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A veritable equine feast!

DESPITE the fact that we’ve only just reached the middle of May, there has been a veritable equestrian feast to be enjoyed on television this month, starting with Badminton Horse Trials which saw superb coverage albeit on BBC’s red button.

The Queen's home-bred Highland Pony which won the working class at the 2014 Royal Highland Show

As popular as ever with the crowds, the Gloucestershire venue played host to a larger entry than normal due to the impending Olympics for which team selection for many countries was high on the agenda.
It proved to be an interesting competition with Germany’s leading rider, Michael Jung, not only taking the competition on his dressage score of 34.4 (the lowest on record) but he also claimed the £240K Rolex Grand Slam with consecutive victories at Burghley and Kentucky Horse Trials, the Blue Ribbon events worldwide in the sport.
Cross country day is always a favourite and all the more enjoyable viewing with interesting and informative commentaries throughout.
Scotland’s Ian Stark has done it all before and his experience comes through with words of wisdom, yet common sense approach.
His commentary was a joy as was that of his young associate, Harry Meade, whose father was a successful Olympian and mainstay of the British eventing squad for many years.
Harry himself has ridden round the course on 10 occasions, despite a near-fatal riding accident in autumn 2013 when he was given only a 90% chance of ever riding again. He obviously knows his stuff and is very articulate into the bargain.
I can only imagine that some of the other sports editors watch on longingly at this team’s expertise as many, rugby for example, have yet to find replacements for their former greats.
While on the surface little has changed at Badminton over the years, it is noticeable how the cross country jumps have become very technical – whatever would we have done without this word when it comes to jumping nowadays? Skinny’ fences are king and oblique-angled corners a must.
The traditional quarry has been replaced in name but not in nature and there are no serious drop fences. (Remember the original Ski Jump and the sensation it caused when it appeared on the course?)
Who would ever have thought there would be knock-down penalties and an oxer standing in water? The latter provided little trouble other than the mind game set up by the course designer, but then there was the fierce-some Vicarage Vee which returned to Badminton in 2014 after a long absence.
Strategically placed over the junction of two ditches, this fence is definitely not for the faint-hearted and I have to question if it is truly fair to the horse; I doubt it!
There is so much tradition wrapped up in the Badminton event with its bowler-hatted jump stewards, mounted huntsmen to catch loose horse and well-behaved crowds whose dogs always seem to be on leads.
Tradition was also dealt out in spades on the other major equestrian TV event this month when ITV covered The Queen’s 90th birthday celebrations staged in the main ring of Windsor Horse Show with some 900 horses and ponies participating.
If viewers were able to overcome the frustration created by the advertising slots and the nauseating singing and pontificating by popular stars of stage and screen, there was a wonderful equine festival on offer which comprehensively reflected The Queen’s experience and love of horses.
Needless to say, The Queen’s well-documented interest in horse racing as an owner and breeder was recorded, although the only link with Scotland seemed to be the name of her double Classic winner, Dunfermline, which won the Oaks and the St Leger in The Queen’s Silver Jubilee year of 1977.
This notwithstanding, the programme did Scotland proud with a full scale enactment of a Highland Games, examples of The Queen’s working Highland ponies and a sizeable number of her own Highland pony stud (Balmoral-prefixed) which looked both impressive and immaculate under the Windsor floodlights.
Given that the event will enjoy a world-wide audience, the organisers could not possibly have given the Scottish breed a higher profile; let’s hope that is a spin-off for Scottish breeders.
As impressive as they were, there were other performers which caught the eye.
Jean-Francois Pignon, a regular visitor to Britain and horse trainer extraordinary, failed to impress at level he normally enjoys but saved by a little fat grey Shetland pony which was precocious to say the least.
Not so the ‘trick’ riders from Azerbaijan who, in my view, stole the show.
Galloping at full pelt from corner to corner of the arena, they were seen on top, at the side and under the belly of their mounts, representatives of the rare Kavabakh breed which nearly died out in the 1990’s due to political unrest in their homeland.
Then there were the less active, but beautiful, Arab horses from the Oman Cavalry and the black/dark brown horses of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police which performed a musical ride fit for a royal occasion.
The Mounties executed an accomplished ride, often four abreast and atypical of those we regularly see in Britain.
However, it was beauty and uniformity of the horses which really impressed and their light-footed paces and floating action.
Bred by the organisation itself at its base near Ontario, the breeding programme was initially based on the Thoroughbred sire crossed with ½ to ¾ bred TB mares.
In 1989, Hanoverians stallions and brood mares were introduced to add vigour to the bloodlines resulting in tall, elegant long-legged horses, very dark in colour with quality and free-flowing movement. What a success it appears to be!
All in all, it was a great occasion, although I would have to say that they could have done with the organisers of the Edinburgh Military Tattoo to help out with the programme and its organisation.
The traditionalist that I am, I was tickled pink to see the Pony Club mounted games competitors kitted out in tweeds and traditional jodhpurs, as was The Princess Royal who rode one of her mother’s Highland ponies.
Last but not least, there was an enactment of the young Princess Elizabeth receiving a riding lesson from Miss Sybil Smith who, along with her father, ran one of London’s most famous riding schools at Cadogan Square.
I was reminded of one of my earliest victories in the show ring when I took the 12.2hh youngstock championship at the Ponies of Britain Scottish Show at Kelso.
The judge that day was the said Miss Smith, a Miss Marple look-alike and formidable little woman, who threw the form book to the wind and selected as champion my pony, which she identified as an ideal child’s pony.
Not only a riding instructress fit for a princess but, to my mind that day, a great judge for good measure!