Photographs by: Carla Breeze, Andrea Betteridge, Jill L. Matthews
Summer brings agricultural shows and horse events not to mention racing. Ascot Racecourse’s social zenith is the annual Royal Meeting in June where Philip Treacy hats vie with thoroughbreds–horses and people. This season was no exception especially because of the Diamond Jubilee. Celebrating sixty years since HRH Queen Elizabeth II was crowned, the Jubilee, the summer 2012 Olympics, and the Paralympics caused London to pulsate with excitement. Flags, bunting, and Tate Modern-size royal portraits on the River Thames added to the festivities.
One of the charms of British royalty is that during such events as the Royal Windsor Horse Show, the Queen and her family ride and mingle with breeders, owners and riders. Sustainability has engendered royal interest, supporting organic agriculture and revival of indigenous livestock breeds. After an unexpectedly warm March followed by rumors of drought, by early May, rain began to drench England.
My greatest] pleasure is seeing them go on to gain high status within the showing world.
Piercing the clouds, we landed at Heathrow, only twenty minutes from the Windsor show, which opens the equestrian season on the grounds of Windsor Castle. Except no one can get their lorries and Rovers through the mud surrounding the rings and stables. Even Queen Elizabeth walked to the show from her castle, not a problem in the least for one who also rambles the Highlands when at Balmoral and has ridden horses since she was a child. In fact, her horse, Balmoral Erica succeeded placing first in its class on Friday, May 11, when the rain suddenly ceased, but by then I and filmmaker Jill Liney Matthews were chasing Gypsy Cobs in fields filled with mares and their fillies.
Inaugurated in 1943 during World War II to raise funds for the military effort, the Windsor Horse & Dog Show initially included dogs but for an embarrassing incident–during supper, a lurcher (dogs originally bred for stealth poaching) belonging to Count Orssich brazenly stole a chicken leg from King George VI’s plate. The shocked Committee subsequently banned all dogs and renamed the event the Royal Windsor Horse Show.
As a child, Princess Elizabeth participated in the Pony and Dogcart class, continuing her
equestrian activities as an adult. Her Majesty’s love of horses has certainly contributed to the show’s success. Unlike Presidents and heads of states, she and her consort, His Royal Highness Prince Phillip Duke of Edinburgh, enjoy the sunshine and mingle with the public, otherwise having what appears to be rather normal social interaction. Queen Elizabeth is known for her lack of pretension. Katie Jerram who rides for the Queen’s stables, has commented how at ease she felt upon meeting Her Majesty.
The show includes a Members Enclosure overlooking Castle Horse Arena, where one may drink champagne or dine while watching events. In addition to the Copper Ring, Castle Horse Arena, a warm up arena, and BHS Frogmore Arena, stables and grassy fields complete the facilities. Tented boutiques (trade stands) arranged along avenues cater to shoppers, offering everything, Hermes to Daks, from dog leads to Wellingtons.
Events at the Royal Windsor Horse Show range from side saddle riding to cart driving. The British Show Horse Association promotes Cobs, essentially a small but sturdy working breed with a calm disposition. As in any horse show event, particular dress
codes are required, and daytime dress includes bowler hats, tweed jackets and fawn or buff colored breeches (but never never white). A tweed jacket is suggested for showing a Gypsy Cob, choosing a color and pattern that compliments the rider and horse. If the weather is really warm, turnout may simply include a waistcoat.
Enamored with Gypsy cobs she saw in New England, Jill Matthews decided to make a documentary about Traditional or Gypsy Cobs, and tracked down the origins to England. She explains, “The Gypsy horse is brilliant in every way; intelligent, powerfully built, docile, easy to train and breathtaking to watch. I feel honored to be in the presence of this breed. Today the Gypsy Cob is bred to perfection. Hundreds of years of select breeding has bequeathed us a horse who can haul heavy loads, but at the same time carries a rider with speed and agility.” Matthews continues,” There is a rich history behind the horse and the Romany culture, in both the UK and Ireland. These families are committed to maintaining the quality of the breed. This fascinating and heartwarming story is one I intend to tell.”
Unfortunately, due to the rains the first two days of the Windsor show, many events were cancelled. Val Sheehan from Lenhall Farm was unable to show Back to Black in the Novice Cob class at Windsor, but Andrea Betteridge, director of the Traditional Gypsy Cob Association, made arrangements for Matthews to interview him several days later. The “coloured” horse classes are a relatively new phenomenon championed by such owners and breeders like Sheehan, Andrea Betteridge and Camilla Neame.
Although disappointed about the cancelled events, Matthews and I took a train to Wantage, where the Saxon King Alfred was born and who ultimately ousted the Danish invaders. Matthews had scheduled an interview with Steve Down, whose farm is near by. A Romany Gypsy who specializes in breeding “proper” Gypsy Cobs, Steve Down is an extraordinary breeder. We were met by his daughters, Janey Down and Dixie Down, who first stopped at an agricultural supply so we could purchase rubber Wellies, our own leather boots already drenched the day before. We drove from one field of horses to the next, filled with piebald (black and white), red and blue roans, and other colored mares with their colts and fillies, some just a day or two old. On the limestone escarpments nearby, one could see delineated the Uffington White Horse for which the Vale, or district is named. Brilliant sunshine illuminated fields of neon yellow rapeseed blooming in nearby pastures.
