As any leading show jumper, eventer or dressage rider will confirm, finding a good horse is incredibly hard. Grassroots riders often face the same dilemma. Out of the vast majority of people with limited funds, who can’t afford a ‘made’ horse, some favour buying a youngster and taking it through the grades, others are brave enough to take on a problem horse and try to turn it into something special. A lucky few, however, are able to snap up a horse from a professional rider that may have been right to the pinnacle of its sport.
But is this a cause for celebration or a curse? By having a well-known horse in your stable, you will clearly benefit from its vast experience — if it’s a former grand prix dressage horse, its piaffe and passage will no doubt be pretty spectacular — but what about the pitfalls?
Some riders who take on horses from known ‘names’ report feeling under pressure to perform to a certain standard; they expect that their new ride will be straightforward, but often the pro has made things look deceptively easy; plus they struggle to obtain the results they have expected. Many find that they have to boost their own riding skills to keep pace with their new superstar partner.
With the right approach, though, riding a horse who has been trained and competed by an elite rider is a privilege, as two event riders have discovered.
Kathryn Woolley has taken on three horses from Market Rasen-based professional event rider Alex Postolowsky, for whom she works as a freelance groom. Woolley says:
“I’ve worked for Alex for five years. In the last four years I’ve taken on Keen Fox (Tattie), who I compete at BE100 and novice level, Vermeer, winner of the Barbury CIC**, who does pure dressage with me, and ex-racehorse Newport Arch (Archie). Archie had been in training with John Quinn and had been ridden by Alex for two seasons and he’s gone really well with me at BE90 level. We won the RoR Grassroots Eventing Series Final at Upton House, the biggest victory of my career so far.
“It’s been brilliant to have horses that are so beautifully schooled, but Alex makes some things, including clear showjumping rounds, look like child’s play. I’ve found leaving all the coloured fences intact one of the hardest things to achieve. However, I see Alex almost every day and she gives me regular lessons. Since I’ve been given this opportunity, my aim is to try and do things properly and that is now showing with my improved dressage scores.
“I’ve learned so much from Alex’s horses. I would recommend the experience to another grassroots rider, but it’s important not to let the pressure get to you. I always try and put to the back of my mind the fact that I’m riding a horse that has been there and done it. I’m not Alex, and my aim is to go out and have fun. You could turn such a scenario into a disaster if you think that your new horse will win everything you enter. You may end up really disappointed. To me, if things go wrong there is always another day.
“The nice thing about Alex is that she doesn’t pressurise me. She doesn’t mind how the horses go as long as they are well looked after and happy — she loves her horses and their welfare is paramount to her. I once had a run out at a water jump which was my fault. I felt really bad, but she didn’t mind at all. The same goes for Archie’s owner Peter Bishop, who has given the horse to me. I’ve been very lucky.”
David and Gerry Mills’ 16-year-old Granntevka Prince once won the Blenheim CCI*** with Lucy Wiegersma, but three years ago he found his way into Janou Bleekman’s stable after it was decided that the London 2012 reserve should be dropped down a level. Bleekman says:
“I’m so grateful to David and Gerry for giving me the ride on Prince. He’s amazing and he tries so hard. I’ve been lucky to have training with Mark Todd for jumping and Anna Ross for dressage. They have both helped me so much. During the first couple of years, Lucy and Caroline [Creighton] were incredibly helpful, too. I was often on the phone to them. After all, they knew the horse the best.
“By the time I’d had Prince for a while we had all got used to him being who he is. He’s Mr Grumpy in the stable and he likes his own space and while he’s not really a quirky horse, not long ago he decided that he didn’t want to go in the cross-country start box. My sister, Althea, led me in and he’s been fine since. It’s his way of livening things up. Lucy told me he had behaved like that with her when she first took him on. It’s as though he’s testing me.
“Our first outing together was high pressure, but that was only what I put on myself, because David and Gerry told me that their main concern was us both coming home safely. They are always so understanding.
“At first, I found Prince easy in the dressage, but our performances on the flat were a bit below par last year, which was caused by me not riding him to his full potential. Anna has helped to bring me up a notch and at both Bicton International fixtures this year we have led after the dressage.
“When you take on a horse from a professional you have to bear in mind that you need time to get to know each other. There will be pressure, but that is the case with any horse, and the experience you can gain from a really seasoned horse is fantastic. However, some can be silly because the jumps they are tackling will be smaller. For me, though, taking on Prince has been the opportunity of a lifetime. I’m very grateful to all the people who made it happen.”