Burghley in 1999 at the age of 16, having been 5th at Rolex the previous year, but with one fence to jump on the cross country he slipped a tendon off his hock and was subsequently retired.

La Biosthetique Sam FBW — (German bred-75%TB, b. 2000) — his record with Michael Jung tops all these horses. Now 17 years old and a superb second at Badminton this year, Sam has never been out of the top six and only six times out of the top three in all his 59 internationals from 1* to 4*. Not bad for a horse that was originally rejected by the German licensing commission as being “mediocre with a big head”! His quality of performance and consistency makes him superior to all others in modern times.

He is by the TB Stan The Man, also sire of Leslie Law’s Shear l’Eau and Shear H2O, out of an Heraldik mare. Still going strong today, having been recently placed at 2nd in the Aachen 3*. They say brilliant horses make great riders but in this case I think it is a case of a brilliant horse meets a brilliant rider and this is the essential explanation for their unprecedented success.

One more to join the party

But there’s more! Both because added value is important and as I really love this horse, I am taking the liberty of including an extra superstar in my list. This is not only because of his record but because he appeared to have more nerve and than any other horse I have ever seen:

Lenamore — (Irish bred-56.25%TB, b. 1993) — ridden by New Zealand’s Caroline Powell this diminutive 15.3-hand son of the Irish Draught Sea Crest completed 24 four stars, was seven times placed at Badminton, won Burghley at the age of 17, then went to the 2012 Olympics at 19. He was a party animal and so his dressage sometimes let him down but he has to be one of the very best jumpers of all time in eventing.

Lenamore was 43.75% Irish Draught, but many Irish Draught families can really gallop and certainly Lenamore was one of the fastest horses in eventing.

There are numerous other famous international event horses that have touched my heart as I read their stories or watched their performances or have been personally involved with in one way or another. I shoot past 50 horses very quickly: By Golly, Kilbarry, Salad Days, Countryman, Grasshopper, High and Mighty, Fair and Square, Plain Sailing, Carawich, Castlewellan, The Poacher, Cornishman, Our Nobby, Chalan, Plain Sailing, Better and Better, The Gray Goose, Irish Cap, Cambrige Blue, Might Tango, Ben Arthur, Rossinan, Be Fair, Village Gossip, Ballycor, Irish Cap, Davey, Good Mixture, Charisma, Marcus Aurelius, Priceless, Eagle Lion, Sir Wattie, Gilt Edge, Custom Made, Tarzan, Molokai, Winsome Adante, Theodore O’Connor, Connaught, Darien Powers, Ready Teddy, Murphy Himself, Get Smart, McKinlaigh, Ringwood Cockatoo, Darien Powers, Supreme Rock, Toytown, Spring Along, Opposition Buzz, Miner’s Frolic, Mandiba, High Kingdom, Imperial Cavalier, Shear H2O, Mr Cruise Control, Mr Medicott, Avebury, Chilli Morning, Opgun Louvo, and Nereo.

I have no doubt that others could quickly add another 50 horses to the list. The heartwarming fact is the huge number of event horses that become well known by a wide audience. These horse heroes say something very special about our sport.

They have become well known because they tend to have long careers, which despite the perception of eventing being a tough sport reflects well on their care and the sport itself. They also have very normal horse names! I love and closely follow both show jumping and dressage but probably neither disciplines have quite so many popular horse heroes to pull from the memory banks.

Going to the best hotels

It must be true that many potential horse heroes are ruined by poor training and management. Therefore we should not forget that all my horse heroes were fortunate to meet great riders and trainers … or as Tommy Brennan used to say “they went to the best hotels.”

Biko’s story is a case in point: He ended up as one of the most famous event horses of all time, but there were a number of times in his career when he either could have been ruined or we could have given up on him, because to say the least he was not easy!

I could not believe my luck when I bought Biko inexpensively as a 3-year-old, having been spotted by my brother John in Co Wexford. I remember so well my huge excitement regarding his potential. However it is likely that the dealer I bought him from was well aware of his ‘challenging personality’ and may have been pleased to pass him on. He won the in-hand Thoroughbred 3-year-old class at Dublin show then started work seriously, and it was obvious that he was going to take time. He was a wild child, a very wild child. He could explode at will with no
warning, making full use of his huge athleticism!

After being with my brother John as a 3-year-old, Biko spent his 4-year-old year with me winning his first competitions, including a free jumping class. Even when we worked him then it was obvious that he had the scope and technique to be a real jumper, as well as the paces and gallop to be a top eventer. However, his brain was a different matter, as he took a long time to trust humans and move into the area of acceptance and partnership.

My wife Sarah was the first rider to jump him under saddle. He really liked Sarah, but he did leave one or two others on the ground! Then he went to Sonya Duke’s yard in Northern Ireland as a 5-year-old, where she did her normal terrific training job for six months before I took Karen O’Connor to see him and told her he was “Olympic.”

When Biko arrived in the USA a former student of mine Kim Keppick spent many hours working him with Karen, on and off for almost four years, getting him to the stage when he was ready for the start of his international competition career. Although during this time he still managed to buck Capt. Mark Phillips off one afternoon! It was just a reminder that he still needed careful handling, and I am certain he would have never fulfilled his potential without the six years of patient skillful training he had with my brother John, my wife Sarah, Sonya Duke, and then Kim Keppick.

Karen formed a truly great partnership with him and despite his early challenges became what she described, at the time of his inclusion into the USET Hall of Fame, as her “gentle giant.” She deserves huge credit for making the most of a horse I totally adored. At the front of my book, “The Complete Horse Riding Manual,” there is a magnificent photograph of Biko and Karen going over a bank at speed. I look at it often and still get a huge thrill thinking of their great performances together and awesome ability.

The bottom line

The bottom line is that very few people are breeding specialist event horses with the ‘steadiness, courage, and sense of purpose when facing a demanding situation’ shown by all these favourite horses of mine. Even in the show jumping world most of the tracks now look the same and they are breeding few horses brave enough for the famous Hamburg and Hickstead Jumping Derbys I highlighted last time. It makes me very concerned as these qualities should be the cornerstones of the personality of all sport horses. To neglect these qualities is breeding lunacy.

©William Micklem