Originally bred by Romany Travellers (as Gypsys are now known in the UK) to pull their carts and Vardos (covered wagons or caravans) the breed has become exceedingly popular. Gypsycobs now appear in horse shows to compete in dressage, jumping, and driving (carts and carriages).
He may not wear gold hoop earrings or a bandana, but Steve Down lives traditionally and is an acknowledged expert of the Gypsy Cob. Breeding these horses as his family has for generations, Down says, “We are true Romany Gypsies, we relied on our horses being bred to perfection because that was our way of life. We depended on our horses for survival.” His renown is such that potential horse buyers travel from Austria, Germany and the US to meet him and his Gypsy Cobs.
I’m a firm believer that you have to give horses time to mature–you can’t microwave them-–and a good horse is never a bad colour!
Cobs are a traditional UK breed, performing tasks such as pulling carts and carriages and other tasks arising from rural life. Their heritage includes Clydesdales, Friesians, and Dales Ponies making them hardy and strong. The Traditional Gypsy Cob should be strong, sturdy and powerful coupled with an abundant coat including luxuriant flowing mane, forelock, tail, and leg feathering. Any colors and markings are desirable.
A family business, every Down is versed in all aspects of caring and training horses. Steve Down is an exceptional trainer, as he points out, by necessity. When he was a child, just like his father and grandfather, driving a cart to make deliveries was integral, and after deliveries they would pick up whatever scrap metal or other items they could scavenge. The horses pulling these carts needed strong and broad chests and patience. All of the horses trained to drive here at SD Farm are started by Steve. Steve Jr., Janey, Josy, Bonny and Dixie are all accomplished carriage drivers working with the horses after they have been started to ensure that each horse is unflappable on the road. After trying one out I could quite agree with the Duke of Beaufort, “Whether we look upon driving from the point of view of business or of pleasure, it is certain that no man who has had much of it but feels his pulse quicken, and a sense of enjoyment pervade him, when sitting behind one, two or four quick and well put together horses.”
Riding to the hounds has been just as integral to Camilla Neame’s family. Substantial
landowners in Faversham, Kent for centuries, the Neame family cultivated the finest hops, the bitter ingredient in beer. In 1864 Percy Beale Neame became associated with a brewery, subsequently named Sheperd Neame, the oldest brewery in England founded some 400 years ago. Shepard Neame continued to expand, including the purchase of numerous pubs in addition to its brewing facility which still stands in Faversham, near Canterbury. Neame and her husband, Val Sheehan currently live and raise their horses at Lenhall Farm, property near her family home, Luton House at Selling Court. The farm includes a house, barns, and the oast house.
Oast houses, notable for their specially designed kilns, cone shaped with cowls on tower roofs to control air flow, offer a unique sight throughout Kent, a region cluttered with numerous castles including Leeds Castle. Oast houses dry the hops for which Kent continues to be known. While the oast house at Lenhall Farm is no longer operating, hops continue to be cultivated, very labor intensive work, tying growing vines on tall tall poles.
Neame’s horse, So Smart, is considered one of the outstanding heavyweight skewbald cobs, and was awarded Supreme Champion at HOYS (Horse of the Year Show) 2006 leaving Camilla speechless–this was an outcome she never anticipated. Once she adjusted to the honor, coveted by every breeder and rider, Neame was thoroughly delighted. Her husband, Val Sheehan is equally involved in the equestrian world. He describes the ideal Traditional [Cob], “It must have presence and stand out from the rest! A stallion should be masculine and demand you to look at him but not be rude. A mare should be feminine, pretty looking with a big daisy eye. A gelding should be kinder with a more placid look about him. I’m a firm believer that you have to give horses time to mature–you can’t microwave them-–and a good horse is never a bad colour! I have been involved in horses all my life, and am passionate about showing, a stickler for conformation and type.” Sheehan not only shows his own horses but also judges.
Andrea Betteridge has been instrumental organizing at The Traditional Gypsy Cobs Association which includes a Stud Book so that horse owners and breeders may be certain about lineage. The British practice of documenting pedigrees originated with James Weatherby, whose family served as accountants to members of the Jockey Club, which had began to regulate the breeding of racehorses in the 18th century. Assigned to trace thoroughbred pedigrees, Weatherby published the results of his work as an Introduction to the General Stud Book in 1791. Betteridge has bred highly regarded gypsy cobs, such as Stan the Man aka Heartbreaker, placing at HOYS.
Breeding Traditionals for many years Betterridge remarks, “[My greatest] pleasure is seeing them go on to gain high status within the showing world. Some we run on for our breeding program. We are a small family run stud farm usually keeping around 8-10 mares which have been carefully selected for their breed type and bloodlines. Our stallions are either home produced or we discover one that meets all our criteria and will work with the bloodlines we have. Every couple of years we find we have bred something so special that we run it on, in the hope it will meet our high standard.”
England has been especially exciting this year because of the 2012 Olympics. Zara Phillips the queen’s granddaughter competed with team Great Britain to place second, receiving a silver medal. Olympic equestrian events were held in Greenwich Park, London’s oldest royal park.
The British equestrian season continues into the autumn ending with Horse of the Year Show the first week of October in Birmingham. The British Equestrian Federation and Horse & Hound, the oldest magazine in the country devoted to rural activities, are sources for schedules.