Sunday, March 17: It was an evening of rare treats for the enthusiastic home crowd at the College Equestrian Centre, Keysoe, Bedfordshire. An all-star cast descended upon the venue to do battle in the hotly-contested Equine Construction Grand Prix Freestyle, and though the final scores were tight at the top, British stalwart Carl Hester managed to edge the win from teammate Charlotte Dujardin.
Carl’s victory was all the more special because it marked a return to competition for his Rio mount, Nip Tuck. Now fifteen, Nip Tuck (Don Ruto x Irena, by Animo) was last seen at the 2017 European Championships in Gothenburg, at which he finished fourth.
“Jane de la Mare and I, who own the horse together, thought he’d probably done the best he could ever do, so last year he had some time off. He’d done four major championships in a row,” says Hester. De la Mare spent much of that time riding the KWPN gelding who, despite his reputation for spookiness in the ring, “just trots around the village and is as good as gold with her.”
The pair appeared in Friday night’s Equine Construction Grand Prix and Saturday night’s Freestyle, taking the top spot in both classes on scores of 74.547% and 78.725%, respectively. Despite some minor mistakes in his Grand Prix the horse, known to connections and fans as Barney, was able to make his long-awaited return both an enormously successful one and a useful precursor to the main event on Saturday.
Here, Hester opted to bring Barney’s Rio music out of retirement, offering the full house of captivated fans the chance to see the remarkable floorplan in an intimate setting. Beginning with an exceptionally ambitious piaffe pirouette, the routine brought the very best of world-class sport to Bedfordshire, proving that Barney is back – and feeling better than ever.
“It’s been like riding a five-year-old the last few days,” laughs Hester. “Not like riding a fifteen-year-old at all! That’s why we brought him – because he absolutely loves doing this. He was so crafty out there; he knew what was coming at every movement. Every time I got somewhere, he was already there. I nearly got G-forced in the canter pirouettes, I was just flying round, because he knew he had to get around to do the ones! He’s such a smart old thing.”
Now, Barney will represent Great Britain at its illustrious string of home internationals, including Windsor, Bolesworth, and Hartpury, allowing top mount Delicato to fly the flag abroad and at championships.
“You know, he’s been at the top of the game and now I just want him to enjoy himself,” says Hester. “I enjoy riding him because he’s just so go-y, but when we brought him back I said, I’ve got no expectations, I just want him to enjoy himself, do some national shows, and Jane can ride him a bit and chill him out.”
While the top spot was claimed by an old friendship, second place was clinched by a fledgling relationship. Charlotte Dujardin took the ride on Sonnar Murray-Brown’s Erlentanz just two weeks ago and while the temporary partnership is still in its earliest stages, it looks set to be an exciting one.
“He’s been as good as gold – he is just SO cool to ride and he really makes me smile, because he just tries his heart out,” enthuses Dujardin who, as Murray-Brown’s trainer, has worked with both horse and rider extensively and was the obvious choice to take the reins when Murray-Brown suffered a broken leg recently.
“He’s not got much experience – he’s only got one year at Grand Prix, so he didn’t want Erly to drop down,” Dujardin explains. “I helped him with the horse anyway, and I had ridden him a few times, but it’s one thing just popping on a few things and another going in there and doing that. But because I’ve trained him and ridden him a bit, that definitely helped me – I wouldn’t do that on a horse I didn’t know. I knew his strengths and his weaknesses already from Sonny, and so it made it easier to just get on. He’s an incredible horse and Sonny’s done a fantastic job at training him.”
Dujardin and Erlentanz also finished second in Friday’s Grand Prix, earning 73.413%, and the class proved to be a useful learning curve in their relationship.
“I overrode it, I was trying too hard, and I was so annoyed about the mistakes in the zig-zags and the ones because they were rider error,” she says. “I learnt from my mistake and for the freestyle, I knew not to override it. These are all the things I’ve got to get to know – how much I can push and can’t push. For me, he lacks a bit of confidence in there, so it’s just about getting him to open up in there and find that extra gear that he has out here.”
For sidelined Murray-Brown, the experience is a great way to help find the relatively inexperienced horse’s extra gears in conjunction with his trainer.
“He rings me all the time – he rang me and was like, ‘I get more nervous watching you than I do riding him! It’s such a pleasure to watch you ride him!’ So he’s really, really happy,” says Dujardin.
Keysoe owner and show director, Simon Bates commented:
“The atmosphere in the indoor arena was electric! A full house in the grandstand seating and the new hospitality area were treated to an incredible display by a truly world class field. We’d like to thank the riders for supporting the event and for providing such a high standard of sport. We look forward to welcoming everyone back, and adding our new Para International classes, in October.”