Standing up for sportsmanship

GB’s eventers and Paralympians won gold medals at the European Championships and our dressage riders missed out. But they all reminded us that what matters most is giving credit to your horse – and the value of sportsmanship.

Some riders, at all levels, pay lip service to sportsmanship. Others mean what they say: take a bow, Carl Hester. His praise of his horse after the Brits came fourth and his comment that sometimes it’s good to have other teams at the top should be engraved on every rider’s heart.

I imagine that he knows, from experience, that it’s wonderful to be at the top but that no one can be there forever – and that when you get knocked off that top spot, you have to re-group and fight back.

You can prepare and prepare for a competition and accustom your horse to everything you think he’ll be likely to meet. However, no matter how many times you simulate hazards and distractions, he’ll still be a horse.

“He normally does a perfect rein-back, but he had his eye on the camera the whole time to see if it was moving,” said Carl when asked about a blip in his and Nip Tuck’s test. He didn’t blame the horse, he accepted that these things happen.

Nip Tuck, aka Barney, has been with Carl since the horse was a yearling. He isn’t the textbook picture of a perfectly conformed dressage horse and is listed on Carl’s website as standing 18hh. Add a hot temperament and you can see why it was so important that Carl had faith in Barney when many critics said the horse would never make it to the top; he’s admitted that there were times when even he thought Barney wouldn’t be able to progress as he has.

Top riders in all disciplines praise their horses when things go right and blame themselves when things go wrong. It’s particularly noticeable in the eventing world, perhaps because three phases give so many opportunities for pear-shaped moments.

But even when you can see that a horse was set up perfectly for a fence and glances off, nine times out of ten the jockey will put it down to rider error. Similarly, when training pays off and a rider who has really worked at dressage tops that phase’s leader board, it’s the horse who will get the praise.

Luck does come into it: two horses might tap the same showjumping pole equally hard, but it might stay up in one case and fall in the other. On the other hand, you can’t rely on it and in general, the more practice you put in, the luckier you’ll be.

Generosity of spirit, to your horse and your fellow riders, will take you a long way. It will also make you happier.