HORSE AND HOUND, 22 December 2011
What should come first – how good the rider looks or how well the horse is going? Of course it should be the latter but in all disciplines but most especially in racing “the outward visible sign” of jockeyship, to sacrilegiously borrow a religious term at Christmas time, is too often put in front of “the inward spiritual grace” of horsemanship.
It always has and it is getting worse. In my pre replay, pre ATR and RUK day (40 years ago god help me), all we had was pictures in the Horse and Hound and in the newspaper. Now every aspiring rider also gorges on the internet and berates themselves like some tortured anorexic that they don’t ride as short, and poised and “stylish” as their heroes. Back then we just had to look at our reflection as we walked, crouched over the mane, past cottage windows. Then we dreamed of being Johnny Haine.
Johnny Haine who died far too young in 1998, was the artist of his era. He brought forward-balanced, short-stirrup flat race poise to the longer-leathered more upright jumping stance. On Salmon Spray in the 1966 Champion Hurdle he made Pat Taafe and Flyingbolt look like a policeman on a plough horse, but even more amazing to those of us who battled alongside him, he rode with his toe in the iron and kept so forward during the jump that he didn’t need to slip his reins. He even did it round Aintree on Charter Flight in The Topham. We worshipped him.
But we shouldn’t have. For Johnny was indeed an artist, a one off. He did things his own way and if horses did not run for it, too bad. But he could do it because he had freakish balance and understanding. To imitate him was to lock yourself into your own inadequacy, it was absolutely putting how you looked in front of how best to ride.
Such thoughts come from studying “The Racing Photo of 1967”. It shows Johnny on the way up over a fence, body right forward, hands on the mane, eyes down, toe in the iron, and leg pushed back behind the knee. It also shows Stan Mellor, then still 4 years away from the 1,000 winner milestone whose 40th anniversary was on Sunday. At the jump Stan is on the way down. He is more upright, his eyes face ahead, his hands are free, his foot is below rather than back from his knee. He is, in his own words, “in the centre of his horse.”
Stan, who is now small and silver haired and 74, was so anxious not to seem the old curmudgeon that I had to squeeze the words out of him last week. But they are words that are worth a hearing. “I believe you need to use your weight to balance the horse and to free your hands to get into his brain. If you ride to the horse’s brain you become part of the horse and you are going to get better results than just hitting his bottom . Too many guys seem to believe that the game is to ride over hurdles and fences as near to an American flat jockey as you can make yourself.”
Stan has huge admiration for the strength and will that have taken Tony McCoy three times past his own record but believes, as I do, that too many of the champion’s imitators take what they see about his driving short legged style rather than what they should understand about the more old fashioned horsemanship that needs to underpin it. Stan started out in the show jumping ring as he believes all young riders should, “because it gives you good ‘hands’” and, that phrase beloved by riding instructors everywhere, “an independent seat.”
Have a spot check next time you watch TV and see how many jockeys have their hands locked on to the mane for balance. How many therefore in the wise old words of “The Prophet Stan” are riding more for themselves than for the animal beneath. All of them should embrace an old truth this Christmas – put the interest of others in front of your own. In this case, those of the horse.