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‘Feel’ XC, and Making Vital Decisions.

At Badminton on XC Day we witnessed a very brave and totally selfless decision.

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Francis and ‘Smokey Joe’ early in their round.

Not the heroic death-or-glory, kick-on-from-a-bad-distance-at-a-huge-fence kind of bravery, but a cool, sensible decision. Francis Whittington, while still clear, and on the best 4* dressage of his life, pulled up a tiring horse, in the horse’s best interests, before anything went wrong.
I’m sure there were gasps of shock all around the world for those (like me) rooting for him to go clear and fast when he made this call, calmly choosing to walk home unscathed and save a very special horse for another day.
He was quoted afterwards as saying that he was worried that the horse would always try to jump. A tired horse which won’t ever think to say ‘no’, at huge fences in sapping ground, could be a recipe for absolute disaster.
Of course, we all try to train our horses not to refuse, but sometimes a ‘safety stop’ (such as that which dressage leader Clark Montgomery’s Loughan Glen did, just suddenly not prepared to jump that fence from that spot, feeling as he did) is really not the worst thing in the world, although the disappointment at the time is enormous. But trying to jump, in that situation, just might be the end of the world.

This is when it is down to riders being disciplined to stay clear-headed and not make decisions based on adrenalin. The fact that we were so impressed with Francis’ decision, that it marks him out as a master horseman, is a little saddening in a way… because he did what ALL riders should do.
The fact that he was still clear to that point has no bearing (and every bearing!) on it… because, even though things so far had gone really well, he had 9 HUGE obstacles still to jump – no horse, if exhausted, could have just ‘popped’ all those fences to make its way home clear.
If the rider’s ‘feel’ is ever “this horse probably hasn’t got enough left to do that, but will try, which could be disastrous”, that absolutely HAS to be strong enough to overcome “we’ve got a great dressage and are clear so far and if we can just get home we can WIN”.
We have witnessed riders make that mistake at top level (when not on such a good dressage either) and keep on and on, until the horse (which in one case was in fact ‘tying up’, hence its unaccustomed reluctance to jump) got stuck on top of fence, or just ground to a halt. Or worse.
It all comes down to riders not going xc on pure adrenalin, but keeping a cool, sane head.

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Top riders love their horses too…

I took these notes What to do on a tiring horse – Yogi Breisner at a BE Training Day, this plan of action is worth all riders knowing.

These top riders would have tried this sort of thing, on their way up the long gallop to Huntsman’s Close, if not before. Sometimes a horse, when given a breather, gets its second wind and carries on fine.
If not, discretion is often the better part of valour. We have seen top riders nurse a tired horse home before (Zara Phillips did it one year, and although the horse looked very one-paced, it had not lost its jump at all, so I can totally see why she carried on) and it’s an art, to tell the difference between one which is okay to keep going, and still has plenty of jump, and one which has not.

It’s something to remember for all riders, if you ever feel your horse really tiring beneath you. Make sure there is always another day for you and your horse.

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  • Francis received a text from Smokey’s owner (Catherine Witt) after he had pulled up, in which she thanked him for making the right decision for the horse.

  • Trish, that’s wonderful, but I’m not surprised at all. She’s a horse lover too.
    I heard that it was the best dressage that any of her horses have ever had at 4* level, not sure if that’s true or not. Roll on the next one for Francis and Smokey Joe… I sincerely hope they won’t be overlooked for the WEGs.

  • GREAT call!!!
    It’s SO refreshing to see someone pour the horse’s needs first. And it’s wonderful to see their decision to do so met with such a huge reception!
    I sincerely hope to see other riders follow in the same way. If there’s any doubt, PLEASE consider the horse’s needs.

  • It is a little sad that we are so surprised to hear of a top level rider putting the horse’s needs first and not completing the course. Instances like this should really go without saying and be expected of riders, surely? I guess this is the reality of it though, so recognition and support for riders making these decisions is good to see and will hopefully help influence others to do the same. Good on you Francis.