Performance horses - Winning combinations

By: Horse Deals

Performance horses - Winning combinations
John Whitaker considers his prospective WEG partner Peppermill one of the best he has ever ridden

With this year’s World Games (WEG) fast approaching, Barbara Young asks three contenders which of their horses are ones to watch this year and in the run up to 2012

A rider’s road to WEG may begin with a carefully structured plan for medal glory, but you can also expect the odd stumble along the rocky path due to unexpected turns and mixed fortunes, proving once again that when it comes to horses, it’s usually safer not to set your plans in stone!

The FEI World Equestrian Games, which take place from 25 September-10 October at Lexington’s Kentucky Horse Park, should attract 60 nations and 800 competitors.

Held every four years, the Games, which feature eight of the 10 FEI disciplines, are the major international championships for equestrianism and are considered by some to be more important than the Olympics.

Recently returned from a successful Spanish Sunshine Tour, John Whitaker’s four-year partnership with Becky Stones’s 13-year-old Dutch-bred stallion Peppermill — by the outstanding Holsteiner Burgraaf — has seen this combination fly the flag for British show jumping on numerous occasions. Peppermill won the grands prix in San Patrignano and Rome and was the winner of the £90,000 grand prix at the 2009 Global Champions Tour in Valencia.
He jumped in a couple of classes at Royal Windsor — where John won the grand prix on another potential star, Uniek — in preparation for this year’s Rome Super League show.

John also has an up-and coming star in Argento, the Arko stallion bred by longstanding owner Keeley Durham and winner of last year’s British Seven Year Old Championship at Addington.

"Peppermill’s without doubt one of the best horses I’ve had the privilege to ride — he’s as good as anything I’ve ridden. He’s fit and ready to go. After Windsor, we’re ready for the Super League in Rome and then it’s on to St Galen in Switzerland. We’ll then have a good idea how the preparation is going," says John.

"With Peppermill, you don’t want to peak too early. We’ll just keep him ticking over and he’ll be hacked two or three times a week as usual and go out in the field. It’s important to keep horses interested and their minds good. He’s not the easiest horse and has quite a difficult canter, which you can see when he sometimes puts in a bit of a skip in front of the fence.

"He’s probably not the quickest against the clock — he jumps so big that it wastes time — but his power makes up for any lost ground and he has plenty of gears to choose from!

"We’ve been planning for WEG for two years. We’re always looking at least a year ahead for our horses in terms of goals, but plans change a lot along the way: things go wrong, horses lose form and you have to be flexible.

"Looking ahead to 2012, Argento keeps moving up. He’s athletic, nice to ride and I believe is a future championship horse. We think a lot of him but we don’t like to boast too much in case it goes wrong! He’s still learning so it’s important not to get tempted to go too big, too quick.

"My daughter Louise rode him a bit as a four- and five-year-old and my son Robert has ridden him a couple of times, but I’m hanging on to the ride! I’m 55 this year, so I probably haven’t got that many competition years left, but Argento’s eight now, so we’ll have a few seasons together. It’s nice to have that to look forward to!"

Twenty-five-year-old Laura Bechtolsheimer, who took individual bronze and team silver at the Windsor Europeans last year with her father Wilfried’s Mistral Hojris (Alf), is the first British dressage rider to score more than 80% at grand prix level. Her competition preparation for WEG will include Lingen, Aachen and Hickstead or Verden.

"Preparing for WEG involves quite a lot of logistical planning, such as sorting out the feed that needs to go and how to get all the kit out. As far as my personal preparation goes, it’s just about making sure Alf and I are fit and on good form," she explains.

"Our competitions during the season are the preparation. I also see my sports psychologist regularly to make sure I’m on track with my ‘process’ for where I want to be before the championship, but, generally, training is just the same and I have to take one competition at a time. I won’t be doing anything different in training –– as always, the aim is achieving fitness, suppleness and a motivated horse.

"My biggest competition in Kentucky will probably be the Dutch horses Totilas and Parzival and the US rider Steffen Peters, but there are enough other top riders who are very professional at preparing for a championship, so I’ll concentrate on making sure Alf and I are at the top of our game.

"My medal hot-list would be Adelinde Cornelissen, Edward Gal, Steffen Peters and myself, but it’s early in the season and I’m sure there will be more to make that list and put the pressure on.

"I do feel pressure to do well because my recent successes have led to ever increasing expectations, but that’s a positive thing because it means Alf and I have been doing well! I work with sports psychologist Joce Brooks to have methods and processes in place to deal with this, so that my nerves can be used positively and not get the better of me.

"I enjoy what I do so much that it never feels like weight on my shoulders, it’s more like an opportunity I don't want to mess up.
"Looking forward to 2012, I hope Alf will still be on form and up for some action but I have another horse called Telwell who’s 10 years old and I’d definitely consider him a secret weapon!

"We were offered ‘Willow’ last autumn and although I loved him instantly, he’s quite different to Alf. He has very different movement and very different conformation, so he has different strengths and weaknesses. Willow’s very spectacular and quite relaxed but I’m taking my time with him and working on the basics. He’ll compete at grand prix with me some time later in this season.

"Alf’s a hard act to follow because he’s not only an awesome horse, but we also have a very special relationship and a longstanding trust in one another. Olympic year is still a long way away in horsey/competition terms, so I’ll just be competing my horses as normal and see what happens during the 2012 season..."

Old Etonian eventer Alex Hua Tian hit the headlines when he qualified as the first ever Chinese equestrian at the Beijing Olympics 2008 at just 18 years of age. Alex sat A’ levels last year before deciding to defer a university place and is now eventing professionally. He has qualified for WEG and completed his first Badminton this year, finishing 26th on Magenta.

"I have three horses that can potentially compete at the World Games — Magenta, a 16.2hh Irish Sport Horse mare, Jeans, a 16.2hh Selle Francais gelding and ESB Irish Fiddle, 16.2hh Irish Sport Horse gelding," says Alex.

"Magenta [Maggie] and Jeans have qualified, but Irish Fiddle is yet to start on his qualification campaign. Realistically, Fiddle will be my back up and I haven’t made my mind up between the other two.

"Maggie’s having a little break after Badminton and will then do a few CIC*** in preparation and we’re on track for Martinvast in France. Jeans will do the same, without the break! He’ll do Houghton Hall, Luhmühlen, Aachen and Martinvast.

"It’s difficult to find the balance between competing enough for match practice and risking injury through over competing. However, unlike the countries with teams, I don’t have the constant pressure to consistently prove myself and keep in the selectors’ good books. I can make decisions I think will make me more competitive for the end game, WEG.

"I train with Jane Gregory for dressage and Clayton and Lucinda Fredericks, so my programme’s made by them and will remain the same for whatever competition. The change in preparation will be about the flight and logistics. With a normal competition (even Badminton) you need to pack the lorry and that’s it. With WEG, flight trunks have to be packed and weighed to make sure it’s within our allowance and the paperwork in general is a nightmare.

"Who’s my biggest threat? Everyone! Eventing has too many variables to pick out one. Although Tina Cook or Paul Tapner have been the riders to beat, Lucinda and Headley Britannia can’t be ruled out either!

"Looking forward to 2012 I would say Maggie is my one to watch. She’s only 11 this year and has never had a cross-country jumping penalty to her name from intro to Badminton. Her flatwork is her weakness, but I believe she has the potential to do a winning test. I have another two years to find a way to wake her up in the arena!"