If you’ve ever watched Hickstead — whether the Derby meeting or the Royal International Horse Show — on the television, you may think you know how big that main arena really is. Forget it. When you’re standing in it, waiting for the finalists for the Winston Churchill Ridden Horse Supreme to come in, and the spectators are agog, it is vast.
Last year, I was honoured to be invited to judge the horse supreme, along with show pony rider-turned-jump jockey Nick Scholfield and highly regarded panel judge David Ingle. Never had I thought, since I was a pony-mad child, that one day I would be there, being given that enormous privilege.
Having been Horse & Hound’s showing editor for 14 years, I knew only too well the importance of this unique championship. I say unique because, although the Horse of the Year Show has its own separate supremes for horses and ponies, there is nothing like Hickstead in terms of space and excitement — the International Arena, with the appreciative crowd lining its sides.
Quite apart from the huge honour I felt at being given such an opportunity, I was excited to see the previous year’s supreme, the hack Pearly King, ridden by Simon Charlesworth. One does not, of course, pre-judge, but this horse is the epitome of a show hack and Charlesworth himself is a superb showman, so I wanted to see what they could do. If I was disappointed when the horse went lame in the collecting ring just before the supreme, imagine how Charlesworth and connections must have felt.
In the end, there were four contenders: the riding horse, the Arab, the hunter and the cob — which Charlesworth, pulling himself together admirably, rode into the arena.
It came down to two, in the end. Adam Winbourne on the riding horse champion, China Rose, and Allister Hood — himself no slouch in the showmanship stakes — on the hunter champion, Hoppy Jumping. For me, the riding horse just had the edge. When you’re judging a supreme, it’s not the same as judging a class. The animals in front of you are already champions — you are trying to decide which one you would want to take home. If I’m honest, the hunter was just another bay gelding, while China Rose was the absolute picture of what a riding horse should be.
Until Hood galloped the hunter the entire length of the arena. The crowd went nuts, the horse went spectacularly, and I nearly lost my posh hat. My fellow judges gave the hunter 10 out of 10. Fair enough, though it wasn’t a perfect performance for me —but my score of nine sealed the deal. And it was clearly a popular result with the crowd.
I will never, ever forget it. Good luck to everyone for this year’s Royal International Horse Show, can’t wait to see who will be supreme on Sunday, August 2.