A horse who came hours away from being put down owing to his dangerous behaviour – and who got his new owner off every day for six months – will this weekend be trotting down the centre line at the NAF Five Star Winter Dressage Championships.
Connor 40 and Jo Whittle will be competing in the prelim silver at Hartpury on 16 April, nine years after Connor, who is known as Valentino, was due to be put down.
“Dangerous is the understatement of the year!” Jo told H&H.
“I like a challenge and had done quite well with a thoroughbred who was a vertical rearer. My sister was telling a client about that horse at work, and they said ‘I’ve got a horse I’m putting down on Friday because he’s dangerous’. They said the yard owner wanted him off and ‘He’ll be dead on Friday’. She sent me a picture and I said ‘Don’t shoot him, we’ll be there on Friday’.”
Jo drove to Val’s yard with a lorry to pick him up.
“He was already sedated and [the owner] gave him some more just to get him on the lorry because that was the only way. They didn’t know if he was backed or how old he was but said they couldn’t get near him; he’d trampled them and he used to just explode.”
Jo got the 17hh Friesian-thoroughbred cross, who is thought to have been five or six at the time, home, and started the long journey to rideability. She managed to find his breeder, who had been told he had been shot in Germany some years ago and thought he had had bad experiences in his younger days.
“If you touched him, he’d just explode,” she said. “He’d lash out and leap in the air. Sometimes now, I think ‘Was it really that bad?’ but it was. He dropped me every day for six months, four times one day; he’d bronc and bronc and if he couldn’t dislodge you, he’d swivel and drop his shoulder, bolt; he’d do everything he could until you were off.
“But I just kept going as the only other choice he had was being put down and he was too nice for that.”
Jo said she cried every day, but she was never injured in her falls, although her ribs were broken once while trying to load Val, and that even in the worst times, he was “my horse”, kicking the door if she rode anything else.
“They say Friesians will pick their human so we had a bond from the start, I just couldn’t ride him!” she said. “People ask me how I did it and I honestly don’t know, I just kept going.”
Jo stuck to a strict routine, which she thinks helped, and gradually she started staying on, and the episodes became fewer.
“I do look back and wonder why I put myself through it, it was awful,” she said. “He once jumped out of the school when everything was frozen and I don’t know how we didn’t break our necks. I think if I’d hurt myself it might have been a different story but he’s very kind and he never wanted to hurt you; he never so much as stood on my foot.”
Jo and Val competed in British Showjumping, in which he did well but still enjoyed a bronc, then started in dressage three years ago, affiliating about a year ago. Last year, they competed in two area festivals and the Midway Championships at Hartpury.
“It’s been a long, long journey,” Jo said. “It took five years for me to get on without someone holding him, and three years to teach him how to canter a circle. When I took him to Hartpury, there were all the trade stands, and no arena walk, and I wasn’t sure but he was just ‘Fine, let’s get on with it’. He’s never bronced at a dressage show, even in the warm-up; it’s like he goes up the centre line and something clicks in his head.”
Jo said physical causes for Val’s behaviour were ruled out, and that he was “just terrified; terrified of life”.
He still can only be led to and from the field by one person other than Jo, and is not perfectly behaved at all times, Jo said.
“But he’s an absolute sweetheart, the best horse I’ve ever had,” she said. “Now he’s a normal horse, but nicer than a normal horse!
“I think some people want lobotomised horses, or try to put a square peg in a round hole but I let him do what he wants. Everything I’ve done with him is with him in mind.”
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