Lessons in education

When Oliver Townend won Burghley horse trials on the relatively inexperienced Ballaghmor Class, he probably surprised everyone but himself.

The grey, who lives up to his name in every way, is ten years old. When you’re looking at that level of competition, it’s the equivalent of a primary school pupil coming out top of the country in A-level results.

Oliver said afterwards that some people thought he shouldn’t have taken Ballaghmor Class to Burghley, but he knew the horse had the ability and the jumping confidence – and because he knew him as an individual, he knew what he could cope with. Mr T’s own ability and jumping confidence rate on equal terms, of course.

It makes you appreciate how complex it is to bring on a young horse, and how great the responsibility is. It’s also one of the most rewarding things you can do, whether you’re backing a pony or taking a showjumper through the grades.

Rosettes? Nice when they come along, but they don’t compare with the thrill of that first confident hack, balanced clear round, or pleasing dressage test. Out and out competitors may not agree, but those of us who lack the killer instinct and look on competitions simply as a way of monitoring our progress will understand.

I know some very competent riders who won’t consider taking on an unbacked or just backed horse. Some say they aren’t interested in riding a horse until its ready to compete, but if you’ve backed a horse and instilled a good foundation, you have a much better idea of how he’ll react and how you can help him out when necessary.

Others say they’re scared of getting it wrong, but I don’t believe any trainer who claims that he or she never meets set-backs. Thinking ahead and minimising risks and problems is part of a trainer’s skill, but there are always times when you have to “re-phrase” what you’re asking a horse to do, or go back a step before you can move on.

I’ve also met some relatively inexperienced riders who have done a great job starting their horses’ education. Their common denominators have been the possession of common sense and the ability to ask trainers they respect for help when needed.

It’s often said that only experienced riders should attempt to back and school young horses. The trouble is, how are people supposed to gain that experience? Not everyone can or wants to work with horses.

Surely it’s far better to learn by doing it, provided you have someone you can trust to help you when needed and your horse has the right temperament. You must have the right temperament, too: if you’re a nervous rider in general, or impatient, don’t do it.

And if you’re on a high because you’ve backed and/or brought on a horse for the first time, do tell us, because your success will encourage and inspire others